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Main Street Heritage Becomes Urban Home

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Scott Block has been reincarnated numerous times, all the while retaining its original character, as a timeless landmark on Main Street in Winnipeg. The block was originally constructed for a furniture company during Winnipeg’s boom period at the turn of the 20th century but bad luck seemed to follow it though the next century, constantly undoing the efforts of its well intended owners. Fortunately, bad luck is no match for perseverance. In 2017 a rehabilitated Scott Block was filled with life once again, a testament to the determination of the owners, Heritage Winnipeg and the City of Winnipeg to preserve priceless heritage on Main Street while adapting to a new century.

Thomas Scott was 29 years old when he first arrived in Manitoba in May of 1870, commanding a unit of the Ontario Rifles in the first Red River Expedition. The founder of the Perth Exposition, Scott was the son of Irish immigrants who had settled in Ontario. Scott’s first stay in Upper Fort Garry lasted only seven months, with him returning to his home in Perth in December of 1870. Scott would soon return to Manitoba, this time as the head of the Second Red River Expedition, arriving at Upper Fort Garry in November of 1871. Sent to defend Canada from the Fenian Raids, their mission came to a close when the United States Army arrested the Irish invaders at the boarder in October of 1871.

The bustling settlement at the meeting of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers must have impressed Scott during his time in Manitoba, for after the Second Expedition, he chose to stay and make Winnipeg his home. Scott continued to be active in the militia until 1874, when he retired and started a furniture company. The Scott Furniture Company, originally located at 276 Main Street between Upper Fort Garry in the south and Bankers Row in the north, the company was well situated in what was then the retail center of Winnipeg. The main focus of the company’s business was outfitting commercial and institutional buildings but they also sold high end furniture to the public. With the arrival of the railway, the city booming and money poured in from all over the world, bolstering the prosperity of Scott’s company.

Thomas Scott, circa 1902.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and Representative Men of Manitoba.
If starting a successful furniture company was not enough to keep Scott busy, he also became involved in politics after his retirement from the military. He contested his first seat and lost in 1874, but would go on to be elected Mayor of Winnipeg in 1877, and was enthusiastically re-elected in 1878. In addition to being mayor, Scott served both as an MLA and MP for numerous years, with his last post ending in 1887.

It was near the end of his political career that Scott decided he had had enough of the furniture business and sold his company to his son, Frederick W. Scott and partner, John Leslie, in 1885. Leslie left the company in 1895, leaving Frederick to continue on his own. By 1904 the furniture company was thriving, giving Frederick the confidence to build the company a new home at 272 Main Street, next door to their old location. Wasting no time, the call for tender went out in March and the building of the Scott Block was finished by December of that year, just in time for Christmas.

The architect's drawing of the front facade of the Scot Block from 1904.
Source: City of Winnipeg and the Manitoba Free Press.
Architect James H. Cadham designed the new building for the Scott Furniture Company. Interestingly, Cadham had also come to Winnipeg with the First Red River Expedition, although he chose stay to after this trip, not waiting to return a second time. Cadham designed a robust six story building in the Romanesque Revival style for the company. The style is evident in the building’s front façade, which was made of thick, rough, red sandstone masonry with round, Roman arches over two of the windows and set back entrance.

Wesley Hall at the University of Winnipeg was constructed from 1894 to 1895.
It is one of the best examples of Romanesque Revival architecture in the province,
a style popular in Winnipeg from the late 1880s until about 1914.
Source: Alpha Masonry.
Romanesque Revival was an expensive style to execute, which is likely why the three facades of the Scott Block not facing Main Street received a simpler treatment. A steel frame supplemented with timber joists was used to support an outer skin of clay bricks on these facades. Other than windows, the only point of interest on these facades was the metal fire escape affixed to the back wall of the building.

The front façade of the Scott Block was 50 feet long, while the sides of the building were 120 feet. It sat atop of foundation of concrete and stone, with a full basement below. Inside the ceilings were adorned with pressed tin, a more affordable alternative to decorative plaster that added a layer of fire retardant. When it was built in 1904 it was a modern building that made a bold statement, making it clear to all those who passed by, the Scott Furniture Company was a success.

The new Scott Block at 272 Main Street was next door to the
company's former location at 276 Main Street.
Source: Downtown Winnipeg Places.
Unfortunately, the new home of the Scott Furniture Company was short lived. About six months after opening, on June 13 of 1905, an electrical storm sent a bolt of lightening towards the building, hitting the metal fire escape on the rear façade and sadly setting the building on fire. As the flames engulfed the building, all the contents were destroyed along with the company’s former building when the north wall of the Scott Block fell on top of it. When the smoke cleared, $150,000 of inventory was lost, three fire fighters were injured and only the front façade of the Scott Block remained relatively undamaged.

