Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 3/3/2015 (876 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s been described as infamous, notorious, a magnet for brutal criminal activity and worse. But the 102-year-old Merchants Hotel will soon be given new life with a complete overhaul and some sparkling new additions.
Once completed, the new Merchants Corner will become an educational, housing and community centre containing apartments, the University of Winnipeg’s department of Urban and Inner-city Studies and much more.
It will be a much needed beacon of light in a community that for years had been having to deal with a dangerous, crime-ridden corner.
It wasn’t always that way. Originally built in 1913 as a three-storey retail/office structure by Robert and Sarah Steiman, the building was originally called the Steiman Block. The couple had emigrated from Latvia around 1900 in search of a better life.
According to the family history, the couple had originally set out for sunny California, where many thought the streets were paved with gold. Accidentally, they ended up in not-so-warm Winnipeg. But Winnipeg was booming then and the Steimans stayed, building a life for themselves on the then-busy, thriving, multicultural commercial hub of Selkirk Avenue in the North End.
The entrepreneurial Steiman established a hardware store and soon brought over the rest of his family, many of whom began to set up their own businesses. The community-minded couple raised a family of 10 children.
Steiman did so well that, in 1913, he hired architect Max Blankstein, one of the first Jewish architects in Canada, to design the Steiman Block at 541 Selkirk Ave.
Among other buildings, Blankstein designed the Palace Theatre on Selkirk, the Roxy Theatre on Henderson Highway and the Uptown Theatre on Academy Road. He also designed his own North End residence at 131 Machray Ave., where the family lived.
Three of Blankstein’s children, Cecil, Morley and Evelyn, went on to become well-known architects in Winnipeg. Evelyn practised architecture for almost 40 years during a time when there were few women in the field.
The Steiman Block contained the family’s hardware store and warehouse space. Later, office space was rented to doctors and dentists in the neighbourhood and the third floor was used as a kind of community hall/meeting place.
During the Depression, Steiman decided to convert most of the building into a hotel. He hired Max’s son, Cecil, of Green and Blankstein, to handle the conversion. The 40-room Merchants Hotel opened in 1934.
In 1947 the Steiman couple finally made it to California, retiring there. The Merchants kept changing hands after that, becoming more and more a major source of trouble.
With the building about to become a housing/office/community hub again, it is almost as if the old building will have returned full circle to its original roots.
Cheryl Girard is a community correspondent for West Kildonan. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org