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February 27, 2020

The Life and Death of the Elms

Set behind a veil of greenery sits a stately white house, with a large portico hinting at the type of grand home it once was. Slowly being reclaimed by the landscape, the house has taken on the appearance of a romantic folly, perched high on the shore of the Assiniboine River. A relic from a golden era, the house is a glorious example of the adaptability and longevity of built heritage. But its life is being cut short, reduced to rubble in the name of progress, casting aside all the contributions it has made to its community. It is a frustrating example of the disregard we had for our historic buildings, putting profit before communities and the environment. How many more magnificent buildings must be lost before we realize the whole forest has been cut down?

The Elms in 2019.
Source: Monopoly Realty.

John Leslie was born on August 16, 1852, into a Scottish family that immigrated to Canada in 1857. The family settled in Prescott, Ontario, where Leslie attended school and eventually went into business as a carriage maker. But Leslie had big dreams, dreams of doing much more than building carriages. At age 30 he packed his bags and headed west, seeing its potential for prosperity years before the railway connected the vast country. Arriving in Winnipeg in 1880, Leslie began a new life by promptly joining the Scott Furniture Company, which was started by Thomas Scott, another gentleman from Ontario who had arrived in Winnipeg six years prior.

John Leslie.
Source: Winnipeg Evening Tribune, Saturday February 13, 1915, page 10.

The furniture business was good to Leslie. Well-situated on Main Street between Bankers’ Row and Upper Fort Garry, the company was firmly established by the time the transcontinental railway arrived in Winnipeg. By 1885 Scott decided to retire and sold his company to his son, Fredrick W. Scott and Leslie, creating “Scott & Leslie, The Big Furniture House”. Ten years later in 1895 Leslie left the company to strike out on his own, with the Leslie Furnishing Company soon becoming a household name in Winnipeg.

John Leslie’s furniture store in 1904.
Source: Winnipeg Canada.

 

John Leslie’s furniture store on Main Street has long since been demolished.
Source: Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection.

A successful businessman, Leslie was the Director of the Canada West Fire Insurance Company, on the Board of Management for the Manitoba College, a Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Manitoba, quartermaster and honorary captain of the 100th Winnipeg Grenadiers, and member of various prominent social clubs. He married Phoebe Elizabeth Andrews in 1882 and together they had two daughters. Not yet satisfied with his accomplishments and in his fifties, Leslie undertook one final big project, building a family home

An advertisement for Leslie’s Furnishing Company in 1905.
Source: Winnipeg Daily Tribune, March 31, 1905, page 9.

Leslie chose to build his home in the Crescentwood neighbourhood, “Winnipeg’s Finest Residential District”. At the start of the 20th century it was far from the hustle and bustle of downtown, and only recently made easily accessible by the construction of the Maryland Bridge in 1894. Real estate mogul Charles Henry Enderton was the brainchild of the development, with many of Winnipeg’s rich and famous eventually building homes there. As an affluent citizen of the city, Leslie was setting the trend when his was one of the first houses to be built in Crescentwood in 1905.

Crescentwood was a quiet neighbourhood with heavily treed lots and houses set far back from the road in the early 20th century.
Source: PastForward.

Leslie built his home, named “The Elms”, at 679 Wellington Crescent. The house was a master class in restraint, an elegant demonstration of the timeless beauty of quiet classical revival architecture. A rough-cut stone foundation supported two and a half storeys, topped with a subtle dentil cornice tucked under the eaves. Welcoming guests was a sweeping staircase leading up to a large semicircular portico with stately Doric columns, that sheltered a generous set of double doors. Stepping inside your eye would immediately be drawn to a grand wooden staircase framed by two large fluted wooden columns. The house contained 22 rooms, finished with hardwood floors, wood trim, wood paneling, fine tile work, all varieties of elaborate crown molding and six fireplaces, although the house was heated with radiators. Two sunrooms ensured the ground floor was flooded with light, with one on the west side of the house to capture the afternoon sun. A second more unconventional semicircular sunroom was built on the north side of the house, providing panoramic views of the Assiniboine River while mirroring the shape of the portico on the front of the house. Undoubtedly, the house would have been decorated with the finest furniture provided by Leslie’s own company.

The back of the Elms which faces the Assiniboine River, in 2019.
Source Monopoly Realty.

