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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

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