Learning from the past
Published Date: 01 Oct 2019
Heritage has always been at the heart of the University of Windsor’s ambitious plan to preserve the century-old Windsor Armouries and transform the building into a state-of-the-art centre for the creative arts.
The Armouries building was, and is, an enduring symbol of sacrifice, freedom and pride for the region. (It has been designated under the Ontario Heritage Act by the City of Windsor.) From 1901 to 2004, the building served as the heart of the city’s downtown core – training the area’s men and women for military service. Designed by David Ewart, the prolific chief architect of the Federal Department of Public Works, the Armouries showcased Richardson Romanesque style, with bold stone entrances and mighty oak doors surrounded by oversized arched windows. The building exudes military might.
But once its core functions were relocated in 2004, myriad ideas to restore and repurpose the city’s most iconic building went nowhere.
What changed in the spring of 2011, after lengthy discussions, was a commitment from the university, the City of Windsor and the Ontario Government to preserve the historical structure and turn it into a learning centre. The project was also seen as a way to inject life into a downtown that has been struggling to find a new sense of purpose.
As part of the agreement, the city would transfer ownership of the building to the university and contribute $10 million to the project. The Province would add $15 million, and the university would contribute $15 million through donations and institutional support.
John Coleman is the Director of Public Affairs and Communications with the University of Windsor
From the start, the university – with vision and patience – was committed to retaining the look, feel and history of the building. They engaged CS&P Architects Inc. – working with ERA Architects and Colliers Project Leaders – to re-imagine the Armouries for the new century. Reconstruction proved extremely challenging – including securing a new foundation literally inches from the busy tunnel that joins Windsor to Detroit.
The Armouries’ concrete floor – built to support tanks – was removed to make way for a new basement. The bricks that lined the interior of the building had layers of paint scraped away, and nearly every brick in the structure was repointed. New windows were custom built to match the original look of the building, and the oak doors at both entrances were restored. As well, 12,000 bricks from a 1935 addition at the south end of the building were dismantled, cleaned and reinstalled to clad a new 150-seat performance centre.
When the university’s School of Creative Arts (SoCA) – with 500 students, faculty and staff – moved into the Armouries as well as an adjacent new building in January 2018, the transformation had resulted in 12 practise rooms for musicians, the performance centre, a library, classrooms, offices, a keyboard and computer lab, photography and painting studios, a Visual Arts and Built Environment (VABE) studio, film production studios, editing suites, a sonic art studio and “making” studio for sculpture, metal and woodworking.
Today, the Armouries is also playing a key role in the revitalization and diversification of Windsor’s downtown. Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens has called the restoration of the Armouries “one of the single most exciting and impressive heritage conservation, economic development and downtown revitalization initiatives our community has ever witnessed.” He says it has been a “game-changer” for Windsor’s downtown.
“There is new life in one of Windsor’s oldest spaces. Students, faculty, staff, their friends and families now call downtown Windsor ‘home.’ They visit our waterfront, our restaurants and businesses, our art gallery and museum and our state-of-the-art aquatics centre,” says Mayor Dilkens.
“They are steps away from a performance by the Windsor Symphony Orchestra or a film screening from the Windsor International Film Festival at the Capitol Theatre. They are moments away from world-class entertainment at Caesars Windsor and the St. Clair Centre for the Arts. They exist, day-by-day, side-by-side with local agencies and organizations that work to better our community.”
Support from the community for the preservation of the Armouries has been heartfelt. During the city’s Doors Open Ontario tour of historical buildings in the fall of 2018, 600 people visited the Armouries in a six-hour period. There was unanimous praise for preserving its integrity and providing an inspirational learning environment for students.
The restoration has also given a new focus to Windsor’s proud military history. The university created a “Heritage Wall” of glass panels that tell the Armouries’ history through photos and words. The building’s imposing foyer has been renamed Veterans Hall.
The University has been incredibly grateful for the significant recognition that the Armouries project has received. In February 2019, the restoration earned the university the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conservation. The entry submitted by the university highlighted the Armouries as an example of the adaptive reuse and restoration of a key piece of built heritage in Windsor. The University of Windsor’s restoration of the Windsor Armouries was also honoured with a 2019 Built Heritage Award from the City of Windsor.
A report from the city’s Heritage Standing Committee said the University’s “extensive rehabilitation project succeeded in conserving and showcasing the character-defining elements of the designated property while introducing heritage-sensitive interventions, and creating an excellent new purpose for one of Windsor’s most important downtown heritage buildings.”
The university takes immense pride in not just preserving an important and irreplaceable part of our heritage, but giving the Armouries a new sense of purpose, grounded in a celebration of the creative arts – one that will always honour those who passed through the same doorways for more than a hundred years, who selflessly served our community and country. [Photos courtesy of John Coleman]