Winnipeg’s preservation puzzle City council decision in 2014 to change historic property bylaw effectively removed protection in some cases; 'we were duped,' heritage advocate says
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/08/2019 (1391 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
IT seemed like the stately Wellington Crescent mansion had history on its side. The two-storey brick house had stood at 514 Wellington for 110 years, and was home to a who’s who of prominent Winnipeggers.
They included James Gordon, a former MLA who was president of Monarch Life Assurance and founding president of the Winnipeg Livestock Exchange. And Wilfred Sifton, general manager of the Winnipeg Free Press and founder of FP Publications. And Douglas Everett, founder of Domo Gas and a former senator.
The house had, for decades, been on a list to be considered, and protected, as a heritage property by the city. But that didn’t matter recently when its current owner applied for and received a demolition permit.
Neighbourhood residents sounded the alarm and the city’s director of planning put a hold on the demolition while adding a proposal for a Crescentwood Heritage Conservation District.
The owner has since appealed both.
Why was the house in danger in the first place when, for years, it had been protected by the city?
The answer is found in the not-so-distant past.
On May 27, 2014, the house — and hundreds of other structures deemed to have heritage value — became vulnerable to the wrecking ball.
One of the final major acts by then-mayor Sam Katz and city councillors was to approve the new Historical Resources Bylaw, which came into effect five days later.
Officially known as Bylaw No. 55/2014, it replaced the more-than-three-decades-old Historical Buildings bylaw and brought three major changes.
The first allowed for the creation of heritage conservation districts to showcase history, but also to protect buildings in those areas from being demolished without being reviewed.
Second, it gave the city’s planning director the ability to nominate buildings for review to be protected.
But it was the third change that now has heritage advocates up in arms: the bylaw created a commemorative list.
Under the old bylaw, there had always been two lists, one with buildings designated historic and a second for those proposed for listing as historic. No buildings on either list could be demolished.
The commemorative list is different. While it recognizes buildings and lands “for their architectural and/or historical value” and it says “conservation is encouraged” the key words are there are “no restrictions on demolition or alterations.”
And 514 Wellington is on that list. And it’s not alone.
Before the bylaw change, there were 235 properties protected as heritage while 470 were protected from demolition simply by being on the proposed inventory list. When the new bylaw came in force, there were still 235 properties protected, but now only 130 were still protected on the proposal list while 340 were suddenly placed on the unprotected commemorative list.
Heritage advocates say the bylaw is not what they thought it was going to be.
“We were duped,” says Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg.
“If we knew in 2014 or 2012 this was going to happen we would have screamed loud and hard before the bylaw came into force.”
Tugwell admits heritage and its preservation is a tough sell in an era of scarce dollars.
“It doesn’t pull on those heartstrings that, say, abused animals, feeding hungry or sheltering homeless does,” she said. “It’s very difficult with built heritage to grasp how important it is.”
Without protection, Tugwell said, these buildings could suffer the fate of the now-demolished house at 120 Scott St., between Wardlaw and River avenues.
The two-storey structure, called “the Oaks” by original homeowner Horatio F. Forrest in 1893, was built in the era’s popular Queen Anne Revival style, which featured bay windows, wraparound porches, irregular rooflines and projecting wings and balconies.
Despite a 20-page report on the house compiled in 2006, which noted its interior had an ornate wood staircase and all the rooms on the second floor still had their original pressed-tin ceilings, the structure never made it onto the full protected heritage list. It was removed from the inventory by the Heritage Resources committee in March 2014.
The house was demolished three years later, replaced by a three-storey condominium.
To date, it’s the only structure on the list that no longer exists. And even heritage advocates are split on whether it should have been listed as historic.
Tugwell says that “a new build is a new build. It’s a pretty plain-Jane what is there now. There’s nothing unique anymore.”
“The Scott house was unique — I think it was worth saving. And (old buildings) are more affordable for people. When a new condo goes up the price goes up to cover the new build.”
