Friday, 11 August 2017

Priceless Heritage on the Crescent

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Urban sprawl is one of the worst plights of the modern city, eating up precious natural habitat and farmland to satisfy the desirers of those who disregard their lifestyle’s impact on the environment. Infill housing would then seem like a welcome solution, providing much needed houses without expanding the city and increasing the efficiency of preexisting infrastructure. But what happens when infill becomes a synonym for demolition? Is anything truly gained when so much of the past is lost? This is the conundrum faced in Winnipeg, where grand repositories of history are staring down the wreaking ball in the name of progress.

Long before Winnipeg became a city, the Indigenous people of the area walked along the southern shores of the Assiniboine River on path that followed the curves of the waterway. That trail became Wellington Crescent, a winding road along the south side of the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg, connecting Assiniboine Park in the west with Osborne Village in the east. The road was named in 1893 after Arthur Wellington Ross, a prominent Winnipeg lawyer and politician, as well as a founding member of the Manitoba Historical Society. As part of the Parish of St. Boniface, the area was originally composed of long, narrow river lots. Over time, it was transformed into a picturesque tree lined street with many grand old houses that once sheltered prominent figures in Winnipeg’s history.

Wellington Crescent was named after Arthur Wellington Ross, an important figure in Winnipeg's History.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society
By the 1900s, Wellington Crescent was already becoming a prestigious place to live. James Richardson, a giant in the Canadian grain industry, and his family moved there in 1889. St. Mary’s Academy opened their doors on the street in 1903, while Elisha F. Hutching of the Great West Saddlery Company took up residence in 1906. Real estate mogul Mark Fortune moved to the crescent in 1911, but his stay was short lived as he died in the sinking of the Titanic the next year. Former Winnipeg Mayor and hardware merchant James Henry Ashdown also built a mansion there, moving in with his family in 1913.

Elisha F. Hutching's house at 424 Wellington Crescent is one of the many mansions built on the street during the early 20th century.
Source: City of Winnipeg
Over 15 years after the official naming of Wellington Crescent, in June of 1909, the 51 year old James T. Gordon purchased the lot at 514 Wellington Crescent. Gordon was a businessman from Ontario who started out working in the lumber industry. In 1882 he moved to Manitou, Manitoba, starting his own lumber business. Gordon eventually traded lumber for cattle, becoming the largest cattle exporter in Canada in the 1880s with then business partner Robert Ironside. After merging with W. H. Fares and centralizing their business in Winnipeg, Gordon became an MLA (1903-1910) and was active in various other businesses.

James T. Gordon built the house at 514 Wellington Crescent for him and his family in 1909.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and Representative Man of Manitoba, 1902
Gordon’s success in business allowed him to make plans to build a $40,000 home for his himself, his wife Mearle Baldwin of Ontario and their two sons. He hired architect Colin Campbell Chisholm to design the house. Chisholm was a Winnipeg born architect that followed in his father’s footsteps, apprenticing at the family firm to learn the his craft. By 1909, Chishom had become a full partner in his father’s firm, James Chisbolm & Son, and was ready to contribute to the growing list of Winnipeg homes it had designed.

Chishom designed Gordon’s house in the Georgian style. Typical of this style, there is a pleasing symmetry to the house, with matching chimneys on each end of the building. The symmetric continues with wings extending out of both sides of the main block of the house, the enclosed porch on the south side being balanced by the carport on the north side. Both these wings feature columns, adding a more classical detail to the Georgian house. Although the axial symmetry creates a sense of grandeur, it often decreases the functionality of the interior layout of the house.

