Regina Branch Considers Its Future

With performance space in Regina in short supply over the last few years, arts groups have been grateful for the Atlantic Auditorium in The Royal Canadian Legion building. And now the branch is looking to the local arts community to breathe new life into the grand old structure.

With shrinking membership, plummeting revenues from the bar and restaurant, and rapidly rising utility costs, the branch has more building than it can afford.

In its heyday, Regina Branch had 3,000 very active members and every inch of the 28,000-square foot building was used. “When I was president in 1962…the monies from the Vimy Lounge and the canteen paid for everything. I can’t believe how things have changed,” said Harold Hague, head of the transition committee charged with finding a way to keep the building alive. Today “we’re down to about 500 and half of those are not active.“ It’s not enough to keep the coffers filled and pay the bills. “Just the upkeep is around $80,000 to $90,000 a year.”

The crunch came in 2005. “The financial situation was very serious,” says Lloyd Jones, who as chairman of the past presidents board, was asked to call a crisis meeting. With their combined experience, it was hoped the past presidents could help the branch executive find a way forward. “We had to decide whether to put a lock on the door, or carry on,” says Hague, a former Saskatchewan Command president.

The decision was to carry on. With generous help from the business community, the branch staged 80th anniversary celebrations, and made about $44,000 from various related fundraising events—enough to keep afloat for awhile.

Meanwhile, branch programs were cut or scaled back, and some staff members were laid off to trim operating costs as much as feasible. “There were some unpopular decisions,” said Jones. Members pitched in, keeping the office running on volunteer labour, making sure the good works of the Legion in the community continue through this financially difficult time. “We also had the ladies auxiliary,” said Jones. “Without that support, I can assure you we wouldn’t be here.”

Coincidentally, the producer of the anniversary celebrations was working on a feasibility study for Regina ArtsAction Inc. to pitch the City of Regina to create an artistic hub downtown. It was thought the Legion could be an integral part of the plan. It fits with the city’s general development plan for the downtown core, which calls for more cultural and entertainment activities. It would allow the branch to continue operating from its historic home base. And it would preserve a treasured heritage building.

“I thought ‘we can’t lose this history,’” says Marian Donnelly, of Inner Circle Management, author of the study. It proposed, among other things, that the stately Legion building could be redeveloped and an agreement reached that would allow the branch to retain ownership of the building, but defray costs by renting out extra space to arts groups.

After much discussion at the branch it was decided the Legion building should be included in the ArtsAction study. The Regina Plains Museum is interested in becoming the anchor tenant. Other tenants could include theatre groups, a catering operation/cooking school and retail clients. The lion’s share of the renovation funding would come from various municipal, provincial and federal development programs, but the Legion would be expected to raise some of the funds itself.

The study helped persuade the city to financially support development of the business plan, although the exact amount is still unknown. “We are very supportive,” says Glenn Gordon, the co-ordinator of arts and culture for the City of Regina. The funding will help hire architects, engineers and other professionals to develop a detailed business plan exploring renovation options, determining cost of the project and outline how it will be run and maintained in future. It’s likely to cost more than $5 million to upgrade the building’s mechanical, electrical and plumbing to meet current building codes.

“The business plan will show everybody what is the physical shape of the building,” says Gordon. “It will tell us the costs to remedy or enhance that. Those are the kinds of things that should be done before we lose important heritage buildings.”

The plan was not universally popular among Regina Branch members, says President Andy Mitchell. Some favoured ramping up the business end, bringing in more catered events. Others, he said, worried the Legion would not have enough room for itself after various tenants are accommodated. Some wondered how money could be raised to cover costs—which are rising, since Regina is currently enjoying a building boom. And there’s worry, he says, about operating costs after the renovation, too.

At the end of winter, it was discovered the roof is in need of repair. Leaks threaten the precious murals.

“Doing nothing isn’t an option,” says Donnelly. The more detailed business plan, she says, will hammer out details and “make sure it works financially because the last thing we want to do is go through this process and spend money renovating just to figure out we still can’t afford it.”

