Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Signs of the Times: Ghost Signs in Winnipeg’s Exchange District

Article by and images courtesy of Matt Cohen, marketer, ad-history enthusiast, and board member of the Advertising Association of Winnipeg.
Edited by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

Portage and Main 1921.
Ghost signs are pieces of hand-painted, outdoor promotional art preserved on the sides of buildings. They were prevalent from the 1890s through to the 1960s, but as outdoor advertising mediums evolved, painted signs became a less popular way of promoting products and services. Over the years, they’ve been replaced by billboards, vinyl banners and store-front signage.
Portage and Main 1962.

Generation after generation though, the original signs remain. This is due to the paint and the substrate. Much like sponges, bricks are extremely porous. When they come into contact with a liquid, they quickly absorb it. That liquid, in this case, was lead- and oil-based paint. This meant the signs would remain for decades without having to reapply more coats.

When the Paterson GlobalFoods Institute opened in the former Royal Bank Building, Red River College tried to remove a small section of paint in the top right-hand corner without much success.

But let’s get started at the beginning. Why are they here?

When Manitoba joined the Confederation in 1870, there were 12,000 citizens who called the newly formed province home. By 1911, that number had swelled to 450,000 and Winnipeg, its capital, became the third largest city in the country. As the population grew, so did the need for goods and services. Industrialists from across North America swarmed to the burgeoning city to set up shop. The largest built towering buildings in the Warehouse District to sell their wares.

This is when the East side of the Exchange was formed. In 1890, a line connecting the Northern Pacific and Manitoba railways was constructed at, what is now, The Forks. The line followed Waterfront drive to the Canadian Pacific Railway on Higgins Avenue.

In 1895, two spur lines were successfully negotiated off of the main transfer railway. One, between Bannatyne and Market, and the other between Market and James. These tracks were able to pull up behind the backs of giant warehouses, who would store goods for shipment across Western Canada.

If you walk along John Hirsch Place and Elgin Avenue, you can still see the loading dock numbers on the backs of the buildings.

James Ashdown started construction of his warehouse as soon as the last rail tie was laid. Know as Winnipeg’s merchant prince, Ashdown built his hardware business from scratch from his store on the corner of Bannatyne and Main. The warehouse would allow him to expand his business and connect his building supplies with rail stops throughout the West.

In what was one of advertisings first promotional stunts, in 1900, Ashdown painted 40 cars with “Hardware from J.H. Ashdown” on their sides. The line travelled across the prairies and Ashdown bragged to the media his was the only company in Canada where the railway pulled up to his back door.

J.H. Ashdown Hardware Company Limited.
On the West side of Main, smaller-scale businesses took shape. Unlike the storage warehouses on the East, the west focused on wholesale goods – both bulk and retail.

This sign is from clothing retailer White and Mannahan. They opened their Main Street store in 1898 and operated out of the location until the building was sold and demolished in 1921. Even though it’s over a century old, the red colour still comes through.

As the Warehouse District expanded, so did the advertising techniques used in reaching out to the public. Businesses moved away from simply writing their name on a wall to creating brands around them.

By the 1930s, a company could even be expressed with a logo. When Canadian General Electric built 265 Notre Dame in 1930 they featured theirs on the back of the building.

The original ghost sign below is from the H.J. Heinz Company. It was painted in the 1920s and features the classic “57 Varieties” slogan. Over top is a Pepsi logo from the late 70s. The second Pepsi sign was actually painted a decade later and made to look like a 1940s bottle.

Some national advertisers went as far as to commission local sign painters to illustrate full product shots on the sides of buildings.

Essex Packers was founded in Hamilton, Ontario in 1925. At the time of painting in the 1950s, the company was the third largest canned ham manufacturer in North America.

This sign was painted at the same time as Essex Packers. Paint and chemical supply firm Robinson and Webber was founded in 1919. They represent brands like Goldex and Glashine and still exist today under the name RW Packaging.

