Winnipeg Architecture Foundation

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Gordon Leslie Russell

Biography

Gordon Leslie Russell was born 28 November, 1901. Russell graduated from the Department of Architecture at the University of Manitoba in 1925. During his years studying, the school was led by the New York- and Paris-trained Arthur A. Stoughton, with assistance from fellow American John A. Russell (no relation). Following graduation, Leslie Russell was hired as a draftsman in the architectural office of noted Winnipeg architect J.H.G. Russell, his uncle. After a short stint here, Russell travelled to Chicago to work with the firm of Childs & Smith from 1925-27. Among other projects, here he was involved in the design of buildings for North Western University. Returning to Winnipeg in the late 1920s, Russell rejoined his uncle’s firm, where he remained for four years. During this time he married Evelyn Mary Dobson, a teacher at Ralph Brown School, a St. Stephen's Broadway United church, in 1930. During the early Depression years Russell supplemented the slow pace of work selling insurance at the Hudson Bay Company. He also briefly worked at the local office of architect A.E. Cubbidge, in 1932.

Russell registered with the Manitoba Association of Architects in December of 1932. Shortly thereafter, in 1934, Russell, Lawrence J. Green, Cecil M. Blankstein and Ralph Ham founded a new firm – Green Blankstein Russell and Ham – a bold venture to launch during such trying economic times. (Green and Blankstein had joined in partnership in 1932.) Early work came in the form of low-cost housing schemes intended to alleviate the hardships of the Depression both for builders and inhabitants of substandard residences. Despite much press, the firm’s plans (which called a multi-block development north-west of Winnipeg’s downtown at a cost of $1.7 million) went unbuilt. Projects the group did tackle during this period include the 1934 Sisters of Charity Provincial House and 1937 St. Boniface Home for the Aged & Infirm (151 Despins Street; now Résidence Despins), as well as many theatres built across Manitoba and, indeed, Western Canada.

During the Second World War, Green Blankstein Russell ceased operation; it also lost partner Ralph Ham, who passed away in 1942. At this time Russell departed Winnipeg to live in Digby Nova Scotia, where he was and his partners were involved in such war-era work as the construction of the HMCS Cornwallis in Nova Scotia, the largest naval training base in the British Empire.

Early post-war work for Russell’s firm included the design and construction Wildwood Park subdivision, which commenced in 1946, as well as the Mall Medical Clinic (280 Memorial Boulevard, 1947) and the distinctly Modernist Shaarey Zedek Synagogue (561 Wellington Crescent) in 1949. Projects to which Russell specifically contributed include the design of Elizabeth Dafoe library – a key-note structure in the development of a regionally-imbued Manitoba modernist approach – as well as St. Andrew's Anglican Church (1956-57) and the provincial Norquay office building, of 1960.

From the mid-point of the century onward Green Blankstein and Russell would establish itself as one of Canada’s leading modernist architectural offices, winning such notable competitions as the 1953 National Gallery contest and that held for the design of Winnipeg City Hall in 1958. The 1960s would be an even more successful decade for Russell and his office, with the city hall’s construction and the office’s involvement in the design of the adjacent Centennial cultural area, in co-operation with fellow Winnipeg architectural practices Moody Moore Architects and Smith Carter Architects. Throughout his tenure Russell was described by his colleague Cecil Blankstein as a figure who bridged “the transition between the traditional forms he was trained in and the modern style.”

Besides his work as a partner at Green Blankstein Russell, he also served as the president of the Manitoba Association of Architects and was named Fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. Leslie Russell retired from practice in 1966, moving to Victoria in 1970. He passed away in June of 1977.