Winnipeg is home to a large preserve of turn-of-the-century architecture. This cityscape dates back to when Winnipeg was heralded as the Chicago of the North, a hub of prosperity on the Prairies.
As many Winnipeggers know, the city lost that moniker after North American trade shifted from rail to sea. Often, the city’s historic architectural landscape can make it seem as if Winnipeg is frozen in time, apt for one of the coldest capitals on the planet.
An ongoing exhibit presented by the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation spotlights an architect whose work exemplifies this period: Max Blankstein. On Nov. 29, Murray Peterson, a City of Winnipeg heritage officer, will launch his book on Blankstein in conjunction with the exhibition, which is currently on display at the Millenium Library.
As a heritage officer, Peterson has done work around Blankstein buildings for years.
“Because (heritage reports) are relatively short ... you don’t get to delve into it. I never needed to know who Max is or where he came from,” Peterson says. “When you start digging into it, you see that it is a really neat story.”
One of Canada’s first Jewish architects, Blankstein’s design work can be seen all over Winnipeg from small garages to large theatres and apartment blocks. One of his most famous works is Uptown Theatre (now lofts) on Academy Road.
In 1904, Blankstein moved from Odesa, in modern-day Ukraine, to Canada. Quickly settling in Winnipeg’s established Jewish community, Blankstein used his background in masonry to quickly get involved in architecture designing his first known work, Aikins Court, in 1907.
During this period, Winnipeg was booming and willing to take risks with inventive developers. Blankstein’s work was on the cutting edge, experimenting with Edwardian, arts and crafts and art-deco styles.
Murray Blankstein, Max’s grandson who was involved with Peterson’s book, says his grandfather’s story is a reflection of many stories of immigration at the time and involved fleeing conflict to find prosperity in a new city.
Murray praises his grandfather’s work for its attention to detail.
“When you look up, you see all sorts of details,” Murray says. “When you look up in (newer) buildings, you don’t see anything.”
As a city historian, Peterson feels it's critical to appreciate heritage buildings for their solid foundations and unmistakable value to the city’s appearance.
“It makes way more sense to repair, renovate or redevelop these buildings,” Peterson says. “We need 200- to 300-year-old buildings for the cityscape.”
Blankstein’s architectural legacy goes beyond his own career. His sons, Cecil and Morley, and daughter, Evelyn, were all award-winning architects and worked on influential pieces in Winnipeg’s modernist period, including city hall, the airport and Polo Park.
“The modern stuff is brand new, out of the brains of these wonderful young designers that were graduating from the University of Manitoba, and both the (Blanksteins) were among them,” Peterson says.
Although he ended up a lawyer, Murray reflects on his family legacy as something unique.
“It’s quite unusual and quite special,” Murray says. “There is a history of fathers and sons going into the same profession ... Interest in architecture, design and function was in our family.”
The Max Blankstein Exhibit is currently on at the Millenium Library. Murray Peterson will discuss his book on Nov. 29 at the McNally Robinson atrium in Grant Park Shopping Centre.
Published in Volume 77, Number 11 of The Uniter (November 24, 2022)