Colin Campbell Chisholm designed the Gordon House at 514 Wellington Crescent in the Georgian style, with a symmetrical facade.
Source: Save 514 Wellington!
The main part of the house is a rectangular block two and a half stories tall, crowned by multiple dormers on a hip roof with a wide eaves and dentil cornicing. The façade is a smooth red-brown brick with a brick quoin detail on the corners. The second floor windows are capped with plain stone lintels, and supported by matching stone trim on the sides. On the first floor, the same light stone is used for keystone decorations over the windows. The windows themselves are sash style but relatively plain, a departure from the multiple pane windows, a characteristic of Georgian buildings (such as nine over nine). The entrance to the house is the centerpiece, as expected in the Georgian style. A door and set of windows on the second floor with a light stone pediment surround sit above an elegant portico, framed by classical columns. Although pilasters often frame the entrance to Georgian buildings, the portico with full columns would seem to be a nod to a more classical style of architecture, making for a more dramatic entrance to the house.

A detailed wrought-iron fence surrounds the house at 514 Wellington Crescent, enclosing a about 0.6 acres of beautifully landscaped yard.
Source: Save 514 Wellington!
The house covers 8,185 square feet with a total of 16 rooms and six bathrooms. In addition to eight bedrooms, the house was also equipped with a ballroom and servant’s quarters. Mahogany is feature extensively throughout the house, as both trim and paneling, with the walls of the foyer being clad exclusively in the material. A large central staircase leads up from the foyer, pausing at a landing and doing a 180 degree turn before arriving at the second floor. A stained glass window dominates the mid staircase landing, with a coat of arms and monographed panel that are likely associated with Gordon. No expense was spared when building the house, with plaster molding, coffered ceilings, stained glass windows, large fireplaces, built in furnishings, Greek key details in the hardwood floors and a grand 24 candle chandelier in the dining room that still hangs there today.

The mahogany clade foyer of 514 Wellington Crescent.
Source: webview360 and G. Williams
The grand dining room with its 24 candle chandelier in 514 Wellington Crescent.
Source: Save 514 Wellington!
Gordon and lived with his family in the stately mansion until he passed away at home in 1919. At this time, Gordon’s son, C. E. Gordon moved back to Winnipeg to live with his mother in the house. In 1921 the house was sold to Winnipegger William Richard Bawlf, a wealthy grain merchant that worked for his father’s company. By the time Bawlf moved into 514 Wellington Crescent with his wife and four children, he has amassed a long list of accomplishments, including being president of the Winnipeg Grain Exchange.

In 1936 the house was sold to Victor Sifton, who moved in with his wife and three children. Sifton was a decorated veteran of the First World War, who the year before had become the general manager of the Winnipeg Free Press, his father’s newspaper. During the Second World War, Sifton was an executive assistant to J. L. Ralston, the Minister of Defense, a position that resulted in him being named a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Sifton continued to grow his media empire, became president of the Canadian Press (1948-1950), Chancellor of the University of Manitoba (1952-1959) and hosted famous guests in the house such as Lady Byne (wife of former Governor General Lord Byne) and Sumner Wells (American diplomat) in the house. Sifton eventually passed away in 1961 the house at 514 Wellington Crescent was sold once again.

Douglas Everett purchased the house next, with his wife and six children becoming the final family to live at 514 Wellington Crescent. Everett had become vice president of his father’s company, Dominion Motors, in 1953 and added DOMO gas to the corporation’s holdings around 1965. Starting with one gas bar in Winnipeg, DOMO gas had expanded all the way to the west coast of Canada by the mid 1970s. During the 1950s, Everett became involved with the Liberal Party of Canada and at 39 was the youngest person ever appointed to the Red Chamber, becoming Senator Everett courtesy of then Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Everett parted ways with the Liberals in 1994 but returned to public life in the 2000s as a philanthropist, donating millions of dollars to local causes. By 2015 Everett had been a widower for five years and finally put the house up for sale, selling it to Jeff Thompson, CEO of Leader Equity Partners, in 2016 for $1.25 million.

The front of 514 Wellington Crescent looks out over Munson Park, the former home of James A. Richardson, who donated the land to the city in 1976 to be used as a public park.
Source: Save 514 Wellington!
Although Everett had meticulously maintained the house, Thompson was quoted by the Winnipeg Free Press as saying “this house is at the end of is cycle,” and that it was not financially viable as a single family home or converted into condominium units. Thompson plans to demolish the house and build a six unit, 24,000 square foot condominium building. Six families, including Thompson’s, are involved with the redevelopment and all plan on it being their residence. A concerted effort is being made to work with the community and ensure the new building fits in with its historic surroundings. Being that the house is not protected by heritage status, there is nothing preventing the owner from going forward with this plan, other than rezoning.

