Two pieces of a 135-year-old Winnipeg theatre are for sale on Kijiji, decades after the theatre was destroyed in a deadly fire a local historian says shocked the city.
The Winnipeg Theatre — originally called Victoria Hall — was built on Notre Dame Avenue and Adelaide Street in 1883. It stood there until 1926, when the wood-frame, brick veneer structure went up in flames two days before Christmas.
Four firefighters, Arthur Smith, Donald Melville, Robert Stewart and Robert S. Shearer, died trying to put it out, when a portion of the brick facade collapsed. All four were veteran officers with children, and three of them had served in the First World War.
“Every few years [Winnipeg] had a really terrible fire — it was pretty commonplace,” said Christian Cassidy, a Winnipeg historian of the time period.
“But this in particular was quite shocking because it was firefighters, right? It was the people who go to protect lives in the case of a fire that ended up losing theirs.”
Rumours swirled about the blaze — including theories about a “wild party” and an ill-intentioned caretaker — but it’s still not clear what caused it, Cassidy added. The bleak shell of the building stood on the site until an inquest could be completed and then it was torn down.
The two pieces of the interior now for sale on Kijiji weren’t discovered until last year, when workers dug them up in the process of building a new Manitoba Hydro station on the site.
“We were fascinated,” said Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg. Hydro donated the pieces, called shards, to the non-profit charitable organization after they were discovered.
In years gone by, Tugwell said the pieces would have been stuck in a City of Winnipeg compound for storage, along with many others.
Watch a 2016 video of the United Firefighters of Winnipeg honouring the four firefighters killed in the blaze:
The organization doesn’t do that with shards anymore, she said — they got tired of leaving them there to gather dust. Instead, many shards are now sold, some through Shelmerdine Garden Centre in Headingley, Man., and others online.
“The benefit would be owning a piece of art,” Tugwell said. “Does somebody want to keep a whole bunch of art locked up in a storage room, or do you want to get out there and sell it and have people enjoy it?”
Theatre had grand character
The two stone pieces are from the interior of the building, according to Heritage Winnipeg.
The larger piece is roughly 1.5 metres long and 76 centimetres wide and weighs between 113 and 136 kilograms. The piece can actually be seen in the only known photograph of the interior of the building, Tugwell said.
The smaller piece is just under a metre long and 60 centimetres wide, weighing in about 45 kilograms. Heritage Winnipeg isn’t sure what it was but guesses it was was a header from above a door.
The shards are being sold for $1,000 for the pair, or $800 and $350 respectively.
When the theatre was built by Winnipeg businessman Thomas McCrossan, its 1,400-person seating capacity likely made it the largest in the city, Cassidy said. Then called Victoria Hall, he said the building would have looked fairly grand in the area, which was largely residential at the time.
In 1897, the building was purchased, extensively renovated and renamed the Winnipeg Theatre by the Walker family — the same family that later built the Walker Theatre.
“That was kind of the Walker before the Walker,” Cassidy said.
The family later sold it and it fell into only occasional use, he said. When a new owner decided to renovate it in 1916, questions were raised about the wisdom of allowing more work on the aging building. Theatre fires were relatively common throughout the country at the time.
“An issue came up whether or not the city should even allow him to fix up the building and reopen it, because it was so old and they knew that these theatres were deathtraps,” Cassidy said.
That conversation “loomed large” a decade later following the fatal fire, he said.
The joint funeral for the four firefighters was a community affair, Cassidy said. Hundreds of people attended and waited over an hour in the winter weather to pay their respects at the single, shared gravestone.
A fundraiser for the firefighters’ children, the youngest of whom was four, raised around $21,000 in just three weeks, he added.
Cassidy said ideally, he’d hope to see the pieces purchased and used somewhere the public can see them.
Published at Sun, 19 Aug 2018 07:00:00 -0400