From shady and despised to a bright new future: Transforming the Merchants Hotel

The notorious Merchants Hotel, whose demise was celebrated through the swinging of sledgehammers nearly three years ago, has completed its transformation.
The Merchants Hotel was originally known as the Steiman Block. It was designed by Max Blankstein and built in 1913-1914 for hardware merchant Robert 'Bob' Steiman. (Archives of Manitoba)

The notorious Merchants Hotel, whose demise was celebrated through the swinging of sledgehammers nearly three years ago, has completed its transformation.

The history of the 104-year-old building at the corner of Selkirk Avenue and Andrews Street, in the heart of Winnipeg's North End, is a journey that began as prominent business on a sunny corner but became a shadowy landmark of infamy.

It became common in the past couple of decades to see police tape and cruisers outside of The Merchants Hotel.

It has since been saved from its ignominy, a rallying rescue by the community, and is set to begin a bright new chapter as a hub for education in an impoverished neighbourhood in need of hope.

For most Winnipeggers, the three-storey brick building has been mostly associated with violence, a nerve centre for the local drug trade and a meeting place for street gangs.

But it didn't start out that way.

Robert Steiman and wife Sarah in 1899. (Winnipeg Downtown Places and Archives of Manitoba)

When Robert "Bob" Steiman emigrated to the city from Lithuania at the turn of the 20th century, he was walking into a city that was one of the most robust on the continent, booming with a quickly growing population and rapidly expanding downtown.

Just north of the downtown, Selkirk Avenue was becoming a major commercial thoroughfare in its own right and Steiman set about building a home for his hardware business while creating needed commercial space above it.

Russian-born architect Max Zev Blankstein, who had already designed several building (and would go on to do many more, including apartment buildings and theatres), was hired for the job, which cost $20,000.

The Steiman Block officially opened in 1914, with the Robert Steiman Company Ltd. operating on the street level. Through the years, the name would evolve into the R. Steiman Hardware and Furniture Company and eventually the Globe Hardware and Furniture Company Limited by 1923.

The upper levels housed the offices for physicians Dr. J. P. Oshanek and Dr. Bernard J. Ginsburg.

An announcement for the opening of the newly converted Steiman Block. Source: The Jewish Post, Jan. 11, 1934, and Winnipeg Downtown Places. (The Jewish Post, January 11, 1934)

When the Great Depression hit, Steiman's business slipped off and the commercial spaces were vacated. Recognizing a greater opportunity in offering places to sleep and eat, Steiman converted the building into the Merchants Hotel with a lounge and restaurant.

It opened in 1934 as the "newest of most modern hotel" with 40 rooms, each available at a rate of $1 per day.

Steiman retired in 1947 and sold the building. Over the next six decades it changed ownership six more times and underwent some changes and additions, such as the single-story structure to the west of the main building.

The only thing that was consistent was the operation of the lounge and hotel rooms, which became increasingly run-down as the violence went up.

The hotel was gutted and rebuilt inside while maintaining the heritage exterior. (CBC)

In September 2010, a 47-year-old man was attacked and set on fire after he had gone to the hotel to buy beer.

A few months later, in April 2011, Sheila Fontaine, 42, died after being attacked and stabbed while standing outside the hotel. An 18-year-old woman, a 17-year-old girl and a 13-year-old girl were charged.

After many calls for the province to step in and shut the bar down, the government finally did just that in April 2012.

It paid $1.3 million for the property then held it until a development plan could be established.

That came in 2014, when  a community-based coalition of about 20 North End organizations announced a plan to convert and expand the building into Merchants Corner, with affordable housing, commercial and classroom space.

Led by the North End Community Renewal Corp., alongside elders, residents and students, the future of Merchants Corner began with a brick-breaking ceremony in 2015.

The one-story beverage room was razed and a new structure has risen in its place. The original Steiman Block was gutted and has since been converted to serve a mix of residential and educational purposes.

The new complex contains 30 units of affordable housing and will serve as an educational hub, hosting the University of Winnipeg's department of inner-city studies and the Community Education Development Association's literacy and high school completion program, Pathways to Education.

The Merchants Hotel as it appeared in 2012 just before it was shut down. (Google Street View)

Bright new future for the Merchants Hotel

5 years ago
Duration 2:09
It was once a hotel known for crime, but now Merchants Corner is being heralded as a beacon of hope for Winnipeg's inner city.

There is retail and common space, open to the community, as well as training spaces, a community kitchen and ​café.

The provincial government committed more than $15 million toward the project while the community is responsible for $3.7 million.

"This is a beacon of hope for the community and a tipping point in the future for Winnipeg's inner city — socially and economically," states The Merch website for the new complex.

Merchants Corner Inc., a community-based non-profit created by the groups that led the redevelopment, will own and manage the educational space.

Tours of the newly completed space will begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday. 

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Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.