Over his extensive career – working independently and with a number of city firms – Leslie J. Stechesen has had a significant impact on the history and look of architecture in Winnipeg and throughout Manitoba. Stechesen was born in Fort William, Ontario in 1934; he graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor’s degree in Architecture in 1957. Throughout his education Stechesen felt a strong influence on his design philosophy from Professor James Donahue, a committed modernist who preferred form to be elemental and preferred construction in natural materials. Another notable example to Stechesen was Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work the young architect experienced first-hand on a student trip to Chicago.
Following his graduation, Stechesen worked for the Winnipeg firm of Waisman Ross architects from May to September 1957. Finding the environment at Waisman Ross to not offer the freedom he desired, Stechesen then moved to the offices of Libling Michener (at 138 Portage Avenue East) and stayed here until the summer of 1959. At this point Stechesen set out on an architectural study trip across Europe accompanied by his former university peer Jeff Barge. The enthusiasm that Libling Michener felt in regard to Stechesen is evident in their recommendation of him to the Manitoba Association of Architects (MAA): “We have found Mr. Stechesen…to be a capable and conscientious employee with excellent architectural design qualifications.” Given this record, it is unsurprising that upon his return to Winnipeg, Stechesen was rehired by Libling Michener.
During the 1960s, Libling Michener experimented with numerous forms and styles within a broad range of building types. Particular attention was paid to public housing and to the thoughtful design of modest single-family residences; many awards were won in the process. Although the larger firm was collectively responsible for the designs, Stechesen claims responsibility for the design of some of their Massey Award winners – namely the Grosvenor House apartments, St. Paul’s High School, St. John Brebeuf Church, Village West and Southwood Village Townhouses, and the Manitoba Teacher’s Society Building on Portage. Another building also credited to Stechesen is the Public Safety Building, a structure which has always provoked controversy among both its admirers and detractors. In the midst of this success and busy effort, Stechesen nevertheless found time to pursue graduate study in London, in 1965.
In 1971 Stechesen rejected the offer of a partnership position with Libling Michener and subsequently left the firm. That September the architect – working independently and mulling a move to rejoin his former employer Waisman in British Columbia – was commissioned by the Province of Manitoba to act as an architectural consultant for the Leaf Rapids Development Corporation to provide facilities for a new community to staff the Sherritt-Gordon mines. This project took three years and provided Stechesen the opportunity to work with his future partner George Frederickson – the project co-ordinator. Designing a project for the subarctic climate of Leaf Rapids (500 miles north of Winnipeg), working with the difficulties of construction in a remote location and with an large range of client groups was a difficult task for Stechesen. The resultant plan, however, met these challenges with finesse and creativity, presenting something like a return to the walled medieval village – an entire support system for a community under one (modern yet rustic) roof. Leaf Rapids Town Centre is a massive complex which acts as an entire downtown. A mall-like setting, located in the centre of the town, contains an arena and curling rink, a school, a library, a health clinic, gym, cultural centre, hotel, restaurant and lounge, retail and grocery stores, a post office, a bank and municipal offices. In the centralization of these facilities, space and money were saved and a strong sense of community was fostered. So bold and unique was this $8.5 million development that it attracted national attention and won Stechesen the Massey Award for architecture in 1974. That same year Stechesen also won a 1974 Manitoban Design Institute Award of Excellence for another project – “Cabin Unit 3” for the provincial Department of Tourism.
Upon the completion of the Leaf Rapids project, Stechesen entered a partnership with George Frederickson. The two were joined soon after by Alec Katz. An early project for Stechesen Frederickson Katz was the redevelopment of 100 Osborne Street – a 1909 brick apartment building at the corner of River and Osborne. The completed project (given the named “The Courtyard”) involved the carving of an internal courtyard to below grade, its paving with Mexican tiles and the sandblasting of the light interior brick. The architects then added walkways and developed restaurant and retail space which faced both onto the street and within the courtyard. A success by all standards, this plan gained a Heritage Canada Honour Award for its designers in 1977. Around this same period, Stechesen designed his own residence, on Turnbull Drive in St. Norbert. Placed in an area prone to flooding, the house sits on stilts and straddles a ravine which drains the field behind. Rough-sawn cedar dominates the interior and exterior surfaces. A feast of long multi-paned windows with sunny views gives an old-world feel juxtaposed with modern touches. The house celebrates its designer’s appreciation of nature and the use of natural materials.
Larger commissions followed. First, the $3 million Air Command Centre at the Canadian Forces Base in Winnipeg, then a Terrace Bay Housing development – which earned Stechesen Katz the Premier’s Award for Design Excellence. Other commendations included a Premier’s Award in 1984 for a residence for the Shanski family and a Heritage Winnipeg award for a condominium renovation at 393 Wellington Crescent in 1986. In 1985, Stechesen Katz took a big step into post-modernism with their design for the Window on Air Canada Park. Here on the plaza on Portage Avenue before the Air Canada Building, marble columns playfully support only air, while a pink pergola and a blue pool provide colour and brio. It was nothing less than a loosening of the philosophical ties of modernism; Stechesen described it, in 1986, as “an effort to bring life back into architecture.” Another example of this lighter approach by the firm is the treatment of Garbonzo’s Pizza at 1325 Henderson Highway, where the design and colours suggest the product. On a more traditional note was Stechesen Katz’s design for the Brandon Student Union Building. Designed as a multi-purpose gathering place, the Student Union building is “rich in textures yet sleek in detail.” The building was celebrated in the 75th anniversary exhibition of contemporary art in Manitoba at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1987. Other projects of this later period include the restoration of the Canada Permanent Building at 296-298 Garry Street, the redevelopment of the Pantages Theatre, the Assiniboine Park Leo Mol Sculpture Gallery and the offices of the former Women’s Television Network Offices – for which the firm was awarded the Prairie Design Award for interior design in June 2002. Stechesen has also been active for two decades as a consultant to the Historic Winnipeg Advisory Committee, lending expert design advice on diverse issues in the city’s Exchange District National Historic Site.