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Niagara cleans up at regional design awards

Three Niagara-on-the-Lake locations took home honours Tuesday evening at the second Niagara Biennial Design Awards held at Ravine Vineyards. 

Spirit in Niagara Distillery, the Gardens at Pillar and Post Inn and the Poppy Project for Remembrance Day at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum were recognized in three different categories. 

Originally submitted into the Urban Design category, the jury of five architects, urban planners, visual artists and landscape architects moved the NOTL Museum’s entry into the Outdoor Art category, where it earned an award for Outstanding Achievement. 

“It was more than just art,” community engagement coordinator Barbara Worthy tells The Local about the sheet of thousands of poppies that cascaded from the museum’s roof to its flagpole. The winning submission was for the 2021 display, designed to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the poppy.

“It signifies something that is hard to put words to,” adds Worthy. “We saw people standing, staring, looking at the garden, and looking at the poppies. It reminded them of something that is really important to remember. It shows how outdoor art can be important in celebrating commemoration.”

Worthy is adamant that the award is only possible because of the work of the many volunteers who poured their hearts and souls into the eye-catching display that was expanded to include an installation at the Court House on Queen Street in November, 2022.

“We had 40-plus volunteers, ladies and a few gentlemen,” Worthy explains. “We called them the Poppy Brigade, as an honour to all those women who sewed quilts and socks during both wars. They put in over 1,000 hours of logged time, probably much more than that. We used over 10,000 zip ties and over 400 square feet of netting.”

She also lauded Davey Tree Service, who donated the use of one of their cherry-picker trucks and staff to help with the installation. 

Of receiving the award, Worthy says, “We feel so proud. Especially because it really comes down to the heart of all those volunteers. Their dedication and commitment is incredible.”

She added that for November, 2023, they are looking to expand once more with the Poppy Project, and are in early talks with the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 124 for an installation there.

Not yet two years old, Arnie Lepp’s Spirit in Niagara Distillery on Lakeshore Road has already earned two major regional awards. In 2022, Lepp’s dedication to sustainability in the distillery’s operations was recognized with a Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) Award of Merit. He can now add an Award of Excellence for Architecture to his mantle. 

“I wanted the building to fit into the Niagara-on-the-Lake architectural landscape,” Lepp says of the 18th century-style building that greets visitors. Much of the interior utilizes pine that was repurposed from a 150-year old fruit packing barn on the property. 

“I have to mention Michael Mirynech and Eduardto Hernandez of 2M Architects,” adds Lepp. “I knew what I wanted to build, but they took the idea and went with it. They made it submissible for the building permits and made it look great. They did a fantastic job.”

Lepp’s use of the old pine board is a continuation of the theme of sustainability that defines Spirit in NIagara’s production values. His facility was purpose-built to process some of the thousands of tonnes of over-ripe tender fruit that usually goes to waste yearly in the region. The jury found those aspects of the design admirable.

“There’s a lot of validation in this award,” says a very happy Lepp. “Everything here adheres to that concept. We live it every day with the alcohol we produce from wasted fruit. What’s happening in the entire world when it comes to waste needs to be addressed.”

And the awards keep coming for Lepp. Shortly after the Ravine ceremony he got word that Spirit in Niagara has won a bronze medal for its whisky at the 2023 Canadian Whisky Awards, the first such honour for the distillery’s products. 

“We’re proud to be amongst the Museum and Spirit in Niagara as winners from Niagara-on-the-Lake,” says Paul McIntyre, vice president of operations at Lais Hotel Properties, operators of Pillar and Post Inn. “This is a spectacular place, and these are great projects. We are happy to be beside them.”

The Garden at Pillar and Post Inn won the Outstanding Achievement in Landscape Architecture Award. 

“We were surprised about it,” McIntyre concludes. “but it’s something that we’re really, really proud of. It’s amazing how this addition has been great for the community and for our visitors who are coming here from all over the place.”

McIntyre says his contribution to bringing owner Jimmy Lai’s Monet-inspired concept to fruition is by far the most fun he’s ever had in his work. The jury called the almost six-acre garden a primary example of a privately owned public space. 

“Our guests walking through the gardens are awestruck,” adds McIntyre. “They can’t believe that it’s there once they get here and see it. And they walk alongside community members each and every day. Today, they’re skating right beside them on our rink.”

The project team included ACK Architects, Oakridge Landscape Contractors and Seferian Design Group, an award-winning landscape architectural firm based in Burlington.

“They all did a spectacular job,” says McIntyre. “It took a commitment from them to the vision of our owner and our company to see through what he wanted to achieve. They listened to us and helped us form the vision. We all got along and worked through the obstacles. They were a great team to work with.”

By happenstance, the garden opened just as the COVID recovery was starting. McIntyre says having the outdoor space across the road from the inn was ideal. 

“It allowed us to recover more quickly because outdoor spaces were critical,” he says. “People were able to escape from their hotel rooms into this massive garden, where it was safe outside. We were able to have small events. The guests absolutely loved it.”

The Niagara Biennial Design Awards were established in 2020 to recognize and celebrate the region’s design excellence. The purpose of the awards is to promote a range of design fields and to highlight the contributions to the region’s culture made by designers and patrons. 

The jury for this year’s second awards ceremony evaluated 35 entries in eight different categories. A total of 11 awards were distributed at the ceremony at Ravine. 

Two Grand Prize Awards were given Tuesday. The Niagara Parks Power Station in Niagara Falls earned one for its adaptive reuse of a 115-year-old building, acting as a cultural heritage artifact of the early electrical era. The other Grand Prize winner was the new Neil Campbell Rowing Centre at Henley Island in St. Catharines, built for the Niagara 2022 Canada Summer Games. 

“I was blown away by the quality of everything we were seeing up there,” says an awe-struck Worthy of the fellow award winners. “Every project that was awarded was tremendous. It shows the depth of what we have in the Niagara Region.”