Finally, The Scott-Bathgate Company. They were founded in 1903 as confectionary wholesaler. With the introduction of the Nutty Club brand name and its Can-D-Man mascot in the 1930s, the company grew to be one of Canada’s largest popcorn, salted nuts and packaged candy distributors. While they still own three buildings on the east of Main Street, the signs aren’t original. They’ve been repainted several times over from their original design.

So walk the streets and look up. There are a lot to choose from. Over 125 ghost signs line the rooftops of the Exchange. A century after they first went up and each one still has a story they’re trying to sell.

About the Author

Matt Cohen is a marketer and ad-history enthusiast. He’s also on the board of the Advertising Association of Winnipeg (adwinnipeg). In the fall of 2015, they’ll be launching, a digital archive of ghost signs in the Exchange. Follow or visit to learn more. 
Web: Social: @adwinnipeg

 Like what you see?
To receive email updates from the blog, 
Spread the word - Don't forget to like and share using the icons below!  

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Heritage On Main: The Former Dominion Hotel (The Blue Note Café) at 218-224 Main Street

Article by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.
Thank you to Greg Agnew, Heritage Winnipeg Board Member, for his assistance with images.    

To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

Image courtesy of Greg Agnew.
The Dominion Hotel, later known as the Blue Note Café, at 218-224 Main Street was demolished in 2011. The place where it stood remains empty, the silhouette still visible on the adjacent Winnipeg Hotel. Before it was an iconic hangout for Winnipeg musicians, the home of the Blue Note Café was everything from a hotel to a barbershop.

In 1872, the Hudson's Bay Company surrendered all but 450 acres of land to the Dominion of Canada. The remaining land was surveyed and sold off to form the town of "Selkirk" (not to be confused with the current city of Selkirk). Lot 18, where the Dominion Hotel was later built, was purchased in July of 1872 by Charles Garratt, of the Garratt House Hotel for $1250. Lots purchased along Main Street were also required to have a structure built on them worth at least $2000 within 18 months of purchase in the hope of building up the appearance of Main Street.

Image courtesy of Greg Agnew.
Garratt resold the land shortly after purchase to Elias Swayze (Swaze), who immediately began the construction of a hotel. The Dominion Hotel opened in 1873, the same year as the Garry House (Winnipeg Hotel) next door. Their locations were considered choice as the federal government had new Customs House and Land Office buildings planned for the York Avenue end of the block. At the end of the 19th century, it was also very common for people to more or less live in hotels, as immigrating populations struggled to find accommodations and traveling salesman made extended visits with their wares.

The newly built Dominion Hotel was a wooden structure with 22 rooms in addition to a large hall where 21 beds were set up. The building featured a 12 x 14ft parlour, an 18 x 20ft billiard room, and an 18 x 20ft bar room in addition to a 12 x 20ft kitchen. In the summer of 1873, Swayze briefly had a partner named Smith, but the relationship was short lived and he continued to run the business on his own.

Image courtesy of Greg Agnew.
On May 3, 1877, an arsonist set fire to the Kahler stable behind the hotel. The fire spreads and while the fire brigade does their best, the building is destroyed. Thankfully all of the patrons and their luggage made it out safely but without insurance, Swayze was unable or unwilling to rebuild. He sold the property to Joseph Kahler, owner of the stable that burned. He built a new hotel by the same name in the summer after the fire.

Image courtesy of the Manitoba Archives 30224A.1
The new building was a 40 x 60ft, 2 1/2 storey wood frame structure with a prominent boom town front and a small porch running along a  portion of the north side. A new stable was also added in 1878, presumable replacing the one that had burned the year before.

Kahler operated the hotel until 1884, when it briefly became the "Dominion Club" with the backing of a W. R. Strachan. It then once again became a hotel under J.K. Paisley (of the Paisley House Hotel) in 1886.

Hannah Kahler, Joseph's wife, then took over the hotel's management from 1887-1889. This rapid change both in use and management is likely a sign that the hotel was no longer as attractive to patrons as it once was, as more sophisticated establishments took its clientele. For the next several years, the hotel was either vacant or leased by other proprietors, although it would seem to continue to be owned by Kahler.

