Tag Archives: Winnipeg

Winnipeg: Stuck in the Middle

A couple of days ago I posted a piece trumpeting Winnipeg’s virtues and shortly after this appeared:

Of course I dove into winnipeglovehate.com, and discovered the book Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, photographed and written by the dynamic duo of Bryan Scott and Bartley Kives.

Thanks to the miracle of strangers on the internet and a benevolent Husband who made a run to McNally Robinson bookstore before hitting the airport, I had this book in my hands within hours of hearing about it.

Doug Holmes wasn’t kidding when he said the site (and even more so the book) “demonstrates exactly what you discuss.”  Call it synchronicity, a manifestation of the collective unconscious, a case of great minds thinking alike, or, more likely, we three are siblings separated at birth, but the zeitgeist of my 500-word essay – that Winnipeg feels like New York used to feel before it went and got all gentrified – is uncannily similar to that of their bookBut enough about me.

Wow, I say to Stuck in the Middle. Double-wow. It’s at once coffee table book, travelogue, history lesson, secret diary, social commentary, treasure map, love story, and Huck Finn adventure drawn from a place that everyone loves to hate. It nails the three things I look for in the finest non-fiction: The text is smart, lively, pointed and funny/mouthy sassy the kind of sassy that might warrant a sock in the jaw in certain kinds of mixed company; the photos are technically and creatively excellent, moving portraits of the uncommonly common; and it fills in knowledge gaps and sends me off in hitherto unknown directions.

Some of the things I discovered as a result of this book (spoiler alert!): feet James Avenue datum; salami shoulder; Tagalog is the second most widely spoken language, behind English, ahead of French; giant stone heads on appliances; the visibility of the high-water mark on buildings; surface parking is both ugly and intimidating; Garbage Hill; the influence of prominent New York architects; and how to win friends and influence people with a stellar grasp of flood-related vocabulary.

Click here for a list of retailers.

Hoping I can convince Bryan and Bartley to swap lunch for a walk around the city next time I’m in town….

Winnipeg is the Most Interesting City

Over dinner last week in Manhattan I declared to our three local hosts that Winnipeg is The Most Interesting City in Canada. They appeared politely skeptical as I tried to explain.

I’ve written about the city before here, here, herehere, and here, praising it up one side and down the other. I can easily list the qualities I love, but it wasn’t until this morning that I could boil down the essence of it into one sentence: Winnipeg feels like New York used to feel before it went and got all gentrified.

Another day of relentless blue skies and the city continues to surprise me with its ubiquitous public art, wealth of classic architecture, and intriguing tapestry of grand and pocket public spaces. I love that these work so seamlessly together, that art is interwoven with everyday life and business, that social justice issues appear to be studied in plain view, and that artists of all stature seem to command a respect here that isn’t as obvious in other Canadian cities.

I wasn’t exactly hanging in New York during the ’70’s and early ’80’s, but I hear myriad voices in the media nostalgic for cheap rents, interesting characters, and the scrappy creativity of that era, if not for its scarier or less desirable attributes.

It appears that geographic isolation and benign neglect, due to a dearth of speculative investment, has protected Winnipeg from being torn to bits and rebuilt from scratch. I feel no pity when I say that. Quite the opposite. Limited means keeps it from becoming stale and commercially and socially milquetoast. The city possesses a unique energy that reflects a particular moment in time, a socio-economic status, and a necessity to invent, then reinvent, gradually by way of internal muse instead of instant external gratification.

There are still areas in the city I’m advised not to walk after dark, unlike, say, Vancouver which has been washed clean of its sins. I mostly take that advice, but I am happiest when I walk the streets to search out the vast and evolving collection of street art, the undiscovered historic corners and architectural magnificence. Every time I feel a frisson of excitement, a distinct lack of predictability about how my day will play out, what exactly I will experience and whom I will encounter.

