"A lot of people said, 'Beautiful building, terrible neighbourhood,'" says Wins Bridgman as he shows off his firm's new location in the 100-year-old Dominion Bank building at 678 Main St.
"But it's always been an exiting area of town," says Bridgman, recalling the former bustle when the bank was new and tens of thousands of settlers arrived at the Canadian Pacific Railway station nearby. He points to Thunderbird House across Main Street as another sign of progress in an area that is slowly regaining a vibrancy it lost years ago. Last year, too, the Red Road Lodge replaced the blighted Occidental Hotel and, more recently, the Neon Factory changed locations from the Exchange District to Main Street.
"This is the first building we looked at," says Bridgman, who wants to continue pushing the current boundaries of revitalized space downtown.
The 10 members of Bridgman Collaborative Architecture used to work out of a 500-square-foot space in Bridgman's house in River Heights.
"I really liked working out of my house. I'd go from working to chopping carrots for my children's lunch," says Bridgman, who vowed to work from home until his youngest child entered Grade 6. That happened last fall, and less than a year later Bridgman's team is working in a former banking hall with five times the space they had before.
"We were always rubbing shoulders," recalls Bridgman with a smile. "Everybody always knew what everybody else was doing, and it was a great way to help each other and learn from each other."
He laments losing the "kitchen-table model of working" and not being able to speak across the room without yelling. For now, group meetings twice a day keep everybody informed of ongoing projects and Bridgman hopes that perhaps additional staff will tighten the new quarters.
Bridgman quickly points out the biggest of five safes in the building, at the back of the new banking hall work space.
"I doubt they needed such a big safe right here," he says. Bridgman suspects it was meant to reassure customers that their money was safe.
"It's part of the theatre of security," he says.
Bridgman knows that the perceived danger of the neighbourhood helped him get a good deal on the building and the small adjacent lot on Higgins.
"This is obviously an area that needs support to turn around," he says. But from this big room, Bridgman promises to help change public perception of the area outside.
This summer, he hopes to start work on a "literacy park" to fill the empty lot next to the old bank building. "It could be a garden of plants with names from A to Z," he says.
"But the idea of how you rebuild an area has to do with literacy," says Bridgman, who plans to gain an understanding of community needs and wishes through consultations before coming up with a particular design.
"Years ago it would've been a giant statue of a man on a horse," he says, laughing.
The National Indigenous Literacy Association, which is looking at leasing the building's second-floor office space, has said it will help Bridgman's firm design the park.
To accommodate NILA, or any other tenants, Bridgman plans a small extension at the front corner of the building to house a second staircase and elevator.
He admits the extension, as well as the newly installed windows and a park, will overshadow the "golden girl" mural on the north side of the building. "It's become part of downtown," says Bridgman of the huge painting, which welcomes people travelling south on Main Street. But the conservation architect sees the alteration as a reinterpretation of the artist's intent. Indeed, the resonance of the image rang hollow on the side of an empty building.
"In the short version, conservation is about keeping the building as it is," says Bridgman, who sees every building as a product of many people with purpose. "To destroy it lessens their efforts, but we're looking for a marker that looks ahead, to symbolically reinforce the corner and create a new connection between downtown and the North End."