Local historian Gordon Goldsborough sees things differently.
“Frankly, I cannot muster much enthusiasm for this building. It didn’t look much different from lots of others. It’s gone, move on,” said the president of the Manitoba Historical Society and member of the civic historical buildings and resources committee that helps decide which structures should be protected.
But another heritage building — in the heart of the Exchange District, which is designated a National Historic Site by the federal government for its collection of decades-old buildings — could soon turn to rubble.
The former Reliable service station, on the wedge-shaped corner at 98 Albert St., is also on the commemorative list. It housed Bodegoes restaurant until two years ago. There is a proposal to replace it with a four-storey building.
“How can you do that in a national historic district?” Tugwell said. “It is part of the streetscape.
“But that’s one of the biggest misconceptions out there about the National Historic Site designation — it is also commemorative. It doesn’t protect the buildings.”
Goldsborough said he can’t help but refer to the commemorative list with another name.
“The consolation list is really the default position when it doesn’t get selected for the designated list. They propose the building, but if it doesn’t get on the list, as a consolation prize, it goes on the commemorative list. But the commemorative list carries no status whatsoever.
“It’s just a promotional list.”
But Goldsborough said somebody would have proposed each of the list’s properties as worth saving.
“At one time they were were looked at as being designated, so somebody must have thought they should be saved,” he said.
Winnipeg’s heritage status categories
Buildings or lands the city has declared have heritage values because of their architectural or historic significance, or have interior or exterior character-defining elements. They also have to be at least 40 years old. Demolition is prohibited and any alterations have to receive prior approval.
Buildings or lands waiting to be evaluated for possible inclusion on the List of Historical Resources. They are protected from demolition until the historical buildings and resources committee makes a recommendation on whether to protect them and proposed alterations may need to receive prior approval.
There currently are 21 buildings on this list, including the McLaren Hotel (554 Main St.), the Oxford Hotel (216 Notre Dame Ave.), the Somerset Building (294 Portage Ave.) and the Monarch Life Building (333 Broadway).
Buildings and lands here are recognized for their architectural and/or historical value, but there are no restrictions on demolition or alterations. The city does encourage conservation and the director of planning, property and development has the power to add buildings and lands to the list.
Former city councillor Jenny Gerbasi, who served almost two decades as chairwoman of the civic historic buildings committee, says she doesn’t recall why so many properties were placed on the commemorative list before full reports were compiled on them.
“I’m not really sure what the rationale was,” she said. “Maybe to focus our resources on the ones we wanted? Nobody was putting pressure on it. It was thought, administratively, let’s do it this way.”
However, Gerbasi said heritage districts can now be created by the city, which couldn’t do that before the new bylaw came into effect.
“We need to move greater into heritage districts and get those in place,” she said. “That’s the best tool to deal with heritage neighbourhoods that have a lot of heritage.”
Gerbasi said it would be tough to reopen the bylaw to add protections to the properties on the commemorative list.
“It would require changing the bylaw again… it would be saying, in retrospect, ‘we made a mistake.’ I suppose it is something council could look at, but it’s kind of hard to go back when council has changed it before.”
Randy Rostecki worked with both the federal and provincial governments in their heritage departments, before becoming a history consultant and author. He also helped put together the city’s original list of heritage properties, including the nominated list.
“At that time the purpose was to flag certain buildings so demolition permits couldn’t just be given automatically,” he said.
“Back then, for a dollar or two depending on the size of the building, you could get a demolition permit and down it comes.”
Rostecki said properties were placed on a monitoring list so they could keep buildings intact until the city was able to study them further.
“But somewhere along the line something changed,” he said. “Ten years ago there was no commemorative list — they were either Grade 1, 2 or 3, with 1 having the most restrictions to keep them.
“There’s never been a full explanation about what changed.”
Murray Peterson, a historical buildings officer with the city, said when the original heritage list was created in 1979 there were 1,500 properties on it; many owners weren’t aware their properties had suddenly become untouchable — no demolition or major renovations without civic approval.
