The historic downtown Hudson’s Bay Co. building was locked to the public for good Sunday — and with it, those who’d hoped to say goodbye.

"I feel like I’ve lost it twice," Winnipeg ex-pat James Hope Howard said Tuesday. "I was gearing myself up for a February closure and then, surprise, it’s gone. It’s kind of demoralizing."

After the Bay declared in October the century-old structure was to be shuttered, the librarian with a history degree planned to make the trip from La Ronge, Sask., to walk through the building one last time.

Back in time

View a slideshow of the construction of the downtown Bay, a video from its opening day in 1926 and a gallery of images through the decades.

View a slideshow of the construction of the downtown Bay, a video from its opening day in 1926 and a gallery of images through the decades.

Construction of Winnipeg’s downtown Bay store begins in 1925.  The building that would open on this spot a year later could boast it was constructed entirely of Manitoba products.  - HudsonA Manitoba masterpiece
Construction of Winnipeg’s downtown Bay store begins in 1925. The building that would open on this spot a year later could boast it was constructed entirely of Manitoba products. - Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba
Visible behind the construction site are the Free Press and Boyd buildings. - Hudson
Visible behind the construction site are the Free Press and Boyd buildings. - Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba
 - Hudson
- Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba
 - Hudson
- Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba
 - Hudson
- Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba

The Bay’s main floor is elbow to elbow with Christmas shoppers in this 1940s photo. - HudsonA look back: Winnipeg's downtown Bay
The Bay’s main floor is elbow to elbow with Christmas shoppers in this 1940s photo. - Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba
Winnipeggers could dine in style at The Bay’s Georgian Room. - Hudson
Winnipeggers could dine in style at The Bay’s Georgian Room. - Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Archives of Manitoba
An elevator girl dressed in a toy soldier costume runs the Toy Town Express elevator at the downtown Bay in 1947. - Hudson
An elevator girl dressed in a toy soldier costume runs the Toy Town Express elevator at the downtown Bay in 1947. - Hudson's Bay Company Archives, Manitoba Archives
The Bay is uncharacteristically empty as the blizzard of March 4, 1966 hits. - Winnipeg Free Press ARchives
The Bay is uncharacteristically empty as the blizzard of March 4, 1966 hits. - Winnipeg Free Press ARchives
Hudson’s Bay Co. downtown store is bathed in light on March 13, 1973.  - Gerry Cairns / Winnipeg Free Press Archives
Hudson’s Bay Co. downtown store is bathed in light on March 13, 1973. - Gerry Cairns / Winnipeg Free Press Archives

However, the company announced Monday it was instead closing early, blaming Manitoba retail restrictions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

In part, the Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard landmark anchored Hope Howard's student life. He would poke down into the basement for bus tickets on his way to university and snatch up two-for-$4 Jamaican patties at the malt shop, chomping into their flaky exteriors before class.

"A man’s got to eat," the now-36-year-old said in an interview, adding he could pop in for a moment "and still feel that I have participated in the experience of visiting the grand Hudson’s Bay building."

"It’s a very striking building to be in," he said. "No matter what year you first saw it or when you last able to get into it — admiring the escalators, admiring the elevators, admiring the bathrooms... it was just, architecturally, a marvel."

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Free Press columnist and local historian, </p><p>“It’s probably the single store I’ve spent the most money at over the years,” Christian Cassidy said.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Free Press columnist and local historian,

“It’s probably the single store I’ve spent the most money at over the years,” Christian Cassidy said.

Christian Cassidy, a local history blogger, also hoped to tour the department store's expanses once more before it closed.

"I think it’s really sad," said the 52-year-old. "For the downtown, it’s truly the passing of an era. The last big traditional retailer has disappeared."

Since studying at the University of Winnipeg in the early 1990s, Cassidy said he’s spent all his life either downtown or in its periphery. The Bay centred his shopping experience.

The downtown Bay: questions and answers about its past and future

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RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS						</p>																	<p>The Hudson Bay building on Portage Ave. in downtown Winnipeg.
RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

The Hudson Bay building on Portage Ave. in downtown Winnipeg.

Posted: 02/10/2020 2:40 PM

Why is the downtown Bay building significant? What's happened inside over the years? What's next for the building?

Read Full Story

"It’s probably the single store I’ve spent the most money at over the years," Cassidy said, adding he’s particularly disappointed not to get a last holiday season at the store.

"Christmas was actually one of the really great times, when they rolled out all their Christmas decorations... It’s not something you can recreate at the dollar store or at an online retailer."

Three years ago, Cassidy was part of a small group that reopened the Bay's former Paddlewheel Restaurant for public tours.

Plates were still stacked up and tables in place, ready as ever to serve the public, albeit dustier. People lined up down the hallway to view the not-at-all-fancy restaurant, he said — just as they had before it closed in 2013.

What the Bay's closure means for the future of downtown retailers

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Signs indicate the store is now closed, a few weeks earlier than was anticipated.
Signs indicate the store is now closed, a few weeks earlier than was anticipated.

Posted: 01/12/2020 7:00 PM

What happens to the state of business in a city when it loses its largest storefront in the downtown core even earlier than expected?

It’s a question being mulled by commerce stakeholders and retail experts, along with the provincial and municipal government, as the COVID-19 pandemic forces the Hudson’s Bay Company to close its downtown Winnipeg location two months earlier than previously announced.

Read Full Story

"That was a really interesting experience," said Cassidy. "(People) were telling us, ‘I met my husband here 60 years ago’ or memories of breakfast with Santa at the Paddlewheel Restaurant. It was just this kind of outpouring."

For Greg Thomas, growing up in the 1950s and '60s, the building was a "destination."

"We would go down there," the historian and Winnipeg Architecture Foundation board member said, "and let’s say we were going to a movie, we might go into either Eaton’s or the Bay. And we would go to the Paddlewheel and get a malt."

As a teenager, he browsed the Bay with friends for Levi’s jeans or other "cool clothes."

Thomas said he worries the building will now sit empty for a long time: filling it presents huge difficulties, and some architects he’s spoken to doubt the viability of overhauling the building altogether.

However, it was time, he said. "I think it’s an opportunity to move forward."