Once a hub of agricultural activity, in recent years Brandon’s Dominion Exhibition Building No. II has been left idle and close to disrepair. Fearing loss of the valued landmark, in 2009 the Provincial Exhibition of Manitoba took on the challenge of restoring the building to its former glory.
“As both an organization and a community we have a lot of history here. It would be a shame to see this building be knocked down,” said exhibition chair Stan Cochrane.
The building, which sits on the Keystone Centre grounds in Brandon, is one of few remaining buildings from Canada’s Dominion Fair era and a rare surviving example of the country’s agricultural exhibition history.
“Back in the early 1900s the federal government designated a city to host a Dominion Exhibition Fair every year and then money was given and buildings were built for every fair,” Cochrane said. “This was the last building and last fair of its kind ever held in 1913. After that the world war broke out and they cancelled them and never started the program again.”
Cochrane says the Dominion Exhibition Fairs, which were held across Canada from 1879 to 1913, were similar to events like Manitoba Ag Days.
“That is how they spread the word. If there were new things coming out in agriculture, the fair is how they promoted it. The first day of the Dominion Fair in Brandon in 1913, there were 100,000 people here. They came on trains and lived in tents. Fairs were a big deal back then.”
Unlike today with the convenience of Google and Twitter, if you wanted the latest industry news, you had best not miss the Dominion Exhibition Fair.
“Going to the fair was how you learned about new things and networked with people who were trying to do similar things that you were,” Cochrane said.
Brandon was designated to hold the Dominion Fair in 1912, and the building was designed by Walter H. Shillinglaw and David Marshall, two prominent architects from Brandon.
“It is just amazing what they did back in those days because they never got the money allocated or got the fair approved until sometime in 1912 and they had this building all built and ready to go in 1913,” Cochrane said.
The 1913 fair opened on July 13. It was held for 10 days and saw 200,000 visitors. The Dominion Exhibition building went on to host community events for several decades.
“In the 1980s we stopped using the building for fairs and started to use it for storage. Then it began to deteriorate and started to leak, so we had to decide what we were going to do with it,” Cochrane said.
In 1984, the province listed the building as a provincial heritage site and in 2009, the Heritage Canada Foundation listed the building as one of the most endangered structures in the country.
“Heritage Canada actually listed the building on its top 10 endangered places list. It was definitely in poor condition and something needed to be done. It was estimated to collapse within five years at that time,” said Daryl Knight, project manager with the Provincial Exhibition.
Parks Canada listed the building as a rare surviving example of the late-19th- and early-20th-century-type of exhibition halls.
By 2009, the Dominion Exhibition building was the only surviving building in Canada that had been constructed for the Dominion Exhibition Fairs.
“At that time the building was being maintained by the Keystone Centre, but it could not afford the necessary repairs,” Cochrane said. “And, because of the heritage designation, it wasn’t able to have it torn down.”
With the history of the building in mind, the exhibition began envisioning the restored building to be a cultural and tourism asset for WestMan that would house an agriculture display, contain office space and include an outdoor agriculture-themed park.
The restoration began in 2009 and since then sewer and water lines have been dug in, a fire-suppression system installed, the roof replaced, windows restored, the perimeter foundation replaced and interior windows added.
“There are over 100 windows in this building. The old original windows were really rotted and the original glass was broken,” Cochrane said. “So, we took them up to the Air Training Museum in Brandon where they have a good woodworking shop and they were willing to work with us to restore all of the windows.”
The interior posts were in great condition with only one having to be replaced, but the exterior doors were a little bit more of a challenge.
“The doors were pretty much all gone, so we just went with pictures of what the doors are supposed to look like. We had them installed this spring,” Cochrane said.
Local contractors have done more than 90 per cent of the work.
“We work through the tendering process and through that you can really see the community support,” Knight said. “When they submit for the tenders they will come in with affordable rates because they want to be a part of the project. We have had some very strong support that way.”
The project’s biggest obstacles have been bringing the building up to code while adhering to the heritage designation allowances.
“The outside of the building is 100 per cent heritage and we had to follow some very strict rules and regulations there,” Knight said. “With the interior we don’t have to but we are still trying to preserve as much of the original structure as possible because it is the right thing to do.”
And then of course there is acquiring funding.
“A lot of people are in favour of heritage buildings but not a lot of people are in favour of spending any money and heritage buildings are really expensive,” Cochrane said.
The budget is $7.2 million and so far the project has raised $3.5 million through federal and provincial cost-sharing programs, public and private donations and funds from the Provincial Exhibition.
Cochrane says the goal was to have the building completed by July of 2017 in order to take part in Canada’s 150th anniversary.
“I feel as though we will complete it to a certain point. It may not have the glossy finish that we wanted it to have but we will get there one day,” Cochrane said.
Currently, the project continues to press forward with restoring the exterior entranceways, the dome towers, insulation, electrical and communication lines as well as finalizing the interior details.
The agriculture display will include interactive displays and activities that will incorporate both the history of the building, history of local agriculture as well as details of modern local agriculture activity.
The Provincial Exhibition has plans to move its staff into the office space area and will also have additional space for other not-for-profit agricultural groups.
Cochrane says they will continue to push forward with the goal but have been holding back on some work in order to have enough funds to match a few applied-for cost-sharing programs.
“Most of the grants that we are applying for and have applied for are cost sharing so we need to be cognizant of that and able to produce our portion of the funds,” Cochrane said.
For more information on the project or to get involved contact Daryl Knight at 204-729-7643.