545 South Drive

Formerly:Gerson Residence
340 Wildwood Park
Address:545 South Drive
Original Use:Residential
Architects:Wolfgang Gerson

More Information

Original owner was architect and University of Manitoba professor Wolfgang Gerson.

Wildwood is a neighbourhood that resembles few others on earth. Tucked onto a peninsular point of land hugged on three sides by the Red River, this residential district stands apart from the rest of the city in a number of ways. Among the most prominent is the uncommon arrangement of its roadways. Rather than fronting onto streets, the homes in the area (which are set on ten bays) face park-like spaces traversed by sidewalks. Vehicular access is gained via rear alleyways. The scheme, somewhat utopian in ambition, is the remarkable consequence of a twentieth century inclination toward blending home and nature. This was a trend that began to deeply affect suburban building in the nineteenth century. The specific model for Wildwood was Radburn, New Jersey, an area developed according to similar principles in the late 1920s and 1930s. Of the Radburn model period accounts stated that this orientation and plan “represents the first scientific effort that has ever been made to establish a community designed exclusively to minimize the danger of automobile accidents. Yet there were other things to consider too …. It was the desire of the builders to create not only a [safe] community” but one “of beauty in appearance and the utmost of modern efficiency.” (The American Architect, January 1930). The connection between the Radburn and Wildwood two arose from somewhat circumstantial events. Hubert J. Bird, of the Western Canadian development and construction firm Bird Construction, is reported to have flown over Radburn while visiting New York, thereby gaining the inspiration for the area he was erecting in Winnipeg. Aiding Bird in the creation of this new district was the passage of the federal National Housing Act, passed to speed the construction of homes in a booming post-war milieu. To build Wildwood, in 1945 Bird purchased 74.7 acres of land from the Rural Municipality of Fort Garry (at a reputed cost of $15,000). To design the area he hired the local and pioneering local architectural firm Green Blankstein and Russell. Federal housing authorities said of the plans created: “The result should be extremely interesting, attractive and utilitarian,” while recommending the incorporation of the bays found at present, versus the initially suggested hammerhead cul-de-sac lanes. During the building process Bird was to spearhead several new construction methods, including elements modelled on assembly-line techniques; accounts indicate that the adoption of pre-fabrication practices lead to the assembly of three houses being put together per day. At the same time, effort was made to conserve area forests. Stevenson Real Estate was the firm which first marketed homes in the neighbourhood, which sold quickly. A number of the area’s homes were built and inhabited by architects and architecture professors, many in a modernist idiom which had only just started gaining traction in Canada during the early post-war years.

Prior to this wave of 1940s construction, Wildwood was home to the Trew family, who maintained a residence as of 1907 near the intersection of Oakenwald Avenue and North Drive, adjacent to the Red River. Plans for suburban development began during this era, with a gridded street plan put forward in 1912, initiated by Colonel R. M. Thomson. An important part in the area’s history was played by St. John’s-Ravenscourt School, which was moved to this section of the city by Colonel Thomson’s nephew, Norman Young, one-time Ravenscourt headmaster in 1934.

South Drive is a prominent residential route in Winnipeg’s Crescent Park and Wildwood Park neighbourhoods. The street, which was previously located in the Rural Municipality of Fort Garry, follows the gently snaking curves of the adjacent Red River. Beginning at the southeastern end of the Wildwood peninsula, the street continues north of St. John’s Ravenscourt – a private school located in this area since 1934 – to become North Drive. Besides the Gerson Residence, South Drive is distinguished as the site of a large number of other architect-designed residences. Many of these buildings were themselves the homes of notable local architects who were drawn to the area for its scenic, park-like ambience, proximity to the University of Manitoba and historically affordable property costs, the latter fact influenced by damage to the area during the Winnipeg flood of 1950. Among these examples is 544 South Drive (from 1957), the modernist home of Dennis Carter, prominent local architect and founder of Smith Carter – a pioneering firm in the Canadian embrace of modern architecture. At 740 South Drive is the 1956 home of University of Manitoba Dean of Architecture John A. Russell, designed by Russell and Roy Sellors. Sellor’s own home, from 1954, is also located along South Drive, at 717 South Drive. Both residences are distinguished by their mid-century modernist design, featuring vertical wood cladding and spare, elegant detail. Further south, at the intersection of Kebir Place and South Drive, stands 806 Kebir Place, a streamlined, boxy form that was once the Snider Residence. Home of local architect Kenneth Snider, the house (from 1957) received extensive coverage in the periodical Canadian Homes and Gardens. Largely hidden from view at the north end of the street is the dramatic modernist split-level home of architect Allan Waisman, 474 South Drive in Fort Garry. Again bearing vertical wood cladding, the house’s impression is dominated by a projecting porch and tall, airy staircase, creating a temple-like quality. At 762 South Drive another notable local work responsible for bringing much attention to the area: the Winnipeg Trend Home, of 1953-54. Designed by Walter L. Katelnikoff, the Trend House was one of ten model homes opened across Canada in 1954 year by Vancouver company Western Woods. Period advertisements boasted that the home would “stir your imagination and give you scores of exciting ideas for building or modernizing your own home” and “demonstrate the beauty, versatility and practical advantages of Canada's famous Western Woods—Pacific Coast Hemlock and Western Red Cedar Lumber, Douglas Fir Plywood, Red-Cedar Shingles and Sidewall Shakes.” Thousands of visitors made the trip, confirming the link in the public imagination between South Drive and modern design.

Design Characteristics