Skip to main content

The Merchant’s Hotel - A Selkirk Avenue Landmark

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg.

The Merchants Hotel has been a longstanding Selkirk Avenue landmark for Winnipeg’s North End community. The proud 104 year old building was once a symbol of prosperity but over time came to be a reminder of impoverishment and degradation. But through perseverance and collaboration, the heritage building is undergoing a renaissance, reborn as a community hub where brighter futures begin.

In the early 20th century Winnipeg was a booming city, with immigrants pouring in from across Europe. One such immigrant was Robert Steiman, a gentleman from Lithuania who looked to capitalize on the robust economy of the growing prairie city. Steinman saw opportunity in Winnipeg’s North End, where there was a demand for commercial space. A hardware merchant himself, Steinman endeavoured to erect a building that could house his own business and while providing additional commercial space for rent.

Robert Steiman and wife Sarah in 1899.
Source: Winnipeg Downtown Places and Archives of Manitoba.
Selkirk Avenue, a major commercial thoroughfare in the North End was the chosen location of Steinman’s new building. The property is located at 541 Selkirk Avenue, at the intersection of Andrews Street. Russian born architect Max Zev Blankstein, one of the earliest Jewish architects in Canada, was hired to design the building. Blankstein was an experienced architect residing in the North End who by the time of Steinman’s commission, had already designed over half a dozen major buildings in the city.

Originally built as the Steinman Block, the three story Classical Revival building rose from the ground in 1913 at a costs of $20 000. Built over a full basement, the concrete structure was clad in red Menominee face brick and accented with metal and stone. The rectangular footprint of the building provided 33 feet of southern frontage on Selkirk Avenue with over three times as much eastern frontage on Andrews Street. Large plate glass windows were installed on the ground level facades of Selkirk Avenue and Andrews Street, providing display space for retailers. These windows were complemented with a variety of doors providing entrances to the various spaces on the three levels of the building and the basement. Above the ground level the facades of these two sides were a standardized pattern of windows, set in groups of three and consistently spaced.

The architect’s drawing of the front elevation of the original southern facade of the Steinman Block. 
Source: City of Winnipeg Historical Report and the City of Winnipeg, Plan #147/1913. 

The architect’s drawing of the Andrews Street elevation of the original eastern facade of the Steinman Block.
Source: City of Winnipeg Historical Report and the City of Winnipeg, Plan #147/1913. 
The facades of the north and west sides of the building were considerably less elaborate with a less small windows spread throughout. A fire escape also adorned the north side of the building. The interior of the ground floor was a large retail space, the second floor was divided into 12 offices and the third floor was open storage space. Staircases were located in the north east and south east corners of the building.

Twenty years after the Steinman Block was built, the nation was in the grips of the Great Depression and the needs of the North End community were changing. Retail and office space was no long in demand although there was a lack of restaurants, hotels and beverage rooms. Being the ever adaptable entrepreneur, in 1933 Steinman undertook converting his building the into the Merchant’s Hotel, complete with restaurant and beverage room. The entire building was rewired while the ground floor was divided so it could to be used for hotel amenities. On the upper two floors, 11 windows were bricked in to accommodate 20 single hotel rooms with men’s and women’s washrooms installed on each floor. The conversion of the building altered the interior of the building so significantly its earlier incarnation was completely lost.

An announcement for the opening of the newly converted Steinman Block.
Source: The Jewish Post, January 11, 1934 and Winnipeg Downtown Places.

The Steinman Block in 1934, shortly after conversion into the Merchants Hotel.
Source: Mendel’s Children: A Family Chronicle and Winnipeg Downtown Places. 
The Steinman Block added a one story addition on the west side of the building in 1921. The concrete addition remained until 1958 when it was replaced with a similar addition, this time made of concrete block and with a notable curved entrance made of glass block. This second addition was the work of the building’s second owner, John Konosky, who purchased the building in 1947.

The sale of the Merchants Hotel marked the beginning of a period of decline. The hotel changed ownership several times and underwent four more major alterations. As the North End community fell on challenging times, the hotel became an infamous epicentre of drunkenness, violence and crime. In April 2011 the unsavoury activity drawn to the hotel became front page news when Sheila Fontaine, 42, was stabbed to death in front of the hotel after a verbal dispute. The community reacted with a loud public outcry, demanding the closure of the hotel, which finally happened in April 2012.

The Merchants Hotel prior to the commencement of current renovations. 
Source: Winnipeg Downtown Places.
The Merchants Hotel undergoing renovations in April 2017.
Source: George Penner and the Manitoba Historical Society. 
Following the closure of the hotel, the Province of Manitoba stepped in to purchase the building in the same year. It remained vacant until 2014, when plans were announced to convert and expand the building into Merchants Corner, with affordable housing, commercial and classroom space. The rejuvenated building will contain 30 much needed residential units, ranging from one to three bedrooms, aimed at accommodating university students with children. Students will be able to take classes in the three classrooms that will be shared between the University of Winnipeg’s Department of Inner-City Studies and CEDA-Pathways to Education, a support program for high school students. The renovated building will also include study space, offices and a public café.

The architect's rendering of Merchants Corner.
Source: Mistecture Architecture +Interiors Inc. and The
The University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation was hired to lead the $15.7 million project, using a community based approach while maintaining the heritage value of the original building's exterior. Although this designated heritage building suffered from arson in May 2017, the intention is to have Merchants Corner completed by September 2017, rising from the ashes to help return vibrancy and a sense of community to Selkirk Avenue.



CBC News

City of Winnipeg Historical Report – 541 Selkirk Avenue Merchants Hotel (Steimen Block) - Long

Manitoba Historical Society


The University of Winnipeg

Winnipeg Downtown Places

Winnipeg Free Press