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Heritage at Risk: Mathewson House - Dalnavert's "Big Sister"

Dalnavert House is well known in the heritage and historic communities in Winnipeg as a beautiful restoration of a Victorian home. Still more people are aware of Dalnavert's owner, the Honourable Hugh John Macdonald, son of Prime Minister John A. Macdonald. As a valued heritage treasure, Dalnavert enjoys protection as a designated heritage building.

Mathewson House, 1980.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society
Walk a little further south down Carlton, take a right on Assiniboine and, just past Edmonton, you'll see a derelict, unoccupied, gaudily-painted house at the address 432 Assiniboine Avenue. Though it may not look like it, this house is just as much of a treasure as Dalnavert - and deserving of the same protection and care as its little sister. And these houses are sisters, in fact: the same era, same architect, and their respective owners Mathewson and Macdonald, were friends. Although the historical resources are limited in respect to this building, what we were able to find only cements its prominence.
Mathewson House, 2018.
Note the stained glass window in central window of the front facade, tucked just underneath the eaves and framed with two brackets.
Photo: Naomi Brien
Mathewson House, at 432 Assiniboine Avenue, was built in 1890, five years prior to the construction of Hugh John Macdonald's house. It was designed by the same architect, the prolific Charles Wheeler, and built for Mr. Frank Hall Mathewson. The building was designed in the Italianate style, inspired by Italian Renaissance villas, and popular in Manitoba from 1880 to 1900. As typical of the style, Mathewson House is a two and a half storey house with a low pitched hipped roof and wide eaves supported by decorative brackets. The east and west dormers are matching and have delicate ornamentation on the brackets. While the north and south dormers are much larger, they have little to no trim elements. The front gable features decorative bargeboard and a handsome finial, far more understated adornment then the later Queen Anne revival style of Dalnavert. The front gable design, with the gable topping the paired Roman arched windows with a single segmental arch window on the main floor, both with stone sills, is extremely similar to Dalnavert House. 
Front (north) gable with decorative bargeboard and finial.
Note the paired Roman arched windows with stone sills, and ornamental brackets.
To the left of the leftmost bracket hints of brick (painted blue) are visible.
Photo: Naomi Brien
Currently, no veranda or columns grace the front of the house as would be expected with the Italianate style, but without any archival photos it is impossible to know if one had originally existed. The asymmetrical fa├žade features three segmentally arched windows, a pair of round arched windows and a central stained glass window on the second storey, similar to Dalnavert. The rest of the windows in the house are tall, narrow rectangles, often paired and with a sash feature, and highlighted by a limestone sills on the first two storeys. The front door has a lovely Roman arch, and is framed by cut stone with a prominent keystone. Unfortunately, the house is currently enveloped in a layer of unsightly stucco, obscuring any other additional period details such as quoins. A cut stone foundation supports the building, with windows indicating a basement level. Hints of possible underlying brick on the west side of the front gable, along with the original chimney, done in buff brick strongly suggest an original brick facade. 
West dormer with original chimney. Note the decorative raised brick embellishment on the chimney.
Photo: Naomi Brien
Mathewson was the manager of the local branch of the Bank of Ottawa, and later the manager of the Canadian Bank of Commerce. Mathewson and his family were also active in Winnipeg's social sphere: as member of the Holy Trinity Anglican Church building committee, members of the Rowing Club, and as honorary treasurer for a St. John's College and St. Paul's Industrial synod in 1890. It seems that meetings in 1890 could prove just as boring as today, as it was noted that Mathewson moved:

...At all sessions of this synod speeches be confined to five minutes...
In 1899, Mr. Mathewson, as a prominent member of Winnipeg society, attended a meeting with Mr. C.S. Mellen, the president of Northern Pacific Railway. Serving one term as the President of the Winnipeg Board of Trade, Mr. Mathewson moved to Montreal at the turn of the century to another position within the Canadian Bank of Commerce. His stately Victorian house with Italianate architecture was then sold to another Canadian great - Sir John Aird.

