Ryan Block retains heritage building status — mayor had helped lead city out of sin

The historic Ryan Block, named after a Winnipeg mayor who was nicknamed the “Shoe King,” and built in 1895, has been given a reprieve. 

Bedford Investments, the owners of the King Street building, had been before the city’s property committee asking for its delisting as a heritage site. The delisting of the building would have enabled Bedford, owned by Harry Reiss of Reiss Furs, the option to demolish the building.

Now referred to as the King Building, the lawyer for Bedford had argued that maintainance costs of the building are prohibitive and the building should be struck from the heritage list to allow its owner greater leeway in making a decision on its fate. 

The building has been vacant for the last decade. A fire caused $250,000  in damage to its third and fourth floors in August 2001.

The complete delisting of the building was opposed by Heritage Winnipeg and the Exchange District Business Improvement Zone. At the very least, the Exchange BIZ said, the facade of the building had to be retained and redevelopment occur that respects the area’s architecture.

The property committee members indicated that a development plan would have to come before them before they would consider removing the building’s protection as a heritage site.

Heritage Winnipeg is urging the city to push the owners into a redevelopment plan honouring the building’s heritage designation if they don’t plan to sell it.

Winnipeg’s rapid expansion as a commercial centre was directly linked to the increasing population on the Canadian Prairies after 1890. This new population grew from scattered and isolated homesteaders into organized rural municipalities, villages, towns and cities with a quickly decreasing sense of isolation. Winnipeg became the middleman, “The Gateway,” for many of the goods and services brought into the west, and the transcontinental railway lines afforded the Western consumer a wider variety of goods.

As the entire transport system developed, goods from across the continent and from overseas became readily available to Winnipeg wholesalers and therefore to prairie consumers. Everything from wood stoves and tractors to salt and china were bought in bulk by Winnipeg merchants, organized into smaller shipments and sold to small merchants scattered throughout the west. Of course, it was the non-luxury items that created the most demand but as western society developed, so too did the need for the ‘better things in life.’

The year 1895 is the approximate beginning of major warehouse construction in the city. Building techniques were finally being developed to support taller, larger buildings and a greater amount of stored materials. Much of the 1895 construction in Winnipeg can 

be compared favourably to the Ryan Block. While floor plans changed and degrees of ornamentation differed, the basic design, utilizing Richardsonian 

Romanesque ideas, remains similar. This block was an early example of this new building technology.

The post-1890 period in Canada was one of much debate in Canada’s larger cities over what was termed the “city beautiful.” Many architects, engineers and urban planners felt construction should be totally planned to allow for aesthetic consideration of each new structure. 

In Winnipeg, this movement was moderately supported but was combined with the city’s desire to adopt popular trends from Chicago, like the Richardsonian Romanesque style. In combination, these two ideas increased the virtual monopoly over design which this style enjoyed in Winnipeg’s warehouse district from 1895 to 1905.

There are other good examples of this design: the Massey Building (1885) at 294-96 William Ave., designed by George Browne; the J.M. Ashdown Warehouse (1895) at 157-59 Bannatyne Ave., designed by S.F. Peters; and the Gault Building (1900) at 92-104 Arthur St., also designed by George Browne. 

Not only can the Ryan Block be seen in the context of Winnipeg’s most popular commercial architectural form, but also in the growth of the city as a wholesale centre and, even more specifically, in Exchange District as Winnipeg’s wholesale centre. In all three areas of concern, the Ryan Block can be viewed as one of the earlier models for later construction and development and, once again, Ryan was at the forefront.

Thomas Ryan, a journeyman shoemaker, arrived in 1874 from Perth, Ontario with $70 worth of stock and a desire to make a better living. He became one of the city’s largest shoe and boot wholesalers-retailers, expanding from a store on Main Street to a four-storey warehouse on King Street, and finally occupying a large warehouse on Princess Street. 

His second business address, 104 King St., added elegance to the intersection of Bannatyne Avenue and King Street. Located in the heart of the warehouse district and southwest of the City Hall/Market Square complex, the Ryan Block (presently the King Building), was designed by Winnipeg architect H.S. Griffith and built in 1895.