The front facade of the Scott Block after the fire on June 13, 1905.
Source: Peel's Prairie Provinces.
A view of the back of the Scott Block after the fire on June 13, 1905.
Source: City of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba Archives.
Undeterred, Frederick promptly started rebuilding the Scott Block. About five months after burning, on November 15, 1905, the Scott Block was reopen for business. Cadham had resumed his role as the architect, but this time he designed the upper floors of the building as office space to rent, instead of showroom space for the furniture company.

Although misfortune continued to plague the Scott Block. Disaster struck again on March 23, 1914 while over 100 people were at work in the building. A fire erupted from an improperly disposed match by someone in the ground floor offices of the Cowan Construction Company. Flames spread throughout the building, forcing the daring escape of some of the occupants of the upper floors by way of windows and firefighters’ net. Although injuries were incurred and the building with its contents were in ruins, luckily no lives were lost.

The fire at the Scott Block on March 23, 1914.
Source: City of Winnipeg and V. Leah. 
The fire at the Scott Block on March 23, 1914, as seen from the back of the building.
Source: City of Winnipeg and Archives of Manitoba.
Surprisingly, Frederick decided to rebuild the Scott Block for a second time, again in the vision of the original architect, Cadham, whom had passed away in 1907, so the architectural firm of Pratt and Ross were hired. What was left of the exterior walls were attached to a new interior concrete frame while the top story of the building was completely removed and a new iron cornice installed. Starting with the second floor, window wells were inset into the north and south facades, allowing more natural light into the building. Despite the interior being substantially changed, some of the original elements remained, including the main staircase.

The architect's drawing for the second reconstruction of the Scott Block.
Source: City of Winnipeg.
The third incarnation of the Scott Block continued to be rented out as office space with various tenants coming and going. At some point during the 1960s or 70s, metal cladding was installing over the front façade of the building and smooth limestone replaced the rough red masonry of the first floor. Surely the intention was to modernize the look of the building, but the result completely obliterated the historic character of the building.

The metal clade front facade of the Scott Block in 2010.
Source: City of Winnipeg and M. Peterson.
By 2001 the Scott Block sat empty, a shadow of the proud building it once was. It stood decaying until 2010 when Space2Work purchased it, a development company owned by Mark and Shelley Buleziuk. The new owners set about redeveloping the building as commercial space, stripping the interior back to its original elements with newly exposed ceilings soring up to 5.8 meters. On the exterior, the metal cladding was removed to reveal the heavy, red stone of the original design.

The Scott Block in 2010 after the metal cladding was removed.
Source: City of Winnipeg and M. Peterson.
In 2012, the Scott Block was listed by the City of Winnipeg as a municipally designated site, acknowledging its heritage value and protecting it from demolition. Two years later in 2014, construction was complete and Heritage Winnipeg recognized the work done at the building with the Preservation Award of Excellence – Commercial Conservation for “the daring unveiling and conservation of the Scott Block's original handsome façade.”

The Scott Block remained vacant, being dealt another bitter blow in its long history. New concrete floors were too heavy for the building’s structure, rendering them unsafe, resulting in no occupancy permit being issued. Faced with the burden of an unrentable building in need of costly repairs, the owners asked the city to remove it from the List of Historical Resources to make it easier to sell. Heritage Winnipeg opposed the delisting, fearing it would set a dangerous precedent, allowing this heritage building to be demolished due to a costly mistake.

The Scott Block in 2014 after being renovated.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and Gordon Goldsborough.
Fortunately, the City of Winnipeg sided in favour of preserving heritage, and the Scott Block remained listed and protected from demolition. In light of the decision, the owners decided to redevelop the building once again, this time as 40 micro apartments on the top four floors and commercial space on the ground floor and in the basement. Targeting people interested in living an urban, car free lifestyle, with the apartments ranging in size from 400 to 700 square feet.  

In April 2017, after spending around $7 million on renovations, the Scott Block was reborn as the Scott Block Lofts. The building features a rooftop patio, two two-bedroom apartments, a collection of one-bedroom and bachelor apartments, four affordable apartments and two commercial spaces. Bike storage is available and there are three indoor parking spaces for the commercial units. As of November 2017, all the residential units are occupied and construction is being completed on the commercial units. When finished, Brandish, a marketing company and the Grey Owl Coffee Company will be moving into the spaces on the main floor.

The newly renovated Scott Block in 2017.
Source: Space2Work.

Heritage Winnipeg is thrilled to see the Scott Block again wholly occupied and full of life as both a commercial and much needed residential space. The success of the project is a testament to the owners recognizing the high demand for residential rental units in the downtown of Winnipeg.

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg


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