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St. Boniface Fire Hall No. 1 – Reigniting a Heritage Treasure?

In the romantic age of fire fighting, when brave men slid down fire poles and jumped into their horse drawn fire engines, racing do battle with flames while brandishing minimal technology and equipment, St. Boniface fittingly built a fortress for a fire station. St. Boniface Fire Hall No. 1 broke the mold at a time when nearly all newly built fire stations were essentially identical. Built during a period of growth for the French community, it continually served the community for over 60 years. Today the heritage building is seeking reincarnation, looking for the opportunity to rise from the ashes, injecting life into the community it has so dutifully protected over the decades.

The City of Winnipeg was a not even a year old in September of 1874 when the first Volunteer Fire Brigade was established. Insurance companies at the time were either charging exorbitant rates for fire insurance or refusing to provide any fire coverage at all, causing great distress amongst property owners. Their solution was to form a fire brigade, Winnipeg’s first foray into fire fighting. Composed of some of the city’s most prominent citizens, the brigade received $25,000 of equipment in November of 1974 and officially opened its first fire hall in February of 1875. Although the first fire hall, located on Lombard Avenue, burned down less than a year after opening, in December of 1875, it marked the beginning of the presence of fire halls in Winnipeg.

Winnipeg's Volunteer Fire Brigade in front of the first fire hall, located on Lombard Avenue.
Source: The Fire Fighters Museum 
After the ironic loss of the first fire hall, Winnipeg built a second hall at Old Market Square, which opened in January of 1878. By 1882 Winnipeg was a fast growing and prosperous city, ready for a professional fire department. The volunteer brigade was disbanded and replaced with 36 full time employees. The new Central Station was opened on William Avenue in January of 1883, followed by the South Hall at Smith Street and York Avenue in June of the same year. By 1906 Winnipeg had nine fire stations, the last six featuring signature towers to accommodate drying hoses, in accordance with the widely used “Melville design”.

The typical front elevation of the "Melville design" fire station in Winnipeg, named after the architects who designed it, brothers Alexander and William Melville.
Source: City of Winnipeg and the Winnipeg Telegram
Across the Red River in the Town of St. Boniface, the traditionally agricultural French community of over 5,000 was on the rise. Light and heavy industries were both swarming into the area, the St. Boniface Basilica and City Hall were newly built, and St. Boniface Hospital and College were recently expanded, all creating the need for an expanded fire department. The first fire station in St. Boniface was located at 212 Dumoulin Street, but by 1904 was in need of replacing. A second fire station, which also served as a police station, opened at 328 Tache Avenue in 1906. This building was known as St. Boniface Fire Hall no. 2.

Quickly following the construction of Fire Hall No. 2, a headquarters, located at 212 Dumoulin Street, was built to replace the first fire station that had been in the same location. Construction of the new headquarters started in January of 1907 and was completed by the end of the year, just as St. Boniface was officially becoming a city. At a time when nearly all of Winnipeg’s fire stations where based on the practical and convent “Melville design”, the headquarters in St. Boniface, known as St. Boniface Fire Hall No. 1, was a distinct departure.

St. Boniface Fire Hall No. 2 at 328 Tache Avenue in St. Boniface, seen here in 1910, was the second fire station in the area.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and the Archives of Maniotba
 Victor William Horwood, an English immigrant who arrived in Winnipeg as an architect in 1904, designed the fire station. Horwood was seen as an outsider by the French community and had already earned their contempt for his earlier project, St. Boniface City Hall. On the City Hall project Horwood had overcharged and under delivered, with his cutting corners being especially noticeable on the tower feature. The citizens of St. Boniface were so outraged with the results that it was demanded that Horwood rebuild the tower to better match the original plans. Horwood’s second incarnation of the tower has been described as “vindictive” in design, but was more pleasing to the residence than his first attempt.

The first tower on the St. Boniface City Hall (left in 1907) was so loathed by the citizens that it was insisted that the architect, Victor William Horwood rebuild it to be closer to the original plans (new tower, right, in 1911).
Source: City of Winnipeg and the Archives of Maniotba
Being that the new fire station was located directly behind the city hall, and having the same architect design the two buildings had the potential for creating a pleasing sense of cohesion. Built in the Romanesque style, the fire station features a distinctive second tower, unseen in the popular “Melville design”. The large tower was typical of the period, used for drying hoses, while the second smaller tower was a bell tower. Crenellations along the top of the two towers give the building the look of a medieval castle, ready to wage war on the approaching enemy.

St. Boniface Fire Hall No 1. was designed by Victor William Horwood, seen here circa 1910.
Source: City of Winnipeg and the Archives of Manitoba
The fire station was two and a half stories with a full basement and a two story stable extending out the north end of the building. The hipped gable roof was made of metal, as was the flat roof over the stables area. Plain beige brick was used on all of the façades, featuring minor banding details and ruff cut limestone at the base of the larger tower. Minimal windows dot the building, with some of the second floor windows sporting arched tops and keystone details. The name of the station was featured in a band above three large arched double doors, with some ruff cut limestone framing, used to move fire fighting equipment in and out of the building. Smaller doors were situated at the bases of the towers and featured the same ruff cut limestone as lintels.

Inside the fire station, the main floor was concrete, with tin cladding on the walls and a pressed tin ceiling. It was used for fire fighting equipment, a workshop, a stable and storing hay. A metal spiral staircase led down to the basement and up to the top two floors. The second floor had fir floors, plaster walls and ceiling and fir trim. The St. Boniface municipal council used it for office space. The third floor was open dormitory style living space for the fire fighters. Eleven closets stored each of the fire fighters belongings, while everyone shared one washroom. A fire pole reaching down from the third floor to the first floor allowed for quick movement of the fire fighters in the case of an alarm. The building was also outfitted with steam heat, electricity and sewer.

St. Boniface Fire Hall No. 1 as it stands today, with modern modifications.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and Gordon Goldsborough 
Over time fire fighting equipment and techniques changed, with the fire station being modified to accommodate them. Two dormers were added to the roof to let in more light, while the three large arched doors on the ground floor were replaced with two even larger square doors. An addition was added to the east side of the stables in the 1960s. Around 1970 the building was converted from a fire station to office space and a museum, with displays on the first floor. Some interior modifications have taken place, with new staircases and washrooms, but the basement and third floor remain relatively unchanged.

By 2010 the fire station was only being used as a storage facility and considered non-essential by the city. A call for expression of interest was put forth, answered by Entreprises Riel, an economic development agency for Winnipeg’s French districts. A feasibility study looked at converting the fire station into a youth hostel, where students studying at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights could stay. The study supported replacing the 1960s addition to the building while maintaining the original 1907 structure. This approach would repurpose the heritage building, making it relevant once again, while bringing people and economic gains to the community. Prairie Architects were commissioned to design the concept for the site projected to cost $5 million. Unfortunately, this plan has since fallen to the wayside with the building now potentially being sold to the highest bidder with little regard for its significance to the community.

St Boniface Fire Hall No. 1 reimagined as a youth hostel.
Source: Prairie Architechts
Although the St. Boniface Fire Hall No. 1 is listed and designated on the City of Winnipeg List of Historical Resources, which protects it from demolition, it is not protected from waste or neglect. Good redevelopment of heritage buildings takes careful planning, community consultation and funding. Auctioning off the past is no way to respect built heritage. Heritage Winnipeg is hopeful that rehabilitation will happen and this historic building will again serve the Francophone community.

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg


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