The city teeters a bit and it’s hard to say which way it will go.  But, as all lovers know, keeping things a little off-balance provides a sense of mystery that’s worth jealously guarding.

Tyndall Stone: Hidden in Plain Sight

A few weeks back I was taking my morning coffee on the expansive patio of a friend’s house in Winnipeg. My bare feet had graced this space a number of times, but I had not, until just then, grasped the obvious: I was walking on fossils – a LOT of fossils – which are 450 million years old.1

XCTyndallStonePatio Tyndall Stone Patio XCTyndallStonePatio-8 Tyndall Stone TyndallStone Tyndall Stone Tyndall Stone Tyndall Stone

It’s called Tyndall stone, a dolomitic limestone quarried about 40 kilometres north of the city in the Gillis Quarry at Garson, Manitoba.  It’s famous for its cream colour (the limestone) and striking mottling (the dolomite) caused by the burrowing of marine creatures during its creation.

It contains gastropods, brachiopods, cephalopods, trilobites, coral, and stromatoporoid fossils.2

Several Tyndall stone buildings number among my favourites: the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, the Manitoba Legislature, the Museum of Civilization (History) and the Empress Hotel in Victoria.  So how, I ask myself, can I NOT have known about the fossils? What have I been so busy looking at that they didn’t sink in? My ignorance underwhelms me.

The stone is fascinating and beautiful beyond compare and, apparently, ubiquitous in these parts. Once I knew what I was looking at/for I began to see it on buildings, walls and pavers everywhere.  An architectural tour of Winnipeg’s Tyndall stone buildings can be found here.

Talk about a living museum.

TyndallStone TyndallStone

Further reading:

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields

Canada Rocks: The Geologic Journey, by Nick Eyles and Andrew Miall

Tyndall Stone, Winnipeg Architecture Foundation 



  1. http://www.gac.ca/PopularGeoscience/factsheets/TyndallStone_e.pdf 

  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyndall_stone 

Adaptive Reuse (and Reuse and Reuse) at the Grey Nuns’ Convent

Not all those who wander are lost. – J.R.R. Tolkien

Choosing a mini-adventure over a late afternoon nap, I laced on the mocs and headed across Esplanade Riel to Le Musée de Saint-Boniface.

While the museum is filled with fascinating objects, including the half-burnt coffin of Louis Riel, the principal artifact is the building itself.

It was constructed as a convent for The Sisters of Charity of Montreal (“Grey Nuns”) who arrived in 1844 to provide social services/missionary work to the Red River Colony. It is of Red River Frame construction, the oldest building in the City of Winnipeg, and the largest oak log structure in North America.

Jill Wade, in her paper Red River Architecture 1812-1870, details this form of construction:

It is made of log construction common to Manitoba and given a variety of names: Manitoba frame, Red River frame, piece sur piece, poteaux sur sole, poteaux et piece coulissante, and the Hudson’s Bay style. As some of these names suggest, the building type grew from strong French influences, but actually originated in Denmark and Scandinavia…

The style was introduced to North America by the settlers of New France and brought west with the fur trade. Eventually, it was adopted by the employees of the HBC. It was used to build Fort Douglas, the Selkirk settlers’ first fort, and remained popular for homes, churches, stores and outbuildings throughout the area until the 1870s. An increased availability of manufactured materials late in the century made elaborate homes possible and common homes easier to build, log buildings lost their popularity.

The Red River frame building started with a frame of hand-squared logs, often oak, resting on the ground or a foundation. This foundation could be built of any readily available material, which on the prairies often meant a mixture of fieldstones and mortar. Sill logs were placed atop the foundation, then vertical members were tenoned at the corners and along the sill. These vertical logs were grooved in order to accept the tapered ends of horizontal logs placed between the uprights.  Doors were often set between two minor uprights, windows similarly established or were simply cut out of the wall, with the rough hewn window frames nailed to the free ends of the logs.

