By GERRY POSNER Thanks to former Winnipegger Murray Blank-stein, I was fortunate enough recently to obtain, read and savour a book just released on the life and works of Canada’s first Jewish architect, one Max Blankstein. He, of course, was more than just Canada’s first licensed Jewish architect as his children, three of whom prominently followed in his footsteps as architects, and others, including their descendants, have made notable achievements in various other endeavours, including those related to architecture.
The book was the result of the efforts of the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation and members of the Blankstein family. The fact that the book honours the memory of a man who died at a young age of 58 and who was only professionally active in the field for about 26 years, speaks volumes about the prodigous amount of work produced by Max Blankstein during this period. The book categorizes his work into different types of uses, selecting representative examples of his building and commercial blocks, theatres, single family residences, apartment blocks, institutions, warehouses and service buildings.
Max was versatile. The book lists his work, principally in Winnipeg, but also elsewhere in Manitoba and Saskatchewan where the research effort was able to document what Max had designed. The length of the list is staggering. Winnipeg was then, and remains to this day, the beneficiary of his skill and dedication. Max’s life is reconstructed, beginning from his days in Odessa in what was then Russia and now Ukraine. The book even includes photos of two of the buildings he designed in Odessa that were still in existence at the time this research was being undertaken. Accessing records in Odessa going back to the first decade of the twentieth century took considerable effort.
In Canada, the story traces Max’s arrival in July of 1904 and his receiving certification as an architect in Manitoba some six years later. However records show that by 1907, Max as an architect or designer was filing applications for building permits with the City of Winnipeg. On September 19, 1910, the Province delivered his certificate of compliance in accordance with the provisions of The Architects Act (1910), which statute had just been passed into law that year.
One of the best parts of the book is the clear and effective descriptions of the buildings Max designed and I make that statement as someone whose knowledge and understanding of architecture is very limited. Thanks must be paid to Murray Peterson and Susan Algie from the Winnipeg Architecture Foundation, who did the research and writing for the book. Just the number of photos and drawings which they were able to reproduce makes this book worthwhile. Another feature of the book is the history that is interwoven into the story, so that the reader gets an appreciation of where Max was, the obstacles he faced along his path to and in Winnipeg, the political turmoil affecting the world, and the impact of that on an immigrant’s experience. That allows the reader to get a perspective of the time and place.
Still another aspect of the book is that it gives the reader an idea of how Winnipeg was the place to be at that time – or at least part of it, prior to the construction of the Panama Canal, which cut 8,000 nautical miles off the shipping distance to and from Canada’s west coast. The book also deals with the effects the First World War had on finance, investment and development in Western Canada. Max benefited from the time when Winnipeg was taking off and was the fastest growing city in North America. Much of his work occurred in the period between 1904-1920 and there are visible remnants of his work even today.
A significant component of Max Blankstein’s architectural imprint was in the theatrical world. Max had a keen sense of theatre design and so he was often called upon to design venues for theatres across the three prairie provinces of Western Canada, including in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Yorkton, Neepawa, The Pas, and Regina. And for anyone who grew up in Winnipeg and was fortunate to haver attended the Uptown Theatre at 394 Academy Road – well, that structure was a Max Blankstein special. I know this. As a child, I was there almost every Saturday afternoon and even then, I realized how unusual was this theatre. It seated 1200 on the main floor and another 427 in the balcony. The interior was styled as a Morrish village. Who cannot recall the dark blue ceiling with twinkling stars, a moon and the towers from the exterior of the building set inside on each side of the proscenium?… a sight to behold.
The book gives a far better insight into the detail of the structure than I could ever do. And lest I forget, Max was involved in the construction of some of the most well known Jewish institutions and buildings of his day. He was the designer of the Winnipeg Hebrew Free School (the first Talmud Torah at 121 Charles Street) – and later a branch at 220 Andrews Street, the Mount Carmel Clinic on Selkirk Avenue, the Adas Yeshurun Synagogue (demolished). As well, he provided design input for the Shaarey Shamayim Synagogue (at 129 Dagmar Street) in Winnipeg prior to its merger with the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. That building is still standing, but it has not been a synagogue since 1949 when its replacement was opened on Wellington Crescent. Do yourself a favour and take a look at that building on Dagmar today.
Check out as well some of the houses Max designed. They are charming. Just as fascinating for me, aside from the story on the works of Max Blankstein, is the family tree and the people in the Blankstein family who followed their father and grandfather into the profession of architecture or in corollary fields. Their names are readily identifiable and I suggest to you that you will come to realize what a force this man was just by virtue of his progeny. Perhaps the most telling aspect about Max and his family is revealed in a piece of paper found in the wallet of his eldest son Wolfe, after Wolfe’s death in 1990. It was in Wolfe’s handwriting and is as follows: “Architecture is a social art. One looks at paintings or sculptures but people live and work in buildings. It is the most expressive art of all and therefore the slowest to change. Architecture is also the most visible of all arts. Buildings shape the environment, paintings and sculptures only adorn it.”
Thus, if you want to learn little bit about the buildings around you even now and appreciate a bit of history along the way, this is the book for you. Moreover, you might want to take in the display mounted by the Winnipeg Architectural Foundation (WAF) on the subject of the Max Book now on at the Winnipeg Millennium Library with plans, photos, artifacts and explanatory notes.
The book was officially launched in Winnipeg at McNally Robinson on November 29 with appearances by co-authors Murray Peterson and Susan Algie.