Winnipeg made skyscraper history 120 years ago with tower once tallest in Canada
Winnipeg’s Main Street in the early 1900s was still mostly mud and prairie gumbo, crosshatched by narrow wagon wheel tracks — vestiges of a frontier past as it teetered on the cusp of becoming one of North America’s most robust cities.
In spring 1903 it crossed that threshold.
That’s when the corner of Main and William Avenue, the edge of a former creek bed, was chosen as the site for what would become western Canada’s first skyscraper.
Construction of the Union Bank building marked a leap forward for the young city. Though it stood just 11 storeys tall, it towered over the two-and-three-storey buildings fronting Main.
When completed in November 1904, it was the second-tallest building in the British Empire. And for the next two years it was the tallest building in Canada, according to Heritage Winnipeg.
“The statement it made was that Winnipeg was changing. We were progressive. We were a player, we were important to Canada,” said Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg.
Union Tower, as it became known, easily topped the eight storeys of the Merchants’ Bank building, which opened in 1902 at Main and Lombard Avenue.
Union Tower was a marvel and the Winnipeg Tribune heralded its advent.
“It is odd to reflect that the site which will be covered by this big modern block was, not long ago, the bank of a coulee or gully. The whole site of the city was either coulee or swamp,” stated an article on May 23, 1903.
“We didn’t calculate that in 1903 they’d be sinking caissons to bedrock to get safe footing for skyscrapers. The largest buildings heretofore, have been content with heavy stone and concrete foundations.”
Those concrete slabs, however, were ineffective in the area of Union Tower. Winnipeg’s first city hall, across William, was built in 1876 and demolished seven years later when it slumped into the old Brown’s Creek bed.
The creek had been drained and filled in to allow development “when the town began to suspect that it had a destiny,” the Tribune article said.
“From that date to the sinking of concrete caissons is a wonderful step in progress, if not in time.”
The caissons stabilized the Union Bank — for the most part. Several more were added in 1917 to shore up the foundation.
Above ground, a steel skeleton framed the building to support for the brick and terracotta facade. That structural advancement, instead of wood or masonry, made it possible to create a grid of windows to let in light from all sides.
“There’s lots and lots of heritage pictures of people standing on Main Street looking at it as it’s being constructed and it was really quite an event to watch because it wasn’t anything anyone had seen before,” said City of Winnipeg heritage officer Murray Peterson.
Set at a bend along Main, the building was an instant landmark, seen at a distance from either direction of the north-south running street. It also boasted the largest and fastest elevator in Western Canada.
“It really is one of Winnipeg’s iconic buildings,” Peterson said. “So many of the pictures from pre-World War I and even after, you can always find the Union Tower. It’s always there, always part of the landscape.”
Its development came as the city emerged as a major railway, manufacturing, grain trade and wholesale distribution centre.
By 1911, Winnipeg was the third-largest city in Canada. Its population exploded from 42,540 people in 1901 to 136,035. Businesses and other banks from across North America and Europe landed in Winnipeg to take advantage of the boom.
As retail development on Portage Avenue drew stores away from Main, it opened space for financial institutions to create bankers’ row. No less than 18 banks set up along Main between Portage and Union Tower.
“Winnipeggers now would never really understand what it must have felt like for our city to be experiencing that heyday feeling, with the synergy of people on the streets and these beautiful banks,” said Tugwell.
The meteoric pace fizzled in 1914 when the city entered a recession, exacerbated by the opening of the Panama Canal. The latter reduced the demand on railways — of which Winnipeg was a hub — for international trade.
The tower began to cough up office vacancies, one of which was filled in 1922 by the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Founded in Winnipeg and now located in Missouri, it is the world’s largest organization dedicated to magic.
By the mid-1990s, the building was completely empty. The Royal Bank (which absorbed the Union Bank in 1925) had moved out and the city seized the property for unpaid taxes.
It sat vacant for 18 years before being re-adapted as Red River College Polytech’s culinary school and residence.
“Like the warehouses in the Exchange District, when you build them strong and sturdy and well, they can be reused pretty much forever,” Peterson said.
“It’s another part of the rebirth of downtown.”
Heritage Winnipeg fought to keep the wrecking ball at bay during Union Tower’s vacant years and nearly lost the battle before RRC stepped up, Tugwell said.
“And so this building that we all love … it has evolved and changed and now it’s retrofitted for a whole new generation,” she said.
Union Tower is far from skyscraper status now — advancements in construction technology have reserved the term for buildings greater than 40 stories. It doesn’t even rank in the city’s 35 tallest buildings.
But it still stands as a sentinel on that curved corner, designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1996.
“It’s a landmark building. It’s an iconic corner. It’s an iconic district,” Tugwell said. “It’s all part of a story about who we are, and Winnipeg as a very tenacious city.”