Several videos in the Free Press Exchange Sessions music series have been shot in the Millennium Centre
Beyond the ornamental bronze doors lies a Main Street building once considered the most opulent headquarters on Bankers’ Row, and, perhaps, in all of Western Canada.
But despite eight massive granite columns that line the front facade, the former Canadian Bank of Commerce (now known as the Millennium Centre) is easy to miss. One look inside, however, and it is impossible to forget — from the marble floors and counter tops to oak-panelled offices to a stained-glass dome skylight, the building feels overwhelmingly lush.
The former bank, completed in 1912, is often reserved for private events, but free, guided tours are available this weekend as part of Doors Open Winnipeg— an annual event organized by Heritage Winnipeg that celebrates the city’s history by letting the public explore buildings they seldom enter.
"When I first walked into the banking hall, my jaw dropped, neck craned and eyes popped," says Anthony Zedda, who earned his master’s degree in architecture at the University of Manitoba. "Having grown up in Winnipeg, I could not imagine that such a grand and delicately detailed space could exist behind such a solid facade of granite columns. I was overwhelmed with the sense that this was a treasure that others had to experience for themselves."
Doors Open is an apt fit for Heritage Winnipeg’s mandate for the Millennium Centre. The non-profit organization is "steadfast" on hosting free public events that celebrate the arts, such as a Tuesday afternoon concert series with the WSO that will begin its fourth summer season in a few weeks.
"By bringing these kinds of events to this building, you’re enjoying architecture, which is art, and the beauty of the performing arts, and it’s a beautiful marriage," says Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg.
In 2000, the building was donated to 389 Main Street Heritage Corporation, a non-profit, registered charity, by the MarWest Group of Companies. MarWest had already invested about $1 million in maintenance after the structure was vacated in 1969 when bank employees moved into the more modern Richardson Building.
"You had a gravitational pull in the late ’60s early ’70s where everyone wanted modern and these old buildings weren’t popular anymore," says Tugwell. "People thought (the buildings) had outlived their worth, so they moved out of the building and wanted to demolish it for a parking lot."
After Heritage Corporation obtained the building, it would take another five years before the space was fit for public use, and since then, it’s been a slow process to continue refurbishments that will restore the building to its true glory.
The Canadian Bank of Commerce was built during Winnipeg's golden age. For more about that era, go to: wfp.to/citybeautiful
From a purely architectural point of view, the building is unparalleled in Winnipeg. Zedda, who researched the building as part of his U of M thesis work in 1990, calls it "remarkable."
"Everything about its design was meant to convey stability, security, and unabated optimism of the growth potential of Western Canada and Winnipeg as a grain trade and financial centre... The architects embodied the bank’s wealth in the use of high-quality finishes, use of light, scale of the interior banking hall, and use of modern materials," says Zedda, who is a partner at Kobayashi & Zedda Architects in Whitehorse. "The former Bank of Commerce building is one of the finest examples of architecture standing in Winnipeg."
The building was granted Grade 1 heritage status by the City of Winnipeg, so none of the "character-defining elements," including marble and woodwork, can be damaged during changes. For example, bathrooms added on the main floor are more like inserts that can be removed without damaging the walls, and a new structure to help with sound reverberation is merely clamped onto the marble counter so no screws were drilled.
Acoustic challengeClick to Expand
If you're heading to the Millennium Centre this weekend for Doors Open Winnipeg, listen for the endless echoes that rattle through the banking hall.
Sound-absorbing materials were not initially built into the room so the reverberation of noise is amplified, University of Manitoba professor of architecture Herbert Enns says.
"When you say something, it hits a stone surface and bounces right back at you," he says. "Because the distances are never equidistant from all the walls, those reverberations, those echoes, will come back to you at a slightly different time. And then it'll bounce off the back wall and come at you from behind. It just doesn't lose its energy because the surfaces are so hard.
"The acoustics in there are very dynamic... were the architects of the renovation to take that into account, as they begin to calm down that fantastic reverberation, that would really make that space highly desirable."
WOW Hospitality, which became caterer for the space in January, understands the potential problems the acoustics can cause, so the company has put a padded panel along one edge of the marble bank teller's desk to cut sound from the nearby kitchen area and has added cloth panels to one wall.
"The only thing we haven't got a handle on yet is the acoustics," bellows WOW Hospitality president Doug Stephen while seated in the banking hall, his words bouncing back clearly as an example of the issue. "Somebody said if we do wrapped cones that can pop out and put more panelling up here, we can deaden it a bit more. But when you've got as many hard surfaces as we have in here, it is gonna be what it is gonna be."
