The Royal Albert Hotel was built during the end of a period of great prosperity for Winnipeg. As the city’s economy faltered the hotel was never able to reach its full potential, becoming a place where many have tried and failed. Overshadowed by a long and unsavoury history, none of the owners have been able to turn the tide for this hotel. And yet it still stands, a monument to lost dreams, the starting point of successful music careers and an ode to the potential held within the neglected walls of heritage buildings.
In 1881, the Canadian Pacific Railway built the main line of its transcontinental track through Winnipeg. With this new connection to the world, Winnipeg thrived, becoming a center of commerce, drawing in people from all corners of the globe. Special shipping rates in Winnipeg for goods moving from western to eastern Canada, achieved thanks to the lobbying of businessmen, further attracted commercial enterprise. Railway branches were built into the city, leading to huge warehouses built by wholesalers from eastern Canada and businessmen from Winnipeg, filled with goods shipped on the new transcontinental railway.
The warehouses were mainly built in a 20 block area of the city, starting at the banks of the Red River where Bannatyne Avenue and McDermot Avenue terminate (where most commercial traffic from the Red River originally arrived in the city) and sprawling out west across Main Street. Founded in 1887, the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange was also located in this warehouse district. The Exchange had an enormous impact on the city, connecting it to major financial centers throughout the world and funding the city’s growth, eventually becoming the most important grain market in the world. As a result, the area would eventually be named the “Exchange District” after the organization. By 1911 Winnipeg was the third largest city in Canada, the destination of twenty four railway lines and poised to become one of the most prominent cities in North America.
|The Grain Exchange Building, circa 1917, was built in 1906-08 at 167 Lombard Avenue, home the the organization which became the names sake for Winnipeg's warehouse district.|
Source: City of Winnipeg and the Archives of Manitoba
|The Exchange District in Winnipeg, highlighted in orange, is home to many warehouses build in the early 20th century that still stand today.|
Source: Downtown Winnipeg BIZ
As business soared in Winnipeg in the early twentieth century, an influx of businessmen and travelling salesmen followed closely behind. To accommodate these visitors, a number of hotels were built in the Exchange District. They were modest hotels that primarily made their profits from their bars. One such hotel was the Royal Albert Hotel, named after its location at 48 Albert Street. Built in the place of a former boarding house, the Royal Albert Hotel Company began construction on March 11, 1913.
The mysterious Architect Edgar D. McGuire was hired to design the Royal Albert. Although there was a prominent Edgar D. McGuire who arrived in Winnipeg in 1889, there is no evidence to suggest they are the same person. Instead it is more likely that the McGuire of the Royal Albert is the same architect that was later hired by the C.D. Howe Company in 1927, going on to design buildings such as the Port Arthur Technical School in Port Arthur, Ontario in 1928. Aside from his time at the C.D. Howe Company, there is next to no information as to who Edgar D. McGuire the architect was.
|It is likely that the same Edgar D. McGuire who designed the Port Arthur Technical School in Ontario (seen here) also designed the Royal Albert Hotel.|
Source: Google Maps
The Royal Albert Hotel was built by W.M. Scott, a well known structural engineer. Originally from eastern Canada, Scott had come to Winnipeg to work on dam building for Winnipeg Hydro. Upon completion of the dams in 1911 Scott became a consulting engineer, just in time to be hired to work on the Royal Albert. Construction of the hotel seemed to have went smoothly. The four story, 53 room hotel received its occupancy permit on October 14, 1913, just seven months after commencing work. The hotel ended up costing $85,000 to build, with the land and furnishings being additional expenditures.
On the outside, the concrete and steel Royal Albert was designed in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. The Albert Street façade is slightly curved, and cuts off the corner of an otherwise rectangle floor plane, with this being done to accommodate a bend in the road. The first floor façade featured a series of five arched openings, alternating between windows and doors, all surrounded by a light ashlar stone veneer. The central opening, a window, was the largest and features the Manitoba coat of arms in the keystone and a raised stone carving declaring “ROYAL ALBERT” above it. The ornamentation above the arches continues above the two doorways with more stone carving. The final two arches on either end of the façade have no such decoration.
|The architect's drawings for the front facade of the Royal Albert Hotel, designed in the Spanish Revival style.|
Source: City of Winnipeg and the Archives of Manitoba
|The name of the hotel is carved into the stone above the central ground floor window on the Albert Street facade and also feature the Manitoba coat of arms carved into the keystone.|
Source: Winnipeg Downtown Places
The second floor of the Albert Street façade features a symmetrical layout of nine one over one sash windows. The only thing accenting the plain brown brick of this floor are stone lintels and sills at each window opening. The third and fourth floor follow the same window pattern, only the central window is replaced with a door to accommodate accessing the small wrought iron balconies on these floors. The somewhat ornate balconies are supported by four large brackets the reach down to sit between the windows on the floor below. The brick on the fourth floor is also dressed up with six stringcourses.
