The downtown Bay: questions and answers about its past and future
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/10/2020 (980 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The downtown Hudson’s Bay Co. store turned 94 years old in November, but the birthday celebration was be a sombre one after with that the store would be shuttered.
But while the customers will be gone, the 650,000-square-foot building will remain.
What is the architectural and historical significance of The Bay’s downtown location?
The six-storey building at 450 Portage Ave., was listed as a civic heritage building by city council in January 2019, preventing it from being demolished without another vote by councillors.
The heritage designation specifically points to both interior and exterior elements that make the building significant and can’t be altered unless approval is given.
They include the entire Manitoba limestone-clad exterior, the canopy above the sidewalks on its east, west and north sides, its reinforced concrete structural system — the largest one in Canada — the curved elevator lobby, and its main floors with large display windows.
But, the designation was opposed by the company, unsuccessfully arguing the features were “too costly to maintain and restore” and noting there wasn’t anywhere they could get replacement parts.
What is the building’s style and by designed it?
According to the city’s heritage report, it is called a subdued Neo-Classical or Classical Revival style. After its construction, which began Sept. 25, 1925 and was completed in 1926, the style, featuring columns with ornate bases and capitals, became the style for other Bay stores across the country.
It was designed by Montreal architect Ernest Isbell Barott and is the only known design of his built in Western Canada.
The distinctive canopy on three sides of the building was an add-on in 1956 and it was designed by local firm Moody and Moore.
Was this Winnipeg’s first Bay store?
Ever heard of Upper Fort Garry? That’s where the Bay’s Winnipeg retail operation first began, but then a store was set up at York Avenue and Main Street in 1881, until it was replaced by the massive store at Portage Avenue at Memorial Boulevard.
Was the store popular when it opened?
So much so that, after a golden key was used to open its Portage Avenue entrance, 50,000 people, more than the population of Brandon today, went through the doors on its first day of business, Nov. 18, 1926.
Along with the Eaton’s store a few blocks east, the department store helped anchor shopping downtown for decades. According to HBC’s website, it had the largest fur storage vault in Western Canada, able to store 12,000 coats, and at one point it had an auditorium with its own orchestra.
What has happened inside the building through the years?
When the store opened its doors, all six floors were fully in operation. Remember the Georgian Room, the elegant restaurant on the fifth floor? Or the Paddlewheel Restaurant on the sixth floor where even aspiring musicians in the 1960s congregated to eat and share songs and gossip?
Both are long gone. Same with furniture, appliances and other items spread throughout the building, with the escalators walled off to prevent getting to the upper floors.
At one time there was a grocery store in the basement and a snack counter where you could buy chocolate malts. For a time, there was a Zellers store in the basement until that chain disappeared.
Today, all the store’s cosmetics, shoes, men’s and women’s clothing, china and kitchenware are shoehorned into the first two floors, with the upper floors mothballed.
Nobody came forward to save the iconic Eaton’s store before it was demolished to make way for Bell MTS Place, the home of the Winnipeg Jets. Has anything happened to save The Bay store before this?
The building was appraised last year and valued at — wait for it — $0. As well, last November it was reported to have a tax liability of more than $300,000.
Through the years there have been attempts, the most serious being when The Bay offered two vacant floors to the University of Winnipeg to convert into classroom and program space. The price was free, but that was a decade ago and nothing happened.
Same with other proposals, including converting it into government offices, turning it into condominiums or dividing it so it could share space with high-end American department store chains.
Even the Winnipeg Art Gallery kicked the tires to see if it could house its Inuit Art Centre there, but decided to build an addition onto its current space across the street.
Who knows? At least on the retail side, The Bay’s department stores, part of a company that was chartered on May 2, 1670 to run a fur-trading business in British North America, is a shadow of its former self, both here and across the country.
The store in downtown Edmonton is closing this fall. But beyond the heritage status protecting it, the Winnipeg building’s sheer size and long-ago construction technique may also keep it standing for a while: real estate professionals have reported in the past it would cost more to demolish it than the land it sits on is worth.
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.
Updated on Tuesday, December 1, 2020 5:37 PM CST: Date references updated.