Stabilizing culture

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A blend of new technology and old style are coming to the rescue of a former bank, owned by the province since 1985 and renamed for a 1919 General Strike leader.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/08/2007 (5524 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A blend of new technology and old style are coming to the rescue of a former bank, owned by the province since 1985 and renamed for a 1919 General Strike leader.

The A. A. Heaps Building, the 1910 building on the corner of Portage Avenue and Garry Street, is undergoing repairs to stabilize the terra cotta cornice by using new materials to mimic the past. The renovations to the one-time Bank of Nova Scotia started earlier this year. Three months ago, workers fixed the southeast ceiling corner in the huge banking hall, where water came in through cracks in the cornice running along the building’s upper exterior wall.

“This is one of the really grand interiors of Winnipeg,” says Wins Bridgman, whose firm, Bridgman Collaborative Architecture, helped with the work that seamlessly replaced old plaster with new.

Gesturing at the ornate ceiling trying to point out the repaired section, he says, “The work we did was meant to be invisible.”

Outside on the scaffolding above Garry Street, towards the back of the building, Bridgman shows the causes of the interior water damage. Two sections of the terra cotta cornice have been removed to reveal the decaying structure holding them in place. The damage started years ago with steel outriggers extending from the building’s main structure expanding and contracting in summer and winter. When that made small cracks, water got in to exacerbate the freezing and thawing effects. Bolted under the outriggers, a horizontal I-beam of steel, meant to support the cornice pieces, shows a brown edge flaky with rust.

Within the spaces of the hollow terra cotta pieces, expanding spray foam shows evidence of a 35-year-old cornice repair job that never took. “It was well intentioned,” says Stan Rhoda, provincial manager of architecture, “but not well executed or well planned.” The original repair, says Rhoda, used, “open-cell foam that acted like a sponge. It caused some of the problems we’re seeing now.”

The current work includes new horizontal steel beams, this time stainless and secured above the original outriggers, to stabilize the cornice and help prevent similar damage elsewhere. Copper flashing over the new steel promises to make the cornice watertight.

When the Bank of Nova Scotia established this location in 1910, other banks along Main Street’s “Bankers Row” already administered most of the commerce on Winnipeg’s old business district. But the Portage Avenue location gave the Bank of Nova Scotia a chance to gain business from the newer bustle rising on Portage Avenue as the city boomed.

“This stabilization project is really about stabilizing cultural memory,” says Bridgman, talking about the building’s original terra cotta. Available from catalogues, countless styles of pre-fabricated glazed terra cotta pieces gave local builders at the turn of the last century a cheap and impressive option. Coming in slightly varying colours, the pieces looked like stone buildings of old, without the expense of stone cutting.

Now, Alfred Widmer, working with Alpha Masonry, will use glass-fibre-reinforced concrete to mould replacement cornice pieces as needed. Cement mortar mixed with tiny strands of glass give GFRC more ability to change with the temperature before cracking. Glazing will help vary the colour of new pieces to match the old. “None of these are the same colour,” says Widmer, pointing at the terra cotta slabs on the wall below the cornice. “They’re all different shades of beige.”

“Terra cotta was a fanciful material,” says Bridgman, claiming special admiration for the original terra cotta work on the Heaps Building. “Outlandish and marvellous — you could make anything out of terra cotta,” says Bridgman. “It represents early Winnipeg ideas, aspirations and enthusiasm. We were going out of our way to show we were a real place.”

The Heaps Building restoration comes in three parts — the cornice stabilization this year, repairs to the dome next year, and façade cleaning in 2009 to make the place look 99 years young.

/ ian.tizzard@freepress.mb.ca

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