Winnipeg's resurgence as a Canadian centre of architectural heritage
by Daniel Guenther
Abundant with rich culture, history and fascinating architecture, Winnipeg may be the best Canadian city you have not yet discovered. Known for its diverse arts scene, friendly citizens, and classic Canadian snowy winters, Winnipeg is purported to have the most heritage buildings in the entire country, making it an untapped site of historical and architectural exploration.
Winnipeg’s depth of urban character showcases grand Beaux-Arts railway stations on a par with New York and colossal department stores designed to be amongst the largest on the continent. But with less than a million people, how did this humble prairie city acquire such great historical architecture?
Architects, visitors, investors, and heritage advocates have begun to rediscover Winnipeg’s plethora of historic spaces and imagine new uses to bring them into the new century. However, a lack of local talent means rehabilitation of these historic structures requires more conservation expertise and new generations of trained professionals to ensure the city’s world-class portfolio of architecture maintains its integrity.
Winnipeg’s depth of built-heritage reflects the provincial capital’s unique position within Canada and rich history, first as home to Indigenous Peoples, then as a booming colonial outpost rapidly growing to rival 19th century Chicago and London. Known as the ‘Gateway to the West’, Winnipeg has evolved through a complex history and its breadth of historical architecture remains a vestige of periods and styles told throughout the city’s story.
Settled at the confluence of the Assiniboine and Red rivers – now affectionately called The Forks – the city sits at a crossroads of major North American waterways. These traditional canoe routes provided Indigenous People a central gathering place for over 6,000-years, until forcible relocation occurred to aid European settlement. Winnipeg’s name remains connected to Indigenous history, meaning ‘muddy waters’ in the local Cree language, continuing a strong Indigenous presence that has remained resilient.
Completion of the transcontinental railway in the late 19th century meant Winnipeg rapidly became one of North American’s most important cities – the crossroads of international commerce. The transformation from prairie shantytown to cosmopolitan capital was overseen by investors, corporations and architects building a new image for Winnipeg to reflect its growing prominence in the British Empire. By 1905, Winnipeg had more millionaires per capita than New York City and had become the fastest growing city in North America. Shortly thereafter, Canada’s third oldest school of architecture opened its doors, establishing a long tradition of local architects and a design culture which remains today.
Winnipeg Union Station exterior (credit: Via Rail Canada) and interior, Rotunda Restoration (credit: Jacqueline Young)
Winnipeg’s good fortunes came to a grinding halt in 1914 – impacted by World War I and the opening of the Panama Canal. The city never regained its economic prominence, but vestiges of its glory years remain today throughout the expansive and historic city centre.
Beginning in the 1980s, The Forks area was transformed from a polluted railway hub back into a mixed-use hub of public gathering. The site’s industrial architecture, including masonry train terminals, a power plant, and a decommissioned rail bridge, were carefully preserved and converted to restaurants, shopping, and public markets. The Forks’s renewal also reclaimed space for Indigenous ceremonies and histories, becoming a beacon for reconciliation with the city’s colonial past.
Aerial view of The Forks National Historic Site, city centre and local rivers (credit: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation) and The Forks National Historic Site train shed interior conversion project (credit: The Forks)
The nearby Exchange District – the former epicentre of Western Canada’s commodity exchanges – contains 20 city blocks of turn-of-the-century warehouses and magnificent corporate offices. In the midst of ongoing redevelopment and occasional controversy, the district is a protected National Historic Site and has gained international acclaim for its unique array of heritage buildings and 19th century masonry character.
The former Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) flagship store, at over 650,000 square feet, was built to become one of the world’s leading department stores and larger than Selfridges in London. Clad in local ‘Tyndall limestone’, this imposing grand palace of retail is one of Winnipeg’s most beloved architectural icons. HBC’s riches were sourced from the colonial fur trade, but after decades' long decline the company gifted the enormous building to a consortium of Indigenous groups in 2021. Redevelopment is current underway with support from all levels of government; the structure is being revived into a mixed-use hub for Indigenous self-governance, residences, traditional practices, and healthcare.
Winnipeg’s diverse portfolio of heritage buildings is the proud result of local grassroots efforts and advocates who fought for formal protections. Combined with slow growth over the 20th century, Winnipeg did not experience widespread city centre demolition like many of its Canadian peers. Winnipeg has seen occasional losses from failed redevelopment campaigns or owner neglect, but the city still retains many fine examples. This has created a unique architectural fabric, now being rediscovered by visitors, investors and even Hollywood film productions.
In the past decade, Winnipeg has emerged as an attractive alternative to larger Canadian cities and is considered the sixth fastest growing in the country. This presents new opportunities and risks: how can Winnipeg manage development in a manner which respects and retains its heritage buildings? Investors have jumped at the availability of historic structures for redevelopment, but admittedly too few local experts are trained in the field. For architects, there is no formal heritage education offered at the local school of architecture. Young architects – educated in a city with an incredible array of heritage – must seek training elsewhere, creating a brain drain on the city.
