Like most North American cities, Winnipeg faced a downtown parking crisis in the decade following the Second World War. It caused architects and developers to look upward for solutions.
The root of the problem was while most people still worked and shopped downtown, tens of thousands had been moving to the sparsely populated suburbs where the car was king and the use of public transportation often impractical.
Wilbur Smith, a traffic engineer from New Haven, Conn., was hired by the Metropolitan Planning Commission of Greater Winnipeg in 1956 to study the parking problem.
Smith pointed out that between 1946 and 1956 the number of cars registered in the greater Winnipeg area had almost tripled. At the same time, public transportation rates plummeted.
Looking ahead a decade, Smith estimated the city’s downtown would lose about nine per cent of its on-street parking stalls, a total of 965, to developments such as new bridges and expressways, while the demand for parking spaces would likely increase by about 25 per cent.
Smith’s main recommendation was to do what many other cities, especially those in the U.S., had done and build municipally owned, multi-level parking structures in the central business district to help meet the parking demand.
The city had been toying with the idea of building a municipal parkade since the early 1950s, but thanks in part to provincial regulations restricting the creation of a parking authority and its own trepidation at spending money, nothing came of it.
Unwilling to wait any longer for the city to act, Winnipeg’s first parkade was constructed by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) behind its downtown store in 1954.
The retailer hired National Garages Inc. of Detroit, Mich., a firm that specialized in the engineering and operation of parking structures in the U.S., to manage the project. They, in turn, chose architects Smith Hynchman Grillis of Detroit for the design while local architects Moody Moore, now known as MMP Architects, were hired to oversee the construction.
It appears it was the HBC that chose the word "parkade", a combination of the terms ‘parking lot’ and ‘retail arcade’. While not unique to Winnipeg, (most of the HBC’s other big-city western Canadian stores got "parkades" in the same era), it is considered to be primarily a Canadian term. Locally, parking structures built to this day are often christened parkades.
The initial HBC parkade was a ‘double decker’ with a capacity of 450 cars, but was designed so additional storeys could be added.
To save gridlock at the entrances when it opened, HBC ran a series of newspaper ads in the leadup to the big day to let people know what to expect.
Customers would be greeted at the parkade entrance by an attendant who escorted them to an empty spot then handed them a parking ticket. While shopping, customers could choose to have their packages sent to the parkade’s storage area, where they would be loaded into their vehicle before they paid the kiosk attendant and drove away.
The Bay Parkade opened at 9:00 am on Friday, Oct. 29th, 1954. The first car to enter was a convertible carrying the five longest-serving employees of the store. Customers were greeting by the sounds of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery Band which performed for the first half hour of service.
The parkade was a great success even outside of store hours thanks to its proximity to the Winnipeg Auditorium with its full roster of evening and weekend events. The HBC added another parking level the following year and a final one in 1964.
Not to be outdone by the competition, the city’s second parkade was built for the T. Eaton Company, though they referred to their structure by the British term, "Car Park". The structure is now known as CityPlace Lot 1.
Eaton’s wedged its parkade onto Hargrave Street next to its power plant. The space had been its "women’s parking lot", one of three surface lots operated by the company for its store and mail order warehouse.
The company turned to the now experienced local parkade architects Moody Moore to design the $1-million, six-storey structure with a capacity of about 600 cars.
The Eaton’s parkade had its own elevators. Customers could use them to access the store through an underground tunnel or an elevated walkway, billed as "Western Canada’s first aerial crosswalk", which connected to the store’s third floor.
Construction started in May 1956 and the first 200 parking spots were opened in mid-November, just in time for the Christmas rush. The other floors and the walkway opened in May 1957.
The last of the trio of 1950s parkades was the engineering marvel that was the Marlborough Hotel’s Parkmaster on Smith Street.
Rumoured to have cost nearly $1 million, the eight-storey structure was designed by Libling, Michener and Diamond and Associates, (now LM Architectural Group), to hold 360 cars.
The Parkmaster was fully automated. Customers drove into one of six "entry aisles" on Smith Street, locked their car and took a ticket from the attendant. Then, from an elevated perch similar to a lifeguard’s chair inside the structure, a "parkmaster" used his control panel to guide the car through a series of conveyors, elevators and turntables to an empty cubicle upstairs.
Newspaper stories of the day did not mention who manufactured the equipment, only saying it was new to Canada but in use elsewhere in North America.
The Parkmaster opened on Sat., April 6, 1957 after a celebratory luncheon for civic leaders hosted by hotel manager Nathan Rothstein.
For all of its technology, the Parkmaster had a number of drawbacks. For one, it needed four attendants to operate it. It was also a dangerous place for the staff inside the structure, which was emphasized in 1966 when the parkade’s manager was killed after his head was crushed by a descending elevator.
The Marlborough’s biggest problem, though, was the parkade’s speed. It could unload, at most, two cars a minute, which was acceptable during the work day or on weekends. At afternoon rush hour or after a banquet, however, people had to line up for long periods to get their vehicle.
In July 1967, Rothstein told a Free Press reporter: "We made a mistake and we’re admitting it. People don’t seem to mind waiting as long as they’re sitting in their cars. But when they’re waiting with a crowd of other people for their cars to be brought down, they get annoyed."
A few weeks later, the Parkmaster was demolished. The current Smith Street Parkade replaced it in 1980.
By the end of 1957, the city boasted three parkades containing about 1,700 stalls. It was enough to provide some breathing space until the next wave of parkades opened between 1963 and 1965.
As for the city, its grand plans for a municipal downtown parkade didn’t quite materialize. Its long-awaited offering, nowhere near the central business district, took the form of the Civic Centre Parkade on Princess Street beside the Public Safety Building, which opened in 1964.
Christian writes about local history on his blog, West End Dumplings.