“Some of them were on there because of curb appeal,” he said.
But by 2013, with continued evaluations through the years, Peterson said the list of proposed properties had been whittled down to about 500.
“It is meaningless. It says there is no protection for commemorative buildings, but it makes it sound like there is. When I see ‘commemorative,’ I see lip service.” – Architect Wins Bridgman
He said that’s when, with the new bylaw on its way, the committee did a quick comparative analysis of each of the remaining properties based on a photo of the property and a brief writeup.
“They culled it down to 134 buildings,” he said, noting some — such as the long Tudor-like apartment building at 264 Wellington Cres. — didn’t make the cut because the city had already protected two other Tudor-style buildings, at Stafford Street and Grosvenor Avenue and the R.R. Scott House at 29 Ruskin Row.
How Great thou architecture
The massive Great-West Life Assurance building on Osborne Street is proof age isn’t the only factor when it comes to qualifying as a historic structure in Winnipeg.
At 60 years old, the building is relatively young. It officially opened in June 1959. It is one of 300 structures on the City of Winnipeg’s commemorative list of historical buildings.
With its limestone and granite exterior, it was designed to be respectful of the Manitoba Legislature across the street.
We take a closer look at the five-storey structure that captures Winnipeg’s love of brutalist architecture in the mid-20th century.
“We had to look and evaluate them within six years.”
There are now just 21 buildings left on the nominated list of historical resources.
Peterson said the bylaw allows for properties to be on the commemorative list forever even if they are demolished; there are plans for a website featuring photos and other information on those properties.
Architect Wins Bridgman, who renovated the former Dominion Bank building on Main Street at Higgins Avenue into his firm’s offices, says heritage “is not a form that’s nostalgic or punitive to developers.
“It is instead an economic driver of future cities and, to an extent, the current city.”
Bridgman said he’d like to see the Exchange District be named a civic heritage conservation district because the way to preserve heritage properly isn’t necessarily to protect individual buildings, but to protect several through these districts.
“We don’t go to Quebec City or Montreal to look at a building, we go to see neighbourhoods and we suddenly feel happy… the wonderful resource of the Exchange District has been saved by neglect through the years.
“Until it becomes a heritage conservation district it doesn’t have teeth.”
But while Bridgman appreciates a bylaw giving developers more direction, he takes issue with the commemorative list and would like to see it changed.
“It is meaningless,” he said. “It says there is no protection for commemorative buildings, but it makes it sound like there is.
“When I see ‘commemorative,’ I see lip service.”
Noted, not protected
THERE are more than 300 buildings currently on the commemorative list. We take a look at 15 that are not protected from demolition. The Manitoba Historical Society’s Gordon Goldsborough and Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell debate their merits.
1006 Palmerston Ave.
The tiny 1 1/2-storey house is part of an original farmhouse that Thomas Foulds built in 1872. The Manitoba Historical Society says Foulds was the son of Samuel Foulds, who owned land that stretched from the Assiniboine River to present-day Notre Dame Avenue and who was one of the petitioners who asked the Archbishop of Rupertsland to consecrate the Parish Church of St. James in 1855. Foulds had 10 children and this resulted in the family building a larger home next door, at 1002 Palmerston Ave., in 1911. According to a city report, Foulds died in the 1920s and his family sold the house in 1932. It is the oldest structure on the city’s commemorative list.
Goldsborough: “This two-storey building doesn’t impress me as unique. There are lots of Wolseley houses similar to it.”
Tugwell: “I think it is significant. It would be worthy of investigating. It should prompt the evaluation process for kicking in to see if it is worth considering. You need to go on site and do the proper investigation.”
494 College Ave.
This three-storey building is popularly known as “the castle” because of how it looks. But it is also known as the Rabbi David Cantor House, after the rabbi who lived there from 1920-45, and is credited with convincing more than 650 people to immigrate from Poland.