Winnipeg Hotel and Commercial Hotel on Main St (Dominion Hotel in between)

UofM Special Archives Illustrated Souvenir of Winnipeg 1903 RBR FC 3396.37.M37 Collection
By 1893, the hotel had become a boarding house operated by a Joseph Keeler (possibly a misspelling of Kahler). Joseph Kahler likely passed away in 1894 and his widow, Hannah, continued to operate the boarding house until 1901, when the Montgomery brothers from the Winnipeg Hotel next door purchased the Dominion as an annex to the accommodations they provided. The intention was to either demolish the Dominion and built an addition on the property or else to renovate it to meet their purposes.

However, this plan never came to a fruition, likely due to the opening of the Commercial Hotel in 1902 in the Macdonald Block next door, as well as the Montgomery brothers' continued interests in other properties. The Dominion remained an annex to the Winnipeg Hotel until 1908, after which various people operated a rooming house in the upper floors with either a shoemaker and/or barber in the ground floor stores. It was about this name that the name "Dominion Hotel" was moved to another building at 523 Main Street, near where City Hall is now.

Image courtesy of Greg Agnew.
By the 1920s, the building was clearly deteriorating in photographs, with structural problems causing the facade to sag badly. A barber and shoe maker continued to run their businesses out of the building, along with a second hand store.

In 1934, a portion of the building was taken over by the Main Spot Café and Crystal Dyers went into the north end of the structure in 1937. Records are unclear, but it is likely that the upper floors were demolished around 1937 as well, with the length of the building also being cut in half around this time. Following the demolition, the remaining portions of the building were renovated to meet the Café and Dyers' needs.

In 1951, the building once again underwent renovation, this time to the exterior, in the art moderné style. It remained the Main Spot restaurant until it opened as the Blue Note Café, a popular local hangout for musicians, in March of 1983. The Blue Note Café stayed in the building until the mid-1990s when it relocated to another venue before closing down altogether. Below is a short documentary about the Blue Note Café and its contributions to the Winnipeg music scene in its heyday.

The vacant shell of the building was demolished in 2011, 134 years after it was built.

Sources & Links

'Paradise' Lost - Winnipeg Free Press 2013
Winnipeg love-hate: Bluenote Graveyard - Winnipeg Free Press 2011

Do you have photos from the Dominion Hotel from its time as the 
Blue Note Cafe, Fat Angel, or other businesses? 
We'd love to see them! Share photos on 

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Two Winnipeg Carnegie Libraries: Cornish and St. John's

Article by Rushika Khatkar & Laura McKay, on behalf  Heritage Winnipeg Corp.  
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

The front entrance to the Cornish Public Library at 20 West Gate. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
This is a continuation from a previous post, Free and Open to All: A History of Winnipeg's Libraries.

Libraries are pillars in their communities, places where to spend hours browsing for books, learning something new in the resource section, doing classwork on the public computers, or participating in exciting programs.There are three libraries in Winnipeg that have been part of their communities for over a hundred years. One of these was the Carnegie Library at 380 Williams Avenue, spoken about in the blog post above.  

St. John's Library
The St. John's Library at 500 Salter Street. Photo courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
Built in 1905, the library was enough at the time but the city was rapidly expanding, predicted to be the Chicago of the North and with a city population that big, the demand on public services would be far greater. 

The Carnegie Library at 380 Williams Avenue ca. 1905. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
Only two years after the Carnegie Library opened, the question of branch libraries was raised. James H. McCarthy, the City's first librarian, championed the creation of small depositories in drug stores, schools, and other centres with collections of approximately 500 books rotated every two to three weeks. Losses were heavy from these depositories and even with 35 of them by 1914, the need for branch libraries remained.  

