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The Confederation Life Building – An Historic Skyscraper Soaring Into the 21st Century

The Confederation Life Building captures the history of Winnipeg, a once flourishing young city that struggled through its middle age and is blossoming once again. It is only fitting that an elegant, no-expenses-spared Chicago School style building would rise in the Chicago of the north, at a time when anything seemed possible. The then cutting edge technology resulted in a building that stood the test of time, ready to rise again as a gleaming monument to Winnipeg’s resiliency.

In 1868, the Canadian government passed the first insurance law in the country. The law required that companies maintained assets in Canada to cover their liabilities, which some British and American companies operating in the country did not want to pursue. Their departure from Canada created opportunities for Canadian insurance companies to step in and meet the needs of the growing country. John Kay Macdonald, a 32 year old English immigrant, had a background in finance and strongly felt that insurance provided an important social safety net for society. In 1869, Macdonald and several other important businessmen, including Sir Francis Hincks, Lieutenant Governor William Pearce Howland and Senator William McMaster, came together to form the Dominion Life Association, a new insurance company.

The Toronto based company changed its name to the Confederation Life Association in March of 1871 during the process of incorporation and officially began business that same year in November. Macdonald was initially overwhelmed by his responsibilities as manager of the new company, resigning from the position although remaining very much involved. After several years, he returned as manager in 1874, and helping to build and expand the company. The expansion of the Confederation Life Association included commencing operations in Winnipeg in 1879.

An advertisement for the Confederation Life Association in 1898.
Source: Internet Archive and The Canadian Men and Women of the Time: A Handbook of Canadian Biography
The Confederation Life Association originally moved into the Biggs Block in Winnipeg, located on the east side of Main Street, about midway between Market Avenue and Bannatyne Avenue. The three story brick building was located on the northern end of Bankers’ Row, a collection of magnificent bank buildings that where erected to meet the needs of our thriving prairie city. By 1911 the building was no longer big enough to accommodate the flourishing company. Under the direction of manager Daniel McDonald, the Confederation Life Company set about building a spectacular, modern skyscraper.

The west side of Main Street, part of Bankers' Row, in Winnipeg in 1907.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press and Archives of Manitoba
The new Confederation Life Building in Winnipeg was built at 457 Main Street for approximately $600,000, in the same location as the Biggs Block, which was demolished. The 100 foot long font section along Main Street is ten stories tall while the northern wing extending eastward from the back of the building is eleven stories. It was large enough to accommodate both the Confederation Life offices and those of several other prominent professional and financial firms with storefront space on the ground floor. Construction by the Carter-Halls-Aldinger Company of Winnipeg started in 1911, with the design by architect James Wilson Gray. Gray was a successful Scottish architect who worked in Toronto, designing many buildings there before undertaking what would become his most significant project, the Winnipeg Confederation Life Building, which officially opened in 1912.

The Confederation Life Building under construction in 1912.
Source: Archives of Maniotba
The newly opened Confederation Life Building, circa 1912.
Source: Archives of Manitoba
Gray designed the Confederation Life Building to follow the curve of Main Street, creating an elegant sweeping façade that stood in bold contrast to the other one dimensional, linear buildings that surrounded it. It was designed in the Renaissance Revival style, characterized by its symmetrical façade, distinct horizontal belts dividing the three different façade styles and the large, elaborate modillions crowned by a wide, imposing cornice fanning out above the sidewalk. The building also follows the principles of Louis Sullivan of the First Chicago School, a style of architecture that embraced the new steel frame technology used to build skyscrapers. Walls freed from carrying a load were infused with plentiful windows while the façade remained relatively plain, simply celebrating the pattern created by the windows in the innovative structure. The use of steel also accommodated curves, which was used to the fullest advantage in the creating the curved façade. Six inch white terra cotta was used to clade the façade with the base featuring grey, polished granite. The other sides of the building were unremarkable, featuring beige brick and varying windows.

The Reliance Building in Chicago, built in 1895, exemplifies the First Chicago School much like the Confederation Life Building and also has a white terra cotta facade.
Source: Chicago Architecture Foundation
James Wilson Gray designed the Confederation Life Building in the Renaissance Revival and First Chicago School style with a curved facade to follow the bow in the street.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
The namesake insurance company owned the Confederation Life Building for nearly 50 years, a period during which it enjoyed good maintenance and healthy occupancy. Some renovations took place during 1939-40, but there were no major modifications. In 1960, Confederation Life Assurance built new facilities and subsequently sold their 1912 building. Winnipeg was no longer a flourishing city and the glory of Bankers’ Row was becoming a faded memory. Parks Canada noted the significance of the building in 1976, putting a plaque denoting it as “a building of national architectural importance.” The shinny new plaque did little to improve the fate of the building. Tenancy plummeted and by 1977 the building was vacant and neglected. Pigeons moved in and the heat was turned off, further hastening the degradation of the building. The City of Winnipeg also recognized the significance of the building, putting it on the list of historical resources in 1980 to protect it from demolition, but doing nothing to address the overall neglect.

