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Monday 9 June 2014

The 60th anniversary of the Time Building Fire

Sixty years ago, one of Winnipeg's most spectacular fires nearly razed a large section of Winnipeg's downtown. Here's a look back at the Time Building fire of June 8, 1954.

 Builders' Exchange Building, ca. 1909

The Time Building, located at the north west corner of Portage and Hargrave, was built in 1909 and had a few different names during its life.

From 1909 to March 1924, it was known as the Builders' Exchange Building. It was then purchased by Winnipeg Piano Co. and became the Winnipeg Piano Building. That company had a large showroom and repair facilities on the main floor, but the rest of the floors consisted of dozens of small offices.

Winnipeg Piano sold the building in 1940 and it was extensively renovated as reopened as the Time Building.  What "Time" referred to is unclear as there was no business located there with Time in the name.

Left: Winnipeg Piano (Time) and Dismorr Buildings
Right: Enderton Building and Eaton's
Ca. 1925. Source: Peel's

In the new Time Building, Canadian National Telegraphs took up most of a floor and in the former Winnipeg Piano space on the main floor became home to J. J. H. Maclean Pianos. The upper floors each contained ten to a dozen small offices containing everything from insurance agents to custom furriers.

It prominent location, kitty corner from the T. Eaton store, made it a popular office building and it rarely had vacant space.

  (Source: Free Press Store 1, 2)

Just after 1:00 a.m. on the morning of June 8, 1954, the first call was made to the Winnipeg fire department about flames being seen inside the Time Building.

The fire began in the false ceiling above the main floor retail level making it difficult to get at. Strong winds that gusted up to 120 kph fuelled the flames and spread burning embers throughout the building and streets around it. By 6:00 a.m., it was a three-alarm fire with 207 firemen and 26 vehicles in attendance.

The fire was well covered in the local media. Free Press reporters could see the building from theirs and CBC Television, Manitoba's first TV station, had just gone into operation days before and captured moving images.


Eventually, the Time Building was entirely engulfed and began to collapse. Falling debris and burning embers began to reign destruction onto neighbouring buildings and started numerous smaller fires that stretched the fire department's resources to its limits. For some time, it was feared that the wind could carry the fire through entire blocks of the downtown.

The T. Eaton Co. department store was of great concern to those battling the fire.  Given its sheer size, should it have caught fire it would have burned for days and flames could have spread into its neighbouring warehouse buildings. 

Fortunately, Eaton's had its own fire suppression system that included water reserves and hoses. The store's night staff hung the hoses from the roof and upper-storey windows and turned the water on to create a protective 'water curtain' across the building's facade. Heat and flying debris broke 82 store windows, but the building did not catch fire.

Top: Winnipeg Free Press, June 9, 1954
Bottom: Winnipeg Tribune Photograph Collection

The fire took days to fully extinguish. Remarkably, there were no serious injuries or deaths.

The final tally was three buildings,
the Times, Dismorr and Edwards blocks, completely destroyed and two others seriously damaged. Estimates of the cost of the fire ranged between two and three million dollars.

Norlyn Building

One organization that suffered a great loss was the Royal Winnipeg Ballet.

The RWB had recently relocated their studios, offices and stores to the top floor of the Norlyn Building just north of the Dismorr on Hargrave Street. That floor was completely destroyed in the blaze, along with all costumes, sets, curtains, books, original choreography and scores, plus $10,000 worth of music.  The loss was estimated at $40,000 with just one-third of that covered by insurance, (Winnipeg Free Press, June 15, 1954).

Days after the fire, officials picked through the basement of the Time Building to retrieve the safes and filing cabinets that had fallen from upper floors when the building collapsed. For dozens of small business owners, though, there was nothing to salvage.

The cause of the fire was likely arcing in the wiring running between the floors to the electric signs that hung from the face of the Time Building.

Hargrave looking North
Portage and Hargrave ca. 2009
Time Building site (left), Dismorr Building site (right)

Eventually, signs of the destruction were erased.

The owner of the Dismorr Building and Dayton Outfitters opened the new Dayton Building the following year.

As for the Time Building site, it took longer to settle. There was talk of constructing a new tower, but after years of speculation the Bank of Commerce built a single-storey branch that opened in 1958. It is now the APTN studios.

Winnipeg Tribune, June 8, 1954

Front Page Winnipeg Free Press, June 8, 1954
Time Building Fire Winnipeg Tribune Coverage

Time Building Fire Tribune Photo Index
Time Building Fire The Free Press Store
The Winnipeg Fire Fighters Museum
'The Great Time Building Fire' Winnipeg Time Machine

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