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The Rubin Block - HERITAGE AT RISK

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Sitting abandoned at the corner of Morley Avenue and Osborne Street in Winnipeg is the Rubin Block. The depressing boarded up façade gives few hints of the rich period during which it was built, when Winnipeg was a booming modern city, drawing in people from across the globe. But the Rubin Block’s early glory was short lived. Winnipeg fell into a depression and the building seem unable to recover. It passed through time relatively undocumented, only making the news when disaster struck it. Today it is being brought to the forefront of the public’s attention once again. An effort is being made by Heritage Winnipeg and community leaders to revive the failing building and give it the opportunity to fulfill its true potential as a valuable part of the streetscape and community.

When Winnipeg was incorporated as a city in 1873, it was a small blip on the map of Canada, a "collection of shacks” (Historica Canada) with the population of only 3700 a year later. It was not until the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in 1885 that wealth flooded into our prairie city. Advantageously located half way between the east and west coasts of Canada, Winnipeg became the financial hub of the west, buoyed by a steady stream of immigrants, capital and a lucrative wheat market.

The east side of Main Street, just north of Portage Avenue in 1873, the year Winnipeg was incorporated.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg-Streets-Main 1837 Collection, item 3, negative ID ON98
By 1914, the population of Winnipeg had exploded to over 200,000. Unfortunately, this marked a peak in Winnipeg’s prosperity, which was followed by a long period of recession and depression. The Panama Canal opened in August 1914, making it more affordable for western provinces to ship their products to the west coast, instead of passing through Winnipeg on their way to the east coast. That very same month, the First World War started in Europe, further contributing to the city’s decline. It would be decades before Winnipeg saw any sign of recovery.

For the Merchants’ Bank of Canada, their building of a new branch in Winnipeg occurred just prior to the city’s depression. Established in 1861 in Quebec, the chartered bank first expanded outside of their home province in 1867. The bank was well established in Winnipeg by 1902, opening an outstanding seven story steel framed building located on east Main Street, on a section known as Bankers’ Row. It was the first steel frame building erected in Winnipeg and represented the wealth and affluence that attracted numerous banking institutions to the city.

The Merchant's Bank of Canada, located at the famous intersection of Portage Avenue and Main Street in Winnipeg (where the Richardson Building stands today), was designed by architecture firm Taylor & Gordon and demolished in the early 1960s.
Source: Archiseek
Building on its success, the Merchant’s Bank of Canada continued to expand in Winnipeg, including adding a branch at 270 Morley Avenue, at the intersection with Osborne Street. The branch was located inside of the Rubin Block, a stately three story building that constructed and opened in 1914.

The Osborne Street facade of the Rubin Block in August 2012.
Source: Bryan Scott
Max Zev Blankstein, a prominent Winnipeg architect, designed the Rubin Block. Blankstein is noted as one of the first registered Jewish architects in Canada and was the creative force behind many Winnipeg buildings of the period, including the historic Uptown Theatre at 394 Academy Road (currently Academy Lanes). The design of the Rubin Block is similar to Blankstein’s other work from the era, such as the Steiman Block (Merchant’s Hotel) at 541 Selkirk Avenue and the Jessie Block at 626 Jessie Avenue, both in Winnipeg. All of these low rise buildings feature dark red-brown brick façades, light stone accents, bold dentil cornicing and a regular window pattern.

The Steiman Block (Merchant's Hotel) at 541 Selkirk Avenue was designed by Max Zev Blankstein in 1913. To learn more about the Merchant's Hotel, visit Heritage Winnipeg's blog, The Merchant's Hotel - A Selkirk Avenue Landmark.
Source: Now Neighbourhoods of Winnipeg
The Jessie Block at 626 Jessie Avenue was designed by Max Zev Blankstein in 1914.
Source: Walk Score
Standing three stories tall, the Rubin Block covers approximately 600 square meters, with its perfect rectangular shape being broken by inset sections on the north and south sides. The building originally contained three businesses and 21 apartments. Although the address of the Rubin Block is 270 Morley Avenue, the most prominent façade of the building, which is roughly 17 meters long, faces Osborne Street. This façade features two entrances, both surrounded by elegant light stone accents. Carved into the stone above the northern entrance is “MERCHANTS BANK OF CANADA” while above the southern entrance is “ENTRANCE TO APARTMENTS”. As to what exactly existed between the two entrances can only be speculated about, as modern renovations have obliterated whatever originally existed. The two floors above the entrance on the Osborne Street façade each contain five identically spaced windows. This façade is finally crowned with a robust dentil cornice and a central stone sign proudly announcing the name of the building.

