Piece of Winnipeg history goes up in flames Fire levels Kirkwood Block on Portage Avenue

A massive blaze has gutted a historic building on Portage Avenue, leaving another hole on the prominent Winnipeg street already lined with empty storefronts.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/02/2022 (371 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

A massive blaze has gutted a historic building on Portage Avenue, leaving another hole on the prominent Winnipeg street already lined with empty storefronts.

Plumes of smoke billowed over the city’s core Wednesday morning, as passersby and students and staff from the nearby University of Winnipeg stopped to watch the fire at the Kirkwood Block, located at the corner of Portage and Langside Street, bordering the city’s downtown.

Heat from the flames melted ice on windows of a nearby university building, while water sprayed by fire crews froze onto trees and turned the roads into icy rinks. Nearby buildings were evacuated.

The fire appeared to have started in a church in the two-storey structure. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

When firefighters arrived on scene around 9:30 a.m., one corner of the building was already engulfed in flames.

“It became a defensive fire right away,” Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service assistant chief Scott Wilkinson told reporters at the scene.

The two-storey building at 575 Portage Ave. is a total loss and will be demolished, the city said.

The cause of the fire is unknown and no one was injured.

The building was home to the offices of the West End Business Improvement Zone, a convenience store, hair salon, Japanese doughnut shop and church.

Jino Distasio, a University of Winnipeg geography professor who studies housing, urban revitalization and city planning, said the building’s demise is a huge loss for the city.

“Again a piece of Winnipeg’s history has just gone up in flames, just like that,” he said.

Firefighters battle a fire at Portage Avenue and Langside Street in Winnipeg on Wednesday. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

“What I saw… is the loss of a number of small businesses and small business owners that were trying their best in a very, very difficult time to make a living. Like, three or four businesses there that are gone. Not to mention the fact that we could have a big gaping hole on Portage Avenue and to me, that’s not a good way for us to exit this pandemic.”

Post-pandemic recovery is critical, particularly for downtown, he said. 

“To see a prominent spot of Winnipeg lost, not just the architecture but the businesses, the lives that have been interrupted here, in an economy that at this point isn’t as robust as pre-pandemic — the last thing we want to see is potentially another fenced-off area for another empty lot, not on Portage,” he said. 

“Just don’t want to see it there.” 

The building, designed by local architect John D. Atchison, was built in 1912 and originally housed a pharmacy. 

Gordon Goldsborough, president of the Manitoba Historical Society, said Atchison designed many buildings in the city with a special flare. 

“If you look at the picture of the Kirkwood Block, there’s just something about the detailing that I think is unique compared to a lot of other buildings from that era,” said Goldsborough, noting the building was the longtime home of the “legendary” Club Morocco. 

The building at 575 Portage Ave. is expected to be a total loss. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The city has seen three historic buildings lost in the last month: the Ferndale block on Sherbrook Street on New Year’s Eve, an apartment on William Avenue last week, and now the Kirkwood, he said.

A witness at the scene said the blaze began in the building’s church, which faces Langside.

“Around like 9:40 one of my co-workers was like, ‘Hey there’s a big fire,’ and we had chicken on the grill, so we thought it was in our kitchen — then we looked outside the window and see that the church was on fire,” said Philip Zapeca, 21, a student who works at Diversity Food Services across the street from the church’s entrance.

“The firefighters came and looked like it was settling down but then all of a sudden the roof started getting on fire, and it spread from the church up to the second floor, then from the second floor all the way across.”

By mid-afternoon, the Kirkwood Block was coated in ice, its roof partially collapsed.

Crews remained on scene as they worked to save an Indian restaurant and African beauty supply shop next door.

Firefighters battled at least two other blazes in the city Wednesday: one in a vacant home on Pritchard Avenue and another in an industrial shop on Logan Avenue.

Smoke from the fire could be seen throughout the city on Wednesday. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

The extreme cold was causing problems for crews, Wilkinson said.

“We had freezing lines, freezing hoses (and) apparatus breaking due to the cold,” the assistant chief said.

Twitter: @erik_pindera 


Erik Pindera

Erik Pindera

Erik Pindera reports for the city desk, with a particular focus on crime and justice.


Updated on Wednesday, February 2, 2022 6:32 PM CST: Updates with additional info, quotes, pictures, new headline, new formatting

Updated on Thursday, February 3, 2022 7:04 AM CST: Adds missing word

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