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Heritage Winnipeg: Forty Years on the Front Lines of Conservation

Heritage Winnipeg is a not-for-profit charitable organization that promotes the restoration, rehabilitation, and preservation of Winnipeg's built heritage. The Heritage Winnipeg office is currently located at 509-63 Albert Street in the heart of the west Exchange District, a national historic site. Since its formation in 1978, Heritage Winnipeg has been instrumental in saving historic buildings and encouraging new development that respects heritage character-defining elements. This July 24th, 2018, our organization celebrates its 40th anniversary since incorporation.  

Poster from 1978 protests.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre and Files

In the mid-20th century, a 'perfect storm' of different factors was brewing. Economic uptick and optimism after the end of the Second World War prompted expansion on all fronts. Downtown areas, which had been trooping on faithfully and functionally during the war, started to get the calculating eye from city planners and developers. More efficient - more beautiful - more modern downtown spaces and buildings was the word. Out with the old and in with the new, as it were - which wasn't the greatest of news for built heritage. As cities all over were tearing down heritage buildings with a fervour in order to build anew, regular citizens became alarmed. Winnipeg, too, lost some treasures like old "gingerbread" City Hall (1886 - 1963).  Ross House was almost demolished in the 1940's, and was only saved by moving it to a completely different area. It was nothing less than a heritage crisis.

Protest against demolition of the former Bank of Commerce, 1978.
In front (with bullhorn) is David McDowell, former president of Heritage Winnipeg.

As more and more historic buildings were thrown away as the dust of the downtown, the outrage grew. More and more citizens were speaking out to condemn the careless destruction of built heritage. Matters came to a head in the late 1970's for Winnipeg. In 1978, the owner of the former Bank of Commerce building (now the Millennium Centre) announced their intention to demolish the building and install a public park in the empty space. Enough was enough - people mobilized and protested the destruction of such an iconic building.

The heritage and historical community came out in force to carry placards crafted in my basement, offloaded under the fussy eyes of security guards...and the group assembled behind my bullhorn to proceed into a northwest cold wind up Main Street to City hall. (David McDowell)

The former Bank of Commerce was saved, and Heritage Winnipeg was formed July 24th of the same year, as frontrunner in the fight to save other heritage buildings. By January 1979 activities were well under way, with Executive Director Jacques Dalibard and James Knight of Heritage Canada attending to explain their plans for the Hammond building and to congratulate Heritage Winnipeg as a "model for the rest of the country".

3rd floor boardroom at the Millennium Centre
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre and Archives

Over the years, Heritage Winnipeg has campaigned for built heritage all around Winnipeg. Some projects, however, have stood out as landmark successes. Heritage Winnipeg assisted in securing National Historic designation for the Exchange District in 1997, and was heavily involved with the efforts of the Friends of Upper Fort Garry from 2002 - 2018.

The Met, now an outstanding event venue, was originally the Allen Theatre, constructed in 1919, and renamed the Metropolitan Theatre in 1923. After it closed in 1987, the building laid vacant for more than 25 years. Heritage Winnipeg became actively involved in the efforts to save the theatre as early as 1996. Filling the role of advisor, guide, and a resource for historical information, Heritage Winnipeg was instrumental in CanadInns assuming operations of the Metropolitan Theatre in 2012. 

Another prominent success was Dalnavert House, former home of Hugh J. Macdonald. Dalnavert House closed on Labour Day 2013 in dire financial straits. Heritage Winnipeg was key in facilitating the resurrection of this lovely Victorian home - from organizing with Friends of Dalnavert, advising them on how to navigate the process of purchasing and renovating the house, and guiding them through bylaws and legislation to officially open for Doors Open Winnipeg in 2015. 

Today, Heritage Winnipeg manages a few recurrent events as well as continuing advocacy work for heritage buildings all over the city. On the last weekend of May every year, Heritage Winnipeg hosts Doors Open Winnipeg, a free and hugely popular event with both locals and tourists that showcases the city's built heritage. Most frequent feedback about the event is how much people love learning about the history of the buildings and the city.

