Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Western Canada's first skyscraper

It was with a sense of relief that I learned that the Union Bank tower on Main and William ave. will be receiving $1-M from the Federal government to assist with its renovations. And it was with cautious optimism that I read in the Free Press that Red River College may expand into the tower. Whether RRC moves in or not, it seems clear that the building has a vital future, and that it may be possible to come up Main street and see the lights on in the Union Bank tower once again.

On Monday, it was possible to see clearly into the windows of the ground floor for the first time in at least seven years, and I saw for the first time, the interior of the vast banking hall in its dusty glory. Not quite matching the grandiosity of the interiors of the Bank of Commerce or Bank of Montreal, which were designed a decade later in 1912 and '13 respectively--the apex of both local and global wealth, optimism, and the Beaux-Arts architecture movement--but is quite formal and grand just the same.

Winnipeg's contemporary pop history would say that the Union Bank tower was Winnipeg's--and thus Western Canada's--first skyscraper. This is a common claim (the Winnipeg Sun calls it "the first skyscraper in Western Canada", and even the City's own building conservation list suggests it was the first, but this is not true. The Union Bank tower is Western Canada's--and perhaps all of Canada's--oldest existing skyscraper, but it is not the first. The first skyscraper in Western Canada was the Merchant's Bank, built in 1900--four years earlier than the Union Bank.

The Merchant's Bank building stood at the South-east corner of Main street and Lombard (formerly Post Office) avenue for 66 years, from its construction in 1900 until it was demolished by the Richardson Company in 1966 to accomodate the Modernist configuration of their skyscraper and plaza at Portage and Main. It was the first steel-framed tall building in the city, and thus the first skyscraper. At the time it was built, the world's tallest skyscraper was the 30-storey Park Row building in Manhattan, while the Merchant's was only seven stories tall--a similar relation to height that the Richardson building has with today's tall skyscrapers.

It's understandable that the importance (nevermind the existence) of the Merchant's Bank building is largely unkown today. After all, it's been demolished, and once a building in Winnipeg is demolished, it dissapears from the city's collective memory just as really as it does from the city's physical environment. How many people know that the McIntyre block (1898) was the first office building in Western Canada, that the Child's building (1910) was the city's tallest for over 50 years, or that Charlie Chaplain performed his vaudeville act at the Dominion Theatre some 40 years before it became the birthplace of Manitoba Theatre Centre? Information on these lost places is hard to find, and the most I've ever seen written about the Merchant's Bank was on a plaque in the vacant-for-51-weeks-a-year "Gateway to Market Square" between Market Square and Main street--itself the site of dissapeared history

Winnipeg's history includes buildings that are no longer there. It is too late to save the Merchant's Bank, or the scores of other buildings lost to demolition, but it might not be too late to save the memory of them. If we only remember the history that is still with us, then history will constantly be up for revision according to whatever property owner gets a demolition permit, and any building could be "Western Canada's first skyscraper."

Main street c.1928. The Merchant's Bank building is seen on the right, the Union Bank tower is in the distance on the left. The McIntyre block is the tall building on the left


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