FORT OSBORNE BARRACKS

FORT OSBORNE BARRACKS

By George Siamandas


The new construction visible from Wellington Crescent as you drive towards Assiniboine Park is the new home of the Jewish Community Campus. The complex of four existing brick buildings has been incorporated as part of the new project.

This was the site of western Canada’s first agricultural college: the Manitoba Agricultural College. The Agricultural College was the “pet project” of the Conservative Government of Rodmond P. Roblin, who remained in office from 1900 1915, and who coincidentally served, as both Premier, and Minister of Agriculture. The AG College saw its role as being “concerned with training the future farmer and not the man of science”.

The college’s buildings were built for $250,000 and their designer was architect Samuel Hooper (1851-1911). The English born Hooper began his career as a stone cutter and monument maker and his buildings show a wealth of hand carved stone details.

In 1904, Samuel Hooper became Manitoba’s first provincial architect and the Agricultural College his first government project. But Hooper had already been active in Winnipeg and was also responsible for such notable structures as the Exchange Building (1898), Isbister School (1899), St.Mary’s Academy (1908), the Carnegie Library (1904) and the Winnipeg Land Titles Office (1905) all of which still remain.

It served as a college for only a few years because it quickly ran out of space. The Roblin Government moved the Agricultural College to south Fort Garry in 1910 and built a $4,000,000 university on a new 575 acre site.

In 1917, the site was taken over by the Canadian military and for the next 50 years it served as a military hospital site for veterans returning from WW1 and WW2. Since 1968 it’s been owned by the Province of Manitoba which used it as office space. The four remaining brick buildings received official heritage designation by the Province in June of 1995.

The Jewish Community needed a new facility and was looking for a new location. But attracting a new user to a 14 acre historic site like Fort Osborne was a challenge. It was necessary to agree to retain the four college buildings and to preserve the arrangement of the campus plan layout of the open field to the south. Prior to this a condominium project had been proposed for the site but the plans fell through due to economic difficulties. Several years ago, the Jewish Community stepped forward with a proposal that seemed to accommodate the heritage restrictions of the site. The new development will be incorporate the four significant historic buildings into the new building complex.

It comprises a Jewish school that will housing up to 900 students from kindergarten to grade 12; a Jewish Museum; and a new home for the YMHA which will provide recreation and health facilities. The old powerhouse has become a 200 seat theatre. The site was acquired for $2.2 million and the whole project is estimated to have cost about $26 million.

This project demonstrates that with sufficient time, unique heritage sites like Fort Osborne can find compatible and sympathetic new users. It is fortunate that the historic educational role can be continued here.

In downtown Winnipeg several other important heritage buildings await their turn. They wait for the next expansion for the economy and that next governmental assistance program that will provide some the needed development funds. But till their turn comes it is important to buy time and keep them standing.

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