Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Pantages Playhouse Theatre - "Unequalled Vaudeville"

Written by Natassja Brien for Heritage Winnipeg

The Pantages Playhouse Theatre is one of of 75 theatres (today only six remain) built by Alexander Pantages in the early 20th century, and is the last-standing vaudeville theatre in Winnipeg. It is located at 180 Market Avenue east in the heart of the East Exchange District. It is a municipally (1981), provincially (2004), and federally (1985) designated heritage building. 

Advertisement for the Playhouse Theatre, 1926
Source: G. Agnew
Picture this - Winnipeg, in the early years of the 20th century, buoyed by the prosperous grain farmers on the surrounding prairies, the city is in its prime. After the bustling workday is through, Winnipeggers had their choice of evening entertainment at the many different theatres the city had to offer. Elegant productions were shown at places like the Walker Theatre (now the Burton Cummings) or those inclined could choose more lively variety shows - Vaudeville. There were a number of dedicated vaudeville theatres in Winnipeg: the Dominion Theatre, the Bijou Theatre, and the Orpheum Theatre, but only one remains today: Pantages Playhouse Theatre.

Pantages Playhouse Theatre as it appears today (2018)
Photo: Naomi Brien
The Pantages Playhouse Theatre was built in 1914 in the Classical Revival style, which became known as "Pantages Greek", after Alexander Pantages, the owner of the chain of theatres across North America. The building was designed by B. Marcus Priteca (who designed many Pantages theatres), and overseen locally by architect George Northwood, whose credits include the Pavilion in Assiniboine Park, the Women's Tribute Memorial Lodge, and the Medical Arts building. In a time of Baroque-level extravagance in theatre design, the Pantages was just restrained enough to remain tasteful while still leaving theatre-goers marveling as they walked under the lit-up marquise, through the high-ceilinged lobby, and into the elaborate theatre with its grand proscenium arch. Although construction wasn't just decorative - Pantages Playhouse was also the first building of its size to be built with a reinforced concrete frame. Reinforced concrete was a revolution in building methods, allowing larger, taller, lighter buildings to be constructed across the world.

Lobby at Pantages Playhouse, date unknown
Source: G. Agnew
Pantages Theatre hosted some shows with familiar names, like Stan Laurel (later of Laurel & Hardy), as well as Buster Keaton (in his first vaudeville show with his parents) - and some less familiar but exciting acts like Felix, the Mind-Reading Duck. After all, Pantages Playhouse advertised itself as "Unequalled Vaudeville", going to far as to have it carved into stone on the north facade of the building. Alexander Pantages' theatres formed a circuit all across North America, and acts would tour all of these theatres - but often started in Winnipeg first. Their success or failure in the crucible of Manitoba's capital would often determine their success or failure in other venues on the road. Not only the centre of Canada and the Gateway to the West, Winnipeg was the centre of the Pantages Vaudeville world.

Sadly, the days of Vaudeville Theatre with their weird and wonderful performers were coming to an end. The advent of "moving picture" theatres (such as the Uptown Theatre), that had cheap prices and the novelty factor, beat out the old Vaudeville venues for the nickels and dimes of Winnipeggers. On June 23, 1923, Pantages Unequalled Vaudeville closed, to reopen later that year as the Playhouse Theatre. However, the theatre still boasted some of the most unequalled entertainment in the city, even if it wasn't vaudeville. After the City of Winnipeg acquired in a tax sale in the 1930's due to the Depression and lack of revenue, the Playhouse Theatre became the home venue for the newly formed (in 1939) Royal Winnipeg Ballet, now the longest continually operating ballet company in North America. Throughout the next couple decades, the Playhouse Theatre continued to draw in crowds with playbills featuring names like Laurence Olivier and Ella Fitzgerald - of course, undergoing an $80,000 renovation in 1954 didn't hurt either.

Pantages Playhouse Theatre, 1940.
Source: G. Agnew
In the early 1980's, the Playhouse Theatre received its first heritage designation, municipally, on January 5th, 1981. Soon after a $300,000 renovation in 1985, it also received designation as a national historic site on November 15th of that same year, as well as an Institutional Conservation Award in 1986 from Heritage Winnipeg. In the late 1980's, concerns over the size of the lobby space led to an extensive restoration and addition, to the tune of $3.6 million dollars, completed in the early 1990's. Although both municipal and federal designations came in the 1980's, provincial heritage designation did not come until October 1st, 2004.

