After Shelagh Carter signed up to the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation’s Facebook page about two years ago, she thinks it might have been some inspiring conversations she had with Susan Algie, the Foundation’s Executive Director, that eventually resulted in the arrival of her father’s papers, films and other “archival materials” to their Exchange District office.
Shelagh Carter is a filmmaker and film studies professor, and the daughter of Winnipeg architect Dennis Carter.
“She (Algie) was very interested in the fact that we had not only boxes of film but also my father kept records of everything that he did,” says Shelagh. “It’s so obvious how much they care about not only someone like my father but any architect – and the time period.”
At the cutting edge of architecture and design
Dennis Carter was a product of the notably progressive faculty of architecture at the University of Manitoba, and so was Ernest “Ernie” Smith and Walter Katelnikoff.
Architect and professor Alan Waisman (as told to Serena Keshavjee in Winnipeg Modern Architecture 1945 – 1975), said the University of Manitoba school was “the only architectural school that mattered in this time period” – a sentiment shared by many and due in large part to its Dean, John Russell (1946 to 1966). Russell was highly connected to the architectural avant-garde movements through his training at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dean Russell advocated that new modernist buildings should express their own time and culture. This was accomplished through application of recent technology and local building materials in new and creative but functional ways that celebrated local materials, topography and climactic considerations. “Modernist” buildings, with walls even further unrestrained by load bearing, had new transparencies and open spatial flows.
He also encouraged connections between the arts and architecture, hosted internationally renowned guest lecturers, and encouraged his students to undertake community service and study abroad.
Ernest Smith made a commitment to Carter and Katelnikoff that they would together start their own firm upon Smith’s return from a post graduate fellowship at MIT (Dean Russell’s alma mater).
“My dad thrived here because I think he and his friends of that era – they were seen in the sense, metaphorically and literally, by John Russell,” says Shelagh Carter. “And John Russell was someone who was a visionary in his own right. It was such an incredible time in Winnipeg’s history with the modernist architects that came out of the University…”
Smith Carter Katelnikoff is born
By late 1967, Smith Carter Katelnikoff opened their offices at 289½ Garry Street and the rest, as they say, is a history that put the firm at the centre of Winnipeg’s architectural renewal. The Plantetarium, Centennial Concert Hall, The Manitoba Museum (built by a consortium that included the firm) the showcase J.A. Russell Building, the Monarch Life Building (now the Workers Compensation Board Building) were just some of the early structures in a long line of construction projects.
Winnipeg was building again, fueled by a post war economy, baby boom demographics, new science and technologies, and a will and pent up demand to construct new public buildings (and the financial success to build many private ones).
Permeating everything was cultural change: new inspiration was everywhere as man had just walked on the moon, people spoke of counter cultural revolution and medical strides such as the birth control pill created fundamental societal alterations. The civil rights movement had gained traction and, especially in Winnipeg, the immigration boom surrounding the turn into the 20th century was impacting the very fabric of institutions and politics. Ideas of urban renewal were popular and a new City Hall, Civic Centre and the Centennial Centre added a modernist sheen to the city.
As Winnipeg built with design meant to reflect the times, Dennis Carter was behind the lens of his 8 mm camera, shooting reels and reels of film.
Amazing architectural archives
The Dennis Carter Collection is one of the most revealing architectural collections perhaps anywhere.
Among the 12 boxes of materials given to the Foundation, there were about 100 reels of 8mm film that captures Winnipeg’s 1960’s resurgence along with a variety of personal films and travel documentation.
“People got those movie cameras to document their families predominantly, but Dennis Carter documented all kinds of things,” says Algie. “At the time it was very innovative. He was really keen on the whole thing. We have the manual for the projector and the films and so on. A lot of architects did photography and a fewer might have done the filming,” Algie adds.
Every moment of film was screened by Marieke Gruwel, researcher and art history graduate, in order to create an archival finding aid for their access.
“On some reels you will have a birthday party and then a building and then something else because he was turning the camera on and off,” says Gruwel. Films include family visits to the lake, Aunt Sally’s farm, birthday parties and more along with construction projects and various openings – including the bear pits at Assiniboine Park.
“I feel like I started to know Dennis Carter and Ernest Smith though watching the films,” says Gruwel.
“The work was much like doing a transcription of the films, watching and pausing continuously to document. It is kind of similar to transcribing an interview, so researchers don’t have to actually watch the whole thing,” she says. Instead, by simply searching terms, material can be found.
Gruwel based the finder’s aid on those used in film archives. Her first task was to take out the family home movies, and then digitize the remaining films.
Also digitized were boxes of paper materials including correspondence and building plans, travel agendas, six scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and magazine articles about the firm’s work, invites to building openings, a collection of hand drawn cartoons involving various Smith-Carter experiences, notes, dinner and party invitations, and more.