A single-page report by the city says the building was designed by the Biollo brothers, the building permit was taken out in 1903 and the house constructed in 1906.
According to the local history blog West End Dumplings, the three Biollo brothers — Olivo, Santi and Olivio — lived with their families there, with each occupying one floor of the house. The brothers, with other Italians, formed a firm called the Western Co-Operative Construction Company, which not only built the house, but also the Mount Royal Hotel on Garry Street, now known as the Garrick Hotel.
The families were forced to leave when both the house and hotel were seized by creditors when the hotel went bankrupt months after an application for a liquor permit was rejected. The brothers were reportedly told the map they had looked at before the hotel was built, showing which areas of the downtown could get a licence, had an error in it and their property was actually inside the temperance zone where liquor wasn’t allowed.
Goldsborough: “It’s nice to see that the owner of this house is taking care of it, although the ‘grafts’ on its south side are odd-looking and not entirely sympathetic to the rest of the house. Love the turret!”
Tugwell: “It is spectacular. I do believe that. I don’t think there’s another style of home like this in the city. The architecture was very unique. I love the design of the architecture. I love the turret.”
77-79 Hallet St.
A single-page civic report says the building was constructed in 1885, and it was originally owned, along with a now-demolished duplex built next door, by A.G. McKenzie.
The two-storey brick building features a large enclosed entrance porch and two imposing brick chimneys on each end of the roof.
Goldsborough: “Modest old duplexes such as this one were, like terrace buildings that are mostly gone now, early multi-family residences that have been supplanted by apartment blocks. This is an early example of a rare architectural form. I don’t understand why this one has not been designated as the rarity that it is… it may not have been designated because of its location in the Point Douglas neighbourhood.”
Tugwell: “I’m not familiar with that one… but we had a historian go though the list and he said that should have stayed on the nominated list.”
264 Wellington Cres.
The Tudor exterior of this three-storey apartment complex sprawls along the length of what would be an entire block in many areas of the city.
Known as the Wellington Apartments, it was built in 1910 by the Notre Dame Investment Company.
Goldsborough: “The exterior of this early apartment block is visually resplendent and the interior retains much of its original millwork. Unfortunately, maintenance is being neglected, so it is what I would call a diamond in the rough.”
Tugwell: “I don’t care if there are multiple ones in that style of architecture — I put this as very significant.”
939 Main St.
Today, with its distinctive onion domes, it’s known as the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Ivan (John) Suchavsky Church. But when it was built in 1891, it was the McDougall Memorial Methodist Church.
According to the Manitoba Historical Society, when the cathedral, named for an early missionary, was constructed it had a towering steeple at one corner, a wider tower on the other side with a pyramid hip roof and a large regular roof on top.
After the Methodist church amalgamated with the Congregational and Presbyterian faiths to create the United Church in 1925, the church was sold in 1931 to the immigrants from western Ukraine who spent the next three decades renovating it, including removing the steeple and a portion of the roof to add the three onion domes.
Goldsborough: “This is an interesting example of how a church can be renovated to meet the requirements of a different faith,” he said, noting the differences each of the congregations made to the exterior of the building. “The 1903 and modern photos of it on (the Manitoba Historical Society) website provide a visually interesting contrast.”
Tugwell: “I really like the onion dome — I think it is spectacular. It has a very unique size and design.”
1611 Main St.
Generations of Winnipeggers would simply know this location as the Green Brier Inn.
A city report indicates the inn was built in 1929 by Fred Hammer and Sam Diner. A year later, Hammer also became owner of the LaSalle Hotel. Local blog West End Dumplings, says the inn was named after the horse stables of Frank Shea, a member of the local brewing family.
Goldsborough: “I really do not like the modern stonework on the front.”
Tugwell: “I don’t know anything about it.”
60 Osborne St. N.
On the list of buildings considered commemorative, this would be the youngest.
