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A New Life for the New York Life Insurance Building

Winnipeg is fortunate to be home to a stunning collection of modernist architecture that has survived relatively intact from the mid 1900s. Architects of the time sought to break free from the past and embrace new materials and technology, to create something the world had never seen before. With roots in going back to Chicago in the 1880s, modernism flourished in Winnipeg after WWII when the city was filled with optimism and confidence. The New York Life Insurance Building at 385 St. Mary Avenue was a product of this period, with a sleek, unadorned design making extensive use of curtain walls. An excellent example of the work of local architects, the building is once again being celebrated as an achievement of design, with renovations underway to restore it former modernist glory.

After decades of prosperity around the turn of the 20th century, Winnipeg had fallen into a depression that held fast until the end of WWII. As the war ended, Winnipeg was finally able to move forward again, diversifying its economy and slowly beginning to grow. During this post war period, John Alonzo Russell was appointed to the helm of the University of Manitoba School of Architecture. Russell was more than just an architect; he was deeply involved in the arts, both as a creative and guiding force. It was under his leadership that modernist architecture rose to prominence at the University of Manitoba. Russell felt that architecture should not be a nod to the past but instead a representation of the current period, making use of the latest technologies while remaining “clean and orderly” (Winnipeg Modern, P. 9). Many of the students of the school went on to become giants of Canadian Modernism, spreading the style across the country. Fortunately for Winnipeg, some of these talented young architects stayed in the city, “producing one of the richest stocks of Modernist architecture in Canada.” (Winnipeg Modern, p. 3)

Graduating from the University of Manitoba Architecture School during this period was Allan Waisman and Jack Ross. In 1953 they joined forces to open their own architectural firm in Winnipeg, Waisman & Ross (which would eventually become part of the current Number TEN Architectural Group). Their buildings were “clean lined, [and] classically proportioned,” (Winnipeg Architecture Foundation) focused on the form and materials while lacking ornamentation, similar to the work of American modern architect Mies van der Rohe. The firm quickly achieved success, receiving two honourable mentions from the Massey Medals in Architecture for their work in the mid 1950s. It was during this time that they hired another University of Manitoba graduate, Geoffrey Bargh. Having won a scholarship at school for the highest standing in architectural design, the relatively inexperienced Bargh was tasked with designing a new building commissioned by Harvard Investments Limited, a development company.

Designed by Mies van der Rohe, S. R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology
in Chicago typifies the modernist style, reminiscent of the work of 
Winnipeg firm Waisman & Ross.
Source: Illinois Institute of Technology
The Edmonton Building at 208 Edmonton Street in Winnipeg, designed by Allan Waisman in 1956,
is an example of the modernist style popularized after WWII.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
Architect Geoffrey Bargh, a University of Manitoba graduate,
designed the building at 385 St. Mary Avenue.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
Located at 385 St. Mary Avenue, on the north west corner of the intersection with Edmonton Street, Bargh designed the building in the modernist style popular at the time. Construction for the boxy, two story, flat roof building began in 1957, by Peter Leitch Construction Limited. Although this was twelve years after WWII ended, it was one of the first new office building erected in downtown Winnipeg since the war had preoccupied the city’s attention and resources. The building is set tight to the sidewalk, stretching 103 feet along St. Mary Avenue and 43 feet along Edmonton Street, for a total footprint of 9312 square feet over two floors, with a basement below.

Bargh's modernist building at 385 St. Mary Avenue.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
Then main façade of the building on St. Mary Street is draped in a curtain of rectangular, clear glass panels set in a consistent grid pattern, with the grid being originally made of gazed blue-green ceramic mosaic tiles. Cantilevered to appear floating above the ground, the façade allowed for a visual connection between the office's interior and the bustling city around it. A two story entrance was set back into the east end of the façade, with six steps leading up to the glassed in two story foyer. The back of the building, the north facade, was given the same pleasing treatment, mirroring the fine architecture of the front façade, despite the fact it faced a parking lot. The use of glass panels was very characteristic of the modernist style, taking advantage of the non bearing wall to create a minimalist design. The glass panels were top quality, heavily insulated, stainless steal framed and filled with nitrogen glass, with their exposed metal mullions glistening in the sunlight.

