February 25, 2020

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Fire strikes historic downtown building

Being renovated to become Hyatt hotel

Firefighters spent hours fighting to save a downtown heritage building being converted to a boutique hotel.

Fire crews rushed to the Keewayden/Crowley building, at 138 Portage Ave. East, at about 2 a.m., after flames ripped through the roof of the seven-storey building.

Sian Rylander, senior manager of global communications with Hyatt, said the company was in the midst of converting the building to a boutique hotel when the fire broke out.

"We can confirm that the Hyatt Place project currently under development at 138 Portage Ave., experienced an isolated fire," Rylander said in an email from the company's head office in Chicago.

"Additional inquiries should be directed to local authorities."

Plans for the building show the developer is building a new addition on the east side, with a few new floors above the current roof. It's not known how far along the work is.

Fire crews who initially arrived at the blaze immediately phoned in a second alarm to get more firefighters to the building.

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSFirefighters work at extinguishing a fire at 138 Portage Ave East in Winnipeg Sunday, September 29, 2019.</p><p>Reporter: Rollason</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSFirefighters work at extinguishing a fire at 138 Portage Ave East in Winnipeg Sunday, September 29, 2019.

Reporter: Rollason

More than 11 hours later the last hot spots on the building's sixth and seventh floors were put out.

A city spokeswoman said fire crews were going to continue to watch the building hourly into the evening to make sure the fire is completely out.

The cause is under investigation and the amount of damage is unknown at this time.

Cindy Tugwell, Heritage Winnipeg's executive director, said it is always sad when a heritage building catches fire.

"It's unfortunate," Tugwell said. "It shows how vulnerable a building is when they are under reconstruction. Anytime you do a major renovation a building is at a huge risk."

"It just make me so sad because we are always trying to protect what we have and here they are trying to develop it with a new addition. You think it will be a big part of the downtown and now we don't know the fate of it."

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSFirefighters work at extinguishing a fire at 138 Portage Ave East in Winnipeg Sunday, September 29, 2019.</p><p>Reporter: Rollason</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSFirefighters work at extinguishing a fire at 138 Portage Ave East in Winnipeg Sunday, September 29, 2019.

Reporter: Rollason

According to a city historical building report, it was built in 1909, to provide office space for local, national and international companies.

The report calls it "a modest example of the Chicago style commercial building, popularized in major centres across North America from the late 1890s to the 1920s. It was intimately connected to the development of a new support system — skeletal steel and reinforced concrete.

"It led to the creation of a new building type — the skyscraper."

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSFirefighters work at extinguishing a fire at 138 Portage Ave East in Winnipeg Sunday, September 29, 2019.</p><p>Reporter: Rollason</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSFirefighters work at extinguishing a fire at 138 Portage Ave East in Winnipeg Sunday, September 29, 2019.

Reporter: Rollason

A clothing factory, the Jacob Crowley Co., operated in it from the late 1920s to the 1950s.

Brent Bellamy, an architect with NumberTEN architecture and who writes a column in the Free Press about architecture in the city, said it’s "a testament to the strength of the concrete structure and an opportunity to become a unique downtown landmark that dramatically blends new and old.

"It would be very unfortunate to lose the building. Being surrounded by so much surface parking, yet another open lot would certainly contribute to the vacant and desolate feeling the area has."

As well, Bellamy said by redeveloping the building so close to the Exchange District and to the new Richardson Innovation Centre a block away, it could "become a catalyst for investment in this forgotten area of downtown.

"The area will only become more important as The Forks develops Railside and Parcel Four into a high density residential neighbourhood because it will become a vital pedestrian connection to downtown."

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSFirefighters work at extinguishing a fire at 138 Portage Ave East in Winnipeg Sunday, September 29, 2019.</p><p>Reporter: Rollason</p>

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSFirefighters work at extinguishing a fire at 138 Portage Ave East in Winnipeg Sunday, September 29, 2019.

Reporter: Rollason

Earlier, assistant fire chief Jason Shaw said fire crews immediately called in a second alarm to summon reinforcements.

"At one point, there were 50 firefighters fighting it," Shaw said before the blaze was put out. "It was a difficult one to fight (because) it is a seven-storey building built in 1909."

Heavy fire engulfed the roof and elevator shaft. Crews tried to enter the building to launch an offensive attack but were forced to retreat because the building’s water suppression systems were not operational.

Crews launched a defensive attack using aerial ladders and water streams. A drone and the Winnipeg police helicopter were used to provide information to the commander to help fight the fire.

"It was a complete roof fire with a partial collapse into the elevator shaft and into the basement. We still are not putting crews into the building," Shaw said just before noon.

Roads in the area were closed for several hours.

Shaw said the building is under renovation and fire fighters are using the exterior construction scaffolding at the rear of the building to blast foam and water into parts of the building, while an aerial crew on a ladder does the same on the roof.

"There is still a possibility of building collapse, but it is lowering every hour," he said.

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Kevin Rollason

Kevin Rollason
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

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History

Updated on Sunday, September 29, 2019 at 11:09 AM CDT: adds photos

3:09 PM: Adds comments from architect

5:06 PM: Fixes dropped word.

6:31 PM: Writethrough

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