Leslie and his family lived in the house until Leslie’s death in 1915. A 1917 map of Crescentwood shows the property at 697 Wellington Crescent belonging to Major T. G. Langford, suggesting that the Leslie family left the Elms shortly after the death. Langford’s story is lost in the annals of time, but his title of “Major” suggests he might have known Leslie, who was involved with the military right up to the point of his death. Later, Claude Percy Banning took up residency in the Elms, staying there until his death in 1944.

Many newspapers in Winnipeg covered the passing of John Leslie.
Source: Winnipeg Evening Tribune, February 16, 1915, page 2.

By the middle of the 20th century, Winnipeg was undergoing a transformation. The end of the Second World War marked the rise of the personal automobile in the city, facilitating the great plight known as urban sprawl. Well to do families left once fashionable neighbourhoods for greener pastures in new suburbs on the edges of the ever-expanding city, while older homes featuring revival styles of architecture fell out of favour. Having lived through two wars and a depression, forward was the only direction people were interested in looking, not back at reminders of the unhappy past. The latest technologies were being embraced to create new styles, with seemingly weightless cantilevered glass curtain walls replacing the heavy masonry of the past. Modernist architecture quickly became all the rage for both residential and commercial buildings.

John A. Russell, the father of modernist architecture in Canada, designed his own 1956 home at 740 South Drive in Winnipeg, built in the modernist style.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation.

Although it is unknown who owned the Elms during this period, it is known that the house was converted into a rooming house. This was a common trend for large old homes in Winnipeg, with some of them still existing today. Unfortunately, today’s rooming houses are often viewed as a blight in Winnipeg communities. But rooming houses should not be seen as something to eradicate, for they provide an important housing option in the city. A well-managed rooming house that values its residents as much as it does profits, can be a respectable home for low income individuals and a prime option for those who enjoy the community it provides. As all Winnipegger’s, regardless of their socioeconomic standing, deserve a stable and safe place to call home, rooming houses are as an important form of housing today as they were in the mid-century. With its 22 rooms, the Elms was an excellent option for converting into a boarding house. It increased the density of the neighbourhood without any destruction or new construction, maintained the community’s character, ensured the functionality of the building and contributed to the variety of housing options available.

A view of the Assiniboine River from the Elms in May 2017.
Source: OikosHouse.

Another issue that may have cast the Elms in an unfavorable light during this period was its risk of flooding. Situated on the southern bank on the Assiniboine River and only a short distance from the river’s junction with the Red River, spring flooding became a serious problem in 1950. Water levels at the James Avenue Pumping Station in Winnipeg peaked at 30.2 feet, with normal summer level being only 6.5 feet. Some particularity unlucky low lying areas of the city were covered with a staggering 15 feet of water! The Red River Floodway, which currently protects much of the city from catastrophic spring flooding like that experienced in 1950, was not completed until 1968. A savvy house shopper in the 1950s would certainly think twice about purchasing a house in a neighbourhood that had recently been drowned by the rivers.

Canoeing down Wellington Crescent at Niagara Street during the spring flood on May 20, 1950.
Source: Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection.

In 1956 the Elms was sold to Richard Wilfred Queen-Hughes and Katherine Gloria Queen-Hughes. Both writers for the Winnipeg Tribune, the couple embarked on restoring the house to its former glory as a single-family home. Interested in politics, in 1933 Katherine was the youngest women to hold a public office and in 1966 became the first woman to run for Mayor of Winnipeg, only to be defeated by the city’s longest serving mayor, Stephen Juba. Juba, who championed demolishing Winnipeg’s much beloved historic warehouse district and replacing it with modernist buildings, seems to rather contrast Katherine, who had lovingly preserved a heritage home. Richard’s interest was in the military, having served in the Winnipeg Grenadiers during the Second World War and written a book on military history. Did Richard know the builder of the Elms had served as honourary captain of the same regiment? Or did he simply see the potential and appreciate the timeless beauty and quality craftsmanship of the “grand old lady”?

The Elms in November 2017.
Source: OikosHouse.

The Queen-Hughes left the Elms in 1974, which marked the beginning of a period of uncertain ownership of the house. It is clear that by the early 21st century the house had transformed into a co-operative, and functioned as such until the house was sold in 2018. Housing co-operatives are non-profit associations that provide affordable, accountable, at cost housing where all matters of governance are controlled by members of the co-op. It is a flexible housing model popularized in Canada during the 1970s and 1980s as an economical choice that had the added benefit of a built-in community. Along with housing an eclectic group of individuals, the Elms also became a performance venue with the basement taking center stage for everything from music to poetry. Kristen Andrews, long-time owner of the Winnipeg institution Ragpickers Antifashion Emporium, Kristen Andrews, called the Elms home during its co-operative days.

