This year on February 19th, the National Trust for Canada is celebrating National Heritage Day with the theme “Heritage Stands the Test of Time.” The Exchange District is living proof of that sentiment— the fabric of the area, from its architecture to its cultural institutions are what give the area its distinctive and well appreciated character.We sat down with Heritage Winnipeg’s Cindy Tugwell to learn more about why the Exchange District is so special.
So, how does the Exchange District’s built heritage stand the test of time? According to Tugwell, an enthusiastic advocate for Winnipeg’s built and cultural heritage, the ways we excel are endless. Settling in to our chat, she immediately exhibits all the passion of a grass roots activist, together with a boundless knowledge and excitement about our history.
“Standing the test of time could mean quite a few things,” she says, “It could mean the literal sense of bricks and mortar, and the way the buildings were built and the stunning architecture that could never be replicated. It’s too cost prohibitive now-a-days. You’ll never get Greek columns and marble floors and pressed tin ceilings— you’ll just never get that in a new build.”
These buildings were crafted so well and with such resilient materials largely because labour was cheap at the time. Many of the builders were immigrants looking for work at a time when social assistance was not available. These immigrants were often skilled craftsmen bringing the expertise and artistry from their home lands. And it was here in the Exchange District, Tugwell says, that much of this incredible skill found a home in some stunning architecture.
“The Exchange has been here since the city was incorporated in 1873. The Exchange is the first residential, commercial area in the city of Winnipeg. It’s where everything started, it’s the core, it’s the hub of our humble beginnings.”
A Cultural Gem Preserved by Accident
One of the main reasons all of these beautiful buildings weren’t torn down had nothing to do with appreciation, as Tugwell explains. During a time when many cities were demolishing similar buildings and neighbourhoods, those in the Exchange District were preserved because of pure economics: “One reason we have stood the test of time is sadly because we didn’t have enough money to tear them down.” On the prairies, with our main economic drivers of trains and wheat were deeply affected by the dust bowl on one end and long-haul trucks becoming more readily available on the other.
But the struggles of our past have made for a treasure in the heart of the city today. Since gaining its designation as a National Historic Site in the 1980s, the more than 80 historic buildings within a 30-block radius have created a stunning backdrop for an ever-growing arts and cultural district. It has quickly become a neighbourhood filled with innovative and creative businesses and organizations, and increasingly, a desirable location for urban-minded residents.
“The Exchange is important for the people living in Winnipeg, it’s important as the hub for arts and culture. It’s important for the younger generations to learn about their history,” says Tugwell, explaining that our built heritage is not only stunning, it’s also a way for us to understand our city’s story.
“It’s like owning your grandmother’s bracelet. You know about your grandmother, it means something to you, it’s been passed along from generation to generation. On a city level, these buildings are being passed from generation to generation. And they’re built amazingly. You have stone foundations— you’ve got masonry work that, by today’s standards, could not be replicated.”
And it’s not just Winnipeggers who feel that there’s something special about our old buildings. Tugwell sees national historic sites like the Exchange District as setting our city apart for visitors.
“We are becoming one of the few cities with a really strong built heritage. I see that as we age, this will become even more of an asset. You come to Winnipeg and you look back and think, ‘Wow the Exchange was phenomenal. This isn’t something that you can see in just any city you go to.’ Our national historic sites are really becoming a gold mine and the crux of our identity.”
These buildings really exemplify standing the test of time, according to Tugwell.
The first skyscraper in the city, the Union Bank Tower first opened in 1904 and was tallest building on the Winnipeg skyline – standing at a grand 10 stories. Until 1925 it was occupied by the Union Bank, and from 1925-1992 it was home to the Royal Bank of Canada. Once RBC left the building, it stood vacant until 2013. Despite its vacancy, the building was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1996. It took some time find the right developer, but today it is home to Red River College’s culinary campus, allowing students to study amongst this building’s stunning history and craftsmanship. It also holds the honour of being the oldest, still-standing, skyscraper in Canada.
The James Street Pumping Station
Opening in 1906, The James Street Pumping Station has stood vacant since the 1989. It was a crucial part of Winnipeg’s firefighting system, with state of the art machinery that cost the city millions of dollars to install. After being operational for 83 years, the building has been vacant since 1989— an empty monument that was difficult to renovate. In fact, there have been 14 failed redevelopment plans over the course of 17 years. The machinery inside is massive, and difficult to work around, but to remove it would do a disservice to the heritage of the building.
However, renovations are now underway with rafter-level office space that will overlook the pumping station’s gears. The intent is to create a space that is open to the public, breathing new life into this unique historic gem.
Heritage Winnipeg will hold the 33rd Annual Preservation Awards on Feb. 19th at 2pm at the Legislative Building, see their website at heritagewinnipeg.com for more information.