Frozen in time

Frozen in time

Winnipeg’s collection of early 20th Century buildings is unrivalled in this country, a national treasure frozen in time by a series of unfortunate circumstances. By Sherril Matthes, with excerpts from ‘city beautiful’ by Randy Turner, Winnipeg Free Press. Photography by Leif Norman.

In the centre of Canada sits an architectural time machine of a distinct period in history, an era of unparalleled promise that fell victim to its time and circumstance. That time machine is the Exchange District in downtown Winnipeg, which remains largely as it was in 1918. And in 1918 it was fantastic. 

“It was a city of tremendous bustle. Real bareknuckle capitalism”, says Dr. Frank Albo, art historian and author. “The most economically aggressive city in North America, it was a place for risk-takers, tycoons and gamblers. And if you really wanted to make your mark as an ambitious builder, Winnipeg would be a great place to make a start.” 

On one day alone in 1912, 3,500 people stepped off trains into Union Station, designed by the architects of Grand Central Station, and the CPR Station, with its “dramatic portico, richly ornamented facades, and grand rotundo.” 

These are just two of many examples of a design and construction era ruled by the anticipation of massive growth. Winnipeg was the Chicago, the New York, of the north. The city had swelled from 42,000 people in 1901 to 160,000 by 1916. In 1911, there was a push toward a population of one million by 1922. 

So Winnipeg was designed and built with no holds barred. Bankers Row included the Bank of Montreal at Portage and Main, with the world’s largest vault; the Union Bank, the first and tallest steel-frame skyscraper in Canada; the Bank of Toronto, with neoclassical Corinthian columns; the Royal Bank, with a rare Italian Palazzo style facade; and the Imperial Bank of Canada’s neo-classic stone exterior and marble, mahogany and bronze foyer. 

Beyond the banks, the Fort Garry Hotel, opened in 1913, was the tallest structure in the city, based on the chateau-form style of New York’s Plaza Hotel. The Exchange District was booming with warehouses, office buildings and all manner of entertainment, built of limestone and Kenora granite, with adorned doorways, graceful arches and a symmetry of strength that has since withstood harsh elements and economies. 

Residents of the day could see Charlie Chaplin at the Empress Theatre or W.C. Fields at the Orpheum Theatre on Fort Street, in a vaudeville district that attracted the world’s most renowned entertainers. Or they could take in Madame Butterfly at the Walker Theatre, with its ivory covered walls and plush red seats. 

At nightfall, farmhands and railway workers flooded in to blow their wages in Main Street bars and the plentiful and welcoming whorehouses in Point Douglas, home to Madame Minnie Woods, Queen of Brothels, and some 200 ladies of the evening. 

It was glamour, growth, greed and gall combined. And it was about to be challenged by time and circumstance. 

In 1914, the Panama Canal opened, providing a short cut for transporting goods to the Pacific Ocean and North America’s west coast. 

The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, which stemmed from festering living conditions in a city of two financial solitudes, gave pause to potential entrepreneurs who could now seek their fortunes in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. 

And the outbreak of the First World War completely froze European (mostly British) investment in Winnipeg real estate. The Great Depression followed, leading almost directly into the start of the Second World War. 

The Million by 1922 campaign? Well, the province finally broke the one-million barrier in 1976. UC

Some of Winnipeg’s more notable turn-of-last-century edifices, clockwise from top left:

The Kelly Building and the Bannatyne Block, 1905 The Bannatyne Block got its start in the early 1880s, at the time of Winnipeg’s initial boom. One of its more colourful elements is the Kelly Building, built in 1905 by Thomas Kelly. In 1912 the Kelly Brothers received their most prestigious contract – the construction of the Manitoba Legislative Building. Almost immediately there was controversy around it, and a Royal Commission later determined over-payments to Kelly in excess of $800,000. He fled to Chicago, but was later extradited to Winnipeg where he was found guilty of embezzlement and fraud and sentenced to two and a half years in the Stony Mountain Penitentiary. 

Grain Exchange Buildings, 1892 & 1898 The Grain Exchange was founded in 1887 as a place for buyers and sellers to meet and conduct business, establish rules of trade and create a link with international markets. In 1892 the first Grain Exchange Building was completed and in 1898 a second building was added immediately to the south. More buildings were added in 1902, and by 1908 the Grain Exchange relocated to larger quarters on Lombard Avenue. 

Imperial Bank, 1906 Neo-Classical in style, the Imperial Bank’s ornate stone clad exterior was matched by the marble, mahogany and bronze accenting in the foyer, main banking hall and basement vault. The third floor featured living quarters, bathrooms, a dining room and a clubroom for staff. 

The Marriagi Hotel, 1903 In 1903 Frank Mariaggi, who had come west with the Red River Expedition in 1871, created a luxurious European-style hotel from what was originally an apartment block. Like no other in Winnipeg, the Mariaggi boasted running water, a passenger elevator, steam heat, electric lights, telephones, brass beds and velvet carpets. For all the luxury on the upper floors, the most impressive part of the building was the basement. Known as “The Grotto,” the space had four cave-shaped dining rooms with a waterfall that splashed into a goldfish pond. 

The Royal Bank of Canada Building, 1909 Italian Palazzo in style, and clad in pink granite, all to convey an image of corporate strength and security, the Royal Bank Building featured bronze doors, oak woodwork, and skylights that illuminated the interior. Marble was used for floors and walls, as well as the staircase, counters (with bronze cages), chequing desks and benches. 

The Hamilton Bank Building, 1918 Completed in 1918 at a cost of $400,000, the Hamilton Bank Building was the last major office building built during Winnipeg’s early boom. Hamilton Bank later merged with the Bank of Commerce, so this building is today CIBC’s contribution to the city’s “Banker’s Row”. 

The Electric Railway Chambers, 1912 The Winnipeg Electric Railway Company translated its local electricity monopoly into considerable wealth and influence. When a new headquarters was required, the company built one of the city’s most spectacular structures. The company lit the exterior with 6000 lights, a feature that continues to light up the night sky today.


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