The surrounding community and Heritage Winnipeg is adamantly opposed to the demolition of 514 Wellington Crescent. While some want it to remain a single family home like the surrounding houses, others are open to it being converted into condominium units. Regardless, the community does not want the house demolished and would like to see it sold to someone who values its heritage and will restore it. In an effort to halt the redevelopment, the community started an online petition in September 2016 asking the city not to re-zone the property or allow demolition. Thus far over 4000 signatures have been collected. Heritage Winnipeg has also become involved, hosting a fundraising event at 755 Wellington Crescent in 2016 to raise awareness and funds to preserve Winnipeg’s built heritage.

As of August 2017, the owner of 514 Wellington has submitted no rezoning applications with the city and the house stands vacant, slowly decaying. The controversy over the fate of the house brings up an important question, is progress possible without destroying the past? Infill housing is no doubt a far more sustainable form of development than urban sprawl, but is anything really gained when an older building with a huge amount of embodied energy has to be demolished first? And what of the history it holds and the sense of place it creates? Demolition would seem to be the easy solution used by those unwilling to find more creative means to integrate heritage buildings into modern cities. It creates huge amounts of waste, will require more energy and materials to rebuild, and the new building will never be built to the same standards as the old. We live in a world of dwindling resources and growing demands- hardly a time to be casting perfectly good homes to the wayside. 

Careful consideration needs to be taken reflecting on what the current and future impacts of any actions will be. In the mean time, letting the grand old house at 514 Wellington Crescent be neglected and allowed to deteriorate is a disgrace to its rich history and contributions to the crescent and the city throughout the last 108 years.

The storied house at 514 Wellington Crescent sits quietly decaying while its fate hangs in the balance between preserving heritage and facilitating progress.
Source: Save 514 Wellington!




Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800 – 1950

City of Winnipeg

CTV News Winnipeg

Heritage Open Days

Manitoba Historical Society

Save 514 Wellington!


Wentworth Studio

West End Dumplings

Winnipeg Free Press

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Confederation Life Building – An Historic Skyscraper Soaring Into the 21st Century

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

The Confederation Life Building captures the history of Winnipeg, a once flourishing young city that struggled through its middle age and is blossoming once again. It is only fitting that an elegant, no-expenses-spared Chicago School style building would rise in the Chicago of the north, at a time when anything seemed possible. The then cutting edge technology resulted in a building that stood the test of time, ready to rise again as a gleaming monument to Winnipeg’s resiliency.

In 1868, the Canadian government passed the first insurance law in the country. The law required that companies maintained assets in Canada to cover their liabilities, which some British and American companies operating in the country did not want to pursue. Their departure from Canada created opportunities for Canadian insurance companies to step in and meet the needs of the growing country. John Kay Macdonald, a 32 year old English immigrant, had a background in finance and strongly felt that insurance provided an important social safety net for society. In 1869, Macdonald and several other important businessmen, including Sir Francis Hincks, Lieutenant Governor William Pearce Howland and Senator William McMaster, came together to form the Dominion Life Association, a new insurance company.

The Toronto based company changed its name to the Confederation Life Association in March of 1871 during the process of incorporation and officially began business that same year in November. Macdonald was initially overwhelmed by his responsibilities as manager of the new company, resigning from the position although remaining very much involved. After several years, he returned as manager in 1874, and helping to build and expand the company. The expansion of the Confederation Life Association included commencing operations in Winnipeg in 1879.

