Old Winnipeg brought to life by award-winning historian

Land speculation was name-of-the-game after Manitoba joined the federation

By Jo Simon

Randy Rostecki gets preservation award.
Randy Rostecki gets preservation award.

Pick a time in a chat with Randy Rostecki, any time, going back a few decades or many more; get him talking, and you will uncover a world that bears scant resemblance to the busy but quite mundane world that lies outside your window.

A time, perhaps, when the village of Winnipeg and its environs were undergoing their first boom, starting around 1870 and running through to the economic collapse in the spring of 1882. A time that is when the future city of Winnipeg was starting to take shape, with the beginnings of land settlement beyond the little village beside the Red River, a time when anyone around with cash was buying up land, to build an impressive grand mansion that would speak of power and prestige, or perhaps to subdivide and sell, to further augment their fortune when the moment was right.

Randy-RosteckiHonoured by Government House
Randy, a much-published Winnipeg historian, and 2013 recipient of the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Historical Preservation and Promotion, speaks of that period, and the Winnipeg that came after, with a quiet affection, bringing back to life the mood and characters of those free-swinging days, and the dreams that left their mark on the young settlement. Here from an interview with Randy and from his books are gleaned some highlights of those times.

Winnipeg was essentially a one-street settlement at the time Manitoba joined the confederation. Its centre was Main Street, with a few minor streets, including Portage Avenue, a mere trail off to the side, the population settled on vast lots running back from the Red and Assiniboine rivers. With the boom of the 1870s, the local population began slowly to build shelters outside that central core, in places like the reclusive Armstrong’s Point and, south of the Assiniboine, in the area that would become Crescentwood and farther out on the bald prairie. There would be plenty of drama, very much tied into the local landscape, as the land development moved forward.

In that process, neighbourhoods would vie for recognition as being the most affluent, most distinguished, and most beautiful of the area’s communities. The Hudson Bay Company would, in a different way, battle to enhance its status. It declared its 450-acre territory a townsite, making itself a rival of Winnipeg. It set out to establish Broadway Avenue, an expansive residential street, as the main street for the territory, but lost when the feds located the new post office at McGregor and Main, and thus created the busiest commercial area of the new settlement.

Land speculation was the popular investment activity in the territory among the well-off, and land sharks, from near and far, were forever stirring up the land market as they got their hands on large estates or settlement territory and subdivided it. They habitually made their pitches to distant, gullible and, yes, greedy buyers. As the subdivided land was dumped onto the market, in response to an economic boom, values would crash, hurting just about everyone.

The more affluent Winnipeggers, with their vast and costly homes, seemed to be forever on the move. Armstrong’s Point, one of the more proudly affluent areas – it had its own castle – saw its many over-sized lots and even its vast, boulevarded main avenue, brought down to size as middle-class Winnipeggers to a large degree began to displace the affluent through much of the 20th century. The rich were moving up in the world, or leaving the city, or moving down and into small apartments or bungalow-sized homes.

Flash forward to the boom period from 1905 to 1912, when the land sharks were busy in the suburbs, notably St. James and St. Vital, subdividing so much land that buyers wouldn’t touch it. Municipalities took over land, as the buyers defaulted on their taxes. It was the Winnipeg airport that saved the day, purchasing acres of the small divided lots – and suddenly St. James had what it called its industrial strategy, as warehouses opened up and down the nearby streets, and manufacturers moved over from the Exchange District.

And oh yes, as the early post-Second World War boom continued, architects would poured into Winnipeg, many of them returning home from studies abroad, introducing the locals to a bunch of new architectural styles and ideas that were coming into vogue across the planet. We natives, however, scarcely noticed the change.

Courageous advocate
A Manitoba Historical Society fact sheet on the lieutenant governor’s awards paid tribute. “Many people describe Randy Rostecki as a ‘walking and talking encyclopedia’ of the city’s rich architectural legacy,” it noted. “He has written meticulously researched reports, articles and books. He has been a passionate and courageous advocate for the preservation of important sites and buildings. And he has selflessly offered information and advice to generations of students, librarians, archivists, researchers and academics.”

Randy has written a fascinating book on the settlement of the beautiful and historic Armstrong’s Point, which thrusts itself into the Assiniboine River near Maryland bridge, as well as books on near-neighbours, Crescentwood and the venerable, respected St. Mary’s Academy. He has just finished a pilot study for the city of Winnipeg, which takes a hard look at Winnipeg’s modern, postwar suburbs.

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