Friday, 28 July 2017

The St. Regis Hotel – Paradise Lost to a Parkade

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

The drive for progress in Winnipeg is dealing a cruel and ironic hand to the St. Regis Hotel. The hotel bears the name of the patron satin of lace makers, who was renowned for providing for the poor, helping them become self-sufficient and regain their dignity. The historic hotel contains a similar potential, to provide shelter and break the cycle of poverty for those most in need. Instead the hotel seems doomed to meet a destructive end, with Heritage Winnipeg giving one final prayer that last minute funding will be found in time to save at least some of its finest heritage features.

In 1882, Winnipeg was the place to be in Canada. The meeting point of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers had flourished into a robust young city, with a booming real estate market. People and money seemed to flow in endlessly and the future could not have looked brighter. Seizing the opportunity to partake in the prosperity, Morton Keachie opened the Palace Livery and Boarding Stables on Smith Street, less then a block south of Portage Avenue. With a somewhat opulent façade and over 100 stalls, the Palace Stables was the premier address for livery companies. Its grandeur represented the confidence of the fledgling city and far outshone the two other stables on the block, the Fleetwood and that of Michael Hanlon.

The east side of Smith Street was home to three livery stables, including that of Michael Hanlon.
Source: Winnipeg Cab History and Archives of Maniotba
But the glory days of the livery stable in Winnipeg were soon to pass. The first electric streetcar had already taken to Winnipeg roads in 1891 and ten years later in 1901, the first private automobile arrived. Horses were being replaced with horsepower and the real estate market was in decline. Perhaps recognizing the end of an era, Michael Hanlon sold his livery stables to Charles McCarrey and John Lee, partially for a profit and partially for shares in their new development.

The Rookery Block was built on the ground where Hanlon’s stables once stood, opening in 1910 at 285 Smith Street. It was a two story mixed use building designed by William Wallace Blair with commercial space on the first floor and residential space on the second floor. Blair was an Irish architect who worked in Winnipeg for less then ten years, but left a considerable mark on the city designing building such as the Roslyn Court Apartments (40 Osborne Street), the Fortune House (393 Wellington Crescent) and the Great West Saddlery Building (113 Market Avenue).

The Roslyn Court Apartments at 40 Osborne Street, designed by W. W. Blair.
Source: M. Peterson and the City of Winnipeg
The Fortune House at 393 Wellington Crescent, designed by W. W. Blair.
Source: Gordon Goldsborough and the Manitoba Historical Society
The Great West Saddlery Building at 113 Market Avenue, designed by W. W. Blair.
Source: Google Maps
The Rookery Block was short lived, with tenants seemingly being asked to move out no sooner than they had moved in. The block was being redeveloped, with the building being expanded upwards to a height of four stories. Ontario born architect Hugh Gordon Holman was hired to design the $100,000 redevelopment of the building. The building was resurrected as the St. Regis Hotel, outfitted with all the latest comforts, including electricity and en suites. The hotel was also designed to cater to travelling salespeople, renting out sample rooms where perspective buyers could view merchandise.

An undated postcard looking north on Smith Street towards Portage Avenue, with the St. Regis Hotel visible in the right side of the foreground.
Source: Jon Feir
A particularly popular feature of the St Regis Hotel were its restaurants. Originally there were four dining options, the Grill Room, a café, a coffee shop and a lounge. Most notable was the Grill Room, with a 130 seat capacity and a French trained chef overseeing the kitchen. Both the Grill Room and the café were designed in the Moorish style, popularized in Spain and where it was used from the 13th to the 16th century. Arches, elaborate geometric decoration and nature motifs typify the style that later experienced a revival in both Europe and North America.

The dining establishments of the St. Regis Hotel were designed with elements of the Moorish style, as seen in the arched doorways, geometric ceiling design and tree imagery.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
In 1931, all four dining spaces of the St. Regis Hotel underwent extensive renovations, reopening as McLeod’s Restaurants, which only lasted a mere two years. By the late 1940s renovations at the hotel were underway again, replacing some dining space with commercial space. The two remaining restaurants were the Wedgwood Restaurant and the Oak Room, aptly renamed for its abundant oak finishes. Renovations at the hotel continued to take place in 1956-57 and 1969-72, each time changing the restaurants but not diminishing their popularity as a place for Winnipeggers to gather and celebrate success and significant life events.

