New life breathed into the Winnipeg Hotel, the oldest building in the city center

The oldest building in downtown Winnipeg could come to life, provided its bones are still strong.

Work has started on a structural inspection of the Winnipeg hotel, with heritage lovers closely crossing their fingers it can be restored to old-fashioned glory and reopened as a boutique hotel.

“Absolutely thrilled,” said Cindy Tugwell, Executive Director of Heritage Winnipeg. “The transformation, if it takes place, from what it is now to what it could be, I think that would change Main Street forever.”

Built in 1873, the two-story building at 214 Main Street was originally called the Garry Saloon, probably named after the Hudson’s Bay Company Fort Garry, from which the land had been purchased.

She has been there to witness the arrival of railways and electricity, the evolution of roads from dirt to asphalt, and the demographic and economic booms – and downturns – that have marked the growth of the city. In fact, he even witnessed the city’s incorporation in 1873, a few months before that.

“It really is the Main Street hotels that brought this city to life and the story that can be told from this 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 Osborne Football Club, which became the founding member of the Manitoba Rugby Football Union, a precursor to the CFL, according to local history blogger Christian Cassidy.

Its history is steeped in Winnipeg’s DNA, but a few years ago the hotel itself was almost historic.

He has seen many renovations and owners over the years and a change in his fortunes. Elements such as the wrought-iron balcony above the main entrance have been removed, the street-level bay windows replaced with glass blocks, and the brick facade covered with plywood and tiles.

The Winnipeg Hotel, on the left, and the Macdonald Building and Fortune Building, on the far right, circa 1926. At the time, the Macdonald Building was the commercial hotel. The smaller building in the middle is the old Dominion Hotel (later the Blue Note Café). (Thomas Burns Collection / Archives of Manitoba)

Over the past several decades his care has been neglected and he has gained a more mixed reputation, with the owner and nine women arrested in the mid-1980s for running a bawdy-house.

Tugwell described it as “an eyesore that everyone rushes past or drives or feels unsafe.”

More recently, it has continued to operate as a hotel occupied primarily by long-term residents in need of accommodation. Likewise, the nearby Macdonald and Fortune Blocks have faced a similar decline and a grim future.

The owners of all properties were approached in 2015 by developers who wanted to demolish the buildings to make way for a new 150-room long-term hotel. The owners accepted the deal, but the city had considered adding the buildings to the list of historic resources, preventing their demolition.

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

Supporters of their demolition estimated that 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 it.

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

The city ultimately decided to protect the properties, which killed the development agreement. The owners therefore accepted Pollard’s offer. The package included the Macdonald-Fortune blocks, the Winnipeg hotel and the vacant land between them.

Four years and several million dollars later, the Macdonald-Fortune Blocks reopened, their facades appearing as in the 1880s, as if they came from a time capsule.

“We’re really lucky. It’s an anomaly to have a family like that – taking over these buildings and doing what they did is huge. It’s so rare,” Tugwell said.

“They just came in and they took the harder route – the more expensive route, the hardest route – but they did the right thing and it’s going to resonate for generations to come. glad the hotel winnipeg is part of this package as he’s going to see what it can do and i know demolition would be absolutely a last resort. “

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

Pollard was not sure the Winnipeg Hotel could be salvaged when he purchased it. Although the purchase was made in 2016, the title was not due to transfer 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 him.

At the time, Pollard’s son Ryan, who led the redevelopment of the Macdonald-Fortune Blocks, said “we haven’t had much time to think about what exactly this is going to be, but the vague plan is. to redevelop it into a charming hotel. We like the idea of ​​keeping the same use. “

The hotel bar was at the time the oldest business in town to operate permanently in one location.

It has been around since 1881, when the hotel expanded to three floors to meet the demands of an influx of settlers on the new Canadian Pacific Railway. Newly renamed the Winnipeg Hotel and offering 57 rooms, three living rooms and a modern dining room, its first guests arrived in September.

In 1882, Winnipeg’s population doubled to 25,000, and the hotel soon grew again. A four-story brick section, bringing the capacity to 80 rooms, was added in 1901.

The Winnipeg Hotel in 2015, long after many of its original features were removed or redesigned. (Murray Peterson / City of Winnipeg)

In the same year, the owners bought the neighboring Dominion hotel with plans to demolish it and build a five-story addition. It would have included an additional 70 to 80 rooms, a billiard room, an expanded restaurant, and elevators, but the plans never materialized.

Another booming section of town caught the attention of owners. They sold the Winnipeg hotel to buy the Queen’s Hotel on Portage Avenue and Notre Dame Avenue (now the courtyard of the BMO Tower).

The Pollards took possession of it in 2019 and helped tenants find new homes before closing it down to begin inspection work. The family runs Home First Winnipeg, a non-profit charitable organization established to provide affordable housing.

“It’s a testament to what this family is like. It’s just a wonderful, philanthropic family,” Tugwell said.

The Blue Note Café, formerly the Dominion Hotel, was nestled between the Winnipeg Hotel and the Macdonald-Fortune Blocks. (Winnipeg Free Press Archive)

The hotel property also had vacant neighboring land, formerly the location of the Dominion Hotel – and several subsequent businesses – before the building was razed in around 2010.

Once littered with discarded clothes and bottles and other trash thrown out of hotel windows, the grounds were cleared and fenced off.

Last summer it opened as an open-air pub and concert venue called Blue Note Park – a nod to the Blue Note Café that once occupied the space.

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

Since they were able to get inside the hotel, the Pollards have peeled off old layers of renovation but are reluctant to say how everything is going, preferring to wait to be absolutely certain of the building’s fate.

In response to why the family is tackling projects that other developers see as cumbersome and too expensive, Ryan said that’s never what their decisions have been measured against.

“We believe that the buildings that were built in Winnipeg at the turn of the century and still stand today are a defining part of our city’s character. It’s been a lot of fun playing a small role in keeping this kind of architecture alive in Winnipeg, ”he said.

Renovations have revealed that the upper stained glass frames are still in place above the main glass block windows. According to Christian Cassidy, the stained glass windows were also in place, locked away by a past renovation project, and were sent for restoration. (Christian Cassidy / Facebook)

The original details of the Winnipeg Hotel, including the iron balcony, floor to ceiling windows, and stained glass, can be seen in 1933. (Archives of Manitoba)

Cassidy saw optimistic signs outside the Winnipeg Hotel. Some original details, such as the stained glass windows and frames above the bay windows at street level, were discovered during the dismantling of the facade.

They had long been boxed in and covered with plywood and tiles that protected them.

“It is remarkable how intact the facade of the 1895 Winnipeg Hotel is now that much of its 1960s renovations have been removed. You can even see where the ‘Juliet Balcony’ was attached [above the main entrance]”Cassidy wrote in a post on her Facebook page.

While the building’s original architecture and details are important, making the building functional again and used in a way that draws people in “is really the big win here,” Tugwell said.

“We will always have the history of the hotel, regardless of what they may retain architecturally or what they have to recreate. We have to bring people back to the streets. 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 some of that back.”

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