|The architectural drawing of the wrought iron balconies of the Royal Albert Hotel found on the third and fourth floors of the Albert Street facade.|
Source: City of Winnipeg
The building is topped with the most Spanish feature of the façade, the short section of the sloped roof that overhangs the front of the building. Originally covered with red tiles, the faux roof is pierced by the side walls of the building and two chimney like structures extending up from the façade. The structures are actually not chimneys but an extension of two slightly proud sections of the façade that allow for the balconies to be set into the nook created between them.
|An undated photo of the Albert Street facade of the Royal Albert Hotel.|
Source: Heritage Winnipeg
Architectural drawings of the front façade of the Royal Albert hotel include wrought iron lights on the roof and lights suspended above the two first floor entrances. A lack of early photos of the hotel makes it impossible to know if these features were ever brought to life. The location of the hotel, surrounded by other tall buildings, makes it a challenge to photograph and the lack of grandeur of the hotel resulted in it not being a sought after subject. Later photos of the hotel show no evidence that this additional wrought iron work ever existed beyond the architectural drawings.
The south façade of the building is rather plain, with light brick and various small windows that are identical on the second, third and fourth floors. The back of the building has the same brick, less windows and a fire escape. The north side of the building abuts the neighbouring building along the front half, with the north west back corner of the building featuring a narrow, rectangular cut out that allowed windows to be installed on that side of the building.
|The southern faced of the Royal Albert Hotel features the name given to it the owner in 1960, the Royal Albert Arms.|
Source: Document Everything
Inside the Royal Albert Hotel, the first floor featured dark woodwork, decorative plaster and pressed tin ceilings, with a rotunda, café, restaurant and rather long oak bar. Oak paneling and marble trim were used in the lobby and bar, with large plate mirrors, maple floors and a vaulted skylight made of stained glass in the cafe. A central staircase led up to the other floors, 17 rooms and a parlour on the second floor, 18 rooms on the third and 18 on the fourth floor. The second through fourth floor all had identical layout with communal washrooms servicing the private rooms. The hotel also had a barber shop located in its basement along with storage and mechanical equipment.
On Wednesday, November 5, 1913, the Royal Albert Hotel official opened with Angelo Ferrari and Patrick Grogan listed as the owners. Unfortunately for it, the impending opening of the lavish Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg on December 11 of the same year greatly eclipsed its launch. At fourteen stories and built in the Gothic Chateau style, it was an unparalleled sight to behold that captured the attention of the city. As a result, no pictures were published and nothing was written in the local papers about the opening of the Royal Albert.
|The opening of the much grander Fort Garry Hotel (seen here in 1924) resulted in the opening of the Royal Albert Hotel receiving no press coverage.|
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and the Archives of Manitoba
Not long after opening, Winnipeg’s economy took a turn for the worse. The Panama Canal opened in 1914, providing alternate routes for shipping grain from Canada to the world. The Exchange District lost its title as heart of the grain industry. 1914 was saw the start of the First World War, further pulling attention and resources away from Winnipeg. The Royal Albert began offering discounted rates that would seem to suggest it was feeling the effects of the economic recession.
As time passed, the Royal Albert Hotel never seemed to be able to rise out of this slump. It changed hands multiple times, with each new owner making some changes to try and improve the situation. Prostitution, violent crime, drugs, robberies and murder all plagued the hotel with a colourful cast of long term residents calling the hotel home. Yet throughout this dark history there were some brighter spots. The Women’s Labour League set up a Labour Café in the Royal Albert, providing free meals to women supporting the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. At this time of unrest, the hotel was a safe haven for the women who remained there for nearly the entirety of the strike. The hotel was also a longstanding iconic music venue in the city, seeing the likes of Green Day, Dave Grohl, Sum 41 and Billy Talent taking to the stage.
The Royal Albert Hotel’s final owner, Daren Jorgenson, purchased the hotel in 2007. But dreams of grand renovations faltered due to infighting, a lack of funding and commitment, a water line break and disputes with the city. Meanwhile, the top three floors of the hotel have remained open, used as single occupancy rooms for long term residents.
In 1981 the City of Winnipeg recognized the heritage value of the Royal Albert Hotel and put it on the list of historic resources. Although this prevents the building from being demolished, it does not prevent the building from continued neglect, contributing to safety issues and being a source of urban blight in the Exchange District, a national historic site. Heritage Winnipeg along with other community stakeholders have been working together over the years to find various solutions. Getting an owner with a real vision for what the potential of this historic building could be is key to preventing demolition by neglect.
Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg
Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada 1800-1950
Canada’s Historic Places
City of Winnipeg
Downtown Winnipeg BIZ
The Exchange District: An Illustrated Guide to Winnipeg’s Historic Commercial District by M. Ross Waddell
The Fort Garry
Heritage Winnipeg Resource Center
How to Read the American West: A Field Guide by William Wyckoff
Manitoba Historical Society
Museum of the City
University of Manitoba
Winnipeg Downtown Places
Winnipeg Free Press