Artspace is now 30 years old. Happy Birthday to us! By contrast, the building that houses Artspace – The Gault Building – is 116 years old. The fact that it is still a vital part of downtown life is really quite remarkable. The original tenant, Gault Brothers Wholesalers, passed into history in the nineteen seventies and the dry-goods warehouse was re-imagined, gutted and reconstructed in the eighties, to become what we now know as accommodation for Winnipeg arts organizations and artists. Artspace.
Before renovating such a facility, the planners must identify building characteristics that they want to preserve or restore. In the case of the Gault Building, it was obvious that the wood, stone and brick structure itself would remain; to blend in as an integral part of the district that surrounds it. The stonework was cleaned, the windows were patched, the roof was modernized and the wire roof sign was replaced with a sturdy facsimile (with a new name).
The challenge, of course, is maintaining that historic integrity while incorporating a state-of-the-art infrastructure: energy efficient and compliant with fire and construction codes of a new age. Accomplishing that became an intense three-year project involving the best architects, builders, designers and technicians of the time – some drawn from retirement to realize the full potential of the project.
It’s a story repeated over and over again in every city: old spaces are reworked to become the essential spaces of a new era. The good news is that there is a pervasive commitment to maintaining at least the feeling of our history by holding onto as many remnants as possible of the buildings that once were. The street-level appeal of a collection of buildings that allows visitors and residents to interact with history is immeasurable. With every passing year, historic districts are more and more critical to the vitality and economy of a city.
For all the difficulties inherent in appeasing the ‘Preservation Not Demolition’ movement, architecture and construction has risen to the challenge time and again. In Winnipeg’s Exchange District, the results are frequently stunning.