The Confederation Life Building decorated for a royal visit during its heyday.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
Time passed but Parks Canada did not forget about the Confederation Life Building. In 1983, with the support of the heritage community, the federal government leased over half the space in the building, planning on moving 250 personnel into the bottom six floors. Unfortunately, the long period of vacancy had cause significant deterioration inside the building aided by vandals and pigeons. Major renovations were required for the building to be habitable again. The building owner planned to invest $2.5 million into renovations, while Parks Canada committed $225,000 to improvements.

The Confederation Life Building remained structurally sound throughout its history, likely due to the 55 foot caissons sitting on bedrock that supported it and the solid steel and concrete construction. But bringing the building up to current codes while maintaining and restoring all the heritage features proved to be too costly. Major features such as the three bay open cage elevator system made of copper plated steel would have been very costly to repair and unable to meet current codes. Consequently, it was decided to focus on restoring only the areas viewed by the public, the façade and the foyer, with Parks Canada doing some additional “period style” renovations. Many of the irreplaceable heritage features of the building were therefore lost.

The facade and commanding cornice of the Confederation Life Building are the only specific parts of the building protected by the City of Winnipeg heritage designation, which also prevents demolishion.
Source: Winnipeg Architecture Foundation
The building owner hired architects Stan Osaka and Lorne Beally while Parks Canada Restoration Section drew up their own plans. On the outside, the white terra cotta façade was cleaned and restored. In the main floor of the building, the woodwork, marble wainscoting and ceiling the foyer were restored along with the pink marble terrazzo floor, main staircase and plaster (egg and dart, loin’s tongue, and grape and vine patterns). The first floor restoration also included the two storefront offices.

The facade of the Confederation Life Building underwent a major transformation when it was cleaned during the 1983-84 renovations.
Source: University of Manitoba
Beyond the first floor, oak woodwork, frosted glass doors, maple flooring and some hardware was salvaged from upper floors and installed in new locations. Two brass and milk glass light fixtures that remained were replated and rewired. On the fourth floor, the woodwork and oak casing was reinstalled in the director’s suit and boardroom, and the rooms furnished with some period pieces.

In addition to the restorations, a new sprinkler system was installed as well as a new heating and cooling system. New elevators replaced the originals and new sealed double pane windows replaced the double hung sash windows to increase energy efficiency. Additional washrooms were built as the entire building only had two such facilities.

The original double front doors of the Confederation Life Building were removed at some point in its history but later replaced with new ones inspired by the building's original plans.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
After the extensive renovations, Parks Canada moved into the Confederation Life Building on December 1, 1984, marking the start of a new era for the building. The heritage movement was gaining popularity and efforts were being made to breathe life back into downtown Winnipeg. After occupying the building, tenants spent around $1.5 on renovations over the next six years. In 1996-97 another $1.4 million was spent on renovations. People were moving back into the downtown and the nearby Exchange District was coming back to life, with it being giving a national heritage designation. In 2007 a mural by Bert Monterna was painted high up on the north side of the building titled “Women for Peace and Environment,” a further sign of the revitalization of the area.

The 2007 mural on the Confederation Life Building by Bert Monterna, titled "Women for Peace and Environment," painted high on the north wall.
Source: Murals of Winnipeg
Today government offices still occupy the Confederation Life building. The building is currently undergoing restoration work on the façade once again, helping ensure the grand building will stand proudly on Main Street for another 100 years. It is a prime example of how heritage buildings can be successfully repurposed, renewing the city and honouring our built heritage without any demolition taking place. The building creates a wonderful sense of place, acting as a gateway as you enter Winnipeg’s downtown from north Main Street. It also retains all the embodied energy spent to build and maintain it throughout the years while being a functional modern office space. The Confederation Life Building is a true built heritage success story to literally look up to!

The facade of the Confederation Life Building is currently being worked on, as seen here in August 2017.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
The Confederation Life Building is a shinning example of how heritage buildings can be a functioning modern facility.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and Gordon Goldsborough
Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg


Archives of Manitoba

Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada

Buffalo as an Architectural Museum

Canada’s Historic Places

Chicago Architecture Foundation

City of Winnipeg

Dictionary of Canadian Bibliography

Encyclopedia of Chicago

Heritage Winnipeg
Resource Centre

Historica Canada

Internet Archive

Manitoba Historical Society

Murals of Winnipeg

University of Manitoba

Wikimedia Commons,_457_Main_Street,_Winnipeg_Manitoba_Canada.JPG

Winnipeg Architecture Foundation

Winnipeg Free Press

Winnipeg Real Estate News
“Building gets on lease on life” by Kip Park, September 30, 1983, page 3


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