Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Thorstein Oddson's West End

Burnell Walking Tour Map
Oddson Burnell map
Oddson's Burnell Street Projects 1909 - 1914

The man responsible for much of the modern day development along Burnell Street south of Ellice Avenue was Thorstein Oddson.

He was particularly active in the area between 1904 - 1914, purchasing land, selling off some of it for the construction of factories and on others building various styles of multi-family dwellings that continue to house hundreds of people.

Image: Heimskringla, June 7, 1906

Oddson was born on December 6, 1864 in Husavik, Iceland, a remote fishing village on the north east coast of Iceland. He was the youngest of eight children from a sheep farming family.

He trained as a carpenter and in 1886 married Rakel. Two years later, the couple emigrated to the Selkirk, Manitoba area.

After a decade or so working as a carpenter in the Interlake region, he tried his hand briefly at running a retail store before relocating his family to Winnipeg in 1901. 

In 1902, Oddson partnered with fellow Icelanders Skuli Hansson and later John Vopni in a real estate, investment and insurance firm.

Though their offices were located downtown, first on Main Street across from Union Station, then in the old Tribune Building on McDermot Avenue, the company concentrated their work almost exclusively in the West End.
Oddson House, Sherbrook Streeet
Oddson House on Sherbrook Street

Oddson wasn't just a seller of West End property, he was a buyer as well.

In 1905 he purchased the lot at 448 Sherbrook Street, (the first site of the St. Matthews Mission, forerunner to the current St. Matthews Church, a West End landmark). There, he built Oddson House where he and Rakel raised seven children, sons Leifur and Thoroddur and daughters Olaf, Laura, Clara (who died as a child), another Clara and Rakel.

In 1907, the partners in the company went their separate ways and a new company emerged. Initially called Oddson and Company, it became Oddson and Son when eldest son Leifur joined him, then Oddson and Sons when Thor joined.

They continued to sell real estate, though Oddson soon turned is hand to developing a number of parcels of land he had bought on St. Paul Avenue and Burnell Street south of Ellice Avenue.

Between 1909 - 1914 Oddson built seven buildings on this two-block stretch of road. He was the architect, developer and manager of his properties.

July 17, 1909, Manitoba Free Press

His first project was Claremont Court (1909), now demolished, on the the east side of Burnell Street near Ellice. It consisted of two long, single-storey buildings each divided into five small "cottages". The buildings faced each other and had a 50 foot grassed courtyard in between.

St. Paul Ave
St. Paul Avenue

The following year, he turned his attention to St. Paul Avenue, a short side street that connects Burnell to Arlington.

Along the north side he built St. Paul Terrace in 1910 (top), now demolished, an eight-unit terraced complex. The following year he began construction on the "triplets", Kolbrun, Kelona and Komoka.

The Kelona and Komoka, now known as 819 and 821 St. Paul, remain. The Kolbrun, 817 St. Paul Avenue, was razed by fire in December 2011.)

Thelmo Mansions

In 1914 Oddson took his final and largest project: Thelmo Manisons on Burnell Street. According to at least one newspaper story of the day, it was the largest apartment complex approved for construction in Winnipeg.

The $236,000*, three-storey block contained 78 small suites that used roll-out beds and built-in closets to maximize floorspace. Though small, the apartments were well appointed and the block featured a courtyard entrance. (* $5 million in 2015 dollars.)

For more on the history of Thelmo Mansions, which has recently undergone a $1 million plus renovation.

Looking at the portfolio of buildings that Oddson financed, it was clear that he was catering to working families. Ads for the Claremont and the "triplets", for instance, advertised one and two bedroom units that were just 600 square feet in size.

Former Canada Bread Plant

It's my belief that at least two of the large industrial sites developed along Burnell at the time were on land that Oddson sold off. (A 100 year-old gentleman who still lives on Burnell concurs.)

The two are the Canada Bread bakery and stables (1912), just metres from St. Paul Avenue, and the former Crescent Creamery Ice Cream Plant (1913-14) adjacent to Claremont Court. Both pieces of land were pasture land when sold for development.

