Winnipeg’s “Shoe King” — Thomas Ryan built new warehouse on King Street in 1895

by Bruce Cherney

There are two heritage buildings in the Exchange District with  the potential for two different outcomes. One building has been given a reprieve, while the other is on the verge of being tossed into the trash bin as an historic afterthought. 

The 101-year-old Bell Hotel, 662 Main St., has been acquired by the city’s arm’s-length downtown CentreVenture Development Corporation from owner Donald Marshall.

“When the Bell Hotel came up for sale, we were delighted it was not being offered as a going business concern,” said CentreVenture CEO Ross McGowan. “CentreVenture saw this as a tremendous opportunity to acquire the properties which would enable us to seek out opportunities for redevelopment that would have a positive impact on the neighbourhood ... it could ... be the catalyst that would kick-start a grand redevelopment ...”

On the other hand, the King Building (formerly the Ryan Block), 104 King St., has a less certain future. 

Last week it was announced that The Forks-North Portage Partnership had pulled out of a $7-million plan to save at least a portion of the crumbling building for posterity. The original plan called for construction of a parkade behind the building’s façade and the development of main floor commercial space by building owner Bedford Investments.

An example of a similar preservation technique is the downtown Red River College campus, built behind the façades of heritage buildings on Princess Street. 

According to media reports, The Forks-North Portage board concluded the price tag was too steep and the investment too risky.

While Coun. Russ Wyatt, who chairs the city’s downtown development committee, said the building is a “heritage jewel” in Winnipeg’s downtown that the city can’t afford to lose, construction to save the building is drastically needed by the fall or else the building will likely collapse this winter.

A 2005 city report found the roof leaking, floors and ceilings collapsing, the fire alarm inoperable and exterior bricks loose. A city inspection earlier this year found the building infested with pigeons and now on the verge of collapse.

“It’s demolition by neglect,” Heritage Winnipeg executive-director Cindy Tugwell told the WREN. “In his hands (Bedford Investments’), it’s just going to crumble. 

“He has been hanging onto the property so that it will become dilapidated enough that it has to come down,” she alleged.

Heritage Winnipeg promotes the preservation of the city’s building heritage.

In 2002, 2004 and 2007, Bedford Investments sought city council approval to remove the King Building from its list of protected heritage buildings. 

The city designated the King Building as a Grade 2 heritage structure in 1991. According to the city’s historical buildings committee, Grade 2 buildings include the majority of Winnipeg’s heritage stock. “Sympathetic alterations and additions to the exterior and listed interior elements of these buildings may be allowed in order to maintain the economic viability of the structure. In certain instances, the adaptive re-use of listed interior elements may be permitted.”

Bedford Investments, which has owned the building for the last 20 years, proposed to demolish the building once it was delisted and turn the property into a parking lot to complement an adjacent parking lot it owns next door.

When this proposal was made, The Forks-North Portage Partnership intervened with its own plan in conjunction with Bedford to preserve the façade in front of the proposed parkade. 

But, the board found that saving two exterior walls of the building and putting up a 200-stall parking lot would be twice as expensive as the $4-million, 300-stall parking lot recently built by the partnership at The Forks.

Part of the cost to the partnership would have been offset by a $1-million cash contribution by the city as well as $800,000 in property tax credits, $500,000 from CentreVenture and $500,000 from the province — an amount that has not been formally acknowledged by the provincial government.

With the partnership pulling out of the project, Wyatt indicated there is still a chance the building can be saved from collapse with a positive outcome from a proposed special council meeting preceding its regular meeting on September 26.

Winnipeg Free Press writer Bartley Kives reported in an article last Wednesday that a city-contracted engineering firm is drawing up plans to shore up the structure with work slated to commence on the project in November.

The article quoted Jim Patterson, the city’s acting planning property director, who said that Winnipeg will either work with Bedford or send the company a bill after the fact (the city can seize the property for non-payment). According to the article, the city is prepared to spend from $800,000 to $1.2 million to gut the building and support the building’s walls, or demolish all but the building’s northern and eastern façades.