I knew it was a rarity – a city house that felt country. Inspired again by communal ideals, I chose a lifestyle that fulfilled through the quality, rather than quantity, of my possessions and experiences.

Kristen Andrews in Geez, February 19, 2012

After the sale of the house, it is unclear if anyone ever lived in the Elms again. In 2019 the house was put up for sale again, with the land being marketed as a development opportunity because the house was to be demolished. The lot was being sold in two pieces, with the easterly lot being sold as of February 2019. It is shameful that an historic house such as the Elms, which has sheltered so many individuals time and time again and that displayed its ability to adapt to changing circumstances, is now being torn down with no regard for the value it holds. Lot splitting is a growing trend in Winnipeg, all too often orchestrated by financially motivated developers who greenwash their projects as densification, when they really have no regard for the negative impact felt by the community and environment. The destruction of functional structures results in the building along with all its embodied energy going to waste, filling garbage dumps and polluting the environment along the way. It also requires the production of new materials and more energy being used to replace the structure that was demolished. Additionally, new buildings command a higher price, creating gentrification that forces long time residences out of their community. Simply put, destruction disguised as densification should not be tolerated.

The living room of the Elms in October 2017, looking into the semicircular sunroom on the back of the house.
Source: OikosHouse.

A historic house is much more than four walls and a roof, it tells the story of the community, of its rise and fall, of its struggles and triumphs, all while providing shelter through the good times and the bad. It is a connection to our past and an opportunity for our future, ensuring environmental sustainability and affordable housing for all. The demolition of the Elms is a tragedy that did not have to happen, it is the product of regressive policy that is setting Winnipeg back instead of moving it forward. The Elms was once on the City of Winnipeg’s historic building inventory, which was done away with in 2014. If the inventory still existed, any plans to demolish the house would have triggered a review of the property to assess its historical value before decisions regarding its potential demise were made. Inside, the Elms is on the City of Winnipeg’s Commemorative List of Historical Resources, , which is nothing more than a meaningless list. It offers the buildings on it no protection. The list is a disservice, and an effort to placate heritage advocates when the only actual commemoration a building will get is its name printed on a demolition permit.

All creatures, great and small, have found shelter at the Elms in its 115 years of existence.
Source: OikosHouse.

Winnipeg deserves better. Our heritage should be cherished and celebrated! While densification is an important step in halting the evils of urban sprawl, it should not be done at the cost of the environment and community. Developers need to find more creative means of building new units without destroying what is already standing. Reinstating the heritage inventory list would be an excellent way of ensuring historic buildings are properly assessed before any rash decisions are made, in a manageable, as needed fashion. Our built heritage is a valuable resource for our city, one that cannot be replaced once it is lost. The time to act is now, not when the dust has settled and we are lamenting our losses. Unfortunately, the lifespan of the Elms will be cut short, while the towering trees that are its namesake go on, waiting for Winnipeg to do better.

 

THANK YOU TO THE SPONSOR OF THIS BLOG POST:
https://www.yarrowsashanddoor.com/


Written by Cheryl Mann on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg


SOURCES:
CBC – FAQ
City of Winnipeg – Commemorative List of Historic Resources 
Co-op Housing Federation of Canada – About Co-op Housing 
Facebook – Oikos 697 Wellington Farewell Party!
Geez – Long-time owner gives her Anti-Fashion Emporium over to a co-op full story
Heritage Winnipeg Files
Instagram – oikoshouse
Manitoba Free Press – Capt. John Leslie seriously ill – February 9, 1915, page 11
Manitoba Historical Society – Katherine Gloria Queen-Hughes
Manitoba Historical Society – John Leslie
Manitoba Historical Society – Leslie House
Manitoba Historical Society – Richard Wilfred Queen-Hughes
Manitoba Historical Society –  Thomas Scott
Manitoba Music – Event 
Monopoly Realty – B 697 Wellington CR
New Journey Housing – Co-op Description
North East Winnipeg Historical Society – Crescentwood Winnipeg’s Finest Residential District 1917
PastForward – Main Street, Looking South from Corner Portage Ave., Winnipeg
Province of Manitoba – Historic Flood – 1950 
Province of Manitoba – Red River Floodway
Winnipeg Evening Tribune – Prominent man of business dead – February 15, 1915, page 4
Winnipeg Evening Tribune – Well-known merchant dies – February 13, 1915, page 10

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