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Tuesday, 1 December 2020

The Bay Downtown: Nov. 18, 1926 to Nov. 30, 2020


Goodbye, old friend.

From my time as a student at the U of W in the early 90s and then decades living in or on the periphery of downtown, this is probably the single store where I’ve spent the most money.

A ton of groceries, my bed, still in my closet are couple of pairs of shoes, boots, hoodie, parka and even the pyjama bottoms I am wearing now. (I also snagged the Manitoba and Canada boardroom flags on oak poles with brass maple leaf tops when they did their first downsizing many years ago !) 

It got tougher to shop there over the years as lines got dropped, but Christmas was always a time to get back there. Sorry there won’t be another one.

I’ve been lucky to have had the chance to get behind the scenes of the building on a couple of occasions doing heritage stuff and had a lot of fun researching numerous columns and blog posts about its past. I even worked there for a couple of weeks during a Christmas Disney promo back in the 1980s and still have the name tag. 

It’s the end of an era with the last major retailer leaving the downtown. 

Related:

My thoughts on the future of the Bay building
My Bay Downtown photo album, including behind the scenes and the final days
HBC officially closes downtown Winnipeg Location CBC News
Downtown Bay officially closes doors
Winnipeg Free Press

My other HBC-related posts and columns:
My Bay Downtown photo album on Flickr
450 Portage Avenue Winnipeg Downtown Places
The Bay Parkade Winnipeg Downtown Places
The Paddlewheel Restaurant Winnipeg Downtown Places
Zellers' 79-year run in Winnipeg West End Dumplings
The Bay Downtown's missing elevator mural West End Dumplings
Winnipeg's missing murals in the Winnipeg Free Press
Bay's Food Market staying put West End Dumplings
The Bay Downtown's giant beacon West End Dumplings
Beacon shone from atop Bay Building in the Winnipeg Free Press

Sunday, 8 November 2020

The Simkin Centre's Mystery Donor

 © 2020, Christian Cassidy

I love a history mystery and found one on the website of the Jewish Post and News.

Recently, the Saul & Claribel Simkin Centre received a $725,000 donation from the Estate of Myer and Corrine Geller of San Diego, California. They said of the donor, "All we know about the Gellers is they had no children and Myer was a 1943 graduate of St. John’s High School. Further, Mr. Geller went to MIT, became a physicist and was granted several patents."

The Simkin Centre's roots date back to 1915 and the Winnipeg Old Folks Jewish Home on Elgin Avenue. It's is now on Falcon Ridge Drive in Linden Ridge.

As Bernie Bellan asks in the pages of the Jewish Post and News, "
So, the question that tantalizes is: Why would someone who had left Winnipeg 70 years ago want to leave such a substantial donation to the Jewish nursing home?"

Bellan did some further digging into the history of the Gellers and was able to fill in a few of the gaps but a lot of mystery remains. I thought I would try my luck and see if what bits I might be able to fill in that. (If YOU know more about the family, Bellan asks that you contact him at jewishp@mymts.net or 1-204-694-3332.)


1921 Census of Canada, Library and Archives Canada

The earliest mention I can find of the Geller family comes in the 1921 Census of Canada. It shows Max Geller, 30, wife Sarah, 24, and eldest child, Rose, 3, renting a room at 689 Selkirk Avenue, the home of the Peck family.

The census taker noted that the parents were Jewish and had emigrated from Russia, Sarah in 1912 and Max in 1913. Rose was born in Manitoba ca. 1918.

Max's profession is listed as a merchant of produce and eggs.

(In case you're wondering how I know this is THE Geller family - after all, there were about seven Geller families, three of them with a Max as the head of household - all will be revealed !)

For reasons unknown, these Gellers do not appear in any of the prairie provinces in the 1926 census, the last one that is publicly available. It could be that they relocated for a while, their name was horribly misspelled, or they got overlooked somehow.

The Gellers had two more children: Frances ca. 1922 and Myer ca.1926. Records of their births cannot be found at the Manitoba Vital Statistics Database. These could be more oversights or lends weight to the theory that the Gellers may have been away from the province for a number of years.

Geller family home on Bannerman ca. 1941 to ca. 1964

It is hard to track people in the Henderson Street Directories when they are renters and don't have steady jobs from year to year. This was the case with the Gellers through the 1930s.

The family does put down traceable roots ca. 1941 when they purchased a little wartime bungalow at 284 Bannerman Avenue. This was around the time their children were of high school age.

Max Geller's entry in the 1942 Henderson Directory lists him as a travelling salesman. From 1943 to 1945, he is a produce manager. No place of work is ever given.

In 1946, Max gets into the fur industry as an employee of Elias Reich and Co. fur manufactures located on the 6th floor of the Jacob Crowley Building. He worked there and for its successor, J. H. Hecht, until 1948.

In 1949 and 1950, Max's occupation is listed as a "tracker" – no explanation of the job title or a place of work was given.

The Gellers seem to disappear from the directory in the early 1950s, but are back at 284 Bannerman by 1954. The 1957 directory notes that Max is retired, though worked part time as an attendant at the DonEll Parking Lot which is the surface lot still located at Donald and Ellice.

Max and Sarah relocated to the Perth Apartments, Unit B, at 204 Perth Avenue in 1964.


March 8, 1966, Winnipeg Tribune

Max Geller died on March 6, 1966 at the Winnipeg General Hospital. He was survived by Sarah and their three children. Rose, Frances and Myer all lived in different cities.

An obituary can't be found for Sarah Geller. This suggests she may have moved in with one of her children after Max's death.


The Kids:

Rose Geller

Rose would have been born ca. 1918 in Manitoba according to the census. There were a couple of Miss Rose Gellers in Winnipeg coming of age in the mid to late 1930s and early 1940s. The Rose Geller in the social pages and on the executive of the YMHA was likely the daughter of Issac, owner of The Stag Lunch Counter on Main Street, who lived on Burrows Avenue.
From her father's obituary, it is known that she married Louis Lieberman, though a wedding announcement can't be found in the local daily papers. (This wasn't the same man as furrier Louis Lieberman. His wife's name was Etta.)

By the time of her father's death, when was living in Toronto. An obituary for Rose can't be found in local papers, suggesting she never came back to the city.

Frances Geller



Top: April 18, 1942, Winnipeg Tribune

Bottom: 1943 Brown and Gold yearbook, U of M

Frances was easier to track in her younger years. She attended St. John’s Technical High School and in 1939 won an entrance bursary to attend St. John's College. Her arts degree was supplemented with special "War Work" courses that featured classes in home nursing, telegraphy, physical training and first aid.

Frances graduated in 1943 and worked as a clerk for the Bank of Montreal until 1948 while still living at home. In 1945, she joined the executive of the Junior Hadassah.

According to her father's obituary, Frances married Edward Jordan and by 1966 was living in Toronto. Like her sister, a local wedding announcement can't be found in the daily newspapers. Also like her sister, a local obituary can't be found, suggesting she did not return to the city.

Myer Geller

The mystery man was also a mystery man when it came to his time in Winnipeg. Aside from a couple of newspaper clips about his education, see below, he doesn't appear in the daily papers. He also doesn't appear in the Henderson Directory under his own name, which isn't all that surprising as the directory was more interested in adults who worked than students. 

Geller would have been born ca. 1928, but a record of that birth is not at the Manitoba Vital Statistics website. He graduated from St. John's Technical High School in 1943 and received the Israel Gutman award of $100 from the St. John's High School Home and School Association.

A number of Geller's classmates went off to war after graduation, but there is no record of him enlisting.

If he attended the University of Manitoba, as one of the above articles states, he didn't stay for long as he does not appear in any of the 1940s U of M yearbooks. He received his Masters in physics from the University of Minnesota and his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1955.

In the business section of the Pasadena Independent Star News of November 6, 1960, above, it notes that Geller became senior scientist in the Solid State Division of Electro-Optical Systems. The same notice in a 1961 edition of Physics Today notes that he was formerly of Hughes Products.

In last decades of his life, he appears to have worked for Naval Oceans Systems Center in San Diego. His father's obituary notes that he lived in San Diego as early as 1966 and Myer is listed on a number of the organization's patents starting in 1977. (His research is referenced in numerous scientific papers and he has a number of patents.)

Back to the original question: Why would someone who had left Winnipeg 70 years ago want to leave such a substantial donation to the Jewish nursing home? I could not find an answer.

It doesn't appear that Myron Geller's parents or his siblings spent the end of their lives at the nursing home. None of them, it appears, were on its executive or hosted fundraising events for it.

Hopefully, a few more bit have been filled in that will allow genealogy fiends to dig in a bit deeper. Also, when the Jewish Post and News archive are back online there are a few new names to check out.

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Manitoba's WWI Fallen: Private Ronald Alexander Tait of Winnipeg

© 2020, Christian Cassidy

This is one in a series of posts commemorating the life of some of the Manitobans who died in World War I. For more about this project and links to other posts, follow this link.

Image: Oct 23, 1918, Winnipeg Tribune
Signature: Attestation Papers (Library and Archives Canada)

Ronald Alexander Tait was born in Baie St. Paul in the RM of St. Francois Xavier in December 1898*. He spent his teenage years at 614 Victor Street in Winnipeg, now demolished, with his parents, Alexander and Flora, brothers Victor, Leslie and Campbell, and sister, Edna. 

(* On his attestation papers, Tait gives 1899 as his birth year, though according to Manitoba Vital Statistics' database and a medical form in his military file his birth year was 1898. This is interesting as recruits, particularly underage ones, usually backdated their year of birth to make them older than they  were. For the purposes if this article I am using 1898 as his year of birth.)

Tait's roots in Manitoba went far back.

His grandfather on his mother's side was John Taylor, an early Metis farmer and MLA after whom John Taylor Collegiate is named. His father's father was Hon. William Tait, an early farmer and legislator from the Headingley district. Interestingly, the two squared off in the 1874 provincial election with Taylor beating Tait by five votes.

Tait's father was an officer with Dominion Immigration Department and older brother a customs inspector. Ronald left school at age 16 to work as a freight clerk, though his place of employment is unknown.


Troops of the 184th Battalion outside the then Olympia Hotel in 1915

(Archives of Manitoba, N22569)

Tait enlisted with the 184th Battalion at Winnipeg in March 1916 at the age of 17. He was sent to Camp Hughes for basic training and then to the Olympia, now Marlborough Hotel, in Winnipeg to await  deployment. The luxury hotel had gone bust in 1913 and was leased by the War Department as the 184th's headquarters.

Tait arrived in England on November 13, 1916. From there, he was transferred to the 27th Battalion and sent to the front lines in France on February 15, 1917.

The 27th fought at the Battle for Hill 70 near Lens, France which lasted from August 15 to 25, 1917. It was a battle that some consider even more important to the outcome of the war than Vimy Ridge, but history has largely forgotten it. Canadian forces suffered 9,198 casualties over that ten-day period and Ronald Tait was one of them.


22 General Hospital ward in 1918. (Archives of Harvard Medical School)

Tait's military file indicates that on August 24, 1917, he arrived at No. 53 Casualty Clearance Station near Lilliers, France "dangerously wounded". (The incident likely took place an agonizing three days earlier.) He suffered gunshot wounds to his left arm, head, chest and foot and had a skull fracture and a collapsed lung. His mangled left forearm had to be amputated.

From the battlefield, Tait was sent to 22 General Hospital in Camiers, France where he spent another another week in serious condition. He then went to the 5th Southern General Hospital in Portsmouth, England where he spent months recovering.

In Tait's "Medical Report on an Invalid" form dated April 1918, while still at Portsmouth, a physician described him in "fair condition" and that aside from shortness of breath after exertion due to his chest injuries, his "empyema healed and all wounds healed".

Tait was invalided back to Canada, leaving Liverpool on June 6, 1918.

North Toronto Military Orthopedic Hospital, 1917 (VirtualMuseum.ca)

Tait's next stop was the North Toronto Military Orthopedic Hospital on Davisville Avenue where he  continued his recovery and eventually get fitted with a prosthetic forearm.

At the time, Toronto was in the grip of the world-wide influenza pandemic. Things were so bad that on October 19, 1918, the city ordered closed all theatres, pool halls and other public gathering places.

It was too late for Tait and some other patients at the military hospital. They had already contracted the virus.

Tait's medical file entry for October 23, 1918 starts off describing him as "very weak" with "respiration very shallow", then "very restless and talking a great deal - delirious". The last entry is "Very cyanosed. Pulse weak. Died." The official cause of death was pneumonia.

Ronald Alexander Tait was 19 years old.

By the time of his death, the Taits had relocated to 634 Toronto Street. Their son's body was returned to Winnipeg and he is buried in the Military Section of Brookside Cemetery.


September 18, 1918, Winnipeg Tribune

Victor Tait, Ronald's older brother born in 1897, also enlisted with the 184th. He was wounded twice.

In August 1917 he received gunshot wounds to the thigh and hand. After recovering in England, he returned to battle and was in September 1918 suffered gunshot wounds to the right leg and buttock.

After recovering in hospital, Victor was discharged and sent back to Canada in January 1918. He lived a long life, dying in Winnipeg in June 1981 at the age of 84.

Unfortunately, Ronald wasn't the only Tait to die young.

Flora Tait died in 1921 at the age of 55. A younger brother, Campbell, died at the Ninette Sanatorium of tuberculosis in 1937 at the age of 28. 


Will of Ronald Alexander Tait (Military File, Library and Archives Canada)

Sunday, 18 October 2020

Behind The Photo: Ethyl Doyle's mug shot (1904)

© 2020, Christian Cassidy

Previously, I wrote about Bloody Jack Krawchenko after seeing his wanted poster at the Winnipeg Police Museum during Doors Open. The museum also has a selection of  “mug shots” on display and I was attracted to the card for this fashionable looking lady in her fur coat and jaunty chapeau.

The image is of Miss Ethel Doyle, alias Ethel Clayton, and was taken after her arrest in April 1904 for “keeping a bawdy house”. The 24-year-old, originally from Owen Sound, Ontario, is described as stout, with a fair complexion, brown hair and brown eyes.


January 11, 1904, Manitoba Free Press

This was Doyle's second arrest in 1904. The first came on January 9 at a brothel or bawdy house on Thomas Street, now Minto Street. It was day after Thomas Street was dropped as a "segregated vice zone" by police. (More about that in my next post !)

To give a sense of how large the Thomas Street operation was, twelve "keepers", seventy-two "female inmates" and four "male inmates" arrested that night. One of the women was Ethel Doyle. She isn't mentioned specifically in newspaper articles from the raid, so it is not clear if wshe was an inmate or keeper.

The next day, Magistrate Thomas Mayne Daly fined the keepers $40 plus costs and inmates $20 plus costs. He reminded them all that Thomas Street was now off limits as a vice zone and warned the women not to come before him again.


April 7, 1904, Winnipeg Tribune

Around midnight on April 6, 1904, police raided a house in the 400 block of Pacific Avenue after a public tip. They arrested Doyle and another woman who were working there.

Doyle was charged with "keeping a bawdy house" and the other woman with working in a bawdy house. They once again came before Magistrate Daly and this time there was no fine option. The two were sentenced to jail for three and two months, respectively.

It was considered a very harsh sentence, one that was needed, said Daly, to be an example to others.

In the April raid police also found two men in the house. One was described as being “hauled from behind a bedstead where he was in scanty attire.” While the man was dressing, a cab pulled up with three more men who came into the parlour. The names of the five, “some who occupy prominent positions in the city”, were taken but the names are not released and it is unclear if they were also fined.

What became of Ethel Doyle is unclear.

Some in Doyle's profession would have changed aliases and continued working, though in this period after the end of the Thomas Street segregated vice era and the start of the Point Douglas one in 1909, the sentences seemed particularly harsh and it might not have been worth sticking around.

Another option, especially for those without ties to the city, simply moved further West to set up shop in newer towns. In some cases, their departure was induced by magistrates who offered to reduce or eliminate fines or jail sentences in exchange for a promise to leave.


1905 Henderson Directory of Winnipeg

Looking at the 1905  Henderson Directory, which would have been complied in late 1904 after Doyle's release, there is a listing for an Ethel Clayton, Doyle's alias. This name did not appear in the previous year's directory.

This Ethel Doyle is curiously listed as having both rooms 3 and 5 of the Johns Block, a 20-unit, working-class residential building at 314 1/2 McDermot Avenue near Main Street.   

In the following year's directory, Clayton is listed as being in just room 2 and there is an occupation noted that may explain why she would have had two rooms: dressmaker. This could be a coincidence and Miss Clayton the dressmaker had a separate residential suite and work studio in 1905, or it could have been our own fashionable Miss Doyle was using a cover to resume her trade. There's no way to know for certain.

Ethel Doyle last appears in the Henderson Directory of 1907, still as a dressmaker at room 2 of the Johns Block. A search of newspapers, census records and marriage certificates from the era give no clues as to what might have become of her.

Whatever happened, hopefully Doyle lived a long and happy life.

Related:
Winnipeg Police Museum
More "Behind the Photo" entries

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Sunday Movie: Ted Baryluk's Grocery

© 2020, Christian Cassidy

© 1982, National Film Board of Canada

Take ten minutes out this long weekend to enjoy a slice of classic Winnipeg.

The National Film Board's Ted Baryluk's Grocery is a short film by John Paskievich and Michael Mirus released in 1982. It documents a day in the life of the Euclid Avenue store in the heart of the North End.

Ted and Eva Baryluk didn't always run a grocery store. He worked as a labourer with the City of Winnipeg until 1965. As he got older, one assumes, there was a need to find something less strenuous.

Baryluk introduces us to some of his customers, talks about how the neighbourhood has changed over the decades, and worries about what will happen to the business if his daughter doesn't take it over. Andrew Burke's tweet shows what the site looks like today.

1934 Anchor Stores ad

The building at 177 Euclid first appears circa 1929 as Louis Weber (or Webber) Grocery, though it may have been around longer than that. A building permit was taken out in September 1928 by J. Medor to “move a store across lot and alterations, northwest corner of Austin and Euclid.” It is unclear if that was done specifically for Webber or not. 

Webber had been a baker at International Bakery who lived at 128 Lusted. When the store opened, he and his family moved in upstairs.

In 1930, Webber took out a building permit to add a garage to the property and six years later there was a $200 permit to add an extension to the store. 

Webber Grocery joined the Anchor Store chain in 1933. It was a local network of independent store owners who combined forces to pool their buying power and advertising dollars. It lasted just three or four years.

It is unclear what happened to Webber. The last year he listed as the proprietor of the store is 1945 and he does not appear in subsequent street directories or an obituary. This suggests he may have retired away from the city.

The store was taken over by Harry Barankowky and wife, Jesse. It was renamed Harry's Grocery and remained so until around 1965 when the Baryluks took over.

Sam Lee Laundry to the left of Baryluk's Grocery
© 1982, National Film Board of Canada

An interesting side note ....

Baryluk's neighbour to the west was another neighbourhood institution. Sam Lee Laundry first appears at 181 Euclid around 1910.

Lee came to Canada from his native China in 1906 when he was around 20 years old. This was during the time of the "Chinese Head Tax" imposed by the federal government to make it as difficult as possible for Chinese nationals to move to Canada, or to bring their entire family at once.

There was a Sam Lee Laundry at 600 Sargent in 1908, so he may have started his business there and relocated, though Sam Lee was a very common name.

For many Chinese immigrants, owning, or working in, a Chinese restaurant or laundry was the only way to find work. In the 1916 Henderson Directory there were more than 120 laundries with Chinese names.

The 1926 census shows that Lee was 40, married, and lived and worked at 181 Euclid. It is likely that his wife was still back in China as the only person listed as living with him was a lodger, Fong Sing.

It is unclear how long Lee ran the laundry doe. Henderson Directories show him there until 1960, which would have made him around 75 years old.

In 1961, Yee Woo (Charles) Quong took over. He came to Canada around 1921 when he was 14. He operated and lived at the laundry, which he continued to call Sam Lee's, until his death in 1980 at the age of 73.

On page 94 of John Paskievich's The North End there is a photo Sam Lee with a man, likely Mr. Quong, standing out front.

Thursday, 8 October 2020

Mikhail Baryshnikov's 1974 debut with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet

 © 2020, Christian Cassidy

Baryshnikov rehearses with the RWB, October 2, 1974
(Jon Thordarson, Winnipeg Tribune, U of M Digital Collections)


Mikhail Baryshnikov shocked the dance world when he defected to the West in Toronto in 1974.

The Latvian-born, 26-year-old was already a superstar as lead dancer with the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad, (now Saint Petersburg). Due to his status he was chosen to be a guest dancer when the Bolshoi appeared in Toronto in June 1974.

After the last show on June 29, Baryshnikov decided to leave his hotel room and seek asylum in Canada. He later said that his reason for defecting was purely artistic, not political. He felt that at age 26 he was already reaching the pinnacle of what he could do in his home country: "When I was in Toronto I finally decided that if I let the opportunity of expanding my art in the West slip by it could haunt me always."

Over the summer, Baryshnikov went about setting his future in motion. He signed on to perform in La Sylphide with the National Ballet of Canada in a series of shows at Ontario Place in August 1974. He then signed a contract to dance with American Ballet Theatre in their December to February season.

Baryshnikov also called on Gelsey Kirkland, the 21-year-old principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, to ask her to be his new dance partner. He had previously seen her perform during a Russian tour by the NYCB.

Like Baryshnikov, Kirkland felt she had peaked at her company and was looking for new opportunities. When the Russian dancer called she jumped at the chance and left the NYCB in September to sign with him at the American Ballet Theatre.


October 5, 1974, Winnipeg Tribune


The pair needed time to work together on stage and any company in North America or Europe would have been happy to host their world premiere. In the end, was the Royal Winnipeg Ballet that signed them.

Jim Cameron, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's general manager, said that it took him three weeks to put the deal together and involved him travelling to New York and Toronto. He said negotiations were involved because "everyone was looking for him".

Cameron said that Baryshnikov wanted to work with Canadian companies during this time as a thank-you for allowing him to defect. He was aware of the RWB and their "western style" of ballet from a 1970 tour of Russia that included performances in Leningrad, Moscow and Odessa.

Baryshnikov and Kirland would do six performances with the Royal Winnipeg ballet at its 1974 season opener from October 2 to 6. Their dance would be the pas-de-deux from Don Quixote, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa to the music of Ludwig Minkus,

The RWB held off on individual ticket sales until its season ticket campaign ended which allowed its regular patrons first dibs.

Baryshnikov rehearses with the RWB, October 2, 1974
(Jon Thordarson, Winnipeg Tribune, U of M Digital Collections)


The dancers arrived in Winnipeg on September 30, 1974 to begin their final rehearsals. Their stay was not a media frenzy. In fact, it was quite muted.

Irene Walsh, a Free Press reporter who was granted an interview, later recalled that when she visited  Baryshnikov in his hotel room on the top floor of a downtown hotel one morning, (presumably what is now the Fairmont), she found him watching the 1974 Summit Series between Canada and Russia. A fellow former Russian dancer now living in New York acted as his translator.

She noted that Baryshnikov was still laying low given the publicity of the defection. He stayed under an assumed name at the hotel and was careful where he went and who he met. He expressed some insecurities, wondering if the Western ballet world would, indeed, accept his style of dance in the long term. He knew that Winnipeg was his opportunity to get back into top dance form and show what was to come with his partnership with Kirkland.

In a sit-down interview with the Winnipeg Tribune's Rosalie Woloski, the pair said they needed time to perfect working together and wanted the opportunity to do it away from the additional pressures and media spotlight of a New York or Toronto. Baryshnikov said, "Its not that we felt we could perform here without any risk. There's risk whenever you perform. We had to start somewhere and we are happy that it was here."

 
October 3, 1974, Winnipeg Tribune


Opening night of what would be the company's 35th season had a couple of special guests in the audience. Dr. Gweneth Lloyd and Betty Farrally, co-founders of the ballet who now worked in British Columbia, were on hand.

By all accounts the opening night and the six-performance run was a great success.

Casimir Carter, the Free Press' ballet critic, wrote: "The choreography contains all the flashiest steps in the choreographer's repertoire. To these, Mr. Baryshnikov has added a few personal touches to display his particular virtuosity.... The pas de deux was over before the audience could draw a second breath. The standing ovation indicated that an encore would have been welcomed."

Rosalie Woloski of the Tribune wrote: "It is difficult to describe or evaluate what happened without going into superlatives.... Precision marked every step, as one movement flowed into another."

Related:
Baryshnikov defects form Soviet Union CBC Archives
Baryshnikov - Present at the Defection Maclean's
Baryshnikov taking class with the National Ballet of Canada YouTube

Sunday, 4 October 2020

Farewell to the Bay's Portage Avenue Flagship

© 2020, Christian Cassidy

Sadly, the HBC store on Portage Avenue is going to close in February 2021. It was hardly a surprise announcement and credit to HBC for keeping it around as long as it did. Many figured after the closure of Zellers in 2012 that the store would soon follow.

The store has been a fixture on Portage Avenue since it opened in 1926.

The HBC held out hope for far too long that its HBC Reserve land on south Main Street, where its original department store was built, would become the retail hub of Winnipeg. By the time it admitted defeat in the early 1920s, Portage Avenue was already densely populated with office buildings and retail blocks. It had to settle for the only square block of land it could cobble together which was perched on the very edge of the retail drag.

That history is drawing to a close and the issue now becomes what can be done with the building going forward?

The store is a behemoth and that size will make it very difficult to redevelop.

The building is 600,000 square feet over six floors and a full basement, (the parkade was separated from the building long ago and has a different owner.) By comparison, Portage Place is just 439,600 square feet and the Richardson Building is 637,918.

In the past, HBC has offered to sell the building for a song – as little as one dollar – to someone who would redevelop it. They even offered to rent a couple of floors back as an anchor tenant to boot. There were, of course, no takers and there is good reason for that.

Even a developer who might consider buying it to redevelop just a couple of floors at a time over a long period would be up against the massive up-front costs of replacing all the systems, (electrical, heating, plumbing, etc.), on a 600,000 square foot building before they could even get started. (To give a sense of how long it takes to fill a large mixed-use project: construction (not the pre-planning, identifying anchor tenants, etc.) on True North Square began in 2015 and it has yet to start tower number three. It will be a decade or so gap from start of construction to finish.)

The building has an additional tricky spot that developers of warehouse space with a much smaller footprints have had trouble grappling with: what to do with lightness space at the core of the building?

Retrofitting a century-old building with a courtyard / light shaft (which, like the systems, would have to be paid for before redevelopment of the floors began) would be an expensive and even risky proposition.

