Manitoba

New life being breathed into Winnipeg Hotel, oldest building in city's downtown

The oldest building in downtown Winnipeg could get a new lease on life, provided its bones are still strong.

'I think it would be forever changing of Main Street,' says head of Heritage Winnipeg

Winnipeg Hotel, circa 1902, from the Winnipeg Tribune. (Manitoba Historical Society)

The oldest building in downtown Winnipeg could get a new lease on life, provided its bones are still strong.

Work has begun on a structural inspection of the Winnipeg Hotel, with heritage lovers tightly crossing their fingers it can be restored to a former glory and reopened as a boutique hotel.

"Absolutely elated," said Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg. "The transformation, if that takes place, from what it is now to what it could be, I think it would be forever changing of Main Street."

Built in 1873, the two-storey structure at 214 Main St. was first called the Garry Saloon, likely named after the Hudson's Bay Company's Fort Garry, from which the land had been purchased.

It has been there to witness the arrival of the railroads and electricity, the evolution of roads from dirt to asphalt and the population and economic booms — and busts — that marked the city's growth. In fact, it even witnessed the 1873 incorporation of the city, predating that by a few months.

"It was really the hotels on Main Street that had this city come alive and the history that can be told from that building," Tugwell said.

Photograph of a muddy Main Street in 1872, facing north from Portage Avenue, a year before the Winnipeg Hotel was built. (City of Winnipeg Archives)

In September 1892 it was the site of the reorganization meeting of the 90th Battalion rugby football club into the Osborne Football Club, which became the founding member of the Manitoba Rugby Football Union, a forerunner to the CFL, according to local history blogger Christian Cassidy.

Its history is embedded in Winnipeg's DNA but a few years ago, the hotel was itself nearly history.

It saw numerous renovations and owners through the years and a change in its fortunes. Features like the wrought iron balcony above the main entrance were removed, the street-level picture windows replaced with glass blocks and the brick frontage covered in plywood and tiles.

The Winnipeg Hotel, at left, and the Macdonald Block and Fortune Block, far right, circa 1926. At the time, the Macdonald block was the Commercial Hotel. The smaller building in the middle is the former Dominion Hotel (later the Blue Note Café). (Thomas Burns Collection/Archives of Manitoba)

Over the past several decades its care was neglected and it gained a seedier reputation, with the owner and nine women being arrested in the mid-1980s for running a bawdy house.

Tugwell described it as "an eyesore that everybody just hurries to walk by or drives by or feels unsafe around."

More recently, it continued to function as a hotel occupied primarily by long-term residents in need of housing. Similarly, the nearby Macdonald and Fortune blocks faced a similar decline and bleak future.

The owners of all the properties were approached in 2015 by developers who wanted to tear the buildings down to make way for a new 150-room extended-stay hotel. The owners agreed to the deal but the city had been contemplating adding the buildings to the historical resources list, thereby preventing them from being torn down.

The Winnipeg Hotel, as seen in the 1960s, after renovations changed its facade. (Archives of Manitoba)

Proponents of demolishing them estimated the cost of saving the Macdonald and Fortune blocks alone would exceed $17 million. They tried to convince the city that no one would spend that.

That's when John Pollard stepped up. The local businessman, co-CEO of Pollard Banknote, offered to buy and preserve the two conjoined blocks at the corner of Main Street and St. Mary Avenue.

The city ultimately decided to protect the properties, which killed the development deal. So the owners took Pollard's offer. The package included the Macdonald-Fortune blocks, the Winnipeg Hotel and the vacant lot between them.

Four years and multiple millions of dollars later, the Macdonald-Fortune blocks reopened, their facades appearing as they did in the 1880s, as if from a time capsule.

"We're really lucky. This is an anomaly to have a family like that — to take over those buildings and do what they've done is huge. It's so rare," Tugwell said.

"They just came in and they took the hard way — the most expensive way, the most difficult way — but they did the right thing and that's going to resonate for generations to come. I'm so happy that the Winnipeg Hotel was part of that package, because he's going to see what he can do and I know that demolition absolutely would be a last resort."