I am optimistic Winnipeg can become a world centre of architectural heritage, conservation, and transformation. The city’s rich historical portfolio showcases the cultural, economic, and environmental value of restoring heritage buildings – creating liveable and dynamic neighbourhoods which attract residents old and new.
Many say that the beauty of any city lies within the people, but Winnipeg’s heritage architecture embodies waves of citizens who have shaped the capital into the distinct metropolis today. Conserving Winnipeg’s built history is essential – I am hopeful that with the right attention, skills and expertise, the next century can see transformations which preserve Winnipeg’s unique character for generations to come.
Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) Winnipeg flagship store, c. 1960 (credit: Archives of Manitoba) and Exchange District aerial view, including masonry warehouses (credit: Exchange District Business Association)
Saragarhi - Sikh Heroism Remembered
by Philip Davies, founder and CEO of the Commonwealth Heritage Forum
Shared history comes in many forms. Each year on 12 September Sikh communities in the Punjab and the UK gather for Saragarhi Day. It commemorates the anniversary of the heroic last stand of twenty-one soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment at an outpost in the Samana Hills on the North-West Frontier of then British India, now the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Ranking alongside Thermopylae, it has been designated by UNESCO as one of the eight most heroic battles in human history, yet few outside the Sikh community are even aware of it.
The border territory between Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent runs along one of the great cultural and political fault lines of Asia. Since the time of Alexander the Great, it was, and remains, the subject of volatile clashes between rival empires and tribal groups, most recently with the Taliban. Virtually every hill and strongpoint is fortified bearing witness to generations of conflict.
The outpost shortly after it was re-taken. Courtesy of Australian Sikh Heritage.
126 years ago, on 12 September 1897, a huge force of around 14,000 Afridi and Orakzai tribesmen attacked a small heliographic signal station at Saragarhi garrisoned by just twenty-one Sikhs cutting off nearby Fort Gulistan from Fort Lockhart, two in a chain of forts built to pacify the region. Under the inspirational leadership of Havildar Ishar Singh, who evoked the martial spirit for which the Sikhs are legendary, the token force refused to surrender in the face of overwhelming odds.
Wave after wave of Pashtun tribesmen attacked throughout the day only to be repelled with huge losses. Outnumbered by five hundred to one, when the outer wall was eventually breached, the Sikhs fell back to an inner line and resorted to fierce hand-to-hand fighting.
When the rest of the detachment had fallen, the last surviving defender, 19 years old signalman Sepoy Gurmukh Singh, calmly packed away his heliograph equipment and proceeded to resolutely defend the door of his signal post. Having killed over forty attackers, the Pashtun tribesmen were forced to set fire to the post to dislodge him. As he died in the flames, he is alleged to have shouted the Sikh battle cry: ‘JO BOLEY SO NIHAAL! SAT SRI AKAAL’ which translates as: ‘One will be blessed eternally, who says that God is the ultimate truth.’
The recently-restored Saragarhi memorial built with stones from the ruins of the original fort. Courtesy of Australian Sikh Heritage.
When news of this epic last stand reached London, parliament rose in unison in a standing ovation to the memory of the fallen Sikhs. A full account was placed before Queen Victoria. Parliament paid tribute with the following words:
'The British, as well as the Indians, are proud of the 36th Sikh Regiments. It is no exaggeration to record that the armies which possess the valiant Sikhs cannot face defeat in war.'
All the Sikhs were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit Class III one of the highest gallantry awards given to Indian troops at the time. Never before, or since, has an entire body of troops won such gallantry awards in a single action. All dependants of the fallen were awarded fifty acres of land and five hundred rupees by the British Indian government. An epic Punjabi poem Khalsa Bahadur, written by Chuhar Singh, describes the chivalry and sacrifice of the Sikh soldiers at Saragarhi.
On the site of the fort an obelisk was raised to the fallen using some of the scorched stones from the outpost. It stands to this day and has been restored recently. In 1904 the British Indian Army used the remaining stones to build a stunning commemorative gurdwara (Sikh place of worship) in Ferozepur with a memorial plaque to the fallen, and another in Amritsar.
The Gurdwara in Ferozepur built by the British Indian Army in 1904 with stones from the fort. Courtesy of Australian Sikh Heritage.
Britain and India have shared a special relationship for over 350 years - far longer than with the United States. The diverse cultures of both nations are inextricably intertwined. Over two million people with their origins in the sub-continent now live in Britain, including its current Prime Minister, making an invaluable contribution to national life, while over two million European graves in India bear testimony to a long-shared history in both peace and war.
Saragarhi Day is a useful annual reminder of these close bonds.
Philip Davies is helping the UK Sikh community erect a National Sikh War Memorial in London.