The Cornish Public Baths and the Cornish Public Library, as seen from the Assiniboine River ca. 1915. Image courtesy of the Manitoba Archives N7391.
Thus, by 1913, the city approached the Carnegie Corporation once again for two more libraries. City-owned land was selected for the buildings - one at the north end at the corner of Machray Avenue and Salter Street, and the other in Cornish Park at the west entrance to Armstrong's Point. Cornish Park, named after Winnipeg's first mayor, Francis Evans Cornish, was the previous home of Winnipeg Waterworks, and came to be the home of both the Cornish Public Bath and the Cornish Library. For more information on Francis Evans Cornish, go to Memorable Manitobans: Francis Evans "Frank" Cornish.

1992 photo of the front of the Cornish Library. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The need for two separate branches, rather than just one, came from the two distinct populations in Winnipeg at the time and the economic division between north and south. At the time, the City of Winnipeg often built public facilities, such as baths, schools and libraries, in pairs to appease both ends of the city and prevent political backlash

St. John's Library architect's plans #2901/1914 "Front Elevation" courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Archives.
In June of 1915, the St. John's Library and the Cornish Library opened, in the North End and Armstrong's Point, respectively. The openings were attended by an orchestra, many local dignitaries, and hundreds of Winnipeg's citizens.

Main floor north fireplace ca. 2010. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The St. John's Library is the slightly smaller of the two and located in the North End, which at the time was a bustling area as the centre of Winnipeg's immigrant community. Having grown rapidly in the first decade of the 20th century, the North End was in need of civic services including water, sewer, electricity, fire protection, police, modern schools, housing, commercial property, and of course, libraries. The benefit of having a library in the area was tremendous. The people there didn't know the country, they didn't know the language, and they were missing their families back home.  

St. John's mezzanine ca. 2010. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
Adapting to a new country can take ages but the people who lived there now had a library to help them. Through the use of books, magazines, and journals, people were able to learn the language and acclimatize to their new home more easily and rapidly. Libraries still fill this role in Winnipeg, with many providing free EAL resources to newcomers.

St. John's Library main floor ca. 2010. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The community was so exited to have a new library, that it opened earlier than planned, and therefore did not have a lot of furniture. The basement was originally to be used as a staff room and a coal room but it ended up as a juvenile section instead. St. John's circulated more books in the first six months after opening than the Williams and Cornish Library combined, demonstrating its value to the community.
The portrait above the door is of Andrew Carnegie, donor of the funds that built the library photo ca. 2010. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.

Much like the St. John's Library, the Cornish Library is cherished in its community. Located just around the corner of the entrance to Armstrong's Point, the library can be described as a Winnipeg secret. 
Entrance to the Cornish Library. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg.
The Cornish Library has been used by many influential authors and citizens including suffragist, prohibitionist, and novelist Nellie McClung, who used the basement of the library for some of her lectures. For more information on Nellie McClung, go to the Canadian Encyclopedia-Nellie McClung

PastForward Launch
A more recent presentation is given on the main floor of the Cornish Library. Image courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
The Cornish Library hasn't undergone any major renovations with the exception of repairs to the foundation that were necessary due to damage from the Cornish Baths and a flood in 1918. The damage was repaired with a Carnegie grant of $7000.

Cornish Library
The Cornish Library. Image courtesy of the Winnipeg Public Library.
In the past, there was often not a lot of funding for libraries and their programs. During one of these funding low points, there was a need for snacks for children's programming. The solution came from the prison at Stony Mountain, where inmates were learning how to bake.  Themed cupcakes soon arrived, accompanied uniformed chef-inmates and their guards. Though unconventional, this story is an excellent example of the ways in which a library can partner with the community to ensure everyone's needs are met. 

Hard at work in the Cornish Library ca. 1992. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The lack of funding has produced a more serious threat though. The city has often suggested closing some of the smaller branches, including the Cornish Library, in the name of saving taxpayer dollars. As recently as 2005, the loyal patrons of the library have been called upon to make sure that this would not happen. 
A letter from Heritage Winnipeg to City Councillors, in support of the Cornish Library remaining open.

