Imagine a Winnipeg where a wrecking ball has long since razed all of our most striking stone buildings. A Winnipeg where a jumble of expressways and interchanges runs through the heart of downtown and adjacent to the Red River’s waterfront. A Winnipeg where historic architecture wasn’t revered or preserved as it has been.

Imagine a Winnipeg where a wrecking ball has long since razed all of our most striking stone buildings. A Winnipeg where a jumble of expressways and interchanges runs through the heart of downtown and adjacent to the Red River’s waterfront. A Winnipeg where historic architecture wasn’t revered or preserved as it has been.

CITY OF WINNIPEG ARCHIVES</p><p>The scheme called for expressways in the waterfront area.</p>

CITY OF WINNIPEG ARCHIVES

The scheme called for expressways in the waterfront area.

That was the Winnipeg envisioned in the 1960s-era Cultural Centre Renewal Scheme.

After the Second World War, downtown Winnipeg was under an existential threat. Suburbanization had begun, as new developments offered people yards to call their own, cheap housing prices and car-centric infrastructure.

As a result, neighbourhoods in central Winnipeg saw population decreases of up to 25 per cent, according to the University of Waterloo’s Joshua Warkentin and the University of Winnipeg’s Marc Vachon in a Prairie Perspectives: Geographical Essays entry in 2010.To combat downtown’s decline, the City of Winnipeg established the board of renewal and revitalization. "The primary purpose of the board," Warkentin and Vachon wrote, "was to identify areas within the inner city which either showed signs of blight or had the potential of decay," and to develop detailed renewal plans that would make the areas attractive for both permanent residents and visits from suburbanites.

The board of renewal and revitalization identified three "renewal areas" for redevelopment.

Surviving the wrecking ball

The building from which architect, urbanist and Free Press columnist Brent Bellamy spoke to a reporter on a recent weekday afternoon wouldn’t have existed if the Cultural Centre Renewal Scheme had come to fruition.

“I would be overlooking a freeway right now, probably in a new concrete ice-cube tray,” Bellamy joked.

The building from which architect, urbanist and Free Press columnist Brent Bellamy spoke to a reporter on a recent weekday afternoon wouldn’t have existed if the Cultural Centre Renewal Scheme had come to fruition.

“I would be overlooking a freeway right now, probably in a new concrete ice-cube tray,” Bellamy joked.

That building, home to Number TEN Architecture Group, is a modest but handsome five-and three-storey structure, with a well-kept brick and stone facade and geometrically pleasing rounded and rectangular windows.

Located at 115 Bannatyne Ave. near Waterfront Drive, the Donald H. Bain Building was built in 1899 by James McDiarmid for Donald Henderson (Dan) Bain as a warehouse for Bain’s grocery wholesale business.

The building is “composed of two modest Romanesque Revival-style structures joined by a common wall” and is “a good illustration of the warehouses established in Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century,” a Winnipeg Architecture Foundation web entry explains. Bellamy said the building used to have great ghost signs — the faded remnants of painted advertisements — but sadly they were removed.

Before Dan Bain became a Winnipeg entrepreneur and prominent community leader, he was the captain and centre of the Winnipeg Victorias hockey team. He led team to Stanley Cup (then awarded to the winner of senior-men’s amateur challenges) championships three times: in 1896, 1901 and 1902.

He was voted Canada’s top athlete of the last half of the 19th century.

In his business career, “Bain was a hard-nosed workaholic who, after retiring from the Victorias, kept a low public profile. Described by a friend as ‘salty in speech and strongly opinionated,’ (he) was tough and individualistic,” Gordon Goldsborough of the Manitoba Historical Society wrote in 2016. Bain never married, but was fond of dogs and was an avid outdoorsman.

Bain died in 1962 at age 88, just a few years before the CCRS threatened the building — now a designated historic site — where he began his entrepreneurial career. Goldsborough wrote Bain left his estate, valued at more than $1 million, mostly to charity and to former employees, with the balance distributed among his relatives and friends.

“He was a phenomenal person and then he became a really successful businessman in the early 20th century,” Bellamy said, vowing to one day write a story about him.

The warehouse was abandoned in 1970, but local market consultant Tom Dixon purchased it in 1976 and restored the building “with great integrity and care,” a Virtual Heritage Winnipeg web entry reads.

“The facade was cleaned, revealing the warm native brick in its entire splendour. Inside the old ceiling was removed to display the heavy timber beams and joists, the wood cleaned and open to view.”

Area 1 was Lord Selkirk Park.

Area 2 was half of the Exchange District we know today, from Notre Dame Avenue to Logan Avenue north-south and Main Street to Isabel Street east-west.

Area 3 was the largest, spanning 400 acres. It stretched all the way from The Forks — which at the time still housed train yards — up to Higgins Avenue and Point Douglas, enveloping the entire east Exchange.

Area 3, with its prime riverside real estate, was where the Cultural Centre Renewal Scheme zeroed in.

