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Why tyndall stone rocks: The history behind Winnipeg's downtown buildings

The light-coloured, mottled limestone was used in significant ways in some 1,800 projects in Manitoba – most of which are in Winnipeg.

The Public Safety Building

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David Lipnowski / For Metro

The Public Safety Building

If “We Built This City” were about Winnipeg, the familiar refrain would have ended with "tyndall stone" instead of rock and roll.
The light-coloured, mottled limestone was used in significant ways in some 1,800 projects in Manitoba, most of which are in Winnipeg, and many of which will be discussed Thursday during a "Tyndall Stone in the City" walking tour, offered by the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation and Winnipeg Public Library.
The stone is featured so prominently in the city’s downtown that it’s one of the most recognizable features of local architecture, according to *Abi Auld, who has been working on a book about tyndall stone for the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation for two years and will be directing Thursday’s tour.
“It started off as a fairly small project, because not much has been written about architecture from a material perspective on tyndall stone… but there’s so much of it here, and as I looked into it I found there was so much more to it,” Bauld said.
She explained multiple reasons tyndall stone was the go-to material choice for most significant structures through Manitoba’s history, including government buildings (the Manitoba legislature, Winnipeg City Hall and Federal Building), churches (St. Norbert Trappist Monastery chapel, Broadway Disciples Church and Westminster United Church) and other structures, like the Winnipeg Clinic, Elizabeth Dafoe Library, and Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG).
One reason is proximity to its sole-source, near Garson, Man., about 45 kilometres from Winnipeg.
Another reason is durability, as it was often used in large-scale projects where “the lifecycle of the building is taken into real consideration,” like in public buildings.
But Bauld said she’s found in many cases, like with the WAG, “tyndall stone cannot be separated from the architectural vision… it’s a part of the artistic output.”
The mottling pattern, she explained, is due to small, 450-million-year-old organisms, “shrimp-like creatures,” moving around in the rock.
The look roots the rock in the past, and, combined with the region’s history of favouring it as a building material, cements it as a “signifier of Western Canadian architecture.”
Each tyndall stone structure has a story, Bauld explained.
“With buildings like the legislature and Hudson Bay Building, that style is kind of connecting it with developing Canada as a colony,” she said. “The architecture style signifies connection to England, use of tyndall stone reinforces that it was done (locally).”
“It reflects society, who’s in power, also kind of the way people lived.”
In the context of the Public Safety Building, which was built along with City Hall as a part of the downtown campus of civic buildings but is now vacant, Bauld said it represents a shift that occurred in the ‘60s away from structural masonry to cladding.
Bauld said the PSB was the “most stylistically innovative” of the set of buildings, but she laments the way cladding was fastened to the façade has failed and, unlike other tyndal-clad structures of the time, was never repaired properly.
Now, it’s most likely to be demolished, even though the building material—tyndall stone—has “yet to exceed its useful life cycle.”
For more interesting tyndall stone stories, Bauld’s tour leaves the Millennium Library at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14.

*Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Abi Auld's name. We regret the error.

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