Soon after the restoration and addition were finished, in 1994, there were calls for the City of Winnipeg to sell the Playhouse Theatre. The push to move away from city ownership is rooted in a few different issues. The city acting as a landlord for the building is problematic, as they can dedicate neither the time nor the money required to fully optimize the potential of the building, and it's no secret that the Pantages has been operating at a net loss for a while. Furthermore, the city bureaucracy exists primarily to provide services and government for the city, not to turn a profit as landlords. What might be a good solution for this historic theatre is to be sold and for the owners to enter into an agreement, with one or more non-profit sector partners to manage, maintain, and operate the building.

Pantages Playhouse Theatre in 1981
Source: G. Agnew
From 1994, the City of Winnipeg has called for proposals from private sector and non-profit groups for purchasing and using the Pantages Playhouse Theatre a number of times. In 2005, 2010, 2013, and now in 2018, the city has been attempting to sell the theatre but to no avail. However, this time around something may be different - True North Sports and Entertainment have successfully taken over operating the Burton Cummings Theatre (previously the Walker Theatre and the Odeon Theatre) in 2013, buying it from the city in 2016. This example of private operating and then ownership shows that historic venues can often be profitable for private companies, and may encourage proposals for the Pantages Playhouse Theatre. The City of Winnipeg has stated that financial concerns are not the most important thing they are considering in this request for proposals (RFP). In fact, the RFP states that the price and financial terms will only make up 20% of the evaluation criteria.

Despite the disappointments of the past RFPs, Heritage Winnipeg remains hopeful that a solution will be found for the continued operation and conservation of one of our city's most iconic built heritage and cultural landmarks, with an immense connection to our city's history. The Pantages Playhouse Theatre is a unique surviving remnant of Winnipeg's boomtown era, and of the vaudeville era as well.

The Request for Proposals is open until August 31, 2018. Show your support for the Pantages Theatre by sharing your experiences!Let us know - when was the last time you were at our "unequalled" historic theatre?


Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre & Files

Manitoba Provincial Heritage Sites: Pantages Playhouse Theatre

Historic Places: Pantages Playhouse Theatre

City of Winnipeg: Pantages Playhouse Theatre, Long Report

City of Winnipeg RFP 195-2018 

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Ross House - Historic House, Community Pride

Written by Natassja Brien for Heritage Winnipeg
Ross House Museum, owned by the city of Winnipeg, is located at 140 Meade St. N in North Point Douglas, and has been opened annually in the summertime since 1953, except in 1984 when it was moved from Higgins Ave to Joe Zuken Heritage Park. The oldest post office in Western Canada was built on land gifted to Alexander Ross in the 1820s, and was occupied by the Ross', a prominent Metis family, for many years. 

When Alexander Ross brought his Okanogan/Syilx wife Sarah, and his four children, to the new Red River settlement, they quickly made it their home. It was Alexander and Sarah Ross' son, William Ross, who would build Ross House in 1854 for himself and his wife Jemima. 
"The Rocky Mountains, or Back Lone of America, is truly a great sight. We had to pass them in the customary manner on snow shoes. My destination is Red River, a colony settled in Hudson Bay by the late lord Selkirk. This colony is said to be thriving. In my next letter I shall give you a full account of it..." (From a letter written by Alexander Ross, 1825)
Ross House itself, apart from being one of the oldest extant houses in Winnipeg, is also one of few remaining examples of a house built in a simplified Georgian style using the sturdy Red River frame method. The Red River frames, descended from the piece-sur-piece frame of the 17th century French buildings in Quebec, are identified by their characteristic construction of horizontal squared logs with tongues set into vertical squared logs with grooves. Ross House, in particular, exhibits Georgian architectural influences in its hipped roof and symmetrical design, making it a stylistically elevated example of the Red River frame.
Pre-1869 map of Winnipeg showing lots east of the river.
Alexander Ross' claim is in centre, with the Logan claim above and Andrew McDermot's land below.
Source: Point Douglas Historic Guide
"We have at present a population of 5974 souls, divided into three distinct religious denominations...There are twenty windmills and eight watermills scattered through the settlement. The H.B. Co.'s depot is about the centre of the settlement, and is called "Fort Garry"...Since writing to you last one of my sisters, Henrietta, has married to our beloved pastor, rev. John Black, and had a beloved son about five months ago."(from a letter to Helen Hopwood from William Ross, 1855)
In 1855, William Ross surpassed his formidable father Alexander as the first Postmaster for the District of Assiniboia, and ran the post office out of his house. Ross House has the distinction of being the first post office in Western Canada, when mail was postmarked "Red River, B.N.A." by the postmaster's hand and transported by cart. After William Ross died in 1856, his brother James became postmaster, and his widow remarried to William Coldwell. William and Jemima Coldwell lived in Ross House (which they charmingly called Brookbank) for the rest of their years, until 1907. Parts and parcels of the original Ross land grant were eventually sold off to the City of Winnipeg for the construction of the railway, Market Square (where the Public Safety Building now stands), and City Hall.