John Aird, as he was known in 1900 when he moved into 432 Assiniboine, was another bank man. Starting work for the Canadian Bank of Commerce in 1878 when he was just twenty-three, John Aird quickly moved up and was made manager in Winnipeg in 1899, and worked out of the Bank of Commerce Building at 389 Main Street, now the Millennium Centre. He moved with his wife Eleanor, his two sons Hugh and John Jr., and two daughters Phoebe and Helen. He did well in Winnipeg, being promoted to the Superintendent of Western Canadian operations in 1908. He purchased the house on Assiniboine and lived there for just above ten years before being recalled to Toronto in 1911 to take another more prominent position in the Bank. However, Aird is most remembered for his role in the birth of the CBC - he was the chairman of the 1929 Royal Commission of Radio Broadcasting, which led to the creation of the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission, the forerunner of our CBC, in 1932.

After Aird vacated Mathewson House, it was sold to a David Philips, who lived there until the late 1930's. The house was then converted into apartments, owned by W. Moxam. Moxam obtained a building permit to the tune of $5000 in 1939 for "house alterations", seemingly marking the transition from house to apartments for the historic building. The Boine Apartments, as they were known, consisted of six units in the former mansion. Another two units were added through renovations in 1956, and more interior renovations were done in the 1960's. The Boine closed in the 1970's, and a troupe of eclectic businesses made their way through the old home: Rogue's Gallery, Butta Bing!, and Oz: The Hair Place. At some point it seems the house was stuccoed over and painted a bright blue.

Now we come to the real travesty happening to this stately Victorian lady. Mathewson House is currently listed on the City of Winnipeg's Commemorative List of Historical Resources. Give a great cheer for heritage protection! No? Well of course, the Commemorative List does not afford any protections to heritage buildings listed thereunder. The fact is, when the new heritage bylaw was introduced in 2014, over three hundred buildings and homes were taken off the List of Historical Resources and some were quietly put onto the Commemorative List. As per the City of Winnipeg website, the Commemorative List is the home of:

buildings or lands recognized for their historical and/or architectural value
where,

Conservation is encouraged
However, there are:

No restrictions on demolition and alterations.
This seems contradictory, to say the least. How the city plans to encourage conservation when no restrictions are placed on demolition and alterations is confusing, if not altogether unbelievable.  Heritage buildings such as Mathewson House deserve better than the Commemorative List, which despite its important sounding name, is truly just lip service masquerading as protection. It allows owners to create a false facade, portraying themselves as civic minded individuals that truly care about the heritage of the community they live in. But behind the veneer they are actually behaving in a shortsighted, selfish, profit driven manner, wanting no restrictions on what they can do with their property, free to demolish it at will.

Built heritage is a community asset that should be cherished and protected. These buildings are a tangible connection to our past, are far more environmentally sustainable to maintain rather than demolish and replace, contribute to the economy through higher property values, job creation and tourism, and create a sense of place that we all crave. Being entrusted with the ownership of such a building is a privilege, but it also comes with responsibilities. Part of that responsibility is recognizing the need to legally protect built heritage, for today and for future generations. Even the most respectful of heritage building owners will someday part ways with their charge, leaving it in the hands of someone who may or may not be a champion of heritage.

A proper heritage designation, being placed on the List of Historical Resources, ensures protection of a building indefinitely, and hopefully encourages proper maintenance and occupancy. Contrary to the belief of some, this designation does not have to mean the end of viability for a building. Winnipeg has a multitude of heritage buildings that have been repurposed for all manner of functions, with local architects, planners and engineers working together find creative solutions. There are also some City heritage grants available to bridge the cost differential that can occur when conserving heritage buildings. As one of the last remaining grand homes on Assiniboine Avenue in the once prestigious Hudson’s Bay Reserve, Mathewson House is deserving of a genuine heritage designation, and a new owner that will conserve and cherish it as the valuable repository of history it is.

On this election year, make sure that your Mayor and Councillors understand the importance of preserving Winnipeg's built heritage for future generations!


Written by Natassja Brien & Cheryl Mann (students)



Sources:

Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre and Files
Winnipeg Free Press Archives
Identifying Architectural Styles in Manitoba

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