A 1950s postcard of the St. Regis Hotel shows much of the original ornamentation had been removed from the facade.
Source: Winnipeg Downtown Places
A 1970s postcard of the St. Regis Hotel is nearly unrecognizable after undergoing extensive renovations that created a modernist facade, which was a complete departure from the original.
Source: Winnipeg Downtown Places
The generous using of oak wainscoting and trim characterize the Oak Room in the St. Regis Hotel, seen here in 2017.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
By the 1970s, the opening of new, high-rise chain hotels in downtown Winnipeg marked the start of a slow decline for the St. Regis. The downward spiral picked up speed in as crime associated with the hotel in the 1990s and onward drove more potential patrons away. Drunkenness became commonplace in the area with the hotel’s vendor, bar and VLTs only exasperating many ongoing and unaddressed social problems. The building began to fall into disrepair as ownership prioritized profits over maintenance, with the city doing little to rectify the situation. The once grand hotel had become a festering eyesore, a concentration of the many ills that plagued downtown Winnipeg and.

The mural painted on the south wall of the St. Regis Hotel by Charlie Johnston is a reminder of the lustrous early days hotel in 1911.
Sources: Murals of Winnipeg
The fate of the St. Regis Hotel finally began to change in 2013, when CentreVenture, the city’s arms-length development agency, purchased it. To combat drunkenness in the area, the bar, vendor and VLTs were immediately closed while the hotel remained open, accommodating many northern Manitoba residences in town for medical reasons. The purchase was part of a larger initiative to continue to revitalize downtown Winnipeg, making it a safer, more inviting place to visit. CentreVenture had no immediate plans for the building, suggesting that it might remain a hotel, become student or affordable housing or possibly demolished. A brighter future suddenly seemed possible for the aged hotel.

After investing $7.7 million in the St. Regis, CentreVenture announced in May of 2015 that it had sold the hotel to the Ontario based Fortress Real Developments for $4 million. CentreVenture cited the sizeable financial loss as a “community investment” that would result in the improvement of Winnipeg’s downtown. Fortress plans to demolish the hotel and replace it with a 625 stall parkade featuring 10,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. The parkade will compliment the 44 story, 380 unit residential and office tower being built by Fortress on the adjacent property called SkyCity.

The sale of the St. Regis Hotel has raised many eyebrows for a variety of reasons. It seems counterintuitive to choose Fortress, a company from outside Manitoba, with a long record of projects that fail to even break ground, to be a rejuvenating force in Winnipeg. Unfortunately, the redevelopment of the St. Regis seemed to be following Fortress’ previous pattern of inactivity, with the company missing its April 30, 2017 deadline for starting construction. CentreVenture choose to extend the deadline by a year, asserting that development is complicated and they can always repossess the building if no construction takes place. The city has also stated that they will not allow demolition of the hotel until Fortress can prove that their finances are in order.

The St. Regis hotel, seen here in April 2017, is to be demolished and replaced with a parkade featuring ground floor retail space.
Source: George Penner and the Manitoba Historical Society 
Beyond the questionable choice of developers, the building of a parkade and commercial complex also seem in opposition to sound city planning. Vibrant cities have lively streetscapes filled with mixed use buildings and cater to pedestrian needs. Winnipeg already has approximately 39,000 parking spots and pedestrians are unable to cross its most celebrated intersection, Portage Avenue and Main Street. Clearly, the development community is not interested in building a walkable city and has little regard for the environmental impact of demolishing buildings and encouraging the use of private vehicles.

There is also the social impact of demolishing the St. Regis to consider. Unfortunately, run down hotels in Winnipeg far to often become the last affordable housing option for those with insufficient incomes and a lack of health care and social support. Functioning more as a rooming house then hotel, they are the final step before people end up living on the streets. Given the incident of homelessness in Winnipeg, with approximately 350 people living on the streets, 1,900 in short term shelters and 135,000 at risk of becoming homeless, converting the hotel into affordable housing would seem like a logical solution.

Finally, there is the heritage value of the building. At well over 100 years old, the St. Regis has stood the test of time, even in the face of neglect. The history and memories contained within its walls are irreplaceable, as well the quality and materials with which it was built. Behind the modern façade hides heritage gems, with parts of the interior of the building, such as the Oak Room, remaining relatively unchanged since the hotel first opened. But the building has been afforded no protection with a heritage designation. Heritage Winnipeg is working with Fortress and their new partner, Edenshaw Developments of Ontario, to try and preserve one of the most valuable heritage elements, the Oak Room, but time is very quickly running out. The hope is that the architectural salvage can be repurposed in a different heritage building in the city. But carefully dismantling a room and potentially having to store it is exceedingly expensive, a cost that a non-profit such as Heritage Winnipeg has no way of covering. Heritage Winnipeg is actively seeking sources of both private and public funding and in kind labour to preserve this invaluable part of Winnipeg’s history, before the wrecking ball destroys it forever.

The interior of the Oak Room in the St. Regis Hotel.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg


SOURCES

Buffalo as an Architectural Museum
www.buffaloah.com/a/archsty/moor/moor.html

CBC News
www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/centreventure-buys-downtown-winnipeg-hotel-1.1283680
www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/stregis-hotel-demolition-1.4114742
www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/new-st-regis-hotel-developer-has-yet-to-erect-single-building-1.3097686
www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/st-regis-demolition-needs-money-proof-1.4135206
www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/st-regis-oak-room-1.4157824

City of Winnipeg
www.winnipeg.ca/ppd/historic/pdf-consv/Osborne%2040-long.pdf

Downtown Winnipeg BIZ
downtownwinnipegbiz.com/getting-around/parking/

Google Maps
www.google.ca/maps/place/113+Market+Ave,+Winnipeg,+MB+R3B+0P5/@49.8981828,-97.1348583,3a,103.1y,26.35h,104.71t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s5SOLRp99SpqaT8mKrJsN5g!2e0!4m2!3m1!1s0x52ea714314957e01:0x86a5e4518e9ecff0

Jon Feir
www.flickr.com/photos/108800897@N06/26823932141/in/photolist-Caozj-VRAcSx-VZzU9U-VRAb1X-UPxe3M-VsX4f7-cXtHjh-dmMCGN-kvLSKs-V5mgnF-bq9LwE-dMc2hT-6oUezL-V5mhkH-8MF1jC-TQMQJa-Kx3oV-UuetsL-dMc2mg-7Hs2PZ-fn4q4Y-5Wmip9-dMhAEA-2QKMZB-bsuQRq-W478g6-VNmuMm-VRAazg-UPx3RV-VRA9Wc-VZzM9S-VZzRwj-VRA3ix-VNmsbE-VRBvyH-VsYuLW-VRBuWF-VRBSTB-5ujDYn-Uueuiy-6kFskJ-dh7Lf-vgmKo7-J5ysiY-7D2njJ-7hcaUS-GSkEuD-MDbgof

Manitoba Historical Society
www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/sites/fortunehouse.shtml
www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/transactions/3/transportation.shtml
www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/people/holman_hg.shtml

Metro News
www.metronews.ca/news/winnipeg/2015/05/27/skycity-developers-pick-up-st-regis-hotel.html

Murals of Winnipeg
themuralsofwinnipeg.com/Mpages/SingleMuralPage.php?action=gotomural&muralid=526

Regis University
www.regis.edu/About-Regis-University/History-and-Mission/About-St-John-Francis-Regis.aspx

Siloam Mission
www.siloam.ca/about/homelessness-faq/

University of Winnipeg
www.uwinnipeg.ca/index/news-homeless-facts

Winnipeg Cab History
www.taxi-library.org/winnipeg-history/wc12.htm

Winnipeg Downtown Places
winnipegdowntownplaces.blogspot.ca/2012/11/285-smith-street-st-regis-hotel-updated.html

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Rubin Block - HERITAGE AT RISK

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Sitting abandoned at the corner of Morley Avenue and Osborne Street in Winnipeg is the Rubin Block. The depressing boarded up façade gives few hints of the rich period during which it was built, when Winnipeg was a booming modern city, drawing in people from across the globe. But the Rubin Block’s early glory was short lived. Winnipeg fell into a depression and the building seem unable to recover. It passed through time relatively undocumented, only making the news when disaster struck it. Today it is being brought to the forefront of the public’s attention once again. An effort is being made by Heritage Winnipeg and community leaders to revive the failing building and give it the opportunity to fulfill its true potential as a valuable part of the streetscape and community.

When Winnipeg was incorporated as a city in 1873, it was a small blip on the map of Canada, a "collection of shacks” (Historica Canada) with the population of only 3700 a year later. It was not until the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1885 that wealth flooded into our prairie city. Advantageously located half way between the east and west coasts of Canada, Winnipeg became the financial hub of the west, buoyed by a steady stream of immigrants, capital and a lucrative wheat market.