Oddson Golden Gate Park

March 18, 1911, Manitoba Free Press

These were not the only properties that Oddson had a stake in at the time.

In 1909 he partnered with James Dagg to buy a 190-acre parcel of land that they marketed as the Golden Gate Park subdivision that appears to have been located near Moray and Portage. Strangely, in just a couple of ads for Golden Gate, lots along Burnell / St. Paul / Livinia (St. Matthews) were mentioned, though the two areas are about 10 kilometres apart.

Looking at his development in and around Burnell Street, it seems as if he was trying to create a small-scale "working man's" subdivision of his own.

He also owned and managed other apartments such as the Haslemere on Ellice, the Coronado on Furby near Ellice, and the Harrow at Grosvenor and Harrow. These blocks were all likely purchased by Oddson rather than developed by him from scratch.

Oddson was a leader and supporter of the city's Icelandic community and said to be generous and willing to lend a hand to those in need.

In 1913, he donated the land and built Skjaldborg Lutheran Orthodox Church on Burnell just north of Ellice, (now part of the General Wolfe School playground). He was also the vice-president of Columbia Press which printed Lögberg, the city's liberal leaning Icelandic-language weekly newspaper that is still in operation today.

In 1913 he donated the Oddson Shield, the championship trophy for team sports given out at Gimli's annual Islendingadagurinn until the late 1960s.

Like many Icelanders, Oddson was a member of the Independent Order of Good Templars. The Swedish-based temperance organization that was very popular in North America. The West End Icelandic community had their own chapter and IOGT hall located at 635 Sargent Avenue.

Oddson, like many other developers, ran into financial trouble during World War I.

In 1913 the city had fallen into a deep recession as land prices and the selling price for wheat fell. The war further disrupted the wheat market and put a near moratorium on new property development.

No doubt struggling with the financing on his massive Thelmo Mansions project, Oddson began to sell of his real estate holdings. One was Golden Gate Park, making a reported $250,000 profit. At least one property, Claremont Court, was sold at a mortgage auction sale in January 1916.

Some of his properties, though, may have been hidden away. In 1924 the J. D. MacArthur Co. took Oddson to court. The company claimed that some properties owned by him were actually registered under the name of a man named Hugh R. Clark, making them untouchable for any of Oddson's debt. (Newspapers didn't follow up on the outcome of the case.)

Oddson and Sons continued on until the mid-1920s, but, it appears to have stuck to selling homes and and property management, rather than property development.

August 24, 1934, Winnipeg Free Press

On October 12, 1924  Thorstein and Rakel Oddson left Winnipeg for good, crossing the border at Noyes, Minnesota on a Great Northern Railway train to take up residence in Los Angeles. He applied for American citizenship the following year.

Thorsteinn died at their home on Hobart Boulevard on Friday, August 4, 1934 at the age of 69. Wife Rakel died in Los Angeles in December 1938 at the age of 77. The last of their children, daughter Rakel, died in Winnipeg on March 19, 1979.

Aside from numerous newspaper articles, short bios of Thorstein Oddson can be found at The Story of Manitoba and Catholic Centennial Souvenir.


John Bresnik said...

He was my great grandfather. My grandmother was Clara Oddson. She married Hubert Clark (aka Bert Clark who was a professional ice skater and worked with Sonja Henie for many years). They had one daughter, Olof Roberta Clark (spelled with an "o"). She married my Dad, John Frank Bresnik, in October of 1936 and I was born in Los Angeles in 1940. They had two more children (Robert Anton, 1944 and Nancy Marilyn, 1948). We lived in West Hollywood until I was 8.

The family moved to Pacific Palisades in 1948 to 1107 Embury St. Then that same year Bert and Clara moved to 1130 Galloway - two blocks from our house. After finishing work with Sonja Henie (he did a comedy routine in her ice shows) he went on to manage the Polar Palace Ice Rink in Los Angeles.

My Dad was a theater lobby poster artist in the 30s and opened a sign company in the 40s and was located on Sawtelle Blvd in West Los Angeles until he died in 1992.

