July 22, 2020
More Than Community: The West End Cultural Centre
Among the everyday comings and goings of the West End lies the West End Cultural Centre at 586 Ellice Avenue. The non-profit charitable organization is a big part of the arts and culture community in Winnipeg, with live theatre performances, lectures, and concerts to highlight incredible talent locally, nationally, and internationally. Performers such Red Moon Road, Royal Canoe, Rayannah and Mica Erenberg have appeared on the Centre’s stage, inspiring and promoting the artistic development of the city’s residents. In addition to outstanding live performances, the West End Cultural Centre (WECC) has become a thriving hub for live music education, an outlet to share and express art, and a place to connect with the community.
The founding document of the WECC by Mitch Podolak states:
The purpose of a Cultural Centre is to function as an animation within the artistic community and within the community at large. On one hand we shall produce on our own, concerts, plays, exhibitions that have a popular appeal to Manitobans. As well we will co-produce with other arts organizations (working with groups like Mime Works, for example) we will endeavor to develop weekend children’s programming, based on Manitoba’s children’s performers. Working with the Kids Festival we could co-produce in our facility productions of a national or international reputation. (The range of the Centre will be the entire performing arts, jazz, country music, folk music, theatre, dance, mime, poetry, storytelling, and classical music will all be included. In many instances it will be possible to plan cross form events encompassing several different arts at once. An example could be ‘Reading from the Poems of Pablo Neruda as accompanied by Interpretive Jazz.
It is not our intention to compete with the existing arts organizations in Winnipeg. On the contrary it is our express intention to compliment them. But more important than that, it is our intent to work directly with local writers and musicians to assist in the creation of new works and to give these new works a public expression. It is also our intention to produce many of the fine artistic work that by passes Winnipeg because of many reasons the most serious of which is fear.
The centre’s current brick facades are painted an eye-catching bright blue, contrasting against the pale, rough-cut stone foundation. The building still has some characteristics of a church (its previous use) with the style of its glass windows, but the timeless design has been made fun and welcoming. Six pieces of art, laser-cut instruments made of steel and aluminum, are displayed at the front of the building. Above the grand front entrance is a banjo and a guitar with necks crossed, in front of the left window is two trumpets framing a grand piano and over the right window is what appears to be either two violins or two double bass with a drum kit in the middle. Local artist James Culleton was commissioned in 2010 to make these incredible designs. Culleton’s work helps brighten the look of the façade while also drawing from the West End Cultural Centre’s history.
Though these are wonderful works of art that encompass the calm yet inviting demeanour of the centre, the WECC has not always looked the same. The WECC has undergone quite a few changes over the years, both in appearance and use. The first building at the corner of Ellice Avenue and Sherbrook was St. Matthew’s Church. Founded in 1896 as a house church, it was a mission of Holy Trinity Church. The wooden building opened on May 16, 1897, with a capacity for 350 people. But the congregation was growing quickly and by 1907, the church needed more space. At the cost of approximately $5,000, the congregation was able to buy three lots to expand the size of the church.
Within a couple of years, the church had to expand again, this time due to increased Sunday school membership, which had spiked to more than 800! By 1909, a brick structure, which eventually became the West End Cultural Centre, replaced the wooden church. Architect Herbert E. Matthews designed the structure of red brick and Tyndall stone. The Gothic-inspired architecture was a nod to the former church, although on a much grander and ornate scale, allowing for a greater number of people to attend services, including the now larger Sunday school program. But this new church was once again quickly outgrown, and in 1912 construction on the new church at St. Matthews Avenue and Maryland Street began.
Over the years, the building became home to Elim Chapel, which was a non-denominational congregation that was formed in 1910. Similar to St. Matthew’s congregation, Elim Chapel soon outgrew the Ellice Avenue building. Instead of expanding, they chose to purchase a vacant church on Portage Avenue and Spence Street. After Elim Chapel moved out, the building was bought by the St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1931. However, due to renovations, they would not hold their first service until later in May. In 1969, they departed for a different church in Wolseley.
According to the Henderson Directory, from 1939 to 1942 the building switched uses from a church to naval barracks. During the Second World War, men and women from the prairies were joining the navy. Cities such as Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Calgary had recruiting divisions and out of those areas, Winnipeg was the most successful recruitment spot in Canada besides the east and west coast. It is possible that the church was used as naval barracks to house these recruits that would receive training at Winnipeg’s Naval Reserve Divison before leaving for the coast for more training. This was not the first time buildings would be used by the military. In October 1942, a Winnipeg Winter Club from 1929, which was said to be the finest in Western Canada was bought out by the Royal Canadian Navy for $256,000, and the space was renovated into the navy’s rifle ranges, living quarters, and training areas.