After William and Jemima died, for the next forty years, Ross House languished in its location on Market Avenue. In the mid-1940's, the property that Ross House occupied became more and more desirable for development given its key downtown location, and threatening it with demolition. The outcry of dedicated citizens resulted in the City of Winnipeg purchasing Ross House and forming an agreement with the Manitoba Historical Society to operate it as a museum.
"These are busy and anxious days, with many calls on our time and our money, but it will soon be too late to secure for coming generations these precious relics of our past" (From a letter written by Miss I. E. Henderson, published in the Winnipeg Free Press on March 24, 1945)
In 1949, Ross House was moved from its original location on Market Avenue to Higgins Avenue, and opened for one week as part of Winnipeg's 75th anniversary celebrations. Moving the historic Ross House was no small undertaking - relocating a historic building is a very costly process, in more ways than one. During relocation, the building can either be jacked up and moved wholesale from one location to another, or it must be completely disassembled, every piece categorized, then put back together at the new location. One of the most important things to consider is the loss of the context in which the building was constructed, that is, loss of the original location. The place in which buildings stand is often historically significant - in the case of Ross House, the original land grant was given to Alexander Ross in the early 19th century and very little of that land remains undeveloped today. Secondly, moving buildings comes with an inherent risk of the building or some parts of it being lost or damaged. However, in 1949 there was no heritage designation bylaw, and the choice was either to move the building or have it demolished to make way for new development. The building was moved to Higgins Avenue and formally opened as the Ross House Museum in 1953.

Ross House at its original location on Lombard Street.
The wood siding put on to cover the framework can be seen in this photo.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre
Ross House officially received municipal heritage building designation on August 11, 1980, two years after the first heritage building bylaw came into effect in 1978.  Unfortunately, by the time it was designated, Ross House was in need of serious conservation efforts. In 1983, the mostly-wood Red River frame structure had an infestation of termites. The Manitoba Historical Society (MHS) undertook a thorough restoration of the structure, and a relocation to its present location in Joe Zuken Heritage Park which was finished by 1985. Ross House was operated by the MHS until early 2018, when they unexpectedly announced to the City of Winnipeg that they would no longer operating the museum.

Newly restored Ross House Museum in 1985, in Joe Zuken Heritage Park.
The wood siding has been removed to expose the Red River frame construction
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre

Upon hearing of the MHS' departure from Ross House, Eric Napier Strong, Curator/Manager of Seven Oaks House Museum, the Board members of the Seven Oaks House Museum, and Heritage Winnipeg, were immediately concerned. Unwilling to allow the community to lose this priceless relic as part of Point Douglas heritage, Seven Oaks House Museum, along with Heritage Winnipeg and City Councillors Mike Pagtakhan and Ross Eadie, worked passionately to find an agreement with the city that would allow Ross House to open again from May to September 2018. Although the announcement from MHS was unexpected, Seven Oaks House Museum were able to secure funding to hire students from the Manitoba Metis Federation to keep Ross House open for 2018.