It has, in turn, been a hospital, orphanage, senior citizen’s home, day school, boarding school, and a nursing college for students of St. Boniface General Hospital, which was operated by the Grey Nuns.  In 1956 the Grey Nuns vacated the building and in 1958, the His­toric Sites and Mon­u­ments Board of Canada des­ig­nated the build­ing as a his­toric site, recommending that it be pre­served for pos­si­ble use as a museum, as it soon became.

I met Museum Director Philippe Mailhot on the stoop.  Although I am a management consultant, alas I wasn’t the consultant he was waiting for.  I toured the two floors of the museum alone and then peppered the poor woman at reception with my construction-related questions.  She kindly summoned Georges Lavergne, Maintenance Foreman and part-time builder, and we promptly descended to the basement, always the best place to begin an architectural exploration.

The building is intriguing both for its original construction style as well as for the thorough work undertaken between October 1993 and May of 1995 to restore the historic fabric of the building.*  Seems the walls were pulling apart, as witnessed by the visible tenons on the second floor.  Vertical steel posts have been sunk into the basement floor and run the full height of three floors.  Glulam or steel I-beams have been added to each floor, and all the posts and glulam beams have been clad in spruce to blend with the original structure. Steel cables help to lock the walls in place.  Maybe this work wouldn’t be remarkable on a contemporary structure. However it is a complex undertaking in a building where most of the wood members have deflected over time, some remarkably so. Little is plumb, square or level.  It would have required extraordinary attention to detail and continuous problem-solving to complete this work on time, on budget and according to specs.

I brazenly roped Phil into giving me a tour of the ‘off limits’ third floor.  Walking onto the third floor was like entering a much larger version of my own attic.  We talked construction, funding, history, building science, and about the challenges of maintaining old buildings.  He disappeared for a few moments and returned with a hefty roll of the museum’s architectural drawings.  To my amazement, he presented it to me.

Blueprints are at once treasure troves of knowledge and pieces of art when they are hand-drawn, as these are. I was both surprised and honoured at such a gift.

The moment I set foot out of the museum it began to rain.  I pulled off my fleece and slipped the roll into the arm hole, bundling the rest of the jacket around it for safekeeping.  By the time I reached the hotel I was soaked but the drawings remained dry.

So glad I skipped the nap.

* The project team included heritage architects from the City of Winnipeg, the Province and the Federal Government (Parks Canada) and was supervised by Prairie Architects.
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The House at Armstrong’s Point

A natural park formed by a bend of [the] Assiniboine River, which surrounds it on three sides, preventing encroachment and overcrowding, well sheltered by fine timber, rich soil sloping south, excellent drainage…wide boulevards…less than two miles from centre of the city, comprising the choicest residential property and the pretties gardens and lawns in the city.

– A sales ad for Armstrong’s Point land, J.R, Wagnorn, Osler, Hammon & Nanton, Winnipeg (Legislative Library of Manitoba, Manitoba Free Press, 6 Aug 1904 p. 2)

He told me he had been pushed down the stairs by a ghost.  Sleepless, he got up in the middle of the night and promptly ended up in a heap at the bottom.   I climbed the stairs myself last night and, although I didn’t experience any malevolent presence, I can confirm their aggressive pitch.  He was lucky to end up only bruised and sore.

Today he confessed a frayed carpet was really to blame.  But that doesn’t change the fact that shadowy shapes slip past him sometimes.   She’s seen them, too, inside and out.  A black-robed woman moves between the kitchen and the bathroom and hovers outside the bay window.  After so many lives pass through them, old houses often take on a life of their own.

Officially it was the Arthur Francis Eden Residence but everyone called it The Pagoda.  The house was completed in 1882 and Eden, with his wife Frances, turned it into the social centre of Winnipeg.

Tonight it is a social hub again, albeit on a smaller, barbecue-sized scale.  A great pleasure to make a lovely trip into the past with such agreeable company.