On the other hand, Bedford told Kives that the building should be demolished because of safety concerns. According to director Ken Reiss, the city has acted hyprocritically by ignoring his company’s pleas to tear down the building.

He told Kives that his company is not the villains of the Exchange, and has been trying to tell the city the King Building is unviable for years.

Tugwell said city council could have acted earlier on what has now become a dire problem. “City council has had every opportunity over the last six years (starting at the point when the owner first proposed demolishing the building) to say enough is enough,” she added. “They could have set a precedent to prevent demolition by neglect.”

Wyatt agreed that city council has learned a valuable lesson and what is needed in the future is a proactive, rather than a last-ditch, 11th hour approach.

He called the King Building the “canary in the mine.” If it is allowed to collapse, Wyatt added, it would send the message that council is not prepared to preserve Winnipeg’s heritage buildings.

He said the next step would be to put up demolition signs throughout the Exchange District.

Although Heritage Winnipeg is on record as saying that only those heritage buildings that can be saved should be saved, the King Building is an example of a failure to step in and preserve a building that took years to approach the point of no return. There should have been an effort to keep neglect to a minimum in order to save a building from the wrecker’s ball, she added.

Saving at least the façade of the building now presents a considerable challenge, but it still has to be done, according to Tugwell.

The structural problems facing the King Building began after a 1991 fire when the building was boarded up and left to weather the elements without upkeep.

There are now questions being asked about why the owner did not use the 1991 insurance settlement to revitalize the King Building after the fire, said Tugwell.  

The Heritage Canada Foundation, which has a mandate to preserve and encourage the preservation of nationally significant buildings in order to promote Canadian heritage, placed the King Building on its “Top-10 list of endangered places in Canada.”

The foundation agreed with Tugwell that the intent of the owner in the handling of the King Building appeared to be “demolition by neglect.”

The King Building was built in 1895 by Thomas Ryan, who had come to Winnipeg from Perth, Ontario, in 1874 at age 25. When the journeyman shoemaker arrived in the city with $70 worth of stock, he opened up a retail outlet where he sold handmade boots and shoes in partnership with a man called McFarlane.

He bought out McFarlane two years later for $450 and formed Thomas Ryan Boots and Shoes.

He was so successful as a retailer that he became known locally as “the Shoe King.” Ryan’s success led him to build a store at 494 Main St., the first all-stone structure in Winnipeg and the first in the city with an electric passenger elevator which was installed a decade later.

Ryan, a deeply religious man, had the inscription, “The Earth is the Lord’s and the Fullness Thereof,” carved at the top of the stone façade.

The Main Street building was sold in 1893 to A. F. Banfield who remodeled it as a department store. The building was gutted by fire in 1933 and subsequently demolished.

Ryan’s strong religious beliefs contributed to his membership in the YMCA. He served as its president from 1883 to 1885. Ryan was also an early supporter of the Grace Methodist Church.

His religious beliefs were also a factor in his decision to enter politics and serve the community. He served as an alderman from 1884 to 1888 and served one term as mayor in 1888. He is credited with enacting bylaws that limited Sunday shopping in Winnipeg.

During Ryan’s era, Winnipeg had gained a reputation as one of Canada’s “wickedest” and “rottenest” cities because of the magnitude of the trade in prostitution and booze. 

A report by Manitoba Justice J.A. Robson said Winnipeg was not “the “rottenest city in the Dominion,” but prostitution and liquor sales had gotten out of hand.

At the time, poolhalls, bars and brothels outnumbered churches six to one. In the stretch along Main Street between the CPR and CNR rail stations, 65 hotels offered a cornucopia of earthly delights. Main Street hotels were referred to as “heavy on booze and light on rooms.”

