When the as-yet-unnamed board of directors decides what direction to take with the city's biggest and best green gem, this renovated washroom and rest area — the one next to the duck pond by the big central green — will show them a standard of openness and comfort to which any park should aspire.
Many Winnipeggers will remember changing into skates or taking a rest in the old shelter under the low ceiling in near-dark at any hour.
"Before, no matter how many lights we put in, it was still dark," says Frank Caldwell, manager of Assiniboine Park Enterprise, the city operating division responsible for the park for now.
Caldwell recalls the dark brown plywood panels that park workers used to put up around this time of year to prepare for winter. He suggests the old structure went beyond sheltering people, and acted instead as a barrier.
"But with this new design, you're not out of the park while you're in the building," he says.
The new design uses existing pillars in the shelter to raise the existing roof. About 85 per cent of the original structure remains, despite the great changes introduced this summer. The new configuration angles the roof up on the east side, opening a face to the open field behind the Assinboine Park Pavilion and to get the most of the available natural light.
Pulling down one of the glass-panel garage doors that replace the old plywood, park foreman Ken Carruthers laughs at his only complaint about the new shelter.
"I already have guys fighting over who gets to work out of here this winter," he says, smiling as he calls the old shelter "a sealed plywood box in winter."
"Opening it up was a key element of the design," says architect Wins Bridgman. "The old shelter was dark and gave a feeling of vulnerability. I went in one winter morning and scared a woman half to death just by opening the door."
Bridgman also moved the washrooms to the north end, providing a complete view of the duck pond, toboggan slides and the Pavilion, as well as opening the south end to light.
"Every room should have natural light," says Bridgman, who insisted that windows for the washrooms be set about four metres off the floor. For added security, the washroom lights turn on whenever a door opens, and motion detectors ensure they stay on as long as a person is inside, then turn them off when the room is empty.
"It cut the lighting costs, too," Bridgman notes.
He says he wanted a shelter that allowed a stronger connection with the environment already established there. In fact, the renovations only hint at the potential changes for the duck pond area. Bridgman shows landscape plans from Hilderman Thomas Frank Cram Landscape Architects that call for an expanded duck pond. In the plan, a half-circle of water hugs the new shelter with a marshy area on one end for a small wildlife habitat.
A stage-like area at the shelter's south end makes an interactive theatre out of the pond, with visitors amidst th e environment, rather than around it. People will cross one arm of the half-circle pond on stepping stones. The other side has a bridge to walk over.
"It's important that people experience the park, and learn from it," says Bridgman, who envisions the pond as a wilder complement to the park's Formal Gardens and the nearby English Garden. "It ties us into so many things that make us who we are," he says.
On its own, the new shelter draws a steady crowd, according to Caldwell. "It makes a nice meeting place," he says after chatting with two strolling women who came to admire the work that has been done. "Assiniboine Park is the busiest park in the city, and this central green is one of the busiest places in the park. People who saw the shelter under tarps come by all the time to see it now, and they love the change."