Young children and adults alike have written letters to protest the closure and explain how and why the library is so dear to them. Luckily, the city did not close the library and the Cornish Library is still in use today. With plans for a huge renovation, the Cornish Library isn't going anywhere. 

Salter Street looking north from Machray Avenue ca. 2010. Notice St. John's Library on the left. Image courtesy of the City of Winnipeg Historical Report.
The St. John's Library and the Cornish Library are both still in use today. Though we celebrated the libraries' 100th birthdays this year, we are not only celebrating their age but also their vital presence in the city. They are places that not only educate us, but bring us together. 

The Friends of Cornish Library are currently selling a historical DVD, The Cornish Library: Living Room of the Community 1915-2015, as a fundraiser for the library and its planned renovations. For more information, contact Pat at

Sources and Links

City of Winnipeg Historical Report-500 Salter Street-Long
City of Winnipeg Historical Report-20 West Gate-Long
Cornish Library Information 
St. John's Library Information
Winnipeg Free Press - Libraries still the focal point of neighbourhoods

 Like what you see?
To receive email updates from the blog, 
Spread the word - Don't forget to like and share using the icons below!  

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Heritage On Main: The Macdonald and Fortune Blocks at 226-234 Main Street

Article by Laura McKay, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg Corp.     
Thank you to Heritage Winnipeg Board Member, Greg Agnew, for his assistance with images. 
To follow up on this or any other articles on the blog, contact Heritage Winnipeg's Executive Director.

Fortune Block
Image courtesy of Christian Cassidy from the Winnipeg Downtown Places Blog at
The Fortune and Macdonald Blocks from 226-234 Main Street are two separate buildings but have a history as connected as the buildings themselves. If you're directionally challenged, like myself, the Fortune Block is the one on the corner of Main and St. Mary's, whereas the Macdonald Block is the addition a bit further down on Main Street.

In 1869, the Hudson's Bay Company surrendered all but 450 acres of Rupert's Land to the Dominion of Canada. The land that remained was laid out as a town they called "Selkirk" in 1872 and the first lots began to be auctioned off later that same year. It was through this auctioning off that Molyneux St. John purchased lots 19 and 20 for $1325 and $1750 respectively. With this purchase came the HBC's condition that a structure with a minimum $2000 value be built within 18 months of the sale. 
Image courtesy of Greg Agnew and the Millennium Library.

This condition was not met with either of the two properties, with both sitting undeveloped for a decade. A large number of lots in the area stayed vacant or had insubstantial frame buildings constructed due to the main business district remaining north of Portage Avenue - for many, Graham Avenue seemed too far away. However, the arrival of Winnipeg's building boom in 1880-1884 put pressure on the properties that had not yet been developed. 

A cartoonist's portrayal of Mark Fortune, courtesy of the Memorable Manitobans MHS website.
It was during this time that ex-alderman Mark Fortune acquired Lot 20 and hired local architects Mancel Willmot and George W. Stewart to design him an office building. It was built in 1882 by contractors Grant and Gelley for a cost of $35,000. The result was a three storey brick building 50 feet by 70 feet in size.

Photo of Mark Fortune, courtesy of the Memorable Manitobans MHS website.

Fortune then rapidly sold his building in the fall of 1882 to Alexander Macdonald. Macdonald built a matching addition to the south on Lot 19 for $16,000. The architects of the 50 by 70 foot extension are unknown, although they are suspected to be the same as the original building due to the fact that they match one another almost perfectly. 

Alexander Macdonald, courtesy of the Memorable Manitobans MHS website.

Much like the Winnipeg Hotel, both buildings were constructed in a form of the High Victorian Italianate Style, designed to draw attention from passersby. It was a style common to domestic and commercial buildings at the time and is visible in the highly decorated exterior - segmental arch windows on the top floors, an elaborate cornice used to make the buildings appear taller, and Romanesque, round-topped windows. 