For the east façade of the building, facing Edmonton Street, buff brick was used. The central portion of this façade is plain brick, while about ten feet of each end featured a series of openings that added interest and allowed for more light to illuminate the inset entrances on the front and back facades. The openings occurred in a regular pattern, alternating rows of eleven and twelve rectangles, each four bricks tall. The west façade did not receive this treatment, being composed entirely of plain buff brick, only broken by a small, unadorned entrance in the middle.

The openings in the brick on the east facade of 385 St. Mary Avenue adds interest and function,
while casting an ever changing pattern of light into the building's entrance.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
When the building was completed in 1958 for a cost of $189 000.00, the design was heralded as a roaring success, with the Royal Architecture Institute of Canada Journal celebrating it in a 1960 article. The New York Life Insurance Company, who had been operating in Winnipeg since the 1930s, took up residence on the main floor with several other organizations moving into the second floor. As a result of the primary tenant, the building became known as the New York Life Insurance Building.

The New York Life Insurance Building at 385 St. Mary Avenue
with its original clear windows and radiators lining the interior of of them.
Source: Henry Kalen 
Entering the building, visitors were greeted in the two story foyer by terrazzo flooring and a floating U-shaped staircase. Made of metal, the staircase featured inset terrazzo treads and slender balusters. Walking further into the building, ten foot ceiling soared above while radiators with wooden covers ran the length of the glazed wall. Adding warmth to the space in winter, the radiator covers also acted as a guardrail along the window while following the grid pattern set by the windows. 

The two story foyer with floating staircase inside the New York Life Insurance Building at 385 St. Mary Avenue.
Source: Henry Kalen
The New York Life Insurance Company remained in the building for 17 years, with a variety of other tenants moving in after their departure. Over time, the mosaic tiles and exposed metal mullions on the north and south facades were covered. The clear windows replaced with reflective ones, cutting off the connection between the interior and exterior. Spaces were divided into smaller offices and a false ceiling installed two feet below the original ten foot ceiling. Yet due to the adaptability of the building and Winnipeg’s slow growing economy, the building functioned successfully for nearly 60 years without the threat of demolition and redevelopment.

The glass facade of the New York Life Insurance Building, 
retrofitted with mirrored glazing, reflects the sky above and the city that surrounds it.
Source: Google Maps
In 2017, the building underwent a change in ownership, purchased by Shane Solomon for $1.85 million. Solomon is the president of Republic Architecture Incorporated, a local Winnipeg firm “focused on cultural, educational, and institutional projects for a variety of communities” (Republic Architecture). Republic has become a successful firm, and was looking for a larger office space when the building became available. Fortunately for the New York Life Insurance Building and built heritage, Solomon appreciates the value of modernist architecture, viewing it as a feature to be celebrated and conserved.

Before Republic Architecture moves into its new home in the New York Life Insurance Building, extensive renovations are taking place. The exterior of the building will remain largely the same, with the mirrored glass of the facades replaced with new clear glazing and the mullions returning to their metallic sheen, although with subtle gradations. Maintenance and restoration will take place on the brick facades with old exterior signage being replaced with new signage designed to blend with the building's sleek design. The foyer will retain its original design while further inside the building partition walls will be removed to create a large, open workspace. The false ceiling will be taken down and new amenities (washrooms, etc.) will be added as freestanding objects running along the east west axis of the building, visually distinct from the original building. 

The firm hopes to be in their new home by early 2018. Heritage Winnipeg applauds Republic Architecture for their commitment and dedication to recognizing the heritage value of this building and its contribution to downtown revitalization.

An artist's rendering of the renewed exterior of the New York Life Insurance Building,
the future home of Republic Architecture.
Source: Republic Architecture
An artist's rendering of the renewed interior of the New York Life Insurance Building,
the future home of Republic Architecture.
Source: Republic Architecture
By Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Google Maps,-97.1461517,3a,75y,340.64h,102.34t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sOT6mh6fwVeJvGd-4b9DQ1g!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

Historica Canada

Illinois Institute of Technology

Manitoba Historical society

National Trust for Historic Preservation

Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Toursim

Republic Architecture Inc.

Royal Institute of British Architects

Winnipeg Architecture Foundation

Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg Modern: Architecture 1945-1975 Edited by Serena Keshavjee


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