Sign of the times: The Bay's illuminated name goes dark, comes down from Portage Avenue landmark
Hudson's Bay Company closed its downtown Winnipeg store at end of November
Friday marked the end of an era in downtown Winnipeg as the Hudson's Bay Company sign was removed from the top of the retailer's six-storey building at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard.
The yellow beacon, which could be seen through even the foggiest and snowiest days, has now met the same fate of the store it trumpeted.
"The sign is a piece of tangible history," Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell said in an email.
Its removal is "a defining moment … as it truly marks the end of an era for this purpose-built landmark downtown retail store."
The HBC, which is woven into the histories of the city and province, announced in October it would close the 675,000-square-foot building in February 2021 due to "shifting consumer behaviour" that saw crowds drastically shrink over the past decades, as they shifted to suburban and big box malls.
The doors were locked forever much sooner, at the end of November. The company cited provincial COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, which currently prevent the sale of non-essential goods in store, as a reason for hastening the closure.
WATCH | Crews remove the sign from the Bay's landmark downtown Winnipeg building:
"I am sad to see a visible reminder of the proud heritage of that building removed, but I remain hopeful it [the building] can go on to serve the community in another capacity for many more years," said Gordon Goldsborough, president and head researcher at the Manitoba Historical Society.
The building, which opened on Nov. 18, 1926, once had 2,000 staff members. On opening day, they welcomed 50,000 customers.
The store also boasted a multitude of departments stretched throughout its six floors — including a restaurant, the largest fur-storage vault in Western Canada, a beauty parlour, public telephones, a post office, a library and an auditorium with its own orchestra.
In more recent years, the Bay's complexion changed as it struggled.
In 2010, the building's basement was converted into a Zellers store, but that closed only three years later.
In 2013, the Bay shuttered the Paddlewheel Restaurant on the sixth floor, and in 2016, HBC consolidated the retail space to just the first two floors.
The question now is what to do with all that space.
Last November, when HBC appraised all of its 89 properties, the Portage Avenue building was given a market value of $0 by real estate evaluator Cushman & Wakefield — because the costs involved in redevelopment would essentially erase its worth in a sale.
At that point, the building was technically worth even less than that, because of a tax liability of $302,298.
"Many informal proposals for the building have been mentioned, and I think there is great potential here so long as we are open to creative, new uses," Goldsborough said.
"One possible use that I am advocating is as a home for archives that I am calling the Manitoba Memory Centre. I think the building would be an excellent home for the City of Winnipeg Archives, additional storage space for the Archives of Manitoba next door, as well as retail space on the street level and office space elsewhere.
"In other words, it is a multi-faceted reuse plan that embraces the building's important connection to the history of Manitoba will provide, in my view, the best possible future for the former HBC store."
Tugwell said Heritage Winnipeg is looking forward to making sure the building is repurposed as a community hub for the downtown area for generations to come.
City's long ties to HBC
Winnipeg has a long connection with the company, whose first retail department store opened in the city in 1881 at the corner of Main Street and York Avenue.
In 1970, on the 300th birthday of the company — which shortened its named from the Hudson's Bay Company to the Bay in 1964 — head office functions were transferred from London, England, to Winnipeg.
As the company expanded into the east, head office functions were later moved to Toronto.
The Hudson's Bay Company Archives are located in the Manitoba Archives building on Vaughan Street, across from the Bay's parkade.
The records cover HBC history from the founding of the company in 1670, including business transactions, medical records, personal journals of officials, inventories and company reports.