Image courtesy of the Winnipeg City Books.
Fortune kept his headquarters for real estate in one of the upstairs offices of the Fortune Block, while the ground floor was split into two stores: Curran's City Tea Store and a dressmaker. The store to the south was taken over by Holman Bros Butchers and Meat Market in 1885, who remained there until 1904 when they moved to their own newly-constructed building on St. Mary's. 

The store to the north had a number of different tenants, including the Dodd Shoe Company after it was uprooted by the construction of the Dominion Bank at Main and McDermot in 1898. 

The Fortune Block as it looks today.

The Deaf and Dumb School, predecessor of the Manitoba School for the Deaf, was established in an office in the Fortune Block in 1888, where they remained for six months before space was found for them in the Education Building at the northwest corner of Kennedy and Broadway.

Meanwhile, Macdonald had established a wholesale grocery business in his half, which eventually grew into merchandising giant Macdonald's Consolidated. As the company expanded, he gradually took over the upper storey offices as well. A stone and brick warehouse was soon built at 193 Fort Street for the company in 1895, with another following in 1901 at 116-118 Market Street, in what had previously been an older residential neighbourhood. The company moved into the new warehouse and was eventually absorbed by Safeway Stores Ltd., predecessor of Canada Safeway.

After the move, the Macdonald block was purchased by local hotelier Sam Spence, who began the conversion of the building into a hotel in 1903. Architect H.S. Griffiths and contractor S.B. Ritchie completed the job, with a total renovation cost of $3500. 

The new hotel opened as the Commercial, and was so popular that Spence leased a portion of the Fortune Block as a staff residence and possible an annex for guests. The Commercial Hotel lasted until 1984, when the main floor of the building became a private club. 

The Macdonald Block/Commercial Hotel today.

After 1910, there was a large number and variety of tenants in both the upper and ground floors of the Fortune Block. Mark Fortune and his son chose this time to enjoy a trip at sea on board the luxurious new Titanic; they did not survive the sinking of the ship in April of 1912. In the 20s, there was a lunch bar in the northern store, which continued in one form or another until the premises were taken over by National Auto Supply in the 1950s. 

Both buildings had lost their wrought-iron cresting by the 1920s, followed by the removal of the cornice on the Fortune Block in the 1950s. It was replaced by a brick parapet and around the same time, a small one storey addition was added to house the upholstery business of the owner of both the Fortune Block and National Auto Supply.

Eventually repairs to the Fortune Block's upper level suites became too costly and these floor were closed at the ground entrance. Only the main floor is now occupied, in part by the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club, which has been there since approximately 1987, according to this article from the Winnipeg Free Press: Another downtown icon falls? 

Renovations to the Macdonald Block have removed the then-outdated windows and the decorative multi-coloured brickwork was covered in white paint. Other buildings of the same era include the Drake Hotel (Benson Block), the Bawlf Block, and the Harris Block. The building boom of 1880-1884 produced numerous prominent brick structures, the bulk of which were contructed north of Portage and Main and have unfortunately been lost to newer buildings or redevelopment into parking lots.  

Other buildings designed by architects Willmot and Stewart included the Richardson Block, the Stobert Block, the Carruthers Block, the Winnipeg General Hospital, and the Mark Fortune Residence on Broadway, all of which have since been demolished.  

The Winnipeg Hotel, the Blue Note Café (Dominion Hotel), and Macdonald Block were threatened by demolition for a parking lot in 1990, but only the Dominion Hotel has since been demolished.

Sources & Links 

Alexander Macdonald - Memorable Manitobans MHS Website
Fortune Block - City of Winnipeg Historical Nomination Report 
Macdonald Block - City of Winnipeg Historical Nomination Report
Mark Fortune - Memorable Manitobans MHS Website 
Our History - Macdonalds Consolidated website
Reinvigorating Main Street - Winnipeg Free Press 2014
Winnipeg Downtown Places - Fortune Block
Winnipeg's Most Endangered Places - West End Dumplings (Fortune Block) 

 Like what you see?
To receive email updates from the blog, 
Spread the word - Don't forget to like and share using the icons below!