Former Winnipeg theatre turned bowling alley strikes a new pose as apartment dwelling

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In 1931, the eye-popping Uptown Theatre opened on a commercial street in River Heights, a leafy residential neighbourhood of Winnipeg. And after years of striking a pose as a bowling alley, today it is revamped as a mixed-use apartment building.

Designed by Winnipeg architect Max Blankstein, a Jewish immigrant and the patriarch of a family of noted modernist architects, the building’s aesthetic was anything but streamlined. There was an eclectic mix of Spanish, Moorish and art deco influences, while the gold-and-cream painted Portland stucco façade featured ornamental balconies, niches and arched windows. There were also gilded domes on the roof.

The interiors took the theme further: the ceiling was painted a rich cobalt blue and festooned with stars “to match the sky.” Underneath was a melange of high relief plaster, arcading, columns and urns.

Undoubtedly, the building stood out among its neighbours of small shops, grocers and bank branches.

But the Uptown was typical of the purposely elaborate theatre design of its day: it was meant to transport theatre- and movie-goers to another world from the minute they set eyes on it. In short, the more exotic the better. Like the Uptown, these theatres typically ran a gamut of styles, sometimes all at once, that often put owners, architects and architecture critics at odds. But they were immensely popular.

By the mid-20th century, however, TV sets in living rooms killed these old theatres. As a result, the Uptown Theatre was transformed into the Uptown Bowling Alley that hosted a birthday party for practically every mid- to late-20th-century kid in Winnipeg.

In 1989, Winnipeg developers Globe Capital Management bought the property, but the bowling alley remained its tenant until 2018. When they left, nostalgic Winnipeggers became preoccupied with the fate of the building, especially as the developers announced plans for an upscale apartment building in an area with few multi-family buildings.

But the project, The Uptown Lofts, turned out to be an example of adaptive reuse: taking a cherished old building, repurposing and modernizing it in-line with today’s social and tech needs.

“We knew how important this building is to the community,” said Richard Morantz, GCM’s president. Mr. Morantz grew up in the neighbourhood and says he shares in the nostalgia for the Uptown.

The company hired Landmark Planning, a planning and development consultancy, to undertake public engagement. In addition to the fate of the building, there were also concerns about traffic congestion and parking. The apartment plan included 25 parking stalls in the lot of a neighbouring property GCM also owned, and the developers argued that traffic would be less of an issue with a residential building than when it was a bowling alley.