Ross House is extremely important to the surrounding neighbourhood of North Point Douglas. Although media coverage paints the area in an unfavourable light, Sel Burrows of the North Point Douglas Residents' Committee says that "the area is home to a very positive and healthy community". Ross House is not only part of our heritage and culture, but also serves as a tangible source of Metis history - both in the house itself and in the various exhibits displayed inside. In an area that suffers from negative stereotypes, getting people into the community via visiting Ross House is a chance to show that it is a great area to live. Having a significant cultural and historical museum like Ross House in North Point Douglas not only benefits the community, but the sustainability of the museum as well. Residents around Ross House watch vigilantly for anyone who might vandalize the property - due to this community pride surrounding Ross House, incidents involving property damage have steadily decreased over the last ten years.

There is a certain kind of harmony about having these two historic houses, Ross House and Seven Oaks House, paired up. Both were home to prominent early Metis families - both are some of the oldest buildings in Winnipeg at over 150 years old - and both are rare remaining examples of the ingenious Red River frame. However, the future of the Ross House Museum is still uncertain after this year. The current agreement will end in December, and a new agreement with the City and Seven Oaks House Museum will have to be negotiated, forming a stronger partnership for the future.

Ross House Museum is not only important to the community, but is also one of our city's most historic houses and a significant museum. The support of the broader heritage community CAN make a difference in whether this museum continues to thrive as a community gem! 

Here's what you can do:
  1. Visit Ross House Museum (a popular Doors Open Winnipeg venue) and learn about its history!
  2. Make a charitable donation to Ross House Museum (it's a registered charity!)
  3. Share - write editorials for the newspaper, share this blog, share personal stories and photos that you may have about Ross House. Get the word out!
  4. Show your support for Ross House by getting in contact with your City Councillor. Let them know that you believe that Ross House is a historically and culturally significant part of our history and must be preserved. 

Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre & Files

MHS: Ross House

MHS: Red River Frame

MHS: William Ross

MHS: Alexander Ross

MHS: Ross House Article

MHS: Ross Family Letters

Seven Oaks House: Ross House Museum

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Heritage at Risk: The former Carnegie Library - City of Winnipeg Archives

Written by Natassja Brien for Heritage Winnipeg
Heritage At Risk: former Carnegie Library - City of Winnipeg Archives

Heritage Winnipeg has a more extensive post on the history of the former Carnegie Library - you can check that out here

The former Carnegie Library is located at 380 William Avenue, aptly named for the $75,000 grant from Andrew Carnegie, was built in 1905 as the city's very first public library, and is currently owned by the City of Winnipeg. It was designed in the Classical Revival style by notable Winnipeg Architect Samuel Hooper (appointed provincial architect in 1904), and features the Manitoba crest on its pediment. This year, the National Trust of Canada included Winnipeg's former Carnegie Library on their 2018 Top Ten Endangered Buildings. Unless action is taken soon to repair this historic building and re-occupy it, damage will continue to occur until the building's repairs become too cost-prohibitive to be feasible. 

Carnegie Library, present day
Source: Manitoba Historical Society
The former Carnegie Library is one of the most at-risk buildings in Winnipeg, from the National Trust for Canada:
"...the former Carnegie Library remains empty and in limbo with no funds allocated by the City for restoration, and an active search is underway for a new long-term home for the Archives."
The former Carnegie Library is noted not only for its impressive exterior, but also the two original front rooms on both the first and second floors, and was designated as a Grade II historical resource on July 30, 1984. The former Carnegie Library's inclusion in the category of at-risk historic buildings, and on the National Trust's Top Ten Endangered buildings list in 2018 is a needless - it has Grade II heritage building status, but stands empty from extensive water damage. This story is the result of renovations that started in 2013 to turn the historic building into a state-of-the-art archival facility - a hole in the roof had been left uncovered by contractors, and ensuing rainstorms had easy access to the second floor. The City of Winnipeg Archives had to be moved out of the building to protect the archival materials, and since then the building has stood with no word on what its future holds.

An extensive Facility Renewal and Redevelopment strategy report was done in 2010 by Cibinel Architects Ltd. to outline the rehabilitation plans for the former Carnegie Library. The City Council had committed $3.5 million dollars over six years for the repairs to the former Carnegie Library, as well as for the installation of new archival facilities in keeping with the building's historical character. The City of Winnipeg received an additional $400,000 from federal funding for conservation of the former Carnegie Library, as well as $2 million in previously approved capital. As for the city archives, they are currently housed in three separate facilities: one space leased from Manitoba Government Records Centre (410 DeBaets Street), one space leased at 50 Myrtle Street (the only space with public access), and one space leased at 311 Ross Avenue, which is little more than a storage container.