Ryan joined the temperance movement to abolish liquor sales. Early newspapers noted that temperance meetings were held in the “Y” room of his warehouse. An item in the July 1, 1895, Daily Nor’Wester said that the Blue Ribbon Society met in the “Y” room and planned “an active crusade against the liquor traffic for the coming year.”

As a member of the Board of Trade, Ryan took his convictions

to the electorate in 1884 on the

Citizen’s Ticket. Besides Ryan,

the ticket, which advocated “straightening out civic affairs” such as the city’s finances, featured prominent REALTORS®, lawyers and businessmen.

With the exception of two candidates, the Citizens’ Ticket elected all who ran,  including mayoralty candidate Charles Hamilton and alderman candidate Ryan.

After ending his political career, Ryan decided to concentrate on the wholesale end of his business and sold the retail portion to his brother George. He then built a warehouse, called the Ryan Block, now called the King Building, at 104 King St.

His brother sold the retail business in 1902 and joined Ryan’s firm as vice-president. 

Ryan hired Winnipeg architect H.S. Griffith to design his new warehouse, which was a reduced Richardsonian Romanesque structure that followed the construction technique used for the H.H. Richardson Marshall Field Wholesale Store in Chicago. At the time, Winnipeg had aspirated to become the “Chicago of the North,” so it was reasonable for local merchants and businessmen to follow the lead provided by the Chicago School of Architecture.

The Exchange District’s remaining structures from this period recall the city’s dominance in Western Canada in the fields of finance, manufacturing, wholesale and the international grain trade, according to the plaque declaring the Exchange District a national heritage site.

“This remarkable group of commercial buildings vividly illustrates Winnipeg’s transformation between 1878 and 1913 from a modest pioneer settlement to western Canada’s largest metropolitan centre.”

The original three-storey Ryan Block on King Street was 11.6 by 27.3 metres (38 by 89.5 feet) and made of solid red clay bricks. It was built using mill construction, a method devised in the pre-Civil War United States, which utilized large square timber beams, rafters and  thick wooden plank floors. Because wood was relatively cheap at the time, this became the favourite construction method in Winnipeg until the advent of steel construction.

The strong base of the structure resulted from the use of rusticated Tyndall stone at grade, an element extensively used in Winnipeg's warehouse district. Three large round-headed arches with rough-cut Tyndall keystones define the first floor of the front or east façade. Above these openings are radiating brick arches with brick drip mouldings.

Modest brick pilasters run up the front façade from the first floor arched openings. The three second-storey windows are complete with rough stone sills, brick arches and raised Tyndall keystones. The third storey continues the window rhythm design, replacing only the rough keystones with raised brick elements.

Corbelling above the third-storey windows and corner pilaster on the same level eased the movement into what was once a cornice and parapet. Now at that level is a series of ornamental brick panels leading to a rough stone belt that forms the fourth-floor window sills on the east and north elevations.The fourth storey was designed by Griffith and added in 1903, continuing his original 1895 design.

The west (rear) and south elevations are unadorned with the exception of the shallow pilasters found on the south wall. The southern façade 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 great degree of natural light to enter the building.

In 1976, $10,000 in renovations were completed that did not interfere with the original design. 

Ryan’s success led to his move to his third Winnipeg location at 44-46 Princess St. The new building was seven storeys high with the intent of being able to “double ... when necessary, without moving.”

By 1906, Ryan employed eight travelling salesmen throughout the West and had opened branches in Edmonton and Calgary. His motto at that time was, “The pick of the Boston and Quebec markets is demanded and furnished.”

After Ryan departed the King Street location for good in 1907, it regularly changed tenants. Businessmen Jacob Warkov and B.D. Safeer took over the building in 1945 and stayed until 1973. The building then stood vacant for four years until it became the site of Gray’s Auction Mart. The next owner was Bedford Investments.

Ryan retired in 1928 and died at age 86 on November 14, 1937, after a lengthy illness.

(Source of building design and construction information: The Year Past, 1991, a report of the city’s historical buildings committee.)