The Western Elevator Lofts is the first substantial residential project of its kind in the Exchange District since the converted Ashdown Warehouse gave Winnipeggers a reason to live downtown again in the 1980s.
(A second, located at 87/89 Princess, is in the last stages of completion as well.)
It hasn't been an easy undertaking for the mastermind and ramrod behind the project, Pat Hitchcock of Exchange Lofts Inc.
"The whole project just took longer than it should have," Hitchcock says with a sigh from his loft condo on the fourth floor of 123 Princess. "It's expensive to do it properly -- to work within the old-building envelope."
In fact, without Hitchcock's dogged persistence, the project might never have been finished. There are many admirers around the city who would attest to that.
"Pat was interested before there were any incentives," says Giles Bugailiskis, senior heritage planner for the City of Winnipeg. "He had the fortitude, stamina, discipline and will to get the project done."
Hitchcock is thankful the city decided to throw its weight behind his dream of renovating one of its urban treasures and creating a viable downtown living space.
"It probably wouldn't have been possible without CentreVenture. It's difficult to get financing for a project like this when you are a small developer," he says, referring to the heritage tax credits provided by CentreVenture, the city agency with a mandate to promote downtown economic growth and revitalization.
The ex-military pilot became interested in historical building restoration and conversion while living in a renovated church in Halifax.
After moving to Winnipeg in 1998, Hitchcock saw the potential for residential conversion in many of the Exchange District's turn-of-the-century buildings. The first one he looked at happened to be 123 Princess, and it turned out to be for sale.
He toured around the district, a national historic site, inquiring about other buildings, but kept coming back to the first one that caught his eye.
"It was a manageable type of building and I chose it for that reason. And there was lots of potential in it."
The modestly ornamented, four-storey structure on the east side of Princess Street between Bannatyne and William avenues was built in 1904. It was designed by architect S. Frank Peters, who drew the blueprints for the Ashdown Warehouse, along with a number of other prominent buildings in downtown Winnipeg.
In a rather interesting side note, Peters lost an arm in the 1885 Riel Rebellion as the commander of a company of the 7th Fusiliers regiment of London, Ont.
The building's first tenant, in 1905, was the Miller and Richard Co., which supplied metal type and printers' machinery to Winnipeg's flourishing printing and publishing trade. The firm remained in the building until it left the city in 1931.
The Western Elevator and Motor Co. and the Power Mine Supply took up residence there in 1933. Western Elevator remained there until 1984, relocating to another part of city. In the last few decades, the building was used mostly as storage space, although there was a woodworking shop operating on the second floor right up until the time Hitchcock purchased it.
Six residential loft units have been fashioned out of the exposed clay-brick walls and wide-plank hardwood fir floors, fortified by squared timber beams and posts of the mill construction method commonly used in city warehouses of the time, before the introduction of steel supports.
Each suite is 1,420 square feet, with one living space occupying half a floor. All the loft owners, almost all of them young urban professionals working in the downtown area, had substantial input into the design of their residences.
The lofts are of similar configuration, and each includes the use of old metal fire doors salvaged from the original freight elevator as bedroom doors, but cabinets, appliances and bathroom fixtures vary from one place to the next. Hitchcock has even rescued some abandoned items from the building for his loft, including an old safe, now used as a liquor cabinet, a wooden loading dock ladder and a heavy work table, to pay tribute to the historical significance of the old warehouse.
Half the roof has a deck where one can take in a fantastic view of the Exchange District, including the new Red River College campus down the street. The rest will be home to a penthouse addition Hitchcock intends to start building in the next three months. The main floor and basement are under renovation, with great pains being taken to respect the historical integrity of the each area.
A modern elevator and two staircases, a restored original and a brand-new one, are included in the building layout.
Back upstairs in his loft, Hitchcock feels a sense of pride in completing the challenging yet rewarding project.
"It is a learning process, and I think and I hope there will be more projects like this one, because I really think that people want to live down here -- and there are some amazing spaces to accommodate them."