John Palmerston Robertson, who helped found the Manitoba Curling Club, was the
first provincial librarian and worked out of the Carnegie Library.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society
The City of Winnipeg has a responsibility on behalf of all Winnipeggers to provide an appropriate, dedicated, archival facility to house the valuable city archives, and to provide the current and future citizens with an account of the city's history. However, there have been suggestions that the $2 million allocated specifically for the repairs of the former Carnegie Library be used to expand the inappropriate facilities that the Archives are currently being housed in. To use this funding, designated for the historic former Carnegie Library, on another building - and in the process avoid restoring the Archives' proper home - would be a travesty. There are no other single suitable sites that were identified for the City of Winnipeg Archives - they belong in the former Carnegie Library, a city-owned designated heritage building. On the front facade just above the entrance, is engraved "FREE TO ALL", a message that knowledge, books, and learning should be available for everyone to access.
"From 1903 to 1977, the Carnegie Library was the flagship of the Winnipeg public library system. The impact of such an institution cannot be measured in a community, but as a society as a whole, we must agree with philanthropist Andrew Carnegie that libraries play an important and positive role in the stimulation and distribution of the ideas to a great number of people. The distinguished architecture of the library, in partnership with Hooper's Normal School down the block, is definitive to the street and the district." (From City of Winnipeg Long Report, 1984)
The Carnegie Library is not only significant because of its architecture, history, and landmark status, but as a permanent home for the Winnipeg City Archives, as it was for over two decades. Previous mayors and councillors made a commitment to this ideal. If the renovations could be completed as they were originally planned, Winnipeg would have a iconic, state-of-the-art heritage building in which to house the City Archives, joining the ranks of cities like Montreal and New York. The Carnegie Library's historic reading rooms could be available again for researchers, historians, students, professionals, government, community organizations, and the general public to come in and learn about the city's history in an inspiring historic building.

The Carnegie Library is at risk more and more with every year that it sits without work being undertaken. While the rainstorm did damage the building, letting the building sit without renovations will result in further damage, until the repairs become overwhelmingly cost-prohibitive. In the heritage preservation community, "demolition by neglect" is a term that is used to describe a loophole in many preservation bylaws. Although owners cannot demolish heritage buildings without a permit, if they allow the building to sit too long without proper attention, demolition becomes the only option, prior to its sale.  Since the Carnegie Library has had no repairs since 2013, Heritage Winnipeg suspects it could become victim to demolition by neglect. If that were to happen, we would lose a critical part of Winnipeg's early public built heritage.

A large part of Heritage Winnipeg's mandate is to advocate for heritage buildings in the city - for their protection as designated heritage buildings, for their maintenance, restoration, and long-term revitalization. Recently, some of the success stories in heritage advocacy in Winnipeg include the Fortune and Macdonald block on Main Street, currently being restored to their former glory; Kinsmen Sherbrook Pool, which finished its $2.7M renovations in 2017 and participated in Doors Open 2018; and our 2018 Heritage Winnipeg Conservation Award winners: Manitoba Legislative Chambers, the Inglis Building, former William E. Milner House, Leatherdale Hall addition, and the Confederation Life Building. It's so gratifying to see these buildings taken care of and being given new uses the way they deserve to be, which is not only good conservation but sustainable as well.

Heritage Winnipeg has been raising a few concerns with the city in regards to the former Carnegie Library. What happened to the insurance money and was it used for repairing the damages sustained? Why did the City of Winnipeg not repair the building and relocate the archives back there? What happened to the monies originally earmarked for further rehabilitation? Does the city plan to sell the building if they are not committed to returning the archives?

These questions are critical to hold the current Mayor and City Councillors accountable for their decisions that will impact future generations. Now on election year, let our local politicians know that this is worth saving, to not make the misguided and regressive decision to let a national treasure sit vacant and derelict, just as past elected officials have done!

Help Heritage Winnipeg in our advocacy efforts - Let us know if the Carnegie Library is important to you, by emailing us at Public support is a powerful force - let your councillor know if the Carnegie Library has your vote!


With files from Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre