Timeworn turn-of-the-century enclave reborn as heritage oasis

Many residents of Armstrong’s Point share a love of old houses and find a perverse satisfaction in fixing them up — fitting traits in a neighbourhood poised to become Winnipeg’s first heritage conservation district.

Residents’ loving care has Armstrong’s Point poised to become Winnipeg’s 1st heritage conservation district

This home is one of many homes that has experienced a transformation by its owners in historic Armstrong's Point. (Google street view)

When Kelly Van Camp told his wife, Darlene Irwin, that he had found an old house for them in Winnipeg, she thought, "Oh no, not again."

"Darlene vetoed it after she arrived," Van Camp said with a laugh. "But by then it was too late. The deal had gone through."

Had they known how special their new neighbourhood would become to them and others, Irwin might have been less hesitant.

Their Middle Gate home is in Armstrong's Point, which is poised to become Winnipeg's first heritage conservation district. The house came not only with a lot of work, but a colourful history in a neighbourhood where homeowners feel a duty to preserve its character.

Van Camp and Irwin had just spent 10 years renovating their home in Kelowna and were still recovering from that experience when they moved to Winnipeg for work in 2002.

Van Camp, an engineer, fell for a house in the neighbourhood affectionately known as the Gates, not far from downtown. Tyndal "gates" (they're actually pillars) flank each of the three streets leading into the enclave, which is contained in a bend of the Assiniboine River.

Theirs was a typical Gates home: it needed updating, a fresh coat of paint and a whole lot more.

One of the before pictures of the Irwin/Van Camp home (K. Van Camp)

"Two BFI garbage bins were filled with what had been left in the house, before anyone could even think about cleaning," Irwin recalled.

"The previous owner was a bit of a hoarder. He left boxes full of dead batteries, papers from the '60s, furniture and junk everywhere, inside and out," Van Camp said.

Nowhere to shower

When Irwin arrived in Winnipeg, the house was almost uninhabitable.

"I gave strict instructions with the plumbers to gut two of the bathrooms and leave one functioning. Of course, they gutted all three, so we didn't even have indoor plumbing," Van Camp said.

The couple was horrified, but they stayed. Ever the trooper, Irwin took her daily shower at Pan Am Pool, across the river in the Grant Park neighbourhood.

And thus began their journey to transform a glorious old home, which had become downtrodden and weary over time, back into a thing of beauty.

Their house was built in 1904 on nearby Furby Street. In 1929, it was moved to the last available lot in Armstrong's Point. Over the years, it has served as a family home, a rooming house and a disco-era party headquarters, complete with a mirrored ball that was still hanging when the current owners took it on.

"Each of the upstairs rooms had its own numbered door," Irwin said. "And the basement was divided by partitions into a catacomb of classrooms of some kind."

The self-professed hippies cringe at consumerism and waste. They are committed to recycling as much as they can, but in a tasteful way.

Irwin and Van Camp found this dresser on the boulevard. They repainted it and added a new top to give it a new life. (CBC/Sandra Thacker)

"We rescue things like plants left on the boulevard," Irwin admitted. "We rescue animals. All our furniture is cast-off or handed down."

Over the past 14 years, the couple has updated all the electrical and plumbing systems in the house. There isn't a surface they haven't restored or rebuilt, they said, including the front porch.

Early risers

What's their secret? They get up at the crack of dawn, and they are always working.

"We keep fixing up chairs, but I don't know why, because we rarely sit down," Van Camp said, laughing. "We're always working on something."

The backyard is an oasis of peace and calm. (CBC/Sandra Thacker)

"If you love old houses, it's going to be a lot of hard work, and sometimes you'll wonder why you did it," Irwin said.

The former art teacher said despite her initial misgivings, she wouldn't have it any other way.

"I would rather bring back an old house than build new, because you have the satisfaction of saving a piece of history."

Heritage status nears

The City of Winnipeg is also becoming interested in that history. The property, planning and development department, along with outside consultants HTFC Planning and Design Inc., SPAR Planning and Historyworks, has been looking at creating heritage conservation districts in Winnipeg — and making Armstrong's Point the first.

Since 2013, city staff have been working with residents of Armstrong's Point to make it a prototype for other neighbourhoods. Completion of the bylaw is expected later this year.

"The heritage [conservation district] designation for Armstrong's Point is important, because it will provide a means of commemorating and celebrating the neighbourhood's unique architecture, massing and ambience as a whole, as well as a mechanism to manage those important features," said Jennifer Hansell, a senior urban designer for the City of Winnipeg.