An advertisement for the Confederation Life Association in 1898.
Source: Internet Archive and The Canadian Men and Women of the Time: A Handbook of Canadian Biography
The Confederation Life Association originally moved into the Biggs Block in Winnipeg, located on the east side of Main Street, about midway between Market Avenue and Bannatyne Avenue. The three story brick building was located on the northern end of Bankers’ Row, a collection of magnificent bank buildings that where erected to meet the needs of our thriving prairie city. By 1911 the building was no longer big enough to accommodate the flourishing company. Under the direction of manager Daniel McDonald, the Confederation Life Company set about building a spectacular, modern skyscraper.

The west side of Main Street, part of Bankers' Row, in Winnipeg in 1907.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press and Archives of Manitoba
The new Confederation Life Building in Winnipeg was built at 457 Main Street for approximately $600,000, in the same location as the Biggs Block, which was demolished. The 100 foot long font section along Main Street is ten stories tall while the northern wing extending eastward from the back of the building is eleven stories. It was large enough to accommodate both the Confederation Life offices and those of several other prominent professional and financial firms with storefront space on the ground floor. Construction by the Carter-Halls-Aldinger Company of Winnipeg started in 1911, with the design by architect James Wilson Gray. Gray was a successful Scottish architect who worked in Toronto, designing many buildings there before undertaking what would become his most significant project, the Winnipeg Confederation Life Building, which officially opened in 1912.

The Confederation Life Building under construction in 1912.
Source: Archives of Maniotba
The newly opened Confederation Life Building, circa 1912.
Source: Archives of Manitoba
Gray designed the Confederation Life Building to follow the curve of Main Street, creating an elegant sweeping façade that stood in bold contrast to the other one dimensional, linear buildings that surrounded it. It was designed in the Renaissance Revival style, characterized by its symmetrical façade, distinct horizontal belts dividing the three different façade styles and the large, elaborate modillions crowned by a wide, imposing cornice fanning out above the sidewalk. The building also follows the principles of Louis Sullivan of the First Chicago School, a style of architecture that embraced the new steel frame technology used to build skyscrapers. Walls freed from carrying a load were infused with plentiful windows while the façade remained relatively plain, simply celebrating the pattern created by the windows in the innovative structure. The use of steel also accommodated curves, which was used to the fullest advantage in the creating the curved façade. Six inch white terra cotta was used to clade the façade with the base featuring grey, polished granite. The other sides of the building were unremarkable, featuring beige brick and varying windows.

The Reliance Building in Chicago, built in 1895, exemplifies the First Chicago School much like the Confederation Life Building and also has a white terra cotta facade.
Source: Chicago Architecture Foundation
James Wilson Gray designed the Confederation Life Building in the Renaissance Revival and First Chicago School style with a curved facade to follow the bow in the street.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
The namesake insurance company owned the Confederation Life Building for nearly 50 years, a period during which it enjoyed good maintenance and healthy occupancy. Some renovations took place during 1939-40, but there were no major modifications. In 1960, Confederation Life Assurance built new facilities and subsequently sold their 1912 building. Winnipeg was no longer a flourishing city and the glory of Bankers’ Row was becoming a faded memory. Parks Canada noted the significance of the building in 1976, putting a plaque denoting it as “a building of national architectural importance.” The shinny new plaque did little to improve the fate of the building. Tenancy plummeted and by 1977 the building was vacant and neglected. Pigeons moved in and the heat was turned off, further hastening the degradation of the building. The City of Winnipeg also recognized the significance of the building, putting it on the list of historical resources in 1980 to protect it from demolition, but doing nothing to address the overall neglect.

The Confederation Life Building decorated for a royal visit during its heyday.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
Time passed but Parks Canada did not forget about the Confederation Life Building. In 1983, with the support of the heritage community, the federal government leased over half the space in the building, planning on moving 250 personnel into the bottom six floors. Unfortunately, the long period of vacancy had cause significant deterioration inside the building aided by vandals and pigeons. Major renovations were required for the building to be habitable again. The building owner planned to invest $2.5 million into renovations, while Parks Canada committed $225,000 to improvements.

