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City Hall: The Heart of Winnipeg's Decision Making

The current City Hall is the third of Winnipeg's municipal government centres. It was built in 1962-1963 and officially opened in 1964. A classic and defining example of the Modernist style of architecture, City Hall consists of two separate buildings, one for administrative works and the other for council. City Hall, including both buildings and the associated outdoor spaces, was given municipal heritage designation on January 5th, 2015, and has often welcomed the public for tours during Doors Open Winnipeg

Winnipeg's City Hall - Council Building, 2018.
Union Bank Tower visible in the background.
Source: Naomi Brien

Those familiar with Winnipeg's history would be able to tell you that the current iteration is in fact the third City Hall building in Winnipeg over the years. The very first City Hall was built in Winnipeg just three years after Winnipeg was incorporated (although the settlement had been called Winnipeg for a few years prior). So in 1876, around $40,000 was spent to construct the first City Hall building - right on top of a poorly-filled-in Brown's Creek. Brown's Creek, also called Ross' Creek or Sinclair's Creek depending on who you ask, had been filled in to allow for construction, but not enough to stop the first City Hall building from developing cracks in its walls shortly after construction had finished. A design disaster, the first City Hall's stability only got worse from there, and was eventually pulled down in 1883, before it fell over on innocent passersby.

Winnipeg's first City Hall in the 1880s.
Source: City of Winnipeg.

Wooden poles being used to prop up the failing first City Hall in 1883.
Source: City of Winnipeg.

While the second City Hall was being constructed, the Mayor and council took up residence in the Coronation Block at 238 King Street, which Winnipeggers might remember as the Shanghai Restaurant. Newly built, the Coronation Block served as "City Hall" from 1883 to 1886. With no heritage designation to protect it from demolition despite its long and rich history, the building became the victim of demolition by neglect. Its destruction in 2012 was justified because it had become a risk to public safety, after years of lacking maintenance resulted in repairs being deemed to be too costly to undertake.

An archival photo of the Coronation Block.
Source: buflyer200.

The Coronation Block in 2010.
Source: Christian.

The second City Hall was much more durable. Construction lasted from 1884-1886, and the style was Queen Anne Revival, albeit in a particularly charming light-and-dark theme in brick with ornamentation that made the building look very much like a gingerbread house. This City Hall served Winnipeg for just under 80 years, when it was unfortunately demolished in 1962 amidst heated opposition. Originally, there was to be a new City Hall constructed in the early 20th century around 1913, and a nation-wide contest was held for the design of the monumental building. Eventually, a firm called Clemesha and Portnall won the contest with a sleek yet imposing design - which was never built. The First World War interrupted plans for the new City Hall, and when attentions turned back to a new municipal government building in the late 1950's, the 1913 winners were cast aside in favour of a new plan.

Postcard showing the "gingerbread" second City Hall building, signed by Stephen Juba, circa late 1950's - early 1960's.
Source: Greg Agnew.

The current City Hall complex, consisting of the Council building and the Administrative Building, was built in 1962-1963 and formally opened on October 5th, 1964. The Modernist style, which was developed in the 1930's and became widely popular in the 1950's, was a direct response to the concept of Classical architecture as the pinnacle of design. Modernism sought to create an entirely new form, which came to fruition in both the International style and Brutalism (the former Public Safety Building is a fantastic example of Brutalism).

The International Style emphasized volume over mass, regularity over symmetry, and clean lines over decorative ornamentation. Common features of buildings designed in the International Style are the use of metal and glass, flat roofs, a tendency to use white and cream building materials, and rectangular or cubist shapes. Other examples of Modernism in Winnipeg include the Winnipeg Art Gallery (1971), Pan Am Pool (1966) and the now-demolished Winnipeg International Airport Terminal (1964).

Certain features are unique to Winnipeg's City Hall: one interesting detail being the ceramic crests, located in the courtyard, of each of the rural municipalities amalgamated into the City of Winnipeg under Unicity on January 1st, 1972. The Administration Building was renamed the Susan A. Thompson Building to recognize Winnipeg's 40th, and first female mayor, who held office from 1992 to 1998.

Ceramic crest for the former RM of Fort Garry, on the Administration Building at City Hall.
Source: Naomi Brien.

The cornerstone of the present City Hall was laid by Stephen Juba, Winnipeg's first "immigrant" mayor, who held office for twenty years, from 1957 to 1977. The $8.2 million dollar building was built keeping in mind the upcoming centennial celebrations: Canada's centennial in 1967, Manitoba's centennial in 1970, and finally Winnipeg's centennial in 1973. A centennial celebration is a time to both look into the past and to what has happened, and into the future and what will happen. A new City Hall building is a symbol both of change, in a new style of architecture and a new way of organizing buildings; and of stability, in the reassuring edifice of the building itself and the representation of municipal government. As "one of the city's most conspicuous and well-known structures", City Hall's importance is difficult to understate. The two buildings underwent $5.4 million dollars in renovations from 2015 to 2017, and look better than ever today.

Winnipeg's City Hall received heritage designation for its two Modernist buildings on January 5th, 2015. Although City Hall has been recognized as important heritage buildings, Modernist heritage buildings tend to be overlooked when it comes to preservation. Built in the mid-20th century, perception of being "not old enough" to be heritage buildings can lead to a more cavalier approach to demolition - taking the old airport for example, or even the Public Safety Building. Certainly the same thoughts may have been running through the heads of people who called for the demolition of the second City Hall building - since a building in the Victorian style must have seemed to them simply out of date, but not so old as to be particularly important.

However, the difference is that today, there is a legal framework (since the 1978 heritage bylaw) in place to protect heritage buildings - but that framework has be utilized in the case of Winnipeg's many beautiful examples of Modernist architecture. To the next generation, the Modernist era would appear just as remote and exciting as the early 20th century does today.

A drawing of both City Hall building in 2009 by artist Robert Sweeney.
Source: Heritage Winnipeg files.

Throughout the years, "City Hall" has referred to different buildings, and although the iteration has changed, the symbolism remains the same. It represents an interface between regular citizens and municipal politicians, a way for people to interact and have their voices heard about issues that affect their day-to-day lives. City Hall represents Winnipeg the city, all the different small settlements that grew and joined to form the vibrant urban centre we know today. It also represents self-government, autonomy, and the city's unique position in Manitoba, and in Canada as the centre of the country, heart of the continent, and the Gateway to the West. This City Hall has defined the area surrounding it for over 50 years - and likely will for many years to come, thanks to the heritage protection of this stunning Modernist building.


Written by Natassja Brien, edited by Cheryl Mann, for Heritage Winnipeg.

SOURCES:
CBC News - Shanghai restaurant will be torn down
Christian - Shanghai'd
City of Winnipeg - 226 Main Street

City of Winnipeg - An Act of Imagination
buflyer200 -  Winnipeg Chinatown
Heritage Winnipeg Resource Centre & Files
MHS: Sinclair's Creek (Brown's Creek)
MHS: City Hall
MHS: Coronation Block
Winnipeg Architecture: City Hall
Modernism

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