The King Building is an example of a reduced Richardsonian Romanesque structure, a style popular throughout the warehouse district. It became prominent on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border following the construction of H. H. Richardson’s Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago (1885-87). 

Winnipeg’s desire to become the “Chicago of the North” contributed to the quick adoption of the style for the warehouse district. Its main elements include rounded arches, rusticated bases, strong textures, symmetrical designs and a lack of intense decoration. These elements combined to create massive, firmly based buildings that gave an impression of security, wealth and stability, often reflecting the character of the owners and business occupants.

The original three-storey structure, measuring 11.6 by 27.3 metres (38 by 89.5 feet), was of solid red clay brick.  The design utilized a popular method of providing a high degree of support and fire resiliency: mill construction. This method, devised in the pre-Civil War United States, utilized large square timber beams and rafters and thick wooden plank floors. As wood was relatively cheap at the time, the method became Winnipeg’s most popular construction system until steel technology overcame early problems with fire damage. Tyndall stone was used for accents throughout the structure; the foundation is rubblestone.

Ryan’s business success led in 1903 to the addition of a fourth storey, creating 1,022 square metres (almost 11,000 square feet) of space. Ryan re-hired Griffith to plan the 11.6-by-27-metre (38-by-88.5-foot) addition. Costing $2,000, made of the same brick and built by B.V. Hewphill, the new top fit perfectly into the architect’s original design. The present structure rises 18 metres (59 feet) from grade.

A strong, sturdy base is provided by rusticated Tyndall stone at grade, an element used extensively in Winnipeg’s warehouse district. Three large round-headed arches with rough-cut Tyndall keystones define the first floor of the front or east facade. Above these openings are radiating brick arches with brick drip mouldings. Modest brick pilasters run up the front facade from the first floor arched openings. 

The three second-storey windows are complete with rough stone sills, radiating brick arches and raised Tyndall keystones. The third storey continues the window rhythm design, replacing only the rough keystones with raised brick elements.

Griffith chose a variety of brickwork techniques for ornamentation at the upper stages. Corbelling above the third storey windows and at the same level on corner pilasters eases the movement into what once was a cornice and parapet. Now found at this level is a series of ornamental brick panels leading to a rough stone belt course that forms the fourth floor window sills on the east and north  elevations. Griffith also designed the one-storey addition (1903) that continues the patterns formed throughout the original design.

Window treatments on this top level mirror the third floor, as do the brick accents above. Griffith chose to complete his work with a brick cornice and parapet.

The west (rear) and south elevations are unornamented other than the shallow pilasters found on the south wall. This southern facade originally formed a party wall with an adjacent warehouse that has since been removed. The north elevation includes a continuation of all the elements found on the east facade. Large windows throughout the structure allow for a greater degree of natural light to enter the building. In response to the structure’s function as a warehouse, the upper levels were unheated and sparsely furnished. Only the ground floor was finished, being the site of the offices and sample rooms.

The main floor at the King Building remains fairly true to its original plan. Office space is still present at the front of the structure and the square wooden beams and posts are still visible. Access could not be gained to the rest of the building, although it has likely remained unchanged by time.

A building permit numbered 353 in 1976 shows that $10,000 worth of renovations were completed on the structure. These do not appear to have detracted from the authenticity of the present landmark. 

Situated on the corner of King and Bannatyne for over 100 years, this structure occupies a nearly central position in Winnipeg’s warehouse district. It is both like and unlike many of the surrounding structures and is an integral part of this section of the city.

The architect of the Ryan Block was born in 1865 in England. He came to Winnipeg in the spring of 1887 and in 1893 set up his own architectural practice. He designed many of Winnipeg’s residences during his career, a total of 18 during the year he designed this block. 

Thomas Ryan was born in 1851 in Perth, Ontario, attended common school before entering the shoemaking profession as an apprentice for a local merchant, Robert Coskery, at age 15. It was also in Perth that Ryan fought against the Fenians (1866).