The Confederation Life Building remained structurally sound throughout its history, likely due to the 55 foot caissons sitting on bedrock that supported it and the solid steel and concrete construction. But bringing the building up to current codes while maintaining and restoring all the heritage features proved to be too costly. Major features such as the three bay open cage elevator system made of copper plated steel would have been very costly to repair and unable to meet current codes. Consequently, it was decided to focus on restoring only the areas viewed by the public, the façade and the foyer, with Parks Canada doing some additional “period style” renovations. Many of the irreplaceable heritage features of the building were therefore lost.

The facade and commanding cornice of the Confederation Life Building are the only specific parts of the building protected by the City of Winnipeg heritage designation, which also prevents demolishion.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
The building owner hired architects Stan Osaka and Lorne Beally while Parks Canada Restoration Section drew up their own plans. On the outside, the white terra cotta façade was cleaned and restored. In the main floor of the building, the woodwork, marble wainscoting and ceiling the foyer were restored along with the pink marble terrazzo floor, main staircase and plaster (egg and dart, loin’s tongue, and grape and vine patterns). The first floor restoration also included the two storefront offices.

The facade of the Confederation Life Building underwent a major transformation when it was cleaned during the 1983-84 renovations.
Source: University of Manitoba
Beyond the first floor, oak woodwork, frosted glass doors, maple flooring and some hardware was salvaged from upper floors and installed in new locations. Two brass and milk glass light fixtures that remained were replated and rewired. On the fourth floor, the woodwork and oak casing was reinstalled in the director’s suit and boardroom, and the rooms furnished with some period pieces.

In addition to the restorations, a new sprinkler system was installed as well as a new heating and cooling system. New elevators replaced the originals and new sealed double pane windows replaced the double hung sash windows to increase energy efficiency. Additional washrooms were built as the entire building only had two such facilities.

The original double front doors of the Confederation Life Building were removed at some point in its history but later replaced with new ones inspired by the building's original plans.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
After the extensive renovations, Parks Canada moved into the Confederation Life Building on December 1, 1984, marking the start of a new era for the building. The heritage movement was gaining popularity and efforts were being made to breathe life back into downtown Winnipeg. After occupying the building, tenants spent around $1.5 on renovations over the next six years. In 1996-97 another $1.4 million was spent on renovations. People were moving back into the downtown and the nearby Exchange District was coming back to life, with it being giving a national heritage designation. In 2007 a mural by Bert Monterna was painted high up on the north side of the building titled “Women for Peace and Environment,” a further sign of the revitalization of the area.

The 2007 mural on the Confederation Life Building by Bert Monterna, titled "Women for Peace and Environment," painted high on the north wall.
Source: Murals of Winnipeg
Today government offices still occupy the Confederation Life building. The building is currently undergoing restoration work on the façade once again, helping ensure the grand building will stand proudly on Main Street for another 100 years. It is a prime example of how heritage buildings can be successfully repurposed, renewing the city and honouring our built heritage without any demolition taking place. The building creates a wonderful sense of place, acting as a gateway as you enter Winnipeg’s downtown from north Main Street. It also retains all the embodied energy spent to build and maintain it throughout the years while being a functional modern office space. The Confederation Life Building is a true built heritage success story to literally look up to!

The facade of the Confederation Life Building is currently being worked on, as seen here in August 2017.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
The Confederation Life Building is a shinning example of how heritage buildings can be a functioning modern facility.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and Gordon Goldsborough


Archives of Manitoba

Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada

Buffalo as an Architectural Museum

Canada’s Historic Places

Chicago Architecture Foundation

City of Winnipeg

Dictionary of Canadian Bibliography

Encyclopedia of Chicago

Heritage Winnipeg
Resource Centre

Historica Canada

Internet Archive

Manitoba Historical Society

Murals of Winnipeg

University of Manitoba

Wikimedia Commons,_457_Main_Street,_Winnipeg_Manitoba_Canada.JPG

Winnipeg Architecture Foundation

Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg Real Estate News
“Building gets on lease on life” by Kip Park, September 30, 1983, page 3