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July 3, 2019

Fighting for a Future: The Vaughan Street Jail

The Vaughan Street Jail is an ominous building that has loomed over Memorial Boulevard for nearly 140 years. Winnipeg’s primary jail from 1881 to 1930, men, women, and even children as old as five were incarcerated in the Vaughan Street Jail. The jail is the most popular site in Doors Open Winnipeg, receiving thousands of visitors and repeatedly voted the Best Overall Experience. Today, the employees of the Province of Manitoba occupy a section of the main floor, while the rest of the building is vacant.

Vaughan Street Jail during Doors Open Winnipeg 2019
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Files

Most of the buildings surrounding the Manitoba Legislative Building on the east end of Memorial Boulevard are uniform in appearance, echoing the Legislative’s Tyndall stone facade and neoclassical styling. Smooth and bright facades, sometimes adorned with columns, friezes, and pediments, create a pleasing consistency between the provincially owned Law Courts, Archives of Manitoba and Legislative.

One building, however, stands apart from the others on this street. Located at 444 York Avenue, the Vaughan Street Jail has an aesthetic very different from its neoclassical and art deco neighbours. The Jail has a buff brick facade, rough and austere, a sharp contrast next to the uniformity of its Tyndall stone surroundings. No images adorn these walls, no reliefs etched into pediments for the observers’ admiration. Barred windows on the bottom floor windows remind that the building was designed to keep the unsavory locked away. A hard and unfriendly looking building, it is not a place you would want to stay long.

That is not what Walter Chesterton, the Jail’s architect, had in mind when he designed the building in 1881. Intended to replace the horrible old jail on Main Street, Chesterton imagined a jail that would avoid the bleak and depressing appearance of jails from his time. He looked to Italy for inspiration and based the Jail’s design on churches built during the Renaissance. Chesterton succeeded, creating a somber, Italianate inspired building that commanded respect while encouraging one to pause and contemplate their actions, much in the way that a church does.

The Vaughan Street Jail c.1884 
Source: McGill University, Notman Photographic Archives #1420.

But the enlightening appearance of the Jail was short lived. Structural problems led to the hiring of Samuel Hooper, who was the architect for the renovations in 1909 and 1910. Gone was the fine ornamentation on the facade, replaced only with a cupola and weather vane. Plain and austere, the Jail took on its grave and imposing appearance that it maintains to this day.

Vaughan Street Jail.
Source: Nicole Treusch

It is easy to see the Vaughan Street Jail’s severe architecture and want to look away, especially when there are more attractive buildings so near by. Why look at the Jail when the Legislative Building is right there with its elegant columns and pretty pediments? But it is a mistake to avert your eyes. The Jail is an important part of Winnipeg’s history. It has held famous Canadians, like John Queen, a prominent supporter of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike and later mayor of Winnipeg, and it has held infamous criminals, like Earl Nelson, a serial killer who was the thirteenth person hanged at the Vaughan Street Jail.  These people, good and bad, are part of Winnipeg’s history, and part of their history is the Vaughan Street Jail.

The public understands this significance. That is clear when you see how many people visit the Jail during Doors Open Winnipeg, the only two days when it is open to the public. Over 2500 tourists from Winnipeg and beyond line up to see the Jail’s gloomy architecture and hear tales of its sordid past. Those numbers are impressive when you consider that for about three hundred and sixty days a year the jail is largely vacant. Through Doors Open Winnipeg, the Jail once again becomes a vibrant and occupied building, an excellent example of how the building could be successfully reused instead of allowed to slowly decay.

Vaughan Street Jail line up for Doors Open Winnipeg 2019. 
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Files

Kristen Treusch deserves credit for breathing life back into this building as she has worked hard to spread awareness and protect the Jail since the early 2000s. In 2004, with the help of Heritage Winnipeg, Treusch founded the Friends of the Vaughan Street Jail, a group dedicated to researching, preserving and promoting the building. The Friends of the Vaughan Street Jail have been interested in converting the Jail into a museum since their founding. In 2005, they submitted a proposal to the Province to redevelop the Jail into a museum with a gift shop, tearoom, inn, and bar. The province never responded. So instead the Friends continue to put on a fantastic show for Doors Open Winnipeg, dressing up in costumes and playing different roles, all while telling stories and giving tours of the Jail. Their work has paid off, with the Jail being voted the Best Overall Experience at Doors Open Winnipeg in the 9th annual Peoples’ Choice Awards and having won Best Tour in the six previous years.