At age 21, he moved to Belleville to become a journeyman shoemaker under John McKison. After three months, he returned to Perth and began working for D. Glossap. Ryan’s next move was on a grander scale. With about $70 worth of stock, he made the long trek to Winnipeg in the summer of 1874, going West like so many other young, unattached Ontario males seeking their fortunes.

Almost immediately upon his arrival, Ryan joined with another man to form one of Winnipeg’s first shoe retailers, the McFarlane and Ryan Company. Only two short years later, Ryan purchased the business from McFarlane for $450 and the familiar firm of Thomas Ryan Boots and Shoes was created.

 By 1883, Ryan’s business was so successful that he built a new store on Main Street. This first Ryan Shoe Store was Winnipeg’s first all stone structure and the first in the city with an electric passenger elevator. Carved in stone and set at the top of the facade was the inscription, “The Earth is the Lord’s and the Fullness Thereof,” reflecting Ryan’s strong religious faith. This original building was sold in 1893 to A. F. Banfield who remodelled it and used it as a department store until his death. Several owners then occupied the building until it was gutted by fire in 1933 and subsequently demolished.

In 1889, Ryan correctly saw a brighter future in the wholesale trade and sold the retail end of the company to his brother George. By 1895, business had progressed to the point where a warehouse was deemed necessary and Ryan built the present structure at 104 King St. (also numbered 286 Bannatyne Avenue). 

Business continued to flourish (in 1902 brother George sold the retail business and became the vice-president of the wholesale firm) and in 1906-07, 33 years after his arrival, Ryan moved his business to its third Winnipeg location, 44-46 Princess St.

If the new structure can be taken as an indication of Ryan’s success, then he was doing very well. The building at the corner of Princess Street and Notre Dame Avenue was a full seven storeys high with approximately 3,300 square metres (36,000 square feet) of space, and was built of stone, brick and steel. Possessing the same attitude as many other Winnipeggers, Ryan purchased the adjacent lot to enable his interests “to double their plant when necessary without moving.”

Blair and Northwood designed the Princess Street warehouse in 1906. Also in 1906, the company opened a Calgary branch and began the organization of another in Edmonton. Ryan employed eight travelling salesmen throughout the West at this time, under the motto, “The pick of the Boston and Quebec markets is demanded and furnished.” 

When Thomas retired in 1928, it signalled the end of over 50 years of mercantile activity for him in the city.

Ryan also led an active political life. He became an alderman in 1884, a post he held until December 1888 when he was elected for a one-year term as mayor. It was during this term that the popular Ryan Sunday By-laws were passed, limiting Sunday trading activities to a minimum. They were seen as Ryan’s major accomplishment and again showed the importance of his religious beliefs.

Ryan died in 1937 at the age of 86 after a lengthy illness. He left two sons and seven daughters and a legacy of success. It seems difficult to believe such a success story as Ryan’s. From a journeyman shoemaker with $70 of stock settling in a new city to alderman, mayor and industry giant in less than 25 years. But, Winnipeg could boast many such stories. This fact only heightened the city’s growth and stature in Canada and North America.

In Ryan’s 63 years in Winnipeg, he helped promote the city and provided jobs throughout the West. He also used a Christian message against the lobbying of commercial interests. In so doing, he became one of the city’s leading men.

With Ryan’s departure from 104 King St. in 1907, the structure took on several new minor wholesaling interests and continued to regularly change tenants. The first tenant to become associated with the building for a long period of time was Warkov and Safeer, a wholesale leather supplier. The two men involved, Jacob Warkov and B.D. Safeer, took up occupancy in 1945 and remained there until 1973. 

On one of Winnipeg’s busier intersections, in a revitalized district of shops and restaurants, the King Building is a familiar sight to many and is a relatively prominent structure. With the relatively recent advent of surnmer festivals in the area, the Old Market Square region has taken on an even larger significance and increased the area’s popularity.

— historical information from the City of Winnipeg’s building conservation list.