The log home, one of Winnipeg's oldest buildings, is on the other side of the CPR tracks. But it long predates the rail line that brought industry and immigration, surviving from a time when Winnipeg's wealthy and influential lived on Point Douglas.
"This is where North Point Douglas started way back, and hopefully it will be the place where it restarts," says Linda Bradley, co-chair of Sisters Initiating Steps Towards a Renewed Society (SISTARS).
The group is behind a plan to return the historic house to prominence as a $2.7-million "community hub" surrounded by public green space, a laundromat, maybe a coffee shop, and a daycare centre for local children.
But recent soil tests have shown unacceptable levels of lead, copper and zinc at the site, so a worthy project waits for news on how bad the contamination is.
Edmund Lorenzo Barber, a Connecticut Yankee born in 1834, came to the Red River Settlement by way of St. Paul, Minn. He opened a store in present-day North Point Douglas in 1861.
He married into the local elite, taking Barbara Logan, daughter of retired fur trader Robert Logan, as his wife in 1862. Among Barber's new relations were other prominent men, Andrew McDermot and A.G.B. Bannatyne.
With tangible connections to the local business scene, Barber started buying real estate with business partner John Schultz. In 1870, Schultz fled to the Barber house after escaping Louis Riel's forces at Upper Fort Garry. Barber smuggled him out of the colony.
Barber laid out many of the streets in North Point Douglas. Historian Lillian Gibbons wrote in the 1970s that Barber Street preserves his name, and that he christened Disraeli Street (after the British statesman), Euclid Avenue (after a pretty street in Cleveland), and Stella Avenue (after a gal from Minnesota whom he nearly married, only she wasn't willing to come to Red River).
Barber built the house at 99 Euclid Ave. on an angle, so his wife could look out at the Logan home from the front door. Various sources date the construction of the house between 1862 and 1867. It is a rare local surviving example of Red River Frame construction, based on the French "post on sill" technique.
End lap joints between squared oak logs secured a large base — the sill — on which vertical logs made the frame. Horizontal logs between the posts were held solid with mortise and tenon joints. Clay and straw filled the spaces, and plaster usually covered the exterior.
Barber died in 1909. In all, his family and descendants lived in the house for about 110 years. Tracy Semmer, a great-niece of Barber, remembers hearing stories of large get-togethers in a lush front yard.
"The entrance was to a big kitchen area, and garden tea parties would be centred there," says Semmer. Guests relaxed in willow chairs on the front veranda and wandered in the yard.
"There were more trees in the yard then," she says, "and an English-style garden where they kept day lilies and thistle."
In 1974, Gibbons described Barber House as "neatly plastered and stuccoed in white, trimmed with mustard-colour paint." The veranda was gone, but the windows were intact.
That image barely compares to the boarded-up eyesore there now, burnt out in numerous fires by accident and arson since before Semmer's uncle, John Graham, sold the house to the city in 1974. The house is a city and provincial heritage site.
"It's been beaten up over the years, but it still stands," says Mike Robertson of Bridgman Collaborative Architecture, which has drawn up the plans to restore Barber House and the surrounding site.
Robertson and Wins Bridgman fostered a collaborative design process guided by community members through eight sessions starting last summer. At the first meetings, local residents modelled their dream site with plasticine. In later sessions, they made models over top of a large aerial photo of the site.
"There were four- and five-year-old children telling us what they wanted," says Robertson, showing an illustration with small half-covered holes in the hill behind a curved daycare building. "These hobbit holes came from their ideas," he says. "It's a place where kids can make their own play, but never out of sight from the daycare."
"All the ideas came from the community, and that means more people have a sense of ownership," says Bradley of SISTARS, still optimistic while waiting to hear whether the contaminated soil can be replaced.
Bradley says the city and province seem earnest in efforts to help with further testing, but SISTARS has delayed taking over the deed until they know the extent of the clean-up needed. SISTARS already runs a daycare, for now, out of the nearby Church of the Open Door, under a lease that is good until next August.
The best scenario will let them break ground in spring, but nothing is guaranteed yet. "We'll accept or reject the offer depending on the clean-up," says Bradley. "If the city and the province can't clean it up, we can't afford to."