The east side of Main Street, just north of Portage Avenue in 1873, the year Winnipeg was incorporated.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg-Streets-Main 1837 Collection, item 3, negative ID ON98
By 1914, the population of Winnipeg had exploded to over 200,000. Unfortunately, this marked a peak in Winnipeg’s prosperity, which was followed by a long period of recession and depression. The Panama Canal opened in August 1914, making it more affordable for western provinces to ship their products to the west coast, instead of passing through Winnipeg on their way to the east coast. That very same month, the First World War started in Europe, further contributing to the city’s decline. It would be decades before Winnipeg saw any sign of recovery.

For the Merchants’ Bank of Canada, their building of a new branch in Winnipeg occurred just prior to the city’s depression. Established in 1861 in Quebec, the chartered bank first expanded outside of their home province in 1867. The bank was well established in Winnipeg by 1902, opening an outstanding seven story steel framed building located on east Main Street, on a section known as Bankers’ Row. It was the first steel frame building erected in Winnipeg and represented the wealth and affluence that attracted numerous banking institutions to the city.

The Merchant's Bank of Canada, located at the famous intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street in Winnipeg (where the Richardson Building stands today), was designed by architecture firm Taylor & Gordon and demolished in the early 1960s.
Source: Archiseek
Building on its success, the Merchant’s Bank of Canada continued to expand in Winnipeg, including adding a branch at 270 Morley Avenue, at the intersection with Osborne Street. The branch was located inside of the Rubin Block, a stately three story building that constructed and opened in 1914.

The Osborne Street facade of the Rubin Block in August 2012.
Source: Bryan Scott
Max Zev Blankstein, a prominent Winnipeg architect, designed the Rubin Block. Blankstein is noted as one of the first registered Jewish architects in Canada and was the creative force behind many Winnipeg buildings of the period, including the historic Uptown Theatre at 394 Academy Road (currently Academy Lanes). The design of the Rubin Block is similar to Blankstein’s other work from the era, such as the Steiman Block (Merchant’s Hotel) at 541 Selkirk Avenue and the Jessie Block at 626 Jessie Avenue, both in Winnipeg. All of these low rise buildings feature dark red-brown brick façades, light stone accents, bold dentil cornicing and a regular window pattern.

The Steiman Block (Merchant's Hotel) at 541 Selkirk Avenue was designed by Max Zev Blankstein in 1913. To learn more about the Merchant's Hotel, visit Heritage Winnipeg's blog, The Merchant's Hotel - A Selkirk Avenue Landmark.
Source: Now Neighbourhoods of Winnipeg
The Jessie Block at 626 Jessie Avenue was designed by Max Zev Blankstein in 1914.
Source: Walk Score
Standing three stories tall, the Rubin Block covers approximately 600 square meters, with its perfect rectangular shape being broken by inset sections on the north and south sides. The building originally contained three businesses and 21 apartments. Although the address of the Rubin Block is 270 Morley Avenue, the most prominent façade of the building, which is roughly 17 meters long, faces Osborne Street. This façade features two entrances, both surrounded by elegant light stone accents. Carved into the stone above the northern entrance is “MERCHANTS BANK OF CANADA” while above the southern entrance is “ENTRANCE TO APARTMENTS”. As to what exactly existed between the two entrances can only be speculated about, as modern renovations have obliterated whatever originally existed. The two floors above the entrance on the Osborne Street façade each contain five identically spaced windows. This façade is finally crowned with a robust dentil cornice and a central stone sign proudly announcing the name of the building.

The dentil cornice detail and stone sign at the top edge of the Osborne Street facade of the Rubin Block.
Source: Google Maps
The north façade of the Rubin Block, facing Morley Avenue, is dressed in a similar manner to the Osborn Street façade, with red-brown brick, light stone accents and dentil cornicing. Set slightly off center on this side of the building is an inset entrance that extends all the way up the three stories of the building. High above this entrance is a sign announcing the Morley Apartments, although it is hardly noticeable due to its high, set back location. Regularly spaced windows are identical on all three levels of this façade, with the exception being the ground floor windows nearest Osborne Street. These three windows vary slightly in appearance to accommodate the commercial space in this section of the building. The other point of interest is the five basement level window openings visible on the east end of this façade, suggesting at least part of the building sits above a basement. Evidence in a 2011 photo of this façade also suggests that the building may have originally had inset balconies, similar to those found in the Jessie Block.