Construction on the Great-West Life Assurance building began in 1957 and premier Duff Roblin opened it in 1959. It was to be the new and second home of the company that was founded in 1891 by businessman Jeffry H. Brock and a 15-member board of directors that included two future lieutenant-governors and a future mayor. It replaced the company’s first location at 177 Lombard Ave., and two other satellite buildings.
According to the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, the T-shaped, five-storey building was not only built to be respectful of its neighbour, the Legislative Building, but akin to a small city with a bank, barber shop, city hydro substation, full medical facilities and cafeteria producing 1,000 meals a day.
Goldsborough: “A dramatic example of brutalist architecture that defined Winnipeg’s mid-20th century. I must admit to not being a huge fan of brutalism, but I’m gradually warming to these reminders of my childhood.”
Tugwell: “I love it. I think its spectacular modernism. It is in Winnipeg Modern, a book on Winnipeg architecture. Winnipeg is one of the front-runners of preserving modernist architecture — except the city has moved to get rid of the Public Safety Building without batting an eye. It may be the newest building on the list, but it is also the largest floor plate — this is a massive building. You worry more when, if it goes, it would change the whole dynamics of the area.”
61 Heaton Ave.
This was the home of the German Society of Winnipeg from 1904 to 1914, and again from 1925 to 1942. Today, the two-storey building is being used by a sign company.
The German society was founded in 1892 and is one of the oldest cultural societies in the country; since 1951, it has been located at 121 Charles St.
Goldsborough: “I wish that I knew more about the history of this interesting building. The first thing I would do if I was renovating would be to rip off that terrible little foyer grafted on the front — ugly!”
Tugwell: “It is worthy of further research.”
200 Berry St.
With the three large garage doors and distinctive tall tower, this was the first fire hall in the former Rural Municipality of Assiniboia.
According to a report commissioned by the city’s Historical Buildings Committee in 2013, St. James Fire Hall No. 1 was constructed in 1912 to serve as home for both firefighters and the local police force. Local politicians decided to keep ornamentation on the building to a minimum and have a municipal employee design it instead of hiring an architect. At one point, there were 30 steel cells to house up to 60 prisoners in the police portion of the building.
There have been several changes to the building, including the removal of the large arches over the equipment doors to square them off to accommodate modern fire trucks. But many of the original features remain, including arched windows on the south side, the hose drying tower and the tin ceiling above where the fire engines once parked.
Built just north of Portage Avenue, the report notes that for several decades it was the tallest structure in west Winnipeg and “the station’s scale, especially the hose drying tower, has been an integral part of this streetscape for over 100 years.” The fire hall was closed when the new fire station was completed in the nearby cloverleaf at Portage Avenue and Route 90.
Goldsborough: “With its characteristic hose-drying tower, I think this old fire hall in St. James has a lot of potential for repurposing as commercial or residential space. There are still a few old fire halls existing around Winnipeg, but none in this part of the city, so I would probably keep this one on the list.”
Tugwell: “That one absolutely should have been on (the list). And the neat thing about fire halls is they can be retrofitted in many different ways. There is a Buddhist temple in one in the North End… they have so little built heritage left in St. James, it should be kept.”
1719 Portage Ave.
Right next door to the new fire station, the St. James Hotel was constructed in 1928. According to the historical society, it was built for hotelier Frank Fowlie and when it opened there were 24 bedrooms on the second floor and a beer parlour and restaurant on the main floor. The building was damaged by an electrical fire in 2017, but after $6 million in mainly interior renovations, it has recently opened again as a bar and restaurant.
Goldsborough: “(There are) not many old hotels from this period and none in western Winnipeg.”
Tugwell: “(The building) is iconic and it has always been iconic. I thought it was already designated, but it isn’t. It was always a meeting place. I’m a St. James gal. When they said they were doing renovations, I feared they were demolishing it, but they are renovating it.”
