A boarded-up apartment building on Osborne Street South has been on the mind of an area resident who penned a letter to the building’s owners and installed it — writ large — on the front of the building.
The Rubin Block at the corner of Osborne and Morley Avenue has been shuttered since 2014. The letter, signed by S.O. Resident, urged Composite Holdings Ltd. to take action on the building, by either renovating it or selling it to a new owner.
"I want to fire us up," said the anonymous artist. "The Rubin Block is listed among the top 10 buildings in Canada last year as being endangered, by the National Trust. Do I think this will change the owners’ minds? Probably not. But I would like them to think about their moral choice to hold the heart corner in our community hostage."
The Rubin Block was designed by prominent Winnipeg architect Maxwell Zev Blankstein, who came to Canada in 1909 from Russia. The brick and limestone building was erected in 1914, and then shuttered one hundred years later, after a pair of fires in 2006 and 2014.
The letter, which lasted 23 hours before it was painted over, refers to the "three stories" of the building, from its heyday through to its boarded-up status today. "I wanted a new way to communicate my feelings about the building," the artist said. "That building could be the epicentre of our community. South Osborne has become so vibrant, with new shops, and the many people who call the neighbourhood home."
A self-admitted lover of puns, the artist refers to other folks who have decorated the boarded-over windows and doors in the past, including a poem by the S.O. Resident in 2018. "Art like this may not be exactly legal, but it shows we care. Derelict buildings attract arson, attract crime. We’d love to see all the factors align and that building come alive again," the artist said.
The fight to get the Rubin Block back in circulation has wide-spread neighbourhood support, along with that of Heritage Winnipeg.
Jean Altemeyer has been a Riverview resident since 1968. She was delighted to see the letter up on the Rubin.
"We got reignited to do something about the apartment when the federal government announced money in the fall to pay for organizations looking to set up rapid, affordable housing," she said. "But we don’t own the building. In the fall, folks put together a letter asking the City and Mayor Bowman to do something about it. We have a case here with an obdurate owner who refuses to do anything about it, and a City that refuses to go above the minimum."
Jino Distasio, a former director of the Institute of Urban Studies and vice-president of research and innovation at the University of Winnipeg, and a resident of Riverview, said there are points to consider regarding derelict buildings.
"We have a number of boarded-up buildings around the city, including the Rubin," Distasio said. "Addressing the issue is a balancing act. Owners have certain rights to do what they want with their own property. Do I have the right to say something about the colour of the house across the street? No. But we do have bylaws that cover what we can build and where."
The latest updates on the novel coronavirus and COVID-19.
On the other hand, Distasio said he doesn’t understand the economics of not collecting rent over hundreds of months while the Rubin has sat vacant, including from its two commercial spaces. The building was once home to the Mercantile Bank of Canada, which became the Royal Bank, along with a second shop.
"I spent a lot of my childhood in that block visiting a friend, and yes, I have a desire to see it back on Winnipeg’s rental market, which needs more affordable housing," he said. "It has a variety of suites from bachelor to three-bedroom units. The panoramic view from the top floor is one of the best in South Osborne."
Among the factors to be considered are whether the Rubin could be made habitable through renovation, or whether it has deteriorated to the point of needing to be demolished, he said.
The Sou’wester reached out to Composite Housing for comment, but had not received a reply by press time.
For more, see Heritage Winnipeg’s blog at heritagewinnipeg.com/blogs/the-rubin-block-heritage-at-risk/ and also the National Trust’s write-up at nationaltrustcanada.ca/nt-endangered-places/rubin-block
To see more stories and images by S.O. Resident, look for the username on Instagram.
Susie Strachan The Sou'wester community journalist
Susie Strachan is the community journalist for The Sou'wester.
Susie got her first paying job as a journalist in the late '80s on the Free Press Weeklies, then followed that with 20 years as a reporter, photographer and specialty editor at the Winnipeg Free Press. She then spent 10 years working for WAVE magazine with the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, before returning to her roots as the reporter/photographer for The Sou’wester.
A little bit about Susie:
She learns a lot from the people she interviews;
She believes that community weeklies provide an invaluable record of community events, places and people;
Thanks to all the interviews she's done, she's never met a hobby she won’t try, at least once. She's been thrown out of an airplane while strapped to an instructor, learned to skijor and do it moderately well, and tangled with all sorts of fibre arts. Do not get her started on tie-dyed fingers, lopsided clay pots, the explosion in the basement while brewing ginger beer and other epic failures.
Call her at 204-697-7150 or email her at: email@example.com
After the Rubin Block was removed from the heritage designation list in 2014, according to Cindy Tugwell, the executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, there have only been yearly inspections to ensure the vacant building remains safe and doesn’t pose a fire hazard to neighbouring buildings.
“We’re watching as the building plummets in value, while nothing is being done to ensure the structure isn’t damaged further,” Tugwell said, adding she fears it will soon become a victim of “demolition by neglect.”
She toured the building in 2015 with then-MLA James Allum (Fort Garry-Riverview) and a representative from Composite Holdings and saw that the damage was largely contained to the top floor.
“A good heritage building will stand up to this kind of abuse longer than a modern building, but there are limits as time passes,” Tugwell said, adding there have been buyers ready to purchase the building in the past.
Tugwell said she is researching what other cities in Canada are doing about their vacant heritage buildings, in preparation for a hoped-for meeting with Coun. Sherri Rollins (Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry) along with community residents.
“I’m worried that the building’s owner will get a demolition permit from the city, without us noticing that, and then there being no process for intervention,” Tugwell said, adding one of her first fights to save a heritage apartment was 20 years ago when Heritage Winnipeg tried to save the once-luxurious Chelsea Court apartments on Assiniboine Avenue from demolition. The buildings were also owned by Composite Holdings Ltd., she said.
“That plot of land is still sitting vacant,” she said. “I’m hoping Sherri will become a champion to change the bylaw around derelict buildings. I’m hoping we can have a conversation.”