Envisioned as a hub for entertainment and the arts, the CCRS was an ambitious, heady plan.

It proposed a "high-class marina" on the Red River, a park "similar to the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen," a ballet school, a private high-rise hotel, high-rise apartments "to counteract people’s flight to the suburbs," office towers, a scenic drive, an underground parking lot with a rooftop pedestrian plaza, and perhaps most enticingly, a riverside amusement park.

These would complement the Manitoba Centennial Arts Centre (which includes the Manitoba Museum, Planetarium and Centennial Concert Hall) that was already under construction adjacent to city hall.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Recent development along Waterfront Drive would not have been possible if the 1960s plan became reality.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Recent development along Waterfront Drive would not have been possible if the 1960s plan became reality.

The plan was ambitious, but it was not unique, said Brent Bellamy, architect with Number TEN Architectural Group and Winnipeg Free Press columnist, in a recent phone conversation.

Bellamy said "every city in the world" was looking at doing the same thing in the 1960s and ’70s, and you could find similar plans when looking at just about any other Canadian or U.S. metropolis.

While we, in 2021, can look back with hindsight and say it’s ludicrous to demolish an entire neighbourhood of historic heritage buildings, the urban planners of the time simply saw the buildings as obstacles that needed to be removed for Winnipeg to go forward.

This wasn’t nefarious or evil thinking, Bellamy said — just the prevailing planning ethic of the era.

"We look at it in today’s context and we see that great neighbourhoods are a mix of old building and new buildings and they have diverse populations and diverse architecture, but then they thought — all cities, not just Winnipeg, all cities — thought the future was modernism. It was brand-new, it was big, it was concrete, it was about the machine era, not about the handcrafted. There was no appreciation for it.

"There was a war, then there was a Depression, then there was another war, and we were coming out of that," Bellamy continued. "People were having babies, they were moving to the suburbs, the economy booming, people were buying vehicles and new houses, it was an era of optimism."

"They did not want to look back. Why would you want to look back at the first 50 years of the 20th century?" he asked. "You don’t. You want to look forward."

The plan was unveiled to Winnipeggers on the front page of the Free Press on June 2, 1967. Mayor Stephen Juba, who said the plan would make Winnipeg known as "the city of the future," said the city would invest $10 million in the project. Planners recommended the land-expropriation phase start immediately.

Bellamy said most Winnipeggers of the time would have seen the CCRS as an excellent plan.

"The idea was that those old, dusty buildings represented the past," Bellamy said. "If we want to be a progressive city, if we want to be competitive, if we want a high quality of life, we need new buildings and they need to be modern buildings and we need to look forward.

"That happened all across the world. It was the modernist sort of idea… to build these giant modernist buildings and not use the past as the stepping-off point, but to completely start over. The past was a weight, a burden on us."

CITY OF WINNIPEG ARCHIVES</p><p>The prevailing vision for urban renewal at the time included new highrise office towers and apartments.</p>

CITY OF WINNIPEG ARCHIVES

The prevailing vision for urban renewal at the time included new highrise office towers and apartments.

David Pensato, the executive director of the Exchange District BIZ, agreed with Bellamy’s assessment.

What we now appreciate as beautiful heritage buildings "were just old dingy buildings of a previous era… everyone wanted to get more modern and ‘with it,’" he said in a phone interview from the BIZ’s 492 Main St. headquarters.

Winnipeg was a major North American player at the time, Pensato said, but there was "a feeling of decline setting in" and the CCRS was a way to get our "mojo" back with a visionary project.

"There was huge optimism and Winnipeg was coming back…" Bellamy agreed. "It was a growing city and there was pure optimism. That was part of it."

The plan proposed, in response to the post-Second World War rise of individual car ownership, a freeway system.

Winnipeg is still quite car-centric, Bellamy said, but would have been even more so if the CCRS had its way.

"Development plans were really focused on those major interventions (such as a freeways), not necessarily about the health of cities. The character of the buildings, the quality of the streets, we connect to that as humans... Had we just decided to replace it with freeways and new buildings, that catalyst would no longer exist." ‐ Brent Bellamy

A north/south expressway was to start at Stradbrook Avenue in the south and slice right through the middle of downtown, just east of Main Street. It would pass Portage and Main to a massive interchange with another east/west expressway just northeast of city hall.

The east/west expressway featured a new bridge that would take drivers either into St. Boniface where Whittier Park is now, or out of St. Boniface all the way past Main Street and beyond.

These freeways were just part of a massive plan unveiled in 1969 that saw high-speed, limited-access roads fanning out from downtown to the fledgling, far-flung suburbs in every direction.

The plan was to take place in four stages over 22 years. The total cost, as reported by the Free Press on Feb. 28, 1969: $31.9 million annually, or more than $710 million over the duration of the project that, of course, never happened.

"Development plans were really focused on those major interventions (such as a freeways), not necessarily about the health of cities," Bellamy said.