Certainly Regina treasures the building. In 1992, The Royal Canadian Legion Memorial Hall was added to Regina’s Designated Municipal Heritage Property Registry. And more recently, the community learned just how much it treasured the Legion, too, she said. The 80th anniversary celebrations focused community attention on the Legion’s continuing contributions to the community, contributions many residents knew nothing about. “The YWCA building and the Douglas Park Track and Field facilities wouldn’t be here without the Legion,” says Donnelly.

As well, the Legion has contributed millions of dollars to various good causes through-out the years and still raises money for many community groups and causes.

The Legion took on finishing the war memorial, a job begun years before on the Albert Memorial Bridge. The bridge proved too small to accommodate all the names and hard times derailed the project. Jones headed up the Saskatchewan First World War Memorial committee, which finished the job and then went on to complete the memorial to veterans of the Second World War and later conflicts. The new memorial, located just west of the Saskatchewan Legislative Building, features names of the honoured on plaques mounted on warm Tyndall stone columns. Taller stone plinths hold statues honouring various branches of the services, the most recent a lovely bronze depiction of a nursing sister.

The Legion building is and of itself a gem worth saving. “The Art Deco style is prized highly by the city,” says Gordon. “We don’t want to lose heritage building stock and most importantly, heritage stock downtown.”

Preserving the building, says Donnelly, would also recognize and honour the Legion’s many contributions to the city’s history.

And what a history. Regina Branch received its charter with the founding of the Legion in 1926. After World War II, membership grew to around 3,000, and a grand, new building was erected right downtown. It cost $335,000. Queen Elizabeth, then princess, and Prince Philip were first to cross the threshold at the official opening in 1951.

Designed by Storey and Van Egmond Architects, the two-storey, brick building’s Classical Moderne Style, a variant of Art Deco, is evident in the prominent Memorial Tower and its Tyndall stone facade.

A stained glass window in the entrance was a gift of the Government of Saskatchewan. In the entry, a Legion crest has been incorporated into the terrazzo floor. The Memorial Tower features five stained glass windows. Eight large murals created in 1956 by Kenneth Lochhead decorate the walls of the Memorial Chamber. These fabulous works of art document scenes from Canadian military history, settlement of the West and the Act of Remembrance.

The building’s main rooms are named to reflect the great battles of the First and Second World Wars, and to recognize the various branches of the armed forces. The main hall, the Atlantic Auditorium, has been the venue of many weddings, performances and other social gatherings. The Lancaster Lounge upstairs and its dining area have hosted many luncheons and cocktail gatherings; and the Vimy Lounge in the lower level is home to the kitchen and cafeteria.

Wrought-iron gates separate the Trophy Room and Chapel from the Memorial Hall, where George Durbin and Murray Carpenter, who oversee the Legion Museum, are pleased to begin a tour with an examination of the Books of Remembrance and the Memorial Peace Tower, believed to be the only one of its kind outside of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.

The museum itself is a collection of rooms, one leading into another, housed on the upper floor on the south wing of the building. Each room is devoted to individual displays such as medals and memorabilia and a collection of uniforms. The display cases are fairly stuffed with artifacts, and there’s a continual stream of donations as veterans or their families entrust military mementoes and wartime treasures to the Legion’s keeping. “We’ve got tons of stuff not on display,” says Carpenter.

So, too, does the Regina Plains Museum, says Executive Director Christa Donaldson. In the late 1990s, the museum moved into smaller quarters, with a mere fraction of its former display space. “A lot of exhibits went from being on display into storage.” The museum does what it can to make the most of the situation by rotating artifacts, doing outreach programs, organizing mobile displays.

The ArtsAction feasibility study proposes the Plains Museum become the main tenant in the renovated building. As well, the Plains Museum’s professional staff can look after the Legion Museum, now tended by a dwindling number of aging volunteers. Plains Museum staff can curate the Legion collection and oversee tours. “It’s a good fit,” says Donaldson. “They’ll be separate, but close together so they can be managed together. We have totally different mandates,” but there’s enough of an overlap that there could be some joint programming. The two museums could share security and space for meetings, preparing displays, repair and upkeep of artifacts.

Many details remain to be worked out, among them how the two museums can work side by side, and how much space the branch will need in future. Results of the next study will determine just how bright that future will be.

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