“I think what is most amazing is that, other than the family,” says Algie, “no one has seen any of it.”
But even Shelagh Carter admits to not having looked at everything in the collection.
“Susan told me they discovered a letter of correspondence between my father and Princess Grace of Monaco, and I had no idea that had happened, at the time when he was President of the Ballet. I said to Susan, that is just like my father!”
Time travel with 8 mm film images
A highlight of the collection are films of the Monarch Life Building (now the Worker’s Compensation Board Building). Its construction from 1961 to 1962 was a project Dennis Carter documented “from shovel in ground right through to opening day,” says Algie.
Viewing the films is like opening a treasure chest that contains the gift of time travel, as brightly hued 8 mm images come to life.
Yet unidentified men in fedoras and well cut suits heartily greet workers and listen to concerns. From a top floor of the Monarch Life Building (not yet with an exterior wall) a wide-open panorama of the city can be seen with the Hotel Fort Garry in the distance.
Intent-looking workers along with suited men walk toward a destination behind and beyond the camera – in a moment that seems full and alive with meaning.
Another film has people milling about a wooden viewing tower fitted with theatre seats for the comfort of the many bystanders who watched the construction for hours at a time. Broadway Avenue bustles with period cars, and “Monarch Life” is painted in yellow on the containment fence.
The foundation site appears as a giant board game of sorts with squared frames for concrete or steel, animated by equipment and workers. Workmen dangle from high skyscraper trusses, and cheerful salutations of workmen are captured. Colours of the early film are vivid in reds, yellows and blues.
An accompanying booklet appearing much like a promotional piece is entitled “A Construction Report”. It begins:
“Western Canada’s cities are continuing their seven-league strides in growth as one mammoth building project after another is completed. Each month there are new additions to their skyline”.
Shelagh Carter says that as a little girl the Monarch Life building was her favourite “because I loved Broadway. Broadway to me when I was young was the Santa Claus parade, and here was this beautiful building…as I got older I learned to appreciate the other buildings that they did, the Concert Hall, the Planetarium, schools…”
The collection includes many Winnipeg streetscapes and neon shines brightly on Portage Avenue proclaiming vibrant messages.
In another sequence, architectural planners take material from downtown offices into their vehicles, looking very much like Dick Tracy characters with fedoras and tasseled scarves. They drive along and smile at the camera, presumably operated by Dennis Carter at the snowy roadside.
With genuine happiness and excitement (much like school children before a rolling camera), they arrive at Ernest Carter’s House. Here they are filmed constructing their own drafting tables with the precision and care of engineers. Once completed, they sit down to work on a project; in one instance they use a kitchen plate to trace a circular form. They can be seen drinking coffee in the kitchen.
Gruwel said since it was Carter who operated the camera, he is not seen in films, at least to what she has identified so far. In certain sequences, the camera is turned on and off with a linear sense of continuity.
From Rae and Jerry’s to the Richardson Building
In other films, large steam shovels arrive at the Rae and Jerry’s Steakhouse site to excavate the foundation. Shelagh recalls coming along when her father met with clients over their famous steaks, and how important table manners were.
Today, the restaurant has retained its special chic through a commitment to the original design, right down to the luxurious dark wood and red leatherette Bauhaus-inspired chairs.
Shelagh says the same dark wood used at Rae and Jerry’s was also chosen by her father for the interior of the Carter family home he constructed on South Drive. “I loved that house,” she says.
“Because I was interested and Mom was busy with my brother, I would go with my dad and he might be talking to one of his clients and he would start to draw on a napkin.”
She also recalls Jim Richardson visiting her father at the lake, where Mr. Richardson wanted to talk to her father about his dream for Portage and Main. From her bunk bed Shelagh could see over a wall and down into the living room.
“I remember they started to talk and my Dad had a napkin and he drew a tower. I don’t know if that napkin is in that collection but he had started there on a table at the lake….but shortly after that, I guess I was 11, Dad took the family to New York because Mr. Richardson was looking to decide who had done a skyscraper and who would understand the best way to go about this,” says Shelagh.
“They went to a meeting at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and I guess there was a meeting of the minds there. After that was the start of the Richardson Tower and the thought of Portage and Main.” (Smith Carter partnered with the New York firm on the project).
Shelagh Carter says her Dad was known as a gentleman businessman and his handshake was his word. “I always think of him as a Gregory Peck character but of course I am his daughter,” she laughs.
“I don’t remember him having a camera in New York but he probably did. I remember my Mom and he would travel to Boston or Minneapolis and places like that and Dad would often be filming from the plane as it took off.
Building and street signage identify exact locations in the travel films.