The three story inset entrance to the Morley Apartments of the Rubin Block in 2011, with the suggestion of inset balconies in the top left corner.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press
The inset balconies of the Jessie Block, as seen from Daly Street.
Source: Google Maps
The south and east facades of the Rubin Block are rather unadorned, lacking the bold dentil cornicing, red-brown brick and stone details. Instead they are covered with a light brick and a collection of windows that are identical on all three floors. What is of interest on these facades is the ghostly impressions of what existed there in the past. The brickwork on the east façade clearly shows that six more windows once existed on this side of the building. The south façade of the building holds more clues, with remnants of past structures still clinging to the building in addition to multiple bricked in windows.

The brickwork on the east facade of the Rubin block shows that six windows have been bricked in during its history.
Source: Google Maps
The top two floors of the south facade of the Rubin Block show ghostly impressions and bricked in windows that suggest a much grander appearance in the past.
Source: Google Maps
The many renovations done to the Rubin Block have not been the only source of altercations to the building in its history. Disaster first occurred in December of 2006, when a fire started in the basement. The resulting damage was estimated to be $2 million, but repairs were made and tenants returned. A second fire occurred in May of 2014. The fire started on the third floor, sending flames shooting out a window and the roof, filling the sky above with thick black smoke. Restorations were begun after the second fire but progressed so slowly that the City of Winnipeg stepped in to board up the vacant building.

The Rubin Block never recovered from the 2014 fire on the third floor.
Source: Metro News
Former tenet of the Rubin Block, MLA James Allum, has become critically concerned that the neglected building will become a “blight on the neighbourhood,” and started a petition to spur the building owner into action. As the building is said to be structurally sound, the disrepair of the building is a disservice to the community and Winnipeg’s built heritage.

Mixed use, low rise buildings, such as the Rubin Block, are key in creating walkable, human scale cities that people are eager to live in. They can be a source of revitalization for a community, requiring less infrastructure and creating numerous beneficial economic spinoffs as investors return and property values rise. Walkable communities are also recognized as increasing the physical health of people who live in them. Another valuable feature of the Rubin Block is its age and distinctive architecture, which stand out in peoples’ memories and hold a piece of their hearts, creating a sense of place. Sense of place in important as it also creates desirable environments that people respect and want to live in, while improving peoples’ mental health. Finally, there is the embodied energy of the building, the energy used to acquire, manufacture and transport building materials, construct the building and maintain it throughout its lifespan. If the Rubin Block were to be lost to demolition through neglect, all of its embodied energy would be discarded and tones of garbage being sent to landfills. It would be a disgrace in a world with limited resources and already suffering from the enduring consequences of climate change.

The Rubin Block after is was boarded up by the City of Winnipeg.
Source: Winnipeg Sun
Since June of 2014, when new heritage bylaws were enacted, the long protected Rubin Block was taken off the City of Winnipeg’s Inventory List. Today the valuable heritage of the Rubin Block is only acknowledged by its placement on the Commemorative List. Although this list recognizes this building as a community resource that should be celebrated, it imposes no restriction on what can be done to the building, including demolition. Currently it is boarded up, unoccupied and on the city’s vacant building list. Heritage Winnipeg will continue to work with the community and their leaders, such as MLA James Allum, hopefully persuading the current owner to either redeveloped or sell the building to someone who recognizes its value and will again make it an integral part of south Osborne Street’s community.

HELP MAKE A DIFFERENCE! 
SIGN THE PETITION TO RESTORE THE RUBIN BLOCK AT 


SOURCES

Archeion
www.archeion.ca/merchants-bank-of-canada

Archiseek
archiseek.com/2012/1902-merchants-bank-main-street-winnipeg/
i2.wp.com/archiseek.com/wp-content/gallery/canada-mb-winnipeg-vanished/0078.jpg

Archives of Manitoba
www.virtual.heritagewinnipeg.com/windowPhoto.php?fileNum=%2000-082&tName=main01

Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950
dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1153

Bryan Scott
www.flickr.com/photos/bryanscott/7799095014/

Canadian Architect
www.canadianarchitect.com/asf/perspectives_sustainibility/measures_of_sustainablity/measures_of_sustainablity_embodied.htm

CBC News
www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/3-fires-strike-winnipeg-residences-1.627389

City of Winnipeg
www.winnipegassessment.com/asmtpub/english/propertydetails/CommercialDetails.aspx?RollNumber=12012240000&pgLang=EN&isRealtySearch=true
www.winnipeg.ca/ppd/historic/pdf-Commemorative/Morley270-overview.pdf
www.winnipeg.ca/ppd/historic/CurrentProjects/Historical_Resources_By-law_FAQ.pdf