On April 7, 1973, the Portuguese Association of Manitoba would open the first cultural centre there. After 14 years of hosting live performances, dance, and language classes, the centre outgrew the building and moved to Young Street and Notre Dame Avenue where they would continue hosting live performances, celebrating the growing Portuguese community in the West End.
Not a lot of information is available about what the space was used for between 1942 and 1973, but the city would see the construction of other centres and stages, such as the Rainbow Stage’s founding in 1954, the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO) founding from 1947, and many others.
Mitch Podoluck, founder of the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and Ava Kobrinsky would become the new owners of the building. They purchased the centre for $131,000 and thanks to the help of volunteers and a $75,000 Manitoba grant, were able to transform the structure into what we know as the West End Cultural Centre. On October 23, 1987, the centre hosted its first concert, featuring the Canadian folk-rock band Spirit of the West. From there, the centre would go on to host a variety of shows with different genres of music and art, including literary readings, concerts, and festivals.
In 2003, decades of wear and tear had caught up with the building and it received a failing grade from an engineer’s report. The almost century-old building needed to undergo extensive renovations in order to stay open. Not protected by any historical designation, the owners could have easily chosen to demolish the building and replace it with something new. But understanding its significance as a community gathering place and landmark, the owners instead opted to save the building. The centre was temporarily closed to make way for big changes. Prairie Architects, a firm that focuses on sustainable architecture, was chosen to guide the project. The work included a new reception lobby, an accessible entrance, public washrooms, a multi-purpose lobby/banquet hall and even added spaces in the basement for administration. The WECC also bought two vacant lots and closed a public lane to make space for the expansion.
The resulting extensive work transformed the venue to include a large stage, green room, support spaces and sound and lighting systems. Prairie Architects also used sustainable materials such as the reuse of interior glass walls from a courthouse in Calgary, oak doors and frames, theatre seating from the Epic Theatre on Main Street, and carpets that were added to the basement.
“The building itself is original… The front half of the building is the original church and the back half of the building is the new part of the building, the hall – the performance hall,” says Jason Hooper, the WECC’s Executive Director.
In 2009, the West End Cultural Centre was ready to re-welcome visitors after the $4 million renovations and 5,000 square foot expansion. The building’s grand re-opening was led by alt-pop singer, Hawksley Workman on May 25, resulting in a sold-out concert. Due to its sustainable choices, the West End Cultural Centre gained a LEED Silver certification in 2009. The certification marked the centre as a green building for leadership in energy and environmental design. “I think we were the first music venue in the country to achieve that level,” says Hooper.
Artists from all over have performed at the WECC such as Tanya Tagaq, Feist, Lyle Lovett, among others. Even today amid the issues surrounding COVID-19, the WECC is still finding ways to share the joys of music and art in the community through online live-streamed concerts.
Personally, the centre has had a big influence on Hooper:
“In the early 90s, when I started to go see live music this became a staple for me. It’s a part of my music education… there have been some really amazing artistic performances that I don’t think can happen anywhere else,” says Hooper. “There’s been lots of magic in the room. And some of the best musicians and artists in the world have been through here. It’s a really special place.”
Hooper is not the only one that the centre has made a huge impact on.
“There are lots of people who tell me how much the place has meant to them over the years. There have just been so many special moments that so many people have been able to be a part of. It really has a special place in the community and in a lot of people’s hearts,” says Hooper.
He explains how the centre has also acted as a great place for artists and musicians, going on to talk about a discussion he had with an artist he met in Toronto that had performed at the WECC.
“They told me that the West End Cultural Centre was like a home away from home. It was a place where they knew that no matter how their tour was going, that when they got back to the West End Cultural Centre that they were going to be taken care of, that they were family.”
Although the appearance and organizations making use of the WECC have changed greatly over time, from an early 20th-century church to a thriving modern arts venue, the mission has remained. The building is a place for the community to gather, to feel like they belong, to be inspired and creative, and to make positive contributions to their community. The building’s longevity is a testament to the adaptability of the historic building and the owners’ willingness to see the value in conserving built heritage, for its history, architecture, sustainability and for the community.
After going from a variety of churches to naval barracks, to cultural centres that are so loved by the community, the WECC has become a wonderful example of adaptive reuse. A shining symbol of the community, we hope to see the West End Cultural Centre thrive for many years to come!
Special thank you to Jason Hooper for their insights and stories about the West End Cultural Centre.
THANK YOU TO THE SPONSOR OF THIS BLOG POST:
Written by Georgia Wiebe on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg.