Saturday, 19 May 2012

Alex Mitchell, the King of Portage Avenue

In the last few weeks I've come across Mitchell's name while researching the Mitchell Copp, Alabama and Dayton Buildings.

You may not have heard of Alex Mitchell but for decades he was assumed to be the downtown's largest individual landowner and operated two small department stores along Portage Avenue. In later years he had a lot to say about downtown redevelopment that still ring true today.

Mitchell kept a low media profile. I could only find a couple of biographical articles about him, other information below was gleaned from articles about his business partners and a tribute written by his daughter. Some details and dates vary from story to story.

He is the quintessential rags to riches immigrant story and was the King of Portage Avenue !

L to R: Alex Mitchell, Edward Mitchell, David Copp

Alex Mitchell was born in New York City in 1903 to Polish-Jewish immigrants. The family of nine children lived in poverty and at the age of seven Alex began working on his father’s push cart to help the family eke out a living bartering goods.

Edward, the second-oldest of the Mitchell children, got a job with a traveling circus that went bankrupt in Winnipeg. Stuck here, he took a job in the booming grain industry and dabbled in real estate. By 1916 he had enough money to send for the rest of the family, four of his siblings came including eldest brother Max and Alex who was in his early teens.

The brothers started a business selling and delivering small orders of wheat and oats to local companies and within a few years owned a grain elevator near Lombard and Main under the name Commonwealth Grain. At around the age of 18 Alex had a seat on the Winnipeg Grain Exchange.

During this early period, the Mitchells met David A. Copp, a Russian Jew who came to Winnipeg with his family as a young boy. At the time Copp worked for the railway but like the Mitchells had a keen interest in business and real estate. The two families formed a lifelong friendship and business partnership, (and in 1946 a family connection when when Alex's daughter Ruth married Copp's son Leon.)

Mitchell and Copp ad, June 1922
Mitchell and Copp ad, November 1923

In 1912, while their grain business was still in full swing, Edward opened a jewellery store at 486 Main Street. On February 1, 1915 he asked Copp to become a partner and the store was soon renamed Mitchell & Copp. In 1922 they announced that they were leaving Main Street for Portage Avenue which had become the city's premiere retail street, their ad stated: "We belong on Portage Avenue and we're going there" (Nov 2, 1922, Winnipeg Free Press.)

In the late 1920s the Mitchells began selling off their business interests, invested in stocks and moved down to California. Months later the stock market crashed. Edward, who sold his share of the jewellery business to Copp in 1927, recalled in an interview "By the time I got to California I had lost everything and had to start from scratch" (June 21, 1961, Winnipeg Free Press.)

Alex was luckier. He retained enough savings to try a couple of business ventures but within a couple of years returned to Winnipeg, a city he knew and had achieved success in. By this time he was married to a Winkler woman named Sara Danzker and had two young daughters, Ruth and Joan.

Dayton's. Jewish Post and News, Nov. 24, 1955

Back in Winnipeg he resurrected Commonwealth Grain as a one-man operation. He also began investing in downtown real estate usually in partnership with David Copp, though he was the front-man for the real estate company. At one point it was believed that he owned a dozen smaller buildings along Portage Avenue and at least as many on sides streets off of Portage.

Mitchell also entered the retail business when he created Dayton Outfitters in 1936. When the store burned down in the Time Building fire of 1954 he had the Dayton Building built. In 1947 he bought Hollinsworth, a Winnipeg-based chain of women's wear stores that had locations in Winnipeg, Regina and Calgary. He also bought Affleck's Shoes, a neighbour to Dayton's main store. The only other building that he seems to have developed directly is the Alabama Building, a small, downtown retail mall aimed at start-up entrepreneurs.

October 20, 1952, Winnipeg Free Press

Mitchell was a small man, just 5' 4" but was strong willed and outspoken.

Daughter Ruth recalls one lapse in his usually impeccable ability to judge someone's character at first sight. In 1952 daughter Joan married a New York economics student named Alan Greenspan. Mitchell said that he was a “...nice boy who will never amount to much,” (source.) (They later divorced.)

April 8, 1968, Winnipeg Free Press

From the late 60s to early 80s there was a lot of movement in the real estate portfolio. The Bank of Montreal Building at Portage and Hargrave, the Northstar Inn (now Radisson), the expansion of Central Park, the Air Canada Building and Portage Place redevelopments all involved Mitchell property.

Though Mitchell made money from the land deals, or in some cases expropriations, he was a vocal critic of some of the large-scale projects that the three levels of government were considering in the name of downtown redevelopment.

Aug 20, 1983, Winnipeg Free Press

Mitchell supported the Air Canada Building because of the number of high-paying jobs that it brought to the area, but when commercial or retail schemes were floated, everything from glassing in Portage Avenue and moving to traffic to Ellice (above), to the construction of a gigantic suburban-style shopping mall, he was unimpressed. He was even cool to small tax-incentive programs for landlords to renovate their properties. His opinions are best summed up in a letter to the editor of the Winnipeg Free Press of July 30, 1983:

"This plan ignores the basic requirements for success of the Core Area Initiative, which is people living downtown. ... private landowners are financially able to make improvements if business warrants.

If there is general agreement that more people downtown is the answer then we must take the best course to get the people downtown. We must spend the allocated monies on projects that will benefit the core the most....

In these days of high-price automobile transportation and time consuming travel to and from work, reasonable rents downtown would be very attractive. This would ensure success for the downtown housing projects.

As Mitchell grew older, the retail empire was sold off. In the 1970s Hollinsworth's was sold to German-owned retailer Mariposa. Dayton's contracted from three stores down to the Portage Avenue flagship which closed in 1983. Mitchell remained active in real estate, maintaining an office in the Dayton building that he visited regularly until the week before his death.

The King of Portage Avenue died on September 10, 1996 at the age of 93.

Mitchell Copp Ads


- Wife Sara died in on January 2,1998 at Sharon Home.

- Despite losing everything in the Depression, Edward did rebound. He went on to become chairman of California-based Beneficial Standard Insurance Company. (Alex joked in one interview that Edward was the rich side of the family.)

- David Copp retired around 1970 and sold the store to new owners. They carried on business under the name Mitchell Copp from a new location at Eaton Place until 1990. Copp died on January 26, 1984 at the age of 88.


Anonymous said...

"Conspicuously hidden across from Eaton's"

Xtoval said...

Excellent piece of research! It seems like Alan Greenspan, former head of the US Federal Reserve, likes women named Mitchell, as he is now married to TV reporter Andrea Mitchell. Also interesting how little the US-Canada border seemed to make in the lives of the Mitchells.

mrchristian said...

I noticed the Mitchell wife thing while finding a bio link for him !

Yes, they did seem to flow back and forth though would have had U.S. or dual citizenship and half the family stayed in NY.

I noticed that Joan's second husband (not named Greenspan !) was also a New Yorker so, I assume, she moved there.

Andrew C said...

The border didn't generally mean much to anyone through the Depression and even into the postwar years. People moved back and forth all the time. Well done piece of work!