Google Maps
www.google.ca/maps/@49.8650304,-97.1343851,3a,15y,72.31h,132.37t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sbXgFynPvbvXWbLrJyCEhFQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656
www.google.ca/maps/@49.8713474,-97.1477367,3a,75y,242.94h,103.13t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sUPgB1Y8aq_Zl-l-XHnAN9A!2e0!7i13312!8i6656
www.google.ca/maps/place/270+Morley+Ave,+Winnipeg,+MB+R3L/@49.8652366,-97.133699,3a,66.8y,241.86h,112.37t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s56XspYsGH-UW4KrGmi7ADQ!2e0!4m2!3m1!1s0x52ea76a3e6a3f375:0x9320aba78ed20408
www.google.ca/maps/place/270+Morley+Ave,+Winnipeg,+MB+R3L/@49.8649491,-97.1334681,3a,21.1y,293.85h,100.91t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1szlTPrsMv-zB-kz5d6IqfIA!2e0!4m2!3m1!1s0x52ea76a3e6a3f375:0x9320aba78ed20408

Historica Canada
thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/winnipeg/

Metro News
www.metronews.ca/news/winnipeg/2014/05/21/traffic-blocked-on-south-osborne-street-after-major-apartment-fire-on-morley.html

Now Neighbourhoods of Winnipeg
now.winnipeg.ca/images/william-whyte

The Nature of Cities
www.thenatureofcities.com/2016/05/26/sense-of-place/

The Robinson Library
www.robinsonlibrary.com/america/canada/manitoba/winnipeg.htm

University of Delaware
www.completecommunitiesde.org/planning/landuse/mixed-use-benefits/

Walk Score
www.walkscore.com/score/626-jessie-ave-winnipeg-mb-canada

Winnipeg Free Press
www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/the-panama-canal-and-the-decline-of-winnipeg-272262601.html
store.winnipegfreepress.com/photostore/details/13358/

Winnipeg Sun
www.winnipegsun.com/2017/07/16/mla-launches-online-petition-to-save-103-year-old-building 

Friday, 14 July 2017

The Assiniboine Park Conservatory – From Palm Trees to Diversity

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg.

Tucked behind towering trees in a lush natural setting sits the unassuming building that is the Assiniboine Park Conservatory. Located at 15 Conservatory Drive, the quiet demure of the building conceals over one hundred years of history and a plan to make a quantum leap into the present. Born of the Victorian Era and the City Beautiful movement, the Conservatory was a part of the birth of the City of Winnipeg public parks system. Over the years the Conservatory has gracefully withstood the test of time, providing a year round tropical retreat in the midst of the Canadian prairies. Reaching the end of its functional lifespan, the Conservatory is set to be reborn as a modern center for flora education and awareness, where the cultural heritage of Canada will be proudly displayed for all visitors to see.

During the Victorian Era (1837 to 1901), there was an increased interest in public gardens, as these gardens were seen as a means of improving the lower class and dispersing social unrest. In combination with advances in industry, palm houses became a popular installation in gardens. Palm houses allowed for a controlled environment where plants that could otherwise only be grown in the tropics could survive year round. The palm house at the Belfast Botanical Gardens is one of the earliest examples of such curved glass and cast iron buildings, with construction of the Sir Charles Lanyon designed building beginning in 1839.

Belfast Botanical Gardens Palm House as it stands today.
Source: discovernorthernireland.com
In Winnipeg, efforts to create public green spaces lagged behind European counterparts. The private sector recognized the worth of green space as it increased the value of surrounding real estate. But the prosperous growth of Winnipeg in the 1870s and 1880s made land value rise sharply making the potential profit from selling off green spaces all too tempting. Hence, many of the earliest parks in Winnipeg were lost. By the 1890s, the idea of a public park system for Winnipeg was being discussed. Influenced by the City Beautiful movement, parks were viewed as a solution for many of the social ills that plagued the ever growing crowded, unsanitary and crime-ridden cities of North America. As a result, the Winnipeg Public Parks Board was established in January of 1893.

Although the original mandate of the Winnipeg Public Parks Boards was to build parks in the congested heart of the city, Winnipeggers had many different views of what its role should be. Citizen groups and private business were successful in pressuring the board to fulfill their own agendas, resulting in a variety of green spaces throughout the city. The Park Board itself was heavily influenced by the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, a prominent landscape architect around which the City Beautiful movement revolved. It is conceivable that this influence was central in the creation of Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park.