A horse and wagon stand against the curb in front of the Macdonald and Fortune blocks in this photo from 1892. The Winnipeg Hotel is at left and the Dominion Hotel (later the Blue Note Café) is the shorter building in the middle. (Victor Acker Collection/Archives of Manitoba)

Pollard wasn't sure the Winnipeg Hotel could be salvaged when he bought it. Although the purchase was made in 2016, the title wasn't set to transfer to until 2018 so he had to wait to get inside to do a full structural analysis and determine what, if anything, could be done to save it.

At the time, Pollard's son, Ryan, who led the redevelopment of the Macdonald-Fortune blocks, said "we haven't had very much time to think about exactly what that is going to be, but the loose plan is to redevelop it into a boutique hotel. We like the idea of keeping the same use."

The hotel's bar at the time was the oldest business in the city to be continually operating out of the same location.

It's been there since 1881, when the hotel expanded to three storeys to meet the demand brought by an influx of settlers on the new Canadian Pacific Railway. Newly-renamed the Winnipeg Hotel and boasting 57 rooms, three parlours and a modern dining room, its first guests checked in that September.

By 1882, Winnipeg's population doubled to 25,000 and the hotel soon expanded once again. A four-storey brick section, increasing the capacity to 80 rooms, was added in 1901.

The Winnipeg Hotel in 2015, long after many of its original features had been removed or covered over. (Murray Peterson/City of Winnipeg)

That same year, the owners purchased the neighbouring Dominion Hotel with plans to demolish it and build a five-storey addition. It would have included 70-80 more rooms, a billiards room, an expanded restaurant and elevators but the plans never materialized.

Another booming section of the city caught the owners' attention. They sold the Winnipeg Hotel to buy the Queen's Hotel at Portage Avenue and Notre Dame Avenue (now the courtyard for the BMO tower).

The Pollards took possession in 2019 and helped the tenants find new places to live before closing it to begin inspection work. The family runs Home First Winnipeg, a not-for-profit charitable corporation established to provide affordable housing.

"That's a testament to what that family's like. They're just a wonderful philanthropic family," Tugwell said. 

The Blue Note Café, formerly the Dominion Hotel, was tucked between the Winnipeg Hotel and the Macdonald-Fortune blocks. (Winnipeg Free Press Archives )

The hotel property also came with a vacant neighbouring lot, formerly the Dominion Hotel location — and several subsequent businesses — before the building was razed around 2010.

Once littered with discarded clothes and bottles and other trash dumped from hotel windows, the lot has been cleaned and fenced off.

This past summer it opened as an outdoor pub and music venue called Blue Note Park — a nod to the Blue Note Café that once occupied the space.

Blue Note Park, between the Winnipeg Hotel, at left, and the Macdonald block, at right. (Google Street View)

Since being able to get inside the hotel, the Pollards have peeled back some old renovation layers but are reluctant to say how everything is going, preferring to wait until they are absolutely certain of the building's fate.

In response to why the family tackles projects other developers see as unwieldy and too costly, Ryan said that's never what their decisions have been measured against.

"We think the buildings that went up in Winnipeg around the turn-of-the-century and still stand today are a defining part of the character in our city. It's been a lot of fun to play a small part in keeping this sort of architecture alive in Winnipeg," he said.

Renovations have revealed the frames for the upper stained glass windows are still in place above the glass-block main windows. According to Christian Cassidy, the stained glass windows were also in place, boxed away by some past renovation project, and have been sent off for restoration. (Christian Cassidy/Facebook)
The original details of the Winnipeg Hotel, including the iron balcony, picture windows and stained glass, are seen in 1933. (Archives of Manitoba)

Cassidy has seen optimistic signs outside of the Winnipeg Hotel. Some original details, such as stained glass windows and the frames above the street level picture windows — were discovered as the facade was pulled apart.

They had long ago been boxed in and covered by plywood and tiling, which protected them.

"It is remarkable how intact the Winnipeg Hotel's 1895 facade is now that much of its 1960s renos have been removed. You can even see where the 'Juliette balcony' was attached [above the main entrance]," Cassidy wrote in a post on his Facebook page.

While the architecture and the original details of the building are important, getting the building functional again and used in a way that brings people to it "is really the big win here," Tugwell said.

"We'll always have the history of the hotel, regardless of what they can architecturally keep or they have to recreate. We need to bring people back onto the street. It was part of the culture to be on Main Street and we were at risk of losing that.

"I feel like we're going to get a piece of that back."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first 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.

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