Diamond in the rough

Many residents who buy a home in Armstrong's Point face restoration challenges.

Melva Widdicombe and Ivan Sabesky experienced love at first sight when they discovered their home on East Gate. Like a relationship, 17 years later, they are still committed to maintaining and restoring it.

When Sabesky was a university student in the '70s he lived in a house on Middle Gate. After living in Winnipeg's North End for a number of years, Sabesky decided to check out the houses in Armstrong's Point again.

"I remember we were just walking through the neighbourhood," Widdicombe recalled. "We noticed the natural light in the house. We came back the next day and we bought it."

The couple was smitten with the huge wraparound porch. They also loved the floor to ceiling windows and brick exterior.

But Widdicombe admits they didn't check everything thoroughly. She even refers to it as a teardown.

One of the biggest headaches was that wraparound porch.

"We got an estimate to fix it, but when it came down to it, everyone refused to take it on," she said. "And we had already bought the house. We were pretty upset."

Headstrong and determined

So Sabesky, who lost his right arm in a childhood farming accident, went to Canadian Tire, bought a jack and hoisted the wraparound porch back up himself, using his good arm.

"It was easy," Sabesky said. "I crawled underneath the porch with three hydraulic jacks and three short beams, then slowly lifted the whole thing up over several days. I'm still not sure why the experts didn't figure that out."

Then there were the pigeons that had to be evicted. The former owners' cats also had left their mark. Odours were masked by open cans of coffee strategically placed throughout the house.

Widdicombe is highly allergic to cats.

"We couldn't even sleep in the house the first night," she said. "I sat on the front step, having an asthma attack. I started crying, because I thought we had made a foolish, romantic mistake.

"I thought, 'This is the worst purchase I've ever made, and it's the biggest purchase I've ever made in my life, and here it is, totally unlivable.'"

Armstrong's Point as heritage oasis

5 years ago
Many residents of Armstrong’s Point share a love of old houses and find a perverse satisfaction in fixing them up -- fitting traits in a neighbourhood poised to become Winnipeg’s first heritage conservation district. 3:12

From teardown to thing of beauty

Fast-forward 17 years, and what used to be the porch is now a striking two-storey curved addition, with 18-foot ceilings soaring above the grand dining room.

Widdicombe now refers to her house as a living museum, infused with her love of antiques, mannequins and fabrics.

What was home to pigeons is now a grand dining room with soaring 18 foot ceilings. (CBC/Sandra Thacker)

The front parlour contains a Victorian needlepoint fire screen, century-old fashion magazines, a copper coal hod and beaded bags from the 1920s.

A baker's shelf, a kitchen scale from Eatons and countless gowns and dresses from days gone by are among the other items of interest scattered throughout the house.

Homeowner Melva Widdicombe describes her home now as a 'living museum.' (CBC/Sandra Thacker)

Committed to community

Widdicombe, a retired consultant for inner city education in Winnipeg, is active in the neighbourhood tree committee.  

"It's a magical feeling here because of the canopy of trees, and the air quality is good," she explained.

​"It takes a lot of work, being part of this community, because there are many things to do. But it gives you a sense of purpose. For me, that sense of purpose is my work with trees," she said.

"I want us to look towards the future and have a real vision for what we can do to keep our canopy healthy and also look at the biodiversity here."

Sabesky, a former occupational hygienist, is the incoming president of the Armstrong's Point Association, a residents' organization. He believes grassroots participation is essential for good neighbourhoods.

"It is when individuals within a neighbourhood can see the benefits of participation that change and growth can flourish," he said.

Ivan Sabesky and Melva Widdicombe have turned what was originally a teardown into their family home. (CBC/Sandra Thacker)

One block over, Irwin is another member of the small but mighty tree committee and Van Camp is on the Armstrong's Point Association board, which has existed since 1955 with a mandate to "preserve the residential nature of the area."

On Sept. 11, the 122-home neighbourhood will hold its fourth Heritage House Tour. The goal of the tour is to celebrate and share what could become Winnipeg's first heritage conservation district with home tours, a farmer's market, a barbershop quartet, a Holland street organ, and cars from Winnipeg's antique car club.

The Irwin/Van Camp home is on the tour, in the form of a gallery featuring artwork done by area residents. Widdicombe and Sabesky's home will be transformed into a costume museum, featuring garments dating back to the 1800s from the Beth Naylor Historic Clothing Collection from Russell, Man.

Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

Listen to CBC Radio One on Sept. 3, 4 and 5 at 7:10 a.m. for more on this neighbourhood.