Historic house not protected from demolition

Eighteen hundred and seventy-seven was a pivotal year in Manitoba’s history. It was the year when the railway first came to Winnipeg in the form of the Countess of Dufferin disgorging from a barge that had been towed behind a steamboat — ironically, a mode of transportation the railway’s coming would eventually doom to extinction.

It was also the year that Lord and Lady Dufferin visited the province, undertaking a grand tour which included a trip to Gimli so that Canada’s governor general could meet with the Icelandic settlers he had championed as good immigrants. 

During a speech at city hall in 1877, Lord Dufferin called Winnipeg “the future ‘umbilicus’ of the Dominion,” and Manitoba “the keystone of that mighty arch of sister provinces which spans the continent from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

In 1877, there was a spirit of optimism in Winnipeg and the relatively-youthful province and that led to the building of what is now one of Winnipeg’s two oldest downtown structures. A home built on Albert Street that year is only surpassed in age by the forlorn Upper Fort Garry Gate.

The oldest residence in Winnipeg is Barber House, or the “Thistle Cottage,” 99 Euclid St. in Point Douglas, which was built in the early 1860s. The house has an historic designation, but has suffered from the ravages of vandalism and a fire which have left it in a state of deterioration.

The Albert Street house is part of an unassuming, mixed-use structure on the west side of the street near Notre Dame Avenue consisting of two parts: a house that dates back to a time when Winnipeg was little more than a pioneer village, and a commercial addition built in the mid-1920s as the city recovered from the First World War and several years of economic depression. 

From street level it’s hard to discern that the house even exists since it is surrounded by storefronts of the additions made in later years. All that can be seen is the roof of the two-storey house.

The mixed-use structure at 38-44 1/2 Albert St. has recently become embroiled in a bit of controversy, since a local developer wants to tear down the buildings to make way for a parking lot and redevelopment of the St. Charles Hotel. 

Among the more vocal critics of the demolition is Councillor Jenny Gerbasi, the chair of the city’s historical building committee.

But even the historical building committee has failed to protect the structures. It reviewed 38-44 1/2 Albert St., known as the Business Block, but didn’t come up with a recommendation for the site’s preservation as a historically significant structure. 

The Lord Selkirk-West Kildonan committee voted 2-1 against a Class III historic designation for the block, which would have prevented its demolition. Councillors Harry Lazerenko and Mike Paktaghan voted against 

the designation, while Mike O’Shaughnessy voted in favour of the designation.

Lawyer Ken Zaifman and his partners bought the St. Charles Hotel a year ago and, armed with the potential of a long-term lease with Globe Agencies, the owners of the adjacent Business Block, approached the city to have the block demolished to create a parking lot to serve the St. Charles which they plan to turn into a boutique hotel. Globe Agencies told the media that it has no plans to redevelop the now deteriorating Business Block. There is some question about the viability of attempting to restore the property.

“Save the buildings that can be saved,” said REALTOR® and downtown developer Sandy Shindleman when the Winnipeg Real Estate Board’s Commercial Division met a couple of years ago with city representatives to discuss Winnipeg’s zoning policy. 

“Demolish those buildings that need to be demolished,” Shindleman added. “You can’t save everything.”

This appears to also be the opinion of Cindy Tugwell of Heritage Winnipeg, who told the Free Press that she realizes saving the Albert Street property would spell the doom of the St. Charles.

The two-storey, wood-frame and brick veneer house was built for $2,000 by local contractor J.J. Johnston in 1877. It was established as a rental property by investor-

merchant John O. LeCappellain, who operated a wholesale/retail hardware business on Main Street in 1877-78 and also was employed with the Ashdown Hardware Co. He later became a city alderman (1881) and broker (1882). 

In March 1882, during a speculative property boom — at the time, one writer called the boom “one continuous joy-ride” — LeCappellain moved his house several feet to the south to make way for construction of a long, narrow, two-storey business block. 

However, he subsequently encountered financial difficulties when the collapse of the boom led to a recession. 

In 1885, the Manitoba and North West Loan Co. assumed title to the site. 

The house, which once contained a main-floor bay window, continued to accommodate residential tenants until shortly after the turn of the 20th century when it was converted to commercial use by a new owner, agent R.H. Moody. 

Successive occupants included the weekly French-language newspaper called L’Echo de Manitoba, a messenger service and a tailor. 

This conversion occurred during yet another boom in which much of the housing clustered near Main Street was displaced by warehouses, factories and other new business premises. For example, the St. Charles and Royal Albert hotels were developed in 1913 to the south and north of 44 Albert respectively, while across the street, Jerry Robinson’s department store was expanded (1902, 1905) and the 11-storey Electric Railway Chambers (1912-13) appeared at Albert and Notre Dame. 

The three-storey St. Charles Hotel, 235-237 Notre Dame Ave./22 Albert St., was built by Carter-Halls-Aldinger Company, then Winnipeg’s largest contractor, for Charles M. McCarrey and George Skinner. The cost of building the hotel was $122,000.

McCarrey was also the owner of the St. Regis Hotel. In 1914, McCarrey left the St. Charles and Skinner became the sole manager and proprietor.

The main floor of the hotel was originally designed to accommodate a mezzanine containing a rotunda, office, cigar store, barber shop, kitchen and large dining room. In 1928, Skinner renovated the room, lowering the backlit stained glass ceiling and enclosing the mezzanine. He renamed the the renovated space the Empire Grill Room which became a popular eating and banquet establishment.

After Skinner there was a succession of owners. Alterations were made to the rotunda and office in 1944, while the 1950 flood caused damage to the beer parlour and dining room.

In 1965, the dining room was replaced by an enlarged beer parlour, coffee shop and smaller dining/lounge facility. The former mezzanine was converted into a banquet hall.

The St. Charles was designated a Class III historic building by the city in 1986.

Although altered by rear additions and various interior changes, 44 Albert St. managed to survive this as well as later periods of physical renewal to stand as a rare example of both early brick veneer construction in Winnipeg and the residential phase of the Exchange District’s evolution. 

In 1924, the house became less visible to passers-by after it was encompassed by a one-storey, solid brick block with a flat roof. Designed and built by local contractor William A. Irish, this $7,000 structure was in the unadorned one-part commercial style attractive to investors at the time because it provided a modest-cost, revenue-generating option for land being held in anticipation of future, higher-density redevelopment. 

The addition initially contained four retail outlets occupied by Jimy’s Barber Shop, tailor W.H. Drinkwater, Hymie Wiseman’s watch shop, and J. and J. Taylor, safe works. The house, renumbered as 44 1/2 Albert, was returned to residential use. 

Contractor Irish worked with John A. Saul from about the turn of the 20th century to the late 1910s on projects such as the Galt and Ashdown warehouses, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church (Elim Chapel), and La Verendrye School. The two also built numerous houses which they then sold or used as rental properties. Despite eventually disolving their partnership, both continued in the trade. 

Various shops, restaurants and other services leased 38-44 1/2 Albert St. from the 1920s onward. 

After ownership was transferred in c.1951 from a United States-based company to local entrepreneurs, the block’s facade was altered and the number of retail outlets was reduced to three. 

At present, the space at 38-40 Albert St. features large display windows, polished tile above and a stuccoed side wall. At 42-44 Albert St., the store fronts are clothed by plain brick and large windows, with an upper panel of raised brick offering the only embellishment. 

(Historical information on 38-44 1/2 Albert St. obtained from the Year Past, a publication of the Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee. Historical information on the St. Charles Hotel obtained from Heritage Winnipeg.)