346 Nairn Ave.
The LaSalle Hotel was built along the Red River in 1914 and owned through to the 1920s by John Beaman and W. J. Holmes. Fred Hammer, an owner of the Green Brier, became owner of the hotel in 1930. A city report says Shea Brewery of Winnipeg had a stake in the business in the mid-1940s.
Goldsborough: “The LaSalle is to east Winnipeg as the St. James is to west Winnipeg: a grand old lady that has seen better days, but resolutely remains relevant to the current generation.”
Tugwell: “I thought that one is just so iconic. I’ve only been in it twice. I would argue it is also part of the community and it was always where the River Rouge used to dock years ago. And there is a purpose for these affordable rental hotels — not everyone can afford a fancy room.”
325 Nairn Ave.
Almost across the street from the LaSalle Hotel sits the former Elmwood branch of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.
The two-storey building, constructed in 1906, was built with red brick and Roman white sandstone with four Doric columns in front. CIBC operated out of this building, using the second floor as residential space for security officers in earlier days, until it closed in the early 1990s, according to a city report.
Goldsborough: “This is a nice example of a once-common neighbourhood bank building that has mostly been replaced by soulless glass and steel structures.”
Tugwell: “Years ago, I used to bank there. When I went in during the mid-’80s it was spectacular. And given where it is, it is so prominent. You come off the Louise Bridge and there it is… I really love the fact the little block has three significant heritage properties — including the fire hall. I’m a big fan of banks. They were usually built very very well.”
821 McDermot Ave.
The church, located near the Health Sciences Centre, was constructed as the First German Baptist Church in 1907, but it was later renamed the McDermot Avenue Baptist Church. Its architect was George G. Teeter.
Goldsborough: “This beautiful gem in downtown Winnipeg is an example of the inspirational, soaring architecture that defined church design a century ago.”
Tugwell: “Very significant. I think churches have some of the most beautiful exteriors. Those kind of spectacular buildings should be retained.”
121 Euclid Ave.
This mixed retail and residential location was constructed in 1911 to house the business and home of Simon Matas, his wife Anna and their six children.
The business, known as Matas Grocery Store, was in operation from 1911 until 1954 when Anna died. It is currently known as Metro Meats and it is the last surviving corner grocery store in Point Douglas.
Goldsborough: “At one time, most neighbourhoods around Winnipeg had these small grocery stores. Nearly all of them are gone, so I’m glad to see that this rare example is still operational, featuring such North End common food as garlic sausage. (It is) a still functional and intact example of a once-common entity: a neighbourhood grocery store.”
Tugwell: “Just by sheer age alone, and across from Barber House (one of Winnipeg’s earliest structures), it should be protected. We’re losing a lot of small retail at an alarming rate. Years ago I went in and I found it really cool. A community grocery store was critical back then. It shows people how they shopped back years ago.”
290 Lilac St.
When La Verendrye School was built in 1909, it was on the edge of the booming city. The Free Press at the time wrote about the laying of the cornerstone and noted “yesterday visitors journeyed to the ground, or within 100 yards of it, by electric car and found there was still something of Winnipeg beyond them, though the streets lose some of their garb of traffic and dwellings are hidden in areas of native bush.”
The building is described by the historical society as “one of Winnipeg’s grandest old schools from the boomtown era” and among its alumni are Terry Fox’s dad, Rolly, and artist Nathan Carlson.
Winnipeg School Division spokeswoman Radean Carter said the division has schools on both the protected list of historical resources and the commemorative list.
Carter said the schools on the commemorative list have no restrictions on building alterations, but “given the historic value we would review and keep the heritage unit in the loop in most cases, depending on what element we are modifying.”
Goldsborough: “An impressive old school building, steeped in generations of history. It is great that so much of the interior detail has been preserved, including a heritage classroom.”
Tugwell: “That one I’m very fond of. That had the heritage classroom in it — it had heritage desks in it. Everything was from 1910. The kids loved it. We went there years ago and celebrated Manitoba heritage day. It is a huge key structure in the community.”
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.