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The St. Regis Hotel – Paradise Lost to a Parkade

The drive for progress in Winnipeg is dealing a cruel and ironic hand to the St. Regis Hotel. The hotel bears the name of the patron satin of lace makers, who was renowned for providing for the poor, helping them become self-sufficient and regain their dignity. The historic hotel contains a similar potential, to provide shelter and break the cycle of poverty for those most in need. Instead the hotel seems doomed to meet a destructive end, with Heritage Winnipeg giving one final prayer that last minute funding will be found in time to save at least some of its finest heritage features.

In 1882, Winnipeg was the place to be in Canada. The meeting point of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers had flourished into a robust young city, with a booming real estate market. People and money seemed to flow in endlessly and the future could not have looked brighter. Seizing the opportunity to partake in the prosperity, Morton Keachie opened the Palace Livery and Boarding Stables on Smith Street, less then a block south of Portage Avenue. With a somewhat opulent façade and over 100 stalls, the Palace Stables was the premier address for livery companies. Its grandeur represented the confidence of the fledgling city and far outshone the two other stables on the block, the Fleetwood and that of Michael Hanlon.

The east side of Smith Street was home to three livery stables, including that of Michael Hanlon.
Source: Winnipeg Cab History and Archives of Maniotba
But the glory days of the livery stable in Winnipeg were soon to pass. The first electric streetcar had already taken to Winnipeg roads in 1891 and ten years later in 1901, the first private automobile arrived. Horses were being replaced with horsepower and the real estate market was in decline. Perhaps recognizing the end of an era, Michael Hanlon sold his livery stables to Charles McCarrey and John Lee, partially for a profit and partially for shares in their new development.

The Rookery Block was built on the ground where Hanlon’s stables once stood, opening in 1910 at 285 Smith Street. It was a two story mixed use building designed by William Wallace Blair with commercial space on the first floor and residential space on the second floor. Blair was an Irish architect who worked in Winnipeg for less then ten years, but left a considerable mark on the city designing building such as the Roslyn Court Apartments (40 Osborne Street), the Fortune House (393 Wellington Crescent) and the Great West Saddlery Building (113 Market Avenue).

The Roslyn Court Apartments at 40 Osborne Street, designed by W. W. Blair.
Source: M. Peterson and the City of Winnipeg
The Fortune House at 393 Wellington Crescent, designed by W. W. Blair.
Source: Gordon Goldsborough and the Manitoba Historical Society
The Great West Saddlery Building at 113 Market Avenue, designed by W. W. Blair.
Source: Google Maps
The Rookery Block was short lived, with tenants seemingly being asked to move out no sooner than they had moved in. The block was being redeveloped, with the building being expanded upwards to a height of four stories. Ontario born architect Hugh Gordon Holman was hired to design the $100,000 redevelopment of the building. The building was resurrected as the St. Regis Hotel, outfitted with all the latest comforts, including electricity and en suites. The hotel was also designed to cater to travelling salespeople, renting out sample rooms where perspective buyers could view merchandise.

An undated postcard looking north on Smith Street towards Portage Avenue, with the St. Regis Hotel visible in the right side of the foreground.
Source: Jon Feir
A particularly popular feature of the St Regis Hotel were its restaurants. Originally there were four dining options, the Grill Room, a café, a coffee shop and a lounge. Most notable was the Grill Room, with a 130 seat capacity and a French trained chef overseeing the kitchen. Both the Grill Room and the café were designed in the Moorish style, popularized in Spain and where it was used from the 13th to the 16th century. Arches, elaborate geometric decoration and nature motifs typify the style that later experienced a revival in both Europe and North America.

The dining establishments of the St. Regis Hotel were designed with elements of the Moorish style, as seen in the arched doorways, geometric ceiling design and tree imagery.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
In 1931, all four dining spaces of the St. Regis Hotel underwent extensive renovations, reopening as McLeod’s Restaurants, which only lasted a mere two years. By the late 1940s renovations at the hotel were underway again, replacing some dining space with commercial space. The two remaining restaurants were the Wedgwood Restaurant and the Oak Room, aptly renamed for its abundant oak finishes. Renovations at the hotel continued to take place in 1956-57 and 1969-72, each time changing the restaurants but not diminishing their popularity as a place for Winnipeggers to gather and celebrate success and significant life events.

