Monday, November 24, 2014

Manitoba provincial legislature becoming a safety concern

Chinta Puxley, The Canadian Press
Pigeon poop, leaking ceilings and damp, insect-infested trees are slowly degrading what is considered "the most important building" in Manitoba.

The provincial legislature -- a "priceless monument that Manitobans would be unlikely to reproduce" -- is starting to show its age, says a tender put out by the government and obtained by The Canadian Press.

The tender calls for a consultant to assess the state of the legislature, prioritize the necessary renovations and provide a cost estimate. It suggests the province intends to undertake extensive renovations in time for the building's centennial in July 2020.

The legislature's impressive limestone stairs, sculptures and retaining walls are "now deteriorating to the level of life safety concern," the tender says.

It also says the balconies, columns and stone masonry walls are starting to crumble, partly due to "pigeon-related staining" and decay, and partly because of "biological growth."

"All masonry requires cleaning, repair and remediation of the issue causing the damage where feasible."

The roofs over three of the building's porticoes are leaking and mature trees planted around the legislature are starting to cause problems.

"These trees are 1) causing dampness problems on the masonry leading to biological attack, 2) creating interference with window maintenance, 3) housing insects, 4) will eventually lead to foundation damage caused by tree roots," the tender says. "Removal has been recommended."

The legislature is iconic in Manitoba and has its own devoted following due to the Masonic clues that are said to be embedded in its architecture. The building was designed by British architect Frank Worthington Simon and first opened its doors in July 1920.

The edifice is intricately adorned with the bust of Medusa, Egyptian sphinxes and the "Golden Boy" -- a sculpture perched atop the building's dome, which is visible kilometres away.

But it is also a working office building and its designer never envisioned Ethernet cables or Wi-Fi.
"It was built very, very well, but it's also very, very old," said Chris Hauch, assistant deputy minister with Manitoba Infrastructure's accommodation services division.

"It functions as a modern office complex. The majority of rooms are occupied and actually serve as offices, so it's always a challenge keeping that modern and functional in a building that is a century old."

Although provincial staff know the building and its challenges well, the province is seeking an outside opinion on improvements and preventative maintenance needed to keep the legislature in good shape for the future, Hauch said.

"We aren't going out and initiating any construction of any kind. We're not committing to a particular scope of work. The whole point of this is diagnostic."

The report is expected within a few months, Hauch said.

The building is "of irreplaceable value, both from a historic and an architectural point of view," the tender says. Any renovations must maintain "as much of the existing fabric as possible, preserving a sense of age and authenticity."

That gives some comfort to Don Finkbeiner. The tour operator who shows visitors around has noticed the legislature is starting to show its age in some places. The paint is peeling in the rotunda and the columns out front are a bit dirty, he said.

It would be wonderful to see the building carefully restored without distorting the original vision of the architect, Finkbeiner suggested.

"The legislature building is the crowning touch of the development of Winnipeg at the turn of the last century," said Finkbeiner, owner and operator of Heartland Tours.

"It represents the glory days of Winnipeg, so it has to be protected."

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