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Heritage Heroes: Historic Oak Room Preserved for a New Chapter in Our History

In 1904, two referendums on prohibition had failed to ban liquor in Manitoba. A livery stable stood at 285 Smith Street in Winnipeg and the 31 year old, Winnipeg based Dominion Express Company opened the doors to it new stables at 108-112 Alexander Avenue. Fast forward 113 years to 2017: Manitoba’s three year old Liquor and Gaming Control Act is the first major liquor legislative update since 1956, and the St. Regis Hotel at 285 Smith Street is set to be demolished for a parkade and a new micro distillery is opening in the former Dominion Express Company Building. The three events may seem unconnected, but they are set to join forces and make new history with Winnipeg’s heritage.

Liquor has been legislated in Canada since 1657, with the Hudson’s Bay Company playing a large role in the control of liquor sales until 1870. Eight years later in 1878, a provincial liquor commission was established in Manitoba, which decided the bar to people ratio in the province should be 1:300. By 1883 Manitoba attained the right to grant licenses for liquor sales to various retailers, until the majority of liquor sales were quashed by prohibition in 1916. With few legal options for consuming liquor, bootleggers thrived, speakeasies opened and medical prescriptions for liquor skyrocketed. Yet despite this apparent thirst for liquor, prohibition held fast until 1921, when liquor became available through a Manitoba government agency.

The Hudson's Bay Company liquor store in Winnipeg in 1899.
Source: Hudson's Bay Company History Foundation 

Liquor laws continue to evolve through the decades, with the Liquor Control Act of 1956 becoming the major legislative guide for the next 58 years. Finally in 2014, the new Liquor and Gaming Control Act was enacted. Balancing “consumer choice and business flexibility within a framework of public safety and social responsibility” (Liquor and Gaming Authority of Manitoba). These new regulations are seen as a slight loosening of laws, designed to grow and adapt with modern society’s changing views on liquor consumption.

Much like Manitoba’s liquor laws, 285 Smith Street had also undergone great changes through the decades. By 1910 the livery stables had been replaced with the Rookery Block, a two story mixed use building. This incarnation of the building was quickly expanded upwards to four stories, becoming the St. Regis Hotel. The hotel officially opened on July 12, 1911, as a modern hotel with the latest amenities, boasting “superior cuisine and service” (Manitoba Free Press).

An undated photo of Smith Street looking north towards Portage Avenue,
with the St. Regis Hotel on the left side of the frame.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg

The St. Regis offered outstanding dining in a restaurant originally called the Grill Room. Outfitted with a French trained chef, the 130 seat restaurant was designed in the Moorish style with an abundance of oak finishes. An oak coffered ceiling was supported by carved oak corbels that sat at the top of decorative oak columns, while tall oak paneling continuously clade the walls. A row of heavily cased oak arched doorways contained beautifully glazed double oak doors, with mullions gracefully following the curves of the door. Additional doorways were squared off, with solid, imposing oak doors set inside them. Anchoring the room was a set of oak cased stained glass window flanking a substantial fireplace with an oak mantel that nearly reached the ceiling. It was a room filled with grandeur, built with quality materials, and superior craftsmanship that could easily stand the test of time.

The fine oak details of the Oak Room remained relatively unchanged for the St. Regis Hotel's 100+ year history.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg

In the late 1940s, the hotel was undergoing one of many renovations, which included the dining room surrounded in oak, hence being renamed the Oak Room. The name was well suited for the room, and it was still in use when the hotel closed in mid 2017. The room that had hosted countless events and was enshrined in the hearts and memories of many Winnipeggers was sadly set to be demolished. Over one hundred years of history was going to be lost forever and replaced with a parkade. Heritage Winnipeg disagreed with the earlier decision but the city did not deem the hotel worthy of designation, which would have protected it from demolition.

Meanwhile, in Winnipeg’s East Exchange District, instead of being destroyed, a different heritage building was being giving a second chance. 113 years after opening, the Dominion Express Company Building was still standing proudly, unfazed by the passage of time. The three story buff brick building designed by John Woodman was relatively unadorned aside from brick dentil cornicing on the second and third floors, to arched entrances proclaiming “DOMINION EXPRESS CO” above them in stone arches, and a peculiar small, round window on the second floor of the front fa├žade. The building had originally functioned as a stable and warehouse, from which packages where shipped to and from, similar to a modern day UPS.

The Dominion Express Company Building at 108-112 Alexander Avenue, seen here in 2014.
Source: Google Maps

Although much of the Exchange District had undergone a renaissance in the 1980s, the Dominion Express Company Building seemed to have been forgotten. Nowhere to be found on the City of Winnipeg List of Historical Resources or nominated list, it was left to owner Leon A. Brown to ensure the priceless piece of Winnipeg’s heritage was preserved. Fortunately for the building, they understand the value of our built heritage and they are committed to its reuse. His efforts have been so substantial that in 2017 Heritage Winnipeg recognized their work with a Distinguished Service Award at the 32nd Annual Heritage Winnipeg Preservation Awards.

Recently the owners of the Dominion Express Building have welcomed Brock Coutts, another admirer of Winnipeg's built heritage, as a tenet. Thanks to the modernization of Manitoba’s liquor laws, Coutts was planning on opening an artisanal distillery in the building at 108-112 Alexander Avenue when he heard about the demolition of the St. Regis Hotel and the plight of the Oak Room. With no government willing or able to contribute any funding to remove and reuse historic elements of the Oak Room, Coutts gallantly stepped forward to offer to rescue the timeless oak features of the aged dining room. In addition to spending their own resources to remove the oak, they wanted to provide these stunning elements with a home in the new distillery, which would be open to the public via a 50 person tasting room.

As efforts to find public funding to save the Oak Room failed, Heritage Winnipeg was elated by the generous offer by Coutts. Preserving built heritage and making it available to the public while repurposing another heritage building was making the best of the loss of the St. Regis Hotel. The two owners and developers of the St. Regis site, Fortress Real Developments and Edenshaw Developments were happy and accommodating, working with Heritage Winnipeg and Coutts, allowing for the removal of the Oak Room. As demolition loomed, no time was wasted in removing the precious wood and storing it safely at the Dominion Express Company Building. It was a perfect partnership between the private and non-profit sector.

The Oak Room in August 2017 as the historic element were being removed.
Source: Patent 5 Distillery

On October 10, 2017, Coutts, with the support of Heritage Winnipeg, received unanimous approval for his micro distillery from the City of Winnipeg Standing Policy Committee on Property and Development, Heritage and Downtown Development. Called Patent 5 Distillery, it is named after the fifth patent to be issued in the Dominion of Canada, which was for a distillery in 1867. The Oak Room will be featured in the approximately 600 square foot tasting room where the micro distilled gin, vodka and whisky will be available for sampling and purchase. 

The historic element of the Oak Room are being safely stored at 108-112 Alexander Avenue
until they can be installed in Patent 5 Distillery's new tasting room.
Source: Patent 5 Distillery

Proving that all things old can be reused and become a successful part of our social fabric once again!

Learn more about the history of the St. Regis Hotel here!

To see more archival photos of the historic Oak Room, 


Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg


Biographical Dictionary of Architect in Canada 1800-1950

CBC News

City of Winnipeg

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Hudson's Bay Company History Foundation

Liquor and Gaming Authority of Manitoba

Manitoba Free Press

Toronto Railway Historical Association

Winnipeg Cab History

Winnipeg Downtown Places

Winnipeg Free Press


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