A 1950s postcard of the St. Regis Hotel shows much of the original ornamentation had been removed from the facade.
Source: Winnipeg Downtown Places
A 1970s postcard of the St. Regis Hotel is nearly unrecognizable after undergoing extensive renovations that created a modernist facade, which was a complete departure from the original.
Source: Winnipeg Downtown Places
The generous using of oak wainscoting and trim characterize the Oak Room in the St. Regis Hotel, seen here in 2017.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
By the 1970s, the opening of new, high-rise chain hotels in downtown Winnipeg marked the start of a slow decline for the St. Regis. The downward spiral picked up speed in as crime associated with the hotel in the 1990s and onward drove more potential patrons away. Drunkenness became commonplace in the area with the hotel’s vendor, bar and VLTs only exasperating many ongoing and unaddressed social problems. The building began to fall into disrepair as ownership prioritized profits over maintenance, with the city doing little to rectify the situation. The once grand hotel had become a festering eyesore, a concentration of the many ills that plagued downtown Winnipeg and.

The mural painted on the south wall of the St. Regis Hotel by Charlie Johnston is a reminder of the lustrous early days hotel in 1911.
Sources: Murals of Winnipeg
The fate of the St. Regis Hotel finally began to change in 2013, when CentreVenture, the city’s arms-length development agency, purchased it. To combat drunkenness in the area, the bar, vendor and VLTs were immediately closed while the hotel remained open, accommodating many northern Manitoba residences in town for medical reasons. The purchase was part of a larger initiative to continue to revitalize downtown Winnipeg, making it a safer, more inviting place to visit. CentreVenture had no immediate plans for the building, suggesting that it might remain a hotel, become student or affordable housing or possibly demolished. A brighter future suddenly seemed possible for the aged hotel.

After investing $7.7 million in the St. Regis, CentreVenture announced in May of 2015 that it had sold the hotel to the Ontario based Fortress Real Developments for $4 million. CentreVenture cited the sizeable financial loss as a “community investment” that would result in the improvement of Winnipeg’s downtown. Fortress plans to demolish the hotel and replace it with a 625 stall parkade featuring 10,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor. The parkade will compliment the 44 story, 380 unit residential and office tower being built by Fortress on the adjacent property called SkyCity.

The sale of the St. Regis Hotel has raised many eyebrows for a variety of reasons. It seems counterintuitive to choose Fortress, a company from outside Manitoba, with a long record of projects that fail to even break ground, to be a rejuvenating force in Winnipeg. Unfortunately, the redevelopment of the St. Regis seemed to be following Fortress’ previous pattern of inactivity, with the company missing its April 30, 2017 deadline for starting construction. CentreVenture choose to extend the deadline by a year, asserting that development is complicated and they can always repossess the building if no construction takes place. The city has also stated that they will not allow demolition of the hotel until Fortress can prove that their finances are in order.

The St. Regis hotel, seen here in April 2017, is to be demolished and replaced with a parkade featuring ground floor retail space.
Source: George Penner and the Manitoba Historical Society 
Beyond the questionable choice of developers, the building of a parkade and commercial complex also seem in opposition to sound city planning. Vibrant cities have lively streetscapes filled with mixed use buildings and cater to pedestrian needs. Winnipeg already has approximately 39,000 parking spots and pedestrians are unable to cross its most celebrated intersection, Portage Avenue and Main Street. Clearly, the development community is not interested in building a walkable city and has little regard for the environmental impact of demolishing buildings and encouraging the use of private vehicles.

There is also the social impact of demolishing the St. Regis to consider. Unfortunately, run down hotels in Winnipeg far to often become the last affordable housing option for those with insufficient incomes and a lack of health care and social support. Functioning more as a rooming house then hotel, they are the final step before people end up living on the streets. Given the incident of homelessness in Winnipeg, with approximately 350 people living on the streets, 1,900 in short term shelters and 135,000 at risk of becoming homeless, converting the hotel into affordable housing would seem like a logical solution.

Finally, there is the heritage value of the building. At well over 100 years old, the St. Regis has stood the test of time, even in the face of neglect. The history and memories contained within its walls are irreplaceable, as well the quality and materials with which it was built. Behind the modern façade hides heritage gems, with parts of the interior of the building, such as the Oak Room, remaining relatively unchanged since the hotel first opened. But the building has been afforded no protection with a heritage designation. Heritage Winnipeg is working with Fortress and their new partner, Edenshaw Developments of Ontario, to try and preserve one of the most valuable heritage elements, the Oak Room, but time is very quickly running out. The hope is that the architectural salvage can be repurposed in a different heritage building in the city. But carefully dismantling a room and potentially having to store it is exceedingly expensive, a cost that a non-profit such as Heritage Winnipeg has no way of covering. Heritage Winnipeg is actively seeking sources of both private and public funding and in kind labour to preserve this invaluable part of Winnipeg’s history, before the wrecking ball destroys it forever.

The interior of the Oak Room in the St. Regis Hotel.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
If you'd like to see more archival photos of the St. Regis Hotel, check out our Facebook photo album!

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg
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