The other difficulty is what to develop the building into given the downtown developments of the past decade?

A largely residential component might be a difficult sell given recent projects such as the Glasshouse Condos, one of the True North Towers, the soon to open 300 Main apartment tower, and a proposed Portage Place redevelopment with its own residential towers. It's not a given that throwing a few hundred more apartments or condos onto the market in a few years time would be a money making proposition.

Similarly, the downtown is hardly crying out for new commercial, retail or office space. True North Square alone has added hundreds of thousands of square feet to these markets in recent years - with more still to come - that will take years to absorb.

This is all not to say that a redevelopment cannot be done.

I've visited Dublin ever since I was a little boy to visit family and Clery's Department Store on O'Connell Street, Dublin's Portage Avenue, always reminded me of our Bay.

Clery’s had been a fixture on the street since 1853 but the store was rebuilt in 1916 after being severely damaged in the 1916 Easter Uprising. Like Eaton’s and dozens of other department store chains around the world, Clery’s went bust in 2015 leaving a 450,000 square foot, four storey, vacant building in the heart of the city.

A redevelopment was approved in 2016 to turn the building into a mixed-use development featuring a hotel, and commercial, retail and office space. I was hoping on a 2017 visit to use my "columnist for the Free Press" status to maybe get a tour or talk to someone involved in the project to see if any comparisons could be made. The original Clery's redevelopment, though, was beset by delays and the project hadn't even started yet.

In 2019, a new redevelopment plan was announced called the Clery's Quarter that will take in multiple buildings, though the old department store is still the core of the project and have a similar mix of luxury hotel, restaurants, retail units and office space. (This brochure has more information including floor plans.)

I am not trying to compare the high street of one of the most expensive European capitals in the world to Portage Avenue in Winnipeg. Still, it shows that these buildings can be redeveloped and I look forward one day to checking out Clery's work in person. (It also shows that even with multi-million dollar investors, plans to redevelop something this size in the heart of Dublin can go pear shaped and have to start from scratch again three years later.)

I'm certainly not optimistic for the fortunes of the Bay building in the short or even medium term.

Just to find a buyer could take years. It would have to be someone with deep enough pockets to bring the building up to the state it needs to be in to start developing space for lease and then be willing to sit patiently for years as its 600,000 square feet can be absorbed by the market.

I think this will be more like the case of some of our Exchange District warehouses or downtown's Metropolitan Theatre where it could be decades of mostly sitting empty before it is reborn.

That being said, there is a pressing issue of what to do in the short term after the Bay leaves.

Does it get boarded up and sit empty? Is is there some mechanism, perhaps through a third party, to try to get a tenant - even a bargain store, grocery store or perhaps the Staples which is presumably going to be put out when the Portage Place redevelopment begins - onto part of the main floor to at least keep the lights on there?

Tearing down the building would certainly be a last resort. If there is a city that should have learned the lesson that "if you tear it down, someone will build on it" is a fallacy, it is Winnipeg. The majority of the land in our downtown is made up of vacant lots from failed attempts to prove that theory in the 1960s.

We're just at the point where some of these lots are filling up again and the potential for a vacant lot at Portage and Memorial for the next 50 years is not going to find much support from existing landowners or local politicians.

My HBC-releated posts and columns:
My Bay Downtown photo album on Flickr
The Bay Downtown: Goodbye, old friend West End Dumplings
450 Portage Avenue Winnipeg Downtown Places
The Bay Parkade Winnipeg Downtown Places
The Paddlewheel Restaurant Winnipeg Downtown Places
Zellers' 79-year run in Winnipeg West End Dumplings
The Bay Downtown's missing elevator mural West End Dumplings
Winnipeg's missing murals in the Winnipeg Free Press
Bay's Food Market staying put West End Dumplings
The Bay Downtown's giant beacon West End Dumplings
Beacon shone from atop Bay Building in the Winnipeg Free Press