"The character of the buildings, the quality of the streets, we connect to that as humans," he said. "It’s a really attractive physical environment. Had we just decided to replace it with freeways and new buildings, that catalyst would no longer exist."

Most U.S. cities did put freeways through their downtowns in this era, Bellamy said, because they had federal funding.

The rush to build freeways demolished, ghettoized and severed neighbourhoods (typically poorer, racialized ones) through the U.S., Bellamy said, leading to social unrest and sometimes even riots.

A freeway running through downtown would have hindered the development the area has seen since the 1980s, Bellamy said.

UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA / WINNIPEG TRIBUNE COLLECTION</p><p>The Centennial Concert Hall, Manitoba Museum and Planetarium were built on this site.</p>

UNIVERSITY OF MANITOBA / WINNIPEG TRIBUNE COLLECTION

The Centennial Concert Hall, Manitoba Museum and Planetarium were built on this site.

"It would have severed Waterfront Drive, it would have removed access to the river, which has been a catalyst of development," he said, especially of residential growth over the past 15 to 20 years. He said many cities are now removing their freeways and reconnecting to their waterfronts in a similar fashion.

"If we would have built that, the only way to really achieve real positive development in the downtown would be to remove it. There’s no way around it… there’s no Forks, there’s no Waterfront Drive…"

Waterfront Drive development rippled out to the rest of the Exchange District and sparked a renaissance, Bellamy said. "(The Exchange) has definitely come a long way and it’s because of Waterfront Drive and The Forks and all the things are happening in this area, which would have been completely gone if there was a freeway through there."

Despite that, Bellamy said many Winnipeggers even today would look at the freeway plan and say, "Hey, man, that would be awesome!"

"I hear it all the time: ‘Winnipeg is backwards because we don’t have freeways,’" Bellamy said. "I think the exact opposite. I think we’re lucky to not have them."

Pensato said the freeway wouldn’t have just made downtown more car-centric: it would have made it a thoroughfare: "entirely a place to get through," rather than a place to get to.

"There would not be an Exchange District. We would be a highway. Car-centric would imply that you arrive here by vehicle and then leave," he said. "We just would have been a pass-through, and that’s a real shame."

Of course, making sky-high plans for a modernist city and actually executing those plans are quite different things.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>The Exchange District’s collection human-scale historic heritage buildings would have been demolished under the proposal.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

The Exchange District’s collection human-scale historic heritage buildings would have been demolished under the proposal.

There was simply not enough demand for downtown office or residential space, population growth was too slow, and there wasn’t enough outside capital being injected into the city, Warkentin and Vachon wrote. Developers didn’t want to risk becoming part of the project.

A fundamental shift in thinking was also a factor, they noted.

"One must also point out that by the end of the ’60s and early ’70s there was a marked change in philosophy regarding how urban renewal should be undertaken," they wrote. "The focus was now on small projects, rehabilitation and restoration rather than big projects and the ‘bulldozer approach’ which characterized urban renewal during the ’50s and early ’60s."

While most of the CCRS never happened, a few parts did come to fruition. The Centennial Concert Hall opened in 1968, as did the Planetarium next door, while the Manitoba Museum opened two years later.

"We were just lucky; we’re a slow-growth city with not a lot of money. Most cities demolished their exchange districts," Bellamy said. "We dodged a bullet, not because we were smarter, but because we didn’t have the money and we grow so much slower."

What makes the Exchange District special, Pensato said, is not just the buildings themselves, as beautiful as they are: it’s the people who keep finding novel, creative ways to use them.

"The importance of the Exchange District is the collection. Most warehouse buildings aren’t anything special taken in isolation, but what’s special about the Exchange District is that we have that reasonably intact collection that doesn’t exist anywhere else." ‐ Brent Bellamy

"I feel that each generation that discovers the Exchange District adds to it and builds on it, so you have a growing number of people who appreciate it," he said.

Bellamy said what makes the Exchange District special is that it has a human scale modernist neighbourhoods don’t. That human scale makes people want to live and be there.

"They were built by humans, by hand, and designed by the vantage point of a person," Bellamy said of the buildings, "and not somebody driving in a car."

"The importance of the Exchange District is the collection," Bellamy said. "Most warehouse buildings aren’t anything special taken in isolation, but what’s special about the Exchange District is that we have that reasonably intact collection that doesn’t exist anywhere else."

The Exchange District BIZ’s Pensato boasted that Winnipeg’s Exchange is, in fact, North America’s largest intact collection of turn-of-the-previous-century Richardsonian Romanesque architecture.

"Along with many other people, I’m thankful it never came to pass," Pensato said of the CCRS.

"We were an important centre for North America when these buildings were going up," he said. "The Exchange District has constantly been the centre of Winnipeg ingenuity and entrepreneurship.

"The history of Winnipeg truly is written on the streets of this area."

declan.schroeder@freepress.mb.ca