But the original owners of Dalnavert, the 1895 mansion at 61 Carlton St., could never have guessed that in 2005 their stately home would sprout an addition that would host business meetings, weddings, boutique shoppers and green-building enthusiasts.
Welcome to the new Dalnavert Museum Visitors' Centre, a curved structure that wraps around the back of the historic house, and provides a new entrance to it. The interior is to be completed by mid-February.
In May, when the new staff and displays are in place, the facility will at last reopen to the public, after more than a year's closure. The sleepy, static museum aims to reinvent itself as a 21st-century attraction that is also Canada's first environmentally "green" national historic site.
It's a bold new era for the Victorian red-brick residence, saved from demolition in 1970 and launched as a museum in 1974.
Yesterday marked the voluntary retirement of Tim Worth, the low-key curator for 30 years. Applications closed on Jan. 23 for a new executive director, who will be expected to forge alliances, fundraise, and promote the enhanced facility with entrepreneurial zeal.
The $1.5-million construction project is a gamble that the owners, the Manitoba Historical Society (MHS), had to take to ensure the survival of the museum, says president Gordon Goldsborough. Annual attendance, which peaked at about 8,500 visitors in the early 1980s, has steadily declined, to about 5,200 in 2003.
"If the trend continued, the inevitable result was that the museum would close," says Goldsborough, a 45-year-old University of Manitoba scientist with a passion for history. "There was a tendency in the past to sit in the house and wait for people to come. We're trying to make ourselves more relevant."
The MHS hopes to see attendance double in the next year, and continue to surge. Future plans include "using technology to recreate the past," so that perhaps visitors could take a 3-D simulated tour of the neighbourhood at the turn of the 20th century.
Dalnavert is a rare surviving example of a Queen Anne-style residence from Winnipeg's golden age. It is elegantly furnished to depict the life of Macdonald — a prominent magistrate and one-time premier of Manitoba — and his family in the year 1895.
Its key weakness has been that it lacked storage space and climate controls for rotating exhibits, so it essentially never changed. Winnipeggers, who made up about 35 per cent of visitors, didn't have a compelling reason for repeat trips, which are vital for sustainability, says Goldsborough. The place didn't make an impact on the streetscape — even the public doorway was hard to find — and didn't market itself aggressively.
The 5,000-square-foot, one-storey Visitors' Centre provides climate-controlled archival storage space. There's a large, bright orientation room that will serve as an exhibition and interpretive area. Dalnavert will now be able to host touring historical shows, and mount its own. The grand-opening exhibit will celebrate the life and work of Charles Wheeler, the distinguished architect of Dalnavert.
The orientation room, which boasts floor-to-ceiling windows with an inviting view of the house, can accommodate about 85 people for meetings, weddings or lectures. Rental revenue is seen as a key component of the museum's success, and it's hoped that Winnipeggers who attend functions in the new space will also discover the old. "We want that building to be a hive of activity," says Goldsborough.
Now that the basement and attic of the house won't be needed for meetings or offices, they can be used for displays, doubling the house's museum capacity. Those areas' climate controls are being upgraded.
The Visitors' Centre provides wheelchair accessibility, washrooms, a coat check, staff offices and a volunteer lounge. Plans call for its gift shop to carry such distinctive items that it will become a destination in itself, and a strong revenue generator.
The state-of-the-art "green" aspects of the building include geothermal heating and cooling, low water and energy consumption, display cases and wall panels made from straw board, and a wealth of recycled construction materials, many salvaged from a neighbouring triplex that was deconstructed to make way for the project.
The museum is expected to attract green-architecture enthusiasts. Gardeners are another target group, because part of the site design is an authentic Victorian garden that will see its first planting this spring. School programming will expand, with planned themes such as "A Victorian Valentine."
Wins Bridgman, architect of the Visitors' Centre, says it "embraces and supports" Dalnavert. Every aspect of its design complements the house, down to tiny details like using old-fashioned, quarter-inch mortar joints between the exterior red bricks, so they match those of the house.
The slopes, angles and materials of the centre echo those of the house. In fact, if you extended all the angles of the building's curve, they would converge precisely on the handle of Dalnavert's front door. A recycled-limestone walkway with a pergola (garden canopy) entrance and eye-catching signage will lead from Carlton Street to a new doorway, with the exact same dimensions as the front door of the house.
Fundraising is ongoing, but is within about $200,000 of the $1.5-million goal.
Bridgman gives major credit to elderly philanthropist Kathleen Richardson — often seen "marching around in a hard hat" during construction — and her friend Kathleen Campbell for their ceaseless volunteer devotion to Dalnavert.
"It's a very moving story to see them," he says. "They've worked hard on this for almost 30 years."