The dentil cornice detail and stone sign at the top edge of the Osborne Street facade of the Rubin Block.
Source: Google Maps
The north façade of the Rubin Block, facing Morley Avenue, is dressed in a similar manner to the Osborn Street façade, with red-brown brick, light stone accents and dentil cornicing. Set slightly off center on this side of the building is an inset entrance that extends all the way up the three stories of the building. High above this entrance is a sign announcing the Morley Apartments, although it is hardly noticeable due to its high, set back location. Regularly spaced windows are identical on all three levels of this façade, with the exception being the ground floor windows nearest Osborne Street. These three windows vary slightly in appearance to accommodate the commercial space in this section of the building. The other point of interest is the five basement level window openings visible on the east end of this façade, suggesting at least part of the building sits above a basement. Evidence in a 2011 photo of this façade also suggests that the building may have originally had inset balconies, similar to those found in the Jessie Block.

The three story inset entrance to the Morley Apartments of the Rubin Block in 2011, with the suggestion of inset balconies in the top left corner.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press
The inset balconies of the Jessie Block, as seen from Daly Street.
Source: Google Maps
The south and east facades of the Rubin Block are rather unadorned, lacking the bold dentil cornicing, red-brown brick and stone details. Instead they are covered with a light brick and a collection of windows that are identical on all three floors. What is of interest on these facades is the ghostly impressions of what existed there in the past. The brickwork on the east façade clearly shows that six more windows once existed on this side of the building. The south façade of the building holds more clues, with remnants of past structures still clinging to the building in addition to multiple bricked in windows.

The brickwork on the east facade of the Rubin block shows that six windows have been bricked in during its history.
Source: Google Maps
The top two floors of the south facade of the Rubin Block show ghostly impressions and bricked in windows that suggest a much grander appearance in the past.
Source: Google Maps
The many renovations done to the Rubin Block have not been the only source of altercations to the building in its history. Disaster first occurred in December of 2006, when a fire started in the basement. The resulting damage was estimated to be $2 million, but repairs were made and tenants returned. A second fire occurred in May of 2014. The fire started on the third floor, sending flames shooting out a window and the roof, filling the sky above with thick black smoke. Restorations were begun after the second fire but progressed so slowly that the City of Winnipeg stepped in to board up the vacant building.

The Rubin Block never recovered from the 2014 fire on the third floor.
Source: Metro News
Former tenet of the Rubin Block, MLA James Allum, has become critically concerned that the neglected building will become a “blight on the neighbourhood,” and started a petition to spur the building owner into action. As the building is said to be structurally sound, the disrepair of the building is a disservice to the community and Winnipeg’s built heritage.

Mixed use, low rise buildings, such as the Rubin Block, are key in creating walkable, human scale cities that people are eager to live in. They can be a source of revitalization for a community, requiring less infrastructure and creating numerous beneficial economic spinoffs as investors return and property values rise. Walkable communities are also recognized as increasing the physical health of people who live in them. Another valuable feature of the Rubin Block is its age and distinctive architecture, which stand out in peoples’ memories and hold a piece of their hearts, creating a sense of place. Sense of place in important as it also creates desirable environments that people respect and want to live in, while improving peoples’ mental health. Finally, there is the embodied energy of the building, the energy used to acquire, manufacture and transport building materials, construct the building and maintain it throughout its lifespan. If the Rubin Block were to be lost to demolition through neglect, all of its embodied energy would be discarded and tones of garbage being sent to landfills. It would be a disgrace in a world with limited resources and already suffering from the enduring consequences of climate change.

The Rubin Block after is was boarded up by the City of Winnipeg.
Source: Winnipeg Sun
Since June of 2014, when new heritage bylaws were enacted, the long protected Rubin Block was taken off the City of Winnipeg’s Inventory List. Today the valuable heritage of the Rubin Block is only acknowledged by its placement on the Commemorative List. Although this list recognizes this building as a community resource that should be celebrated, it imposes no restriction on what can be done to the building, including demolition. Currently it is boarded up, unoccupied and on the city’s vacant building list. Heritage Winnipeg will continue to work with the community and their leaders, such as MLA James Allum, hopefully persuading the current owner to either redeveloped or sell the building to someone who recognizes its value and will again make it an integral part of south Osborne Street’s community.





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