Bula! A walk through Suva’s historic centre
by Karin Taylor
The bustling little city of Suva is Fiji’s second capital city, having replaced Levuka, on the small island of Ovalau, which was the original colonial centre of this small, Pacific island nation. Suva became the new capital in 1877 and the Government administration functions were moved in 1882. As well as being the current commercial and governmental focus of Fiji, Suva also has an important role as a regional centre for the South Pacific, with many administrative and diplomatic activities being located in the city.
Suva is on a peninsula in the south east of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, but as the main international airport is at Nadi, at the western end of Viti Levu and some four hours’ drive away, few tourists reach the capital, instead heading south to the Coral Coast, or west to the Yasawa and Mamanuca Islands. They’re missing a treat, but those arriving on a relatively small number of modest-sized cruise ships, can take advantage of what Suva has to offer; a multi-cultural plethora of people, places, markets, shopping and restaurants and a wealth of colonial era buildings that have survived, albeit in various states of repair and use.
A cruise passenger disembarking their ship will find themselves in Suva’s main market. On leaving the port area they will be faced by one of approximately 46 heritage listed buildings, the Metropole Hotel. They may not notice that, underneath the various retail fascias, the building displays the ground floor arcade and first floor gallery so characteristic of colonial era buildings in Fiji, indeed in the tropical Commonwealth. Recent alterations however have enclosed the galleries and introduced further subdivisions of the internal spaces – an indication of the limited protection offered by heritage listing status in Fiji.
But the visitor must press on – diversions into the retail centre of the city will reveal the King’s Hotel and the nearby Lilac Theatre, both featuring typical arcades and galleries, but lacking their original uses and now needing some TLC, and – in the case of the Lilac Theatre – needing protected status.
Heading back towards the waterfront area and the prime shopping and commercial part of the city centre, the Westpac Bank building and the Regal Cinema are examples of heritage listed buildings that have been restored, albeit with the latter having lost its original purpose, recently used as a fast-food restaurant and currently being in retail use and subject to a proposal for a multi-storey block behind the retained facade. Our visitor could call in at the Lazy Bean Café on the first floor balcony in Jack’s bula shirt store, a fine colonial retail building sympathetically restored and extended. From the balcony (currently the subject of an application for alteration works to enclose it) they could admire the original, but sadly neglected, features, of the once Garrick Hotel next door, now a men’s drinking den upstairs, and subdivided into various retail uses downstairs.
Left: Regal Cinema (credit: R Yarrow). Right: Jack’s and the Garrick Hotel
Continuing down Victoria Parade, a number of heritage buildings reveal themselves – the Fintel Building, the Old Town Hall, the currently disused St Stephen’s House (former Suva Boy’s Grammar School) and the Carnegie Library – the latter standing starkly different from the others, with its gabled portico and grey render.
Left to right: The Fintel Building, St Stephen’s House (former Suva Boys’ Grammar School building), and the Carnegie Library
A little further on, there is a distinct change in the character of the city as our visitor enters the governmental area, with a fine complex of Government Buildings appearing on the left, built in the 1930s and designed by the Chief Colonial architect, Walter Frederick Hedges. A feature of the Government Buildings, in common with many other similar buildings around the Commonwealth, is a tall clock tower, which was recently restored to working order. In the formal grounds around the buildings are statues of two notable Fijian chiefs and statesmen, Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau and Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna.
Immediately past the Government Buildings lies the wide, open expanse of Albert Park, used for major sporting, national and civic events, and where the Australian aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith landed during the first trans-Pacific flight from the United States to Australia in 1928. It was also the site of the first hoisting of the new national flag of Fiji at Independence on 9 October 1970. Unmissable and facing Albert Park on the western side is the Grand Pacific Hotel, the grande dame of the South Pacific, saved from demolition a few years ago and beautifully renovated with advice from the National Trust of Fiji. There is always a genuine welcome to the visitor and traveller at the GPH, with fine views from the rear terraces and gardens across Suva Bay and to the rain forested Namosi Highlands and characteristic Joske’s thumb, a prominent peak on the skyline revealing Fiji’s volcanic past.
Left: Government Buildings and Albert Park. Right: Grand Pacific Hotel
Our visitor should be encouraged to continue a little further, to seek shade and relaxation in Thurston Gardens with its clock tower, bandstand and botanic specimens, and further still to Government House, residence of the President of Fiji and the former Governors, a fine colonial mansion guarded by members of the Fijian armed forces resplendent in their formal white sulus, with gardens and large trees that are home to chattering colonies of fruit bats.
Suva is a fascinating city and Fiji is a beautiful country. 25% of cruise ship passengers choose to stay on board their ship rather than to explore what Suva and indeed Fiji have to offer. The National Trust of Fiji hopes to work with the Commonwealth Heritage Forum to raise awareness of Fiji’s heritage buildings and to find ways to retain them in beneficial use and secure the appropriate restoration of those that have fallen into disrepair.