“What was particularly fascinating is in the 1960’s they visited London and New York and he filmed it all,” says Algie. “So you have those cities before they got so radically changed, and the neon…they were always looking at other architectural projects and doing research.”
Sitting at the WAF office is the scale model made for the Richardson Building.
“It’s very simple looking,” says Algie. “We have this model being used with the rest of the models (in the collection) so you can see the context…it’s quite a treasure.”
Just how many times has this image been gazed upon — with considerations of planning for what was to become one of the most identifiable landmarks of the city — can only be contemplated.
It’s about the client, not your ego
Shelagh recalls what her father said to her on her first job in New York after graduating from interior design school.
“You have got to represent the client and you have got to listen to what they want,” she recalls him saying. “You don’t put you on them, you know; you can problem solve and hope to aesthetically educate them if you feel they are going a little, you know, not quite. It wasn’t supposed to be a Dennis Carter Building, it was supposed to be the Richardson Building – you serve the client. He really imparted to me that it was about the work and not about his ego.”
‘Modest’ well-describes Dennis Carter, according to his daughter.
“I think he’d be shaking his head at me because my brother and I have dug up all this stuff and there has become all this interest. It just sort of rolled out that way, but it really means a great deal to my brother and I…I have very fond memories of sitting at a dining room table with him when I was a very little girl with him editing the Super 8,” says Shelagh.
Naturally, she wonders about the long term conservation of the materials, a concern shared by Algie.
“This material should ultimately go to an archives with proper storage and so on but right now we are kind of like the parking lot,” says Algie. She explains the WAF is receiving material from groups like Smith Carter “on a temporary basis, just to protect it…what we’re trying to do is document it, digitize it if we can, make lists and then use it for our research. The municipal archives is really having a difficult time…the other university and provincial archives are facing some real challenges.”
At the same time, other concerns loom.
“I think that quite a few people who were so prominent during the 60’s and 70’s boom period are now coming to retirement age or they’re not living in houses anymore,” says Algie. “But what’s really sad is in some instances….material was just sent to the bin. This is the history of the city, right?”
City’s sub-standard resources threatens archival preservation
The City Archives says it accepts private collections that are appropriate to their mandate. But in 2013, the Archives moved to a “temporary” facility after a summer rain storm breached the roof of the Carnegie Library Building where they were stored and publicly accessed. Some records were damaged, some destroyed.
The temporary facility was described in a September 2016 City Clerk’s Department Archives and Records Control Branch report as having “limited space for Branch administrative offices, limited public access space, no outreach programming space, is hard for the public to locate, provides sub-standard warehouse storage space for the City’s archival materials, and has no space for conservation/preservation work critical to facilitate access to and long term preservation of core archival materials.”
The archives remains at the temporary site with a cash injection voted upon by the Executive Policy Committee in December in order to maintain archival standards, based on the report’s recommendation:
“While redevelopment of 380 William is the preferred option for delivery of Archives and Access and Privacy Office programs, the Branch acknowledges the high cost associated with this proposal. As the consultant was not able to identify a suitable alternative to 380 William during their initial search, Option 2 proposes that the search continue and that Archives and Access and Privacy Office programs remain at 50 Myrtle until a site is identified for development.”
City archivist Jody Baltassen confirmed that while revitalization of the Carnegie Library Building was never off the table, exactly how it will be used is not certain. At the December 2016 EPC meeting, Councillor John Orlikow said the four year old insurance claim concerning the Carnegie Building’s roof is almost resolved.
What is certain is that some parts of the Carter collection will be going to the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada, including note books from the flight school Dennis Carter attended in Britain, and more.
“He was special,” says Shelagh. “And of course into that comes his love of flying.” With a proud, declarative tone that likely sounded very much like Dennis Carter when he had said these words, Shelagh says, “Winnipeg was the Centre! You could live in Winnipeg and fly anywhere in Canada because it was the centre, he always told me. He just loved the city.”
Shelagh Carter says one memory best describes her father. Recalling a reception at the Monarch Life Building when it reopened as the Workers Compensation Board Building, in what she referred to as a “wonderful consideration by the gentleman who was in charge of that,” some of her father’s photos were displayed. They depicted workmen constructing the building in 1960 and 1961. Some “older gentlemen” who had worked on the building had been invited.
“I remember feeling really proud they were looking at this and so excited and moved that someone had captured their work as part of a collaboration of putting a building together,” Shelagh says.
“My father – he really was a collaborator with the different trades and in his world and with clients. He really knew how to bring people together. Out of that came the best.”
All photos courtesy The Carter Collection (except where indicated).
The Dennis Carter collection is now at the Winnipeg Architectural Foundation being researched and archived. It is not yet accessible for public search.