Iconic Royal Bank 'ghost sign' to be completely covered by college

The blue Royal Bank of Canada sign at the top of the 10-storey Union Bank Building on Main Street will soon replaced with a sign for the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute at Red River College.

A nearly 100-year-old sign facing south on Main Street to be replaced with Red River College sign

Red River College is in the process of covering up a large sign for the Royal Bank on Main Street and William Avenue. It sits at the top of the school's hospitality school and culinary arts department. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

 An iconic ghost sign in downtown Winnipeg is about to disappear.

The faded blue Royal Bank of Canada sign at the top of the Union Bank Building in the Exchange District will soon be replaced with a sign for the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute at Red River College.

The bank has not occupied space at the 10-storey building on Main Street at William Avenue for decades. The federal and provincial governments as well as private donor, Paterson GlobalFoods, redeveloped the vacant building in 2009. 

The 11-metre-wide by nine-metre-tall sign looked down at Portage and Main for nearly 100 years. It sits atop one of the of the most iconic buildings in Winnipeg's Exchange District.

"I think it's interesting to open up the discussion of what these signs mean," said architect Brent Bellamy.

'Canada's 1st skyscraper'

"To me the Union Bank Tower is the most important heritage building in Winnipeg.... It was without question Canada's first skyscraper."

The tower was built by Union Bank in 1903 and taken over by Royal Bank about 20 years later. Today the Union Bank sign is still slightly visible in the upper-right side of the Royal Bank sign.

While some took to Twitter to criticize Red River's decision to cover the iconic blue sign, Bellamy said he doesn't blame building owners for removing or covering up signs. He just hopes they know how valuable ghost signs are in Winnipeg.

"The ghost signs really represent the history of the people who lived in those buildings," he said.

"I would love there to be at least more awareness so that building owners understand that it is a bit of a living museum on their walls."

Covering up always part of plan

Red River said it applied for permits to cover the Royal Bank sign and replacing it had always been part of the redevelopment plan. 

"Originally during construction there was an approval to put a new sign there," said Conor Lloyd, communications officer with Red River College.

About 300 students use the building for their studies, Lloyd said. The college uses Union Bank Tower to house dormitories, the hospitality school and culinary arts department.

The new Red River sign will not damage the old Royal Bank sign, although it will cover it completely.

"Underneath there will be no more deterioration, there won't be any damage to it," said Lloyd.

The spokesperson added a Royal Bank of Canada sign facing north will remain on the Union Bank Tower building as well as any other ghost signs on the building.

Bellamy said Red River's approach to preserving the south-facing sign, while covering a piece of Winnipeg's history, could set a standard for other building owners who want to remove traces of previous tenants.

"They are going out of their way not to destroy the ghost sign which is really a great thing," he said.

"They're branding the building that they're taking over.... It's really just a third layer."

The blue Royal Bank sign is one of many 'ghost signs' in Winnipeg's historic Exchange District. (Gary Solilak/CBC)