WOW and Heritage Winnipeg are not letting that stop them from hosting musical and artistic acts — having learned which sounds do well in that environment and where to place certain musicians, such as facing away from, or toward, the audience.
"If you put a 12-piece band in here, it works. When it doesn't work is when you sometimes have a little bit of rumbling and you try to do something from the podium," says Stephen, adding that with the few preventative measures in place, it's already better than before.
"In the late ‘90s there was a business in Alberta that wanted to turn this into a nightclub — which was very typical of a lot of banks on Main Street to be converted into nightclubs," says Tugwell. "We felt that it still had a role to play for the public to come and enjoy it as is and to not have it damaged extensively."
Heritage Winnipeg has spent recent years doing unexciting-but-important upgrades — plumbing, electrical, egress, adding handicap accessible bathrooms and a $100,000 boiler repair. Now that the basics have largely been taken care of, Tugwell and her team are on the main floor working on the tapestry room — the bank manager’s lavish office featuring a fireplace with ornately carved wooden detailing. Up next, she wants to tackle the upper floors of the six-storey building.
"We’d like to look at who would like to be tenants in this building and slowly redevelop and have this be a fully occupied and functional building because, as I often say at Heritage Winnipeg, you don’t truly save a heritage building until it’s completely occupied, because that is what’s going to protect it," says Tugwell.
What is not evident from looking at the outside of the building is that the top three floors flank the banking hall dome and contain offices that were used for bank-related purposes. The regional superintendent’s office on the third floor is the most elaborate — 40 feet wide and 22 feet long, with floor-to-ceiling oak panelling and an open fireplace, as well as a secret bathroom, complete with marble toilet and sink. Tugwell’s goal over the next 10 years is to redo that room, as well as the others on the fourth, fifth and sixth floors and convert them into office spaces, ideally for members of Winnipeg’s artistic community.
The renovations are partly funded by revenue coming to Heritage Corporation by WOW Hospitality. In January, the company took over the catering duties for onsite private events such as weddings, holiday parties, and annual general meetings.
Doors Open Winnipeg's most popular stops:Click to Expand
Vaughan Street Jail
444 York Ave., open Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
281 Donald St., open Sunday, 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
61 Carleton St., open Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
450 Broadway, open Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Bank of Montreal
335 Main St., open Saturday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
389 Main St., open Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
RRC Paterson Global Foods Institute
504 Main St., open Sunday, 11 a.m.-4p.m.
Ralph Connor House
54 West Gate, open Saturda , 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
St. Boniface Museum and Cathedrale
180 rue de la Cathedrale, open Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Doors Open Winnipeg runs Saturday and Sunday, but opening and closing times vary depending on location. Several themed walking tours of the Exchange District are also available throughout the weekend. For the full list of venues, tours and times, visit www.doorsopenwinnipeg.ca.
"We understand that if we can do a job well here, then, ultimately, the Millennium’s board will perhaps be able to start doing work on the upper floors. We’re trying to do our part, which is to help Cindy and 389 Main pay their operating costs," says Doug Stephen, president of WOW.
Stephen and his catering co-ordinator, Paul Haverstock, were both on Heritage Winnipeg’s board and both have decades of experience in the hospitality industry, so they were a natural choice to take over after Storm Catering left last year. But, as with any new venture, there were still challenges.
"It was built as a bank, so we don’t have a full kitchen and food had to be brought in," says Tugwell. "You had issues with trying to run an event with 250 people where you don’t have the kind of services you would have at a hotel, for instance, but people love it."
"It’s been an initiative of love that we’re hoping will turn into an initiative of profitability at some point," adds Stephen.
More than just an interesting venue for events, the fact the Millennium Centre is still standing serves a larger purpose — it acts as a reminder of the heavyweight city Winnipeg once was, and the vision many held for its prosperous future.
"Its story is that of the story of Winnipeg’s boom, bust, and persistence. It is a memorial to our once-proud financial optimism but it also acts as a reference for all of what came thereafter," says Zedda.
"Without it and the numerous other buildings deemed historically relevant in downtown Winnipeg, we are not able to remember, as a city, what we once were. I feel that certain heritage buildings carry with them a permanence that transcends our time in them, providing the foundation necessary to build upward from what was once an ancient Prairie sea."
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Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.