In 1965 I married Sylvia Bergin of Dublin, Ireland. We had five children: Pauline, Robert, John, Angela and Stephen. I was a professional jazz pianist for nine years and then joined Dad in the sign business. Sylvia was a full-time Mom until 1986 and then worked part-time for many years. She began doing triathlons in 1984. She added marathons in 1996 and also 100-mile "century" bike rides at about that time. She climbed Mt Whitney twice and Half Dome in Yosemite twice.

We left Santa Monica in 1977 and moved to Escondido - 100 miles south. We just celebrated our 50th anniversary last year. Two of the boys still live in the area, but the other three moved away (London, Brooklyn, NY and Ellicott City, Maryland). We have five grand children.

Christian Cassidy said...

Thanks so much for this. I love to hear follow-up stories about the people and families I write about.

I live in one of Oddson's buildings and there's a little "historic marker" sign at the back door crediting him. I am also starting the process of trying to get a Burnell Street park named after him.

Part of the park process is to add some tidbits of information I have found about him to in the years since I first wrote this post. Also, to clean up some typos and formatting issues.

I have just completed that, so if you re-read this post now it will look a bit better !

My personal email is cassidy at mts.net. if you'd like to email me and can keep you up to date on the park issue.

Jodine Chase said...

Oh, how interesting, he was my great-grandfather, too. My grandfather was Leifur Oddson, so Clara's sister, John. I just pulled up this blog post again (I had seen it before) to send to my daughter Jennifer Graham who is in Iceland now with the Snorri Program.

Leifur was the oldest of the "sons" in Th. Oddson & Sons.

Leifur married my grandmother Asta Jonsdottir (also went by Asta Austmann). Leitur had two children with his first wife, who died in the flu epidemic, and then four more children. My mother, Olof (with an o) Rosemary is their youngest.

It's delightful to see so much information about my mother's grandfather - she has told us many stories about him, and has shared photos. I believe she has a photo of your grandmother, John, as a child. I'll have to take a look.

John Bresnik said...

Hi Jodine - I'll have to get back to you later to go into more detail, but thank you for contacting me. My second cousin's mother was one of the daughters -- I remember her as "Auntie Rae" but you'd have to contact Eric (the second cousin) for details - not sure of the spelling. Another one was "Auntie Leva" (pronounced Lee-va). Of course, my grandmother was Clara and I don't remember the fourth one.

My mother's name was Olof, also. I didn't hear much about the senior Oddson, but the only thing I remember was that he built a very large apartment complex that was partially built on another property. There was a lawsuit and he lost a lot of money.

It would be interesting to see a "tree" to see where everybody fit in... I'm a graphics guy and I need to look at pictures.

At any rate I'll get back to you -- have to run right now. Here's a photo that Eric either gave me or sent me a scan (can't remember which). If you have any photos of that era I'd be interested. My grandmother is on the left.

Are you in Canada?

Take care,


guess I can't attach a photo -- I have a photo of the whole family taken in 1906. I can send it to you if you want. You can reach me at jcbresnik at gmail.com.


Robert Ginter said...

Hi Christian.
I was looking into the history of Skjaldborg Lutheran Orthodox Church once at Burnell and Ellice re: the article above.
I found no photos of the Church and wondered if you had found any?
Interestingly, your article mentions that Mr.Oddson donated the "Oddson-Shield" Trophy to the Icelandic Games in Gimli.
The church's name: Skjaldborg translates to "Shield-Wall" in english, apparently.(a familiar term for those watching a recent program called "Vikings"
Great research on this article...thanks.
R.M. Ginter

Robert Ginter said...

Hi Christian.
I was looking into the history of Skjaldborg Lutheran Orthodox Church once at Burnell and Ellice re: the article above.
I found no photos of the Church and wondered if you had found any?
Interestingly, your article mentions that Mr.Oddson donated the "Oddson-Shield" Trophy to the Icelandic Games in Gimli.
The church's name: Skjaldborg translates to "Shield-Wall" in english, apparently.(a familiar term for those watching a recent program called "Vikings"
Great research on this article...thanks.
R.M. Ginter