A local architect says he’s disappointed to see the Bank of Montreal announce it will move from its historic Main Street location into a new space next spring.
"The structure was built at a time when banks were sending a message that they would protect your money, instilling you with a feeling of confidence, permanence and stability," Number Ten Architectural Group creative director Brent Bellamy said in an email to the Free Press Monday. "The last remaining link to that time has now been severed."
In a letter sent to clients last week, BMO Bank of Montreal regional vice-president Kristen Kennedy said the bank will move out of the iconic space at Portage Avenue and Main Street where it has been for more than 100 years.
The Main Street branch, along with the bank’s Portage and Hargrave Street location, will move into the main floor of the renovated office tower at 201 Portage Ave.
"It has been our pleasure to serve our customers from these locations," Kennedy said in the letter. "We remain committed to Winnipeg — a community we have called home for more than a century. In the coming year, we are excited to welcome customers to our new flagship branch."
Kennedy said the historic significance of the building will not be forgotten.
"BMO understands that the building has become an icon in our vibrant community and would like to assure the community that decisions about the building’s future will be handled with the utmost care," she said.
The Main Street building, now a designated historic site, was built by the architectural firm McKim, Mead and White in 1913 at a cost of $1.3 million. The building was once a prominent feature in what was called Bankers’ Row: a stretch of more than 20 financial institutions between Winnipeg City Hall and Portage and Main — such as the Bank of Hamilton building at 395 Main St. and the Bank of Toronto building at 456 Main St. — in the early 20th century.
Bellamy said he’s "fearful" the building could go the way of some of the other buildings that made up Bankers’ Row, such as the Canadian Bank of Commerce building a few blocks over at 389 Main St.: a beautiful, historic bank gone underused and largely forgotten, save for the occasional wedding or event.
"It is heartening to see that BMO is maintaining its commitment to downtown and Portage and Main by heading across the street to 201 (Portage Avenue). I am fearful, however, that it will be difficult to find a new use for the old structure," said Bellamy.
"It is the last remaining link to Winnipeg’s grand era at Portage and Main. If it sits vacant for a long period of time, like other similar historic buildings have, it will be a disappointing statement about the prosperity of our downtown and of our city."
Bellamy said the building could benefit from increased foot traffic if the pedestrian barricades at Portage and Main are removed.
"The building is land locked from the rest of downtown," he said. "I know Winnipeggers don’t want to hear it, but encouraging greater levels of pedestrian traffic to the building by bringing down the walls that sever it from the rest of downtown would likely open up many more potential uses for the building."
Heritage Winnipeg executive director Cindy Tugwell said the iconic building at one of the Winnipeg’s most famous intersections is one many people associate with the city — and one whose fate will matter to them.
"I think most Winnipeggers are going to care," said Tugwell. "I think a lot of people feel we’re losing a part of our history and our heritage."
But some of the bank’s more distinctive features — such as its foyer, large entrances and counters — could make it difficult for a new owner to repurpose the building, she said.
"It will be a challenge," said Tugwell. "I hope the Bank of Montreal realizes the onus is on them… to make sure that a sympathetic building owner gets it, as opposed to the top price."
BMO is holding a public meeting for people to learn more about the bank’s move on Sept. 17 at the Fort Garry Hotel from 7 to 9 p.m.
Updated on Tuesday, August 6, 2019 at 6:50 AM CDT: Final
11:30 AM: Adds more photos.
11:52 AM: Updates headline.