In 1904 the Park Board purchased 114.6 hectares of land on the south side of the Assiniboine River, far beyond the bounds of the city for the creation of Assiniboine Park. Canada’s first registered landscape architect, Frederick G. Todd, was commissioned to design the park. Todd was a former assistant of Olmsted, and was similarly interested in English garden design and the City Beautiful movement. To execute the design for the new park, the woodlands were levelled, replaced with large meadows, sprawling lawns, winding roads and paths and thousands of new plantings, all intended to mimic the work of nature. Overseeing the construction of the park was the Park’s Board superintendent George Champion, who previously worked at the Royal Gardens at Kew in England, home to an iconic palm house built earlier in 1844.

The Palm House in the Royal Gardens at Kew was the largest ever built when it opened in 1844.
Source: Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew
Assiniboine Park official opened in 1909, although the area had already been in use as a recreational space and building at the site has continued up to the present day. Five years after officially opening, in 1914, the construction of Palm House inside Assiniboine Park was completed. Located midway on the east side of Conservatory Drive, the large Norfolk Island pine that were planted in the Palm House in 1914 still grow inside today.

This 1967 map of Assiniboine Park shows the location of the Conservatory which has remained unchanged throughout its 103 year history.
Source: The History and Development of Assiniboine Park and Zoo in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and Wyman Laliberte
Similar to its European predecessors, the Assiniboine Park Palm House was 6000 square feet capped with a curved glass roof. It was designed by the firm Lord & Burnham, who practiced out of New York State. Costing approximately $40,000, the Palm House had been built in the United States and shipped to Winnipeg in sections where it was then assembled. The interior of the Palm House was a stark departure from the glossy, modern exterior. In keeping with the rest of the park, the interior was intended to replicate nature. Lava rocks were used to build hills to display plants growing at a variety of levels. A winding path led visitors through the collection of non-indigenous plants, conjuring images of a tropical paradise. Due to the park’s rural location when it was built, there was no city water servicing the site. In order to water the many plants in the Palm House year round, a large underground cistern was built. Long since retired from use, the cistern still remains buried at the park today.

The Palm House in Assiniboine Park circa 1924.
Source: Virtual Heritage Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba Archives Souvenirs of Winnipeg's Jubilee 1874-1924 RBR FC 3395.3.S68 Collection, item 181
An undated postcard showing the Palm House in Assiniboine Park.
Source: PastForward and the Rob McInnes Postcard Collection
In 1964 a coffee shop was added to the Palm House, before undergoing extensive changes starting in 1969. A new, bigger Palm House was to be constructed with an additional glass roofed area to be used for rotating flora displays, and increasing the square footage by 8000. To maintain the more than 8000 plants growing in the original Palm House, the new one was built overtop, reaching ten feet higher than it predecessor. Once the new Palm House was finished, the old was removed, allowing all the original lava rock hill and plants to remain unfazed. The glass roof of the new Palm House now reached 42 feet into the sky and provided better light conditions for the plants growing beneath it.

The Assiniboine Park Conservatory as it stands today.
Source: Panoramio and ben policar
The interior of the additional glass roofed area in the Assiniboine Park Conservatory used for rotating flora displays, seen here in summer 2017.
Source: Assiniboine Park Conservancy
Opening in 1970, the newly expanded building, the Conservatory, was designed by Winnipeg firm Pratt Lindgren Snider Tomcej and Associates. Costing $650,00 to build, it was a stylistic departure from its Victorian predecessor. Variegated brown bricks were used to evoke a natural aesthetic on the unadorned façade, which is only broken up by narrow windows. The roofline of the Palm house is decorated with a simple modern take on a cornice. The variegated brown brick continues on the interior walls with the only variation being the pierce-brick lattice pattern used inside the Palm House, designed to be in harmony with the flora overlying over it. The small amount of ceiling space within the Conservatory that is not glass is exposed concrete in a waffle pattern, in line with the modern aesthetic of the building.