Postcard featuring Streetcar 356. Our goal is to return 356 to its gorgeous condition here.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre and Files
Streetcar 356 today, in the Winnipeg Railway Museum. In 2018, we plan to rehabilitate several features, including the motorman's control pedestal, bell, and rope; repairing and recovering seats, and redoing the electrical light fixtures.

Another current project is the restoration of Streetcar 356, an ongoing labour of love for Heritage Winnipeg. Acquired in 1980 by the Old Market Square Association, they sold the car to Heritage Winnipeg after they were not able to spare the funds to rehabilitate it. Over the years, incremental repairs have been done to the streetcar with funding from various grants and donations from generous patrons. Streetcar 356 is one of the only remaining streetcars since the fleet was decommissioned in 1955, and Heritage Winnipeg hopes to fully restore this essential piece of our city's history for generations to come. Our rehabilitation plan was started in 2017 and the tentative restoration completion date is in 2019, just in time for the centennial anniversary of the 1919 General Strike, and the 110th anniversary of the first streetcar.

While our advocacy efforts extend to many different pieces of built heritage across the City of Winnipeg, certain buildings deserve to be highlighted. Winnipeg's own Carnegie Library, proper home of the City of Winnipeg Archives, is highly at risk, and was added to the National Trust for Canada's Top Ten Endangered Buildings List for 2018. Advocacy for the Carnegie Library is ongoing, and we hope that people all over Winnipeg will support the efforts to save the historic Carnegie Library.

For 33 years now, Heritage Winnipeg has hosted the Annual Preservation Awards on Louis Riel Day in February, to honour and recognize efforts to preserve the built heritage of our city. We gratefully give awards in three basic categories: the Heritage Conservation Award for institutional, commercial, and residential conservation efforts; and Award for Distinguished Service to Winnipeg's built heritage; and a Youth Award recognizing the efforts of  non-professionals under the age of 25. These awards are just one way to thank the generous and committed people in the broader heritage community who care about Winnipeg's built heritage as much as we do!

Third floor boardroom of the Millennium Centre
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre and Files

Third floor office of the Millennium Cente
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre and Files

Looking towards the future, Heritage Winnipeg is hoping to come full circle - that is, back to the Millennium Centre. It has always been a dream to one day house the Heritage Winnipeg offices within the Millennium Centre, and create a Heritage Visitor's Centre. The main floor of the building has been beautifully adapted for use as a venue with WOW Hospitality as tenant, for events like Music at the Millennium, a summer concert series featuring musicians from the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra who perform free concerts at lunchtime on Tuesdays. However, the second floor still requires renovations before it can be used as office space, so that dream will have to wait until sufficient funds can be raised to make it a reality. As part stewards of the building, we understand the challenges and rewards of ownership, and stewardship, of a designated heritage building. Though the road might be long, the wait will be worth it. Bringing the Heritage Winnipeg offices to the Millennium Centre is a goal that we are committed to, as part of the ongoing revitalization of the former Bank of Commerce Building.

Heritage still faces difficulties in finding funding amid all the other demands on civic and private funds, such as the need for the City to properly house their archives, in the former Carnegie Library. We are fortunate to have a dedicated core of supporters in Winnipeg to step up to keep the organization going. And much has been accomplished due to the work of our energetic Executive Director, Cindy Tugwell, who has, through her efforts, held the torch high for heritage! As we move into the next decade, we need to continue to recruit enthusiastic supporters an the funds to see that the great effort of the first four decades roll on to give Winnipeg continuing heritage appreciation and support.

Heritage Winnipeg turns forty years old this year, and for our birthday we're having a giveaway! To enter, just purchase at least one year of membership at our site (although more years will give you more entries!) and sit back to wait for our draw. Becoming a member gives you updates straight to your inbox about all our great events, as well as the various projects that we are excited to present in 2018-2019! Your membership fee supports our work to preserve Winnipeg's built heritage - thank you so much!

We'll be drawing for our FOUR fantastic prizes on our birthday: July 24th, 2018. Prizes include a Dr. L. Kahane sculpture valued at $2950; an EXCLUSIVE TOUR of the Millennium Centre; and a framed Robert Sweeney print of the Millennium Centre. For a full list of prizes check out our facebook page.

Written by Natassja Brien with David McDowell, for Heritage Winnipeg

Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre and Files



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