Kristen Treusch and Door Open Winnipeg Volunteers for the Vaughan Street Jail 
accepting the Best Overall Experience award.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Files

Inveraray Jail, a former jail in Scotland also deserves some credit for this success – it is the muse for the Vaughan Street Jail. Inveraray Jail served as a courthouse and prison from 1820-1889, until it closed and lay desolate for a century. Then in 1989, the jail was reopened as a museum with re-enactments of trials and the lives of inmates. Treusch toured the jail during a holiday in Scotland. Impressed, Treusch wondered, “is there anything like this in Winnipeg?” The question led Treusch writing a thesis on the Vaughan Street Jail for her joint masters’ program at the University of Winnipeg and Manitoba. Her research led to a troubling discovery: the Vaughan Street Jail has been essentially empty for over 20 years! After Headingly Jail opened in 1930, the Vaughan Street Jail was covered to a youth detention and remand centre which closed in 1984. Now the upper floors and basement are vacant with the remaining being used for storage. Inspired by Inveraray Jail, Treusch believed she could adaptively reuse the building converting the unused space into a museum, and so reached out to Heritage Winnipeg for help.

Inveraray Jail
Source: Wikipedia

The Friends of the Vaughan Street Jail are not alone; another group shares the same dream. The Corrections Museum of Manitoba Historical Society, founded in 2017, has also reached out to Heritage Winnipeg with a dream of turning the Vaughan Street Jail into a corrections museum. Peter Korzeniowski, a founding member of the organization has been collecting artefacts and stories connected to corrections facilities across the province. The Jail would make a fitting location to share these artefacts and their stories with the public.

There has been trials and tribulations while trying to raise awareness and revitalize the Jail. The Province of Manitoba did not share Winnipeggers’ enthusiasm for the building, at one time removing it from Doors Open Winnipeg for unknown reasons. If the Province had big plans to reuse the building at that time, they did not share, instead leaving the building mostly vacant. Only the first floor was heated, and the roof was showing decay. Heritage Winnipeg inquired as to what the Province’s plans were for the building but received no meaningful response. By 2011 there was genuine fear that the Province wanted to sit on the building till it decayed to a point where they could justify demolishing it.

Inside the Vaughan Street Jail where a Doors Open volunteer demonstrates how inmates were hanged at the jail.
The original location where hangings took place is now a parking lot.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg Files

Fortunately, the Jail has since returned to Doors Open Winnipeg and continues to draw huge crowds every year. Additionally, Heritage Winnipeg receives numerous inquires throughout the year from groups and individuals hoping to access the building for all sorts of interesting projects. But no one is allowed into the building and its future remains uncertain, with demolition by neglect still a concern. The province has not designated the building as a heritage site, and since they alone have the authority to designate, there is little others can do to protect it. Heritage Winnipeg is hopeful that the Province will come to see the potential of the Jail and how enthusiastic Winnipeggers are about their history, finally allowing the building to be reused and revitalized to its full potential.

Learn more about the history of the Vaughan Street Jail:

Written by Cheryl Mann and Adam Lukowski, Young Canada Works Student, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Manitoba Legislative Building (450 Broadway, Winnipeg)Historic Sites of Manitoba: Winnipeg Law Courts Building (391 Broadway, Winnipeg)
Historic Sites of Manitoba: Winnipeg Auditorium / Archives of Manitoba / Manitoba Legislative Library (200 Vaughan Street, Winnipeg)

Memorable Manitobans: Walter Chesterton (1845-1931)
Memorable Manitobans: Samuel Hooper (1851-1911)
Memorable Manitobans: John Queen (1882-1946)

Winnipeg Police Service: Earl Nelson
Inveraray Jail
Locked Out Of Jail: Winnipeg Free Press, Saturday, May 26, 2011, P.J1

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