REFERRING to Winnipeg as the ‘Chicago of the North’ is like comparing the city to a famous child actor who, after his television show was cancelled, spent the rest of his life reminiscing about his time in the spotlight.
Focusing on this Chicago comparison not only discredits the diversity of what Winnipeg is today, it dilutes what the city was during the booming, turn-of-the-century rail-town days that inspired its nickname.
Several entrepreneurs of that time looked for inspiration beyond America’s Second City. Like buying a Cézanne or Van Gogh to legitimize their art collection, many of the power brokers in Winnipeg turned to the big-name architects of New York City for the design of their buildings. This oftenoverlooked connection produced some of the most familiar and iconic structures in the city and has left a significant legacy on the physical character of Winnipeg to this day.
The most prominent architectural firm in the United States at the end of the 1800s was New York-based McKim Mead and White. It was an influential contributor at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, at which an ideal prototype city was built with broad avenues lined by fantastical buildings replicating the styles of ancient Greece and Rome. The success of the exposition popularized the colonnades and archways of classical architecture for a brief time across America.
When the Bank of Montreal decided to build at the crossroads of Portage and Main, it reached out to the New York firm, which was designing such iconic structures as Pennsylvania Station, Columbia University, Madison Square Garden and even the interiors of the White House in Washington D.C.
In Winnipeg, they created a Roman temple that exudes the feeling of strength and permanence associated with ancient architecture. Five stoic granite columns weighing 12 tonnes each stand guard over the famous intersection, protecting a cathedral-like banking hall of Italian marble with a ceiling adorned in gold leaf that is today valued at more than $2 million. The Manitoba Free Press called it "One of the most imposing buildings in Canada."
The Bank of Montreal would define the southern end of what had become known as Banker’s Row, a series of 20 houses of finance lining Main Street, each trying to be more opulent than the next. At the northern end, the Union Bank would construct a building that is truly one of the great architectural accomplishments in Winnipeg’s history. The familiar tower at the bend in Main Street has a long list of superlatives to describe its achievements. It was Canada’s first skyscraper, the tallest building in the country with its fastest elevator, the first tower to be more than 10 stories, one of the first to use a modern steel frame structure, its flagpole standing as the highest in the British Commonwealth.
To implement Union Tower’s structural complexity, the Fuller Construction company was brought in from New York, where the world’s tallest skyscrapers were being built. Fuller would transition its forces to Winnipeg after completing the iconic Flatiron Building in Manhattan, coincidentally designed by the same architect as Winnipeg’s Eaton’s Catalogue Building (Cityplace). They would introduce for the first time in Canada the modern system of construction using a general contractor, instead of the architect leading the process.
Midway down Banker’s Row, today sandwiched between the Woodbine Hotel and the Fox and Fiddle Pub, is the former Royal Bank designed by renowned Manhattan architects Carrère and Hastings, who were also responsible for the central library in New York. One of the most important libraries in the world, this national historic site has featured prominently in many movies, including the first scene of Ghostbusters, where it was haunted by the ghost of librarian Eleanor Twitty.
Winnipeg’s Manhattan connections would go well beyond Banker’s Row. No building is more synonymous with Winnipeg than the Hudson’s Bay department store on Portage Avenue, designed by New York-trained Barott and Blackader, apprentices of McKim Mead and White.
When Canadian Northern and Grand Trunk Railways needed a design for its new terminal at the foot of Broadway, it would hire the finest trainstation designers in the world, turning to Warren and Wetmore in New York, who were simultaneously creating Grand Central Station. A Beaux-Artsstyle stone façade enclosing a majestic, sunlit central hall with a dramatic aqua-coloured ceiling dome, would be distinctive features common to both magnificent buildings.
Towering over Portage and Main since 1969, the Richardson Building has long stood at the centre of Winnipeg’s skyline, but it would take 40 years and two New York architects to be completed. In 1929, the Richardson family announced a striking new 17-storey tower for the site, designed by Columbia University-trained Arthur Stoughton. It would be the tallest building west of Toronto and dwarf every other structure in the city by at least 30 metres. Its ornate central tower was to be adorned with a large glowing clock and topped off with a giant rotating spotlight, illuminating the night sky. The design’s imposing Art Deco features looked as though they were lifted from the comic book pages of Superman’s Metropolis or Batman’s Gotham City.
The project was tendered and the contracts signed. Existing buildings on the site were demolished, but after digging a huge hole for the foundations, the Great Depression hit. Work was put on hold ‘temporarily,’ but a year later the hole was filled and a quaint little cottage-style gas station was built. Looking more at home in a rural town than at a major city’s most prominent intersection, it stood at Portage and Main for almost four decades. Stoughton would go on to become the first head of the department of architecture at the University of Manitoba, designing the Buller and Tier buildings on campus and influencing a generation of Winnipeg architects.
When the project was revisited in the late ’60s, another New York architect was engaged. The notable firm of Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) would design the current Richardson Building, the tallest tower in Western Canada at its opening. SOM has since become the world’s pre-eminent skyscraper designer, its latest work includes New York’s Freedom Tower at the World Trade Center site and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world.
Many of Winnipeg’s most important buildings have New York roots, but these architectural connections are rarely celebrated. With other strong influences coming from Toronto, Montreal and locally, supported by the only school of architecture on the Prairies, the city’s built heritage is far more diverse than the ‘Chicago of the North’ nickname suggests. The legacy of Winnipeg’s varied collection of historic buildings casts a long shadow on the present-day city. Their visual weight, colour and texture give Winnipeg a characteristic feel that is like no other city in Canada. The most successful architecture designed since this golden era, and those buildings that will be successful in the future, understand this diverse legacy and are sensitive to the influence it has on the unique physical character of our city.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.