Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Downtown Bay store a timeless marvel

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Adam Bumbolo at the downtown Bay Friday.


Adam Bumbolo at the downtown Bay Friday. Photo Store

For generations of Winnipeggers, the Bay downtown has not only been a convenient retail destination, but an experience. I have wonderful childhood memories of Christmas shopping with my family, learning the value of a dollar and gazing out along the avenue at all the blinking lights and falling snow.

I also remember the time, thanks to my father's clever suggestion, my brother and I stood motionless atop an empty display to try to fool passersby we were, in fact, mannequins. No one believed us, but my parents were granted an hour of relief as we stood in silence. Well played.

I can remember sitting at the Paddlewheel restaurant while my grandparents regaled us with stories of how they would shop there when they were young.

When the Hudson's Bay Company opened its doors at the corner of Portage and Memorial in 1926, it was a beacon of modern innovation, boasting 12 foolproof elevators (the first in Canada, most of which have since been removed), air conditioning and a steam-heat system that powered turbines 13.7 metres below ground for backup power.

In the 87 years since Winnipeggers first flocked to the city's largest department store, I still find myself drawn through those beautiful brass doors whenever I need to buy clothes, go Christmas shopping or browse for household appliances. In the era of urban sprawl and big-box stores, the downtown department store seems like an antiquated concept, but I firmly believe it is one of the most beneficial buildings any city can have and one Winnipeg should pay a lot more attention to.

The architects, Barott and Blackader, took great care to make sure the building worked not only as a retail store but as a functional stitch in the urban fabric of the city's primary shopping district. Its materials were carefully considered, using Tyndall stone and brass to align with the newly constructed Legislative Building only a few blocks south. Relation to the street was considered, with large window displays, generous canopies and permeability dictating there be entrances on every facade. Scale was considered, using the correct proportions for height in relation to the width of the street. All of these factors work in harmony to create a very pleasant experience for everyone inside and out.

It was completed in only 14 months and used building materials almost exclusively from Manitoba: steel girders from Selkirk, Tyndall stone from Garson, plaster from Gypsumville, lumber from Winnipegosis and sheet metal from St. Boniface. I would challenge anyone working in modern construction and development to reproduce this homegrown approach today, not only for a reduced carbon footprint and to stimulate provincial growth but for the ability to create something locals would be proud to have participated in crafting.

I have been in the construction business now for more than 15 years, and the efforts that were invested in 450 Portage Ave. are tenets that have heavily influenced my life and career.

As a designer, I always first consider the narrative of the space. Who are the end users, how will they live and work in the space, and how will the space continue to be used as the years pass? I am naturally drawn to the thousands of stories that have been written by the days of our lives spent within the walls of this iconic building. It is my Xanadu, the mysterious castle of stone and steel that holds endless adventures, cradled within the soaring ceilings of the main floor, punctuated with the once regal crown mouldings, Roman pillars, carved wood and grand mural depicting an even more mysterious time.

I don't feel the same when I step into a warehouse mega-outlet in the centre of a sea of surface lot concrete. Epic fail.

I recognize in recent years there has been a heartbreaking decline, not only in the interior upkeep, but in a loss of all the amenities that once made the downtown Bay a fully engaging experience. It had a grocery store, restaurant, photo studio, wig shop, library, and in its heyday an orchestra and auditorium.

Today, there is nowhere to socialize, congregate or rest. It has sadly relinquished its role as a meeting place.

While still a very viable retail location, it has lost the lustre of being the quintessential big-city department store. In terms of what our downtown requires to meet the needs of residents, the Bay could house it all and serve as a large draw to help improve density at our city's core.

I believe civic pride fosters a sense responsibility not only for our city and its sustainability, but for each other and the simple pleasure of being able to have a destination to share our stories for generations to come.

Isn't that what make cities great?

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2013 A1

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