Reference:  Armstrong’s Point:  A History by Randy R. Rostecki (The Heritage Winnipeg Corporation 2009)

The Heritage Winnipeg Corporation 2009


Tile Me a Story

Once again admiring the intriguing narrative tile work here at Inn at the Forks in Winnipeg.  I’m searching for more pieces around the city by local artist Fleur McLauchlan, but work has a way of seriously cutting into my sleuthing time…


One of my favourite summer experiences took place in one of Winnipeg’s roughest neighbourhoods.

On a drive around town, I spotted the most amazing mosaic mural under construction in a most unlikely location.  I made an illegal left turn into an empty parking lot and jumped out with my camera in hand.  I happily snapped and came, at the end, to a one-page flyer posted on an unadorned piece of wall.  It invited local residents, and any other interested parties, to participate in the creation of the mosaic every Friday and Saturday from one until eight o’clock.

On Saturday, after a midday meal at The Tallest Poppy next door, I happily deserted the family and pulled on my grubby, omnipresent work gloves to join in the fun.

The traffic-stopping mosaic stretches along the northern length of the Red Road Lodge at 631 Main Street, former home of the New Occidental Hotel, one of Winnipeg’s most notorious drinking establishments.  The lodge takes its name from aboriginal teachings of “walking the red road”, of following the right path of life.  Local developer Richard Walls, in his ongoing efforts to rejuvenate the area, bought the building and transformed the space into safe, clean and dry transitional housing for those recovering from alcohol and drug addictions.  The facility offers supportive social services for its tenants and houses the very cool and anarchic The Bike Dump, a community-run bike shop, and Studio 631, offering community members the opportunity to work across a variety of artistic mediums.  The Red Road Lodge is one of a series of community development projects that Walls is involved in, including The Edge Artist Village, an artist live/work space and pocket flats in a youth project at PanAm Place in the Exchange District.


I introduced myself to Ursula Neufeld, a mosaicist and Annie Bergen, a muralist, the two artists responsible for the development and implementation of the project.  It is a substantial undertaking and there is much work to come.  But their patience and persistence, not to mention their larger vision for the mosaic and the health of the community surrounding it, is self-evident.  The design of the work emerged from the synergy between the artists, local residents, and related community and social service-based organizations and is entitled Restoration, a nod to the physical community and the people within it.  It features an underwater scene (the mermaid is my personal favourite) and animals representing the Seven Sacred Teachings in Aboriginal culture woven into a ribbon of the metaphorical red road.

Ursula put me to work on some filler bits.  It’s zen work and I was content to take her direction.  It was a pleasure to be a follower and not the leader for a change, especially on a project that was so well organized.  I worked alongside Steve, one of the lodge’s residents, for half my shift and then happily worked and chatted beside Ursula for the remainder, picking her brain about the city’s successes and challenges.

Almost all of the locals and residents who passed by commented on the beauty of the emerging mosaic and it was evidently a source of community pride.  Unfortunately, on this day, we were unsuccessful in coaxing any to try their hand.

When it was time to head out Ursula and Annie thanked me warmly for stopping by.  But, truly, the pleasure was mine.

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Prairie Love

My father’s 80th birthday and a 2,200 kilometre drive brought us to a family reunion in the middle of Canada. We’ve tooted around the province and Winnipeg marks the finale.

Another day of relentless blue skies and the city continues to surprise me with its ubiquitous public art, wealth of classic architecture, and intriguing tapestry of grand and pocket public spaces. I love that these work so seamlessly together, that art is interwoven with everyday life and business, that social justice issues appear to be studied in plain view, and that artists of all stature seem to command a respect here that isn’t as obvious in other Canadian cities. And I love the quality of light and the freakish colour of wheat fields and black soil that is absent from the Ontario palette. As it always is when travelling with children, it has been a survey trip rather than a deep study of place, and I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t feel that loss. But, alas, I photograph to save my soul, even if that means the occasional drive-by shooting at a polite and objective distance.

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