The modern cornice decoration along the roofline of the second Palm House.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
The pierce-brick lattice pattern used for the interior walls of the second Palm House.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation 
The exposed concert waffle pattern ceiling inside the Assiniboine Park Conservatory.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
In 2003, a building assessment study of the Conservatory completed by the City of Winnipeg concluded that it needed to be replaced, in particular the greenhouses which were deemed unsafe and closed in 2015. Instead of simply replacing the existing structure, it was decided to move the Conservatory to the southeast corner of the park, at the head of the Formal Garden and transform it into Canada’s Diversity Gardens. This will be the final part of a ten year redevelopment plan for Assiniboine Park which started in 2009. As a result of moving the Conservatory, up to 40 of the large trees growing inside, some over 100 years old, will be cut down. Additionally, much of the plant collection will be changed to better meet the goals of the new facility. The greenhouse and Palm House will be closed and there are no current plans for the portion of the building that will remain. The new Diversity Gardens is expected to take 18 months to plan and then two years to build, hopefully opening in 2019 and costing $30 to $50 million.

The site plan for the new Canada's Diversity Gardens in Assiniboine Park.
Source: Assiniboine Park Conservancy
Canada’s Diversity Gardens will be a 56,000 square foot LEED Gold certified facility with exterior gardens. It will be composed of four areas, The Leaf, The Indigenous Peoples’ Garden, The Cultural Mosaic Gardens and The Grove. The focus will be on the timeless connection between people and flora while exploring the many cultures that have come together to make the Canada we know today. Architect firms Architecture49 and KPMB Architects have been commissioned to carry out the project, along with landscape architect firm HTFC Planning and Design. Lord Cultural Resources was also hired as the interpretation and visitor experience consultants. Together, the intentions are to create a modern conservatory seamlessly integrated into the exterior landscaping that will draw people in, foster a love of botany, and a greater understanding of the environmental issues that impact and connect us all.

A rendering of what The Leaf and surrounding gardens of the new Assiniboine Park Conservatory will look like.
Source: Assiniboine Park Conservancy
A rendering of the Tropical Biome in the The Leaf portion of the forthcoming Assiniboine Park Conservatory.
Source: Assiniboine Park Conservancy 
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT 
CANADA’S DIVERSITY GARDENS, PLEASE VISIT


SOURCES

Architecture49
architecture49.com/en/what-we-do/projects/canadas-diversity-gardens-assiniboine-park-conservatory/

Assiniboine Park Conservancy
www.assiniboinepark.ca/park-landing/home/explore/conservatory
www.assiniboinepark.ca/park-landing/home/support-us/canadas-diversity-gardens
www.assiniboinepark.ca/park-landing/home/support-us/canadas-diversity-gardens/site-plan---canada%27s-diversity-gardens
www.assiniboinepark.ca/park-landing/home/support-us/canadas-diversity-gardens/frequently-asked-questions

Assiniboine Park: Enriching One of Winnipeg’s Signature Destinations

Belfast City Council
www.belfastcity.gov.uk/leisure/parks-openspaces/Park-6614.aspx

Britain Express
www.britainexpress.com/History/gardens_and_gardening.htm

CBC News
www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/assiniboine-park-to-lose-100-year-old-trees-in-conservatory-move-1.2518186

City of Winnipeg Historical Report – Assiniboine Park Pavilion – long
www.winnipeg.ca/ppd/historic/pdf-consv/Pavilion%2055-long.pdf

discovernorthernireland.com
discovernorthernireland.com/Belfast-Botanic-Gardens-and-Palm-House-Belfast-P2787/

Encyclopedia Britannica
https://www.britannica.com/topic/City-Beautiful-movement

Manitoba History: “The Most Lovely and Picturesque City in All of Canada:” The Origins of Winnipeg’s Public Park System
www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/31/winnipegparks.shtml

Panoramio
www.panoramio.com/photo/15020112#

PastForward
pastforward.winnipeg.ca/cdm/compoundobject/collection/robmcinnes/id/2629/rec/8

Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew
www.kew.org/kew-gardens/attractions/palm-house

Toronto Metro
www.metronews.ca/news/winnipeg/2012/12/19/design-team-chosen-for-winnipegs-new-assiniboine-park-conservatory.html

Virtual Heritage Winnipeg
www.virtual.heritagewinnipeg.com/windowPhotoGov.php?fileNum=%2005-209

Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
www.winnipegarchitecture.ca/assiniboine-park/
www.winnipegarchitecture.ca/assiniboine-park-conservatory/

Winnipeg Free Press
www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/Canadas-Diversity-Gardens-329589911.html

Winnipeg Real Estate News
“Assiniboine Park: A Popular Retreat” by Amy Gailis, October 16, 1992, p. 4-5

Winnipeg Sun
www.winnipegsun.com/2015/09/25/next-phase-of-assiniboine-park-development-eyed

Wyman Laliberte
www.flickr.com/photos/manitobamaps/2655127547