Jun 082014

Imperial Bank

A walking tour of the east end of Winnipeg’s Exchange District National Historic Site

The Exchange District National Historic Site, a 20 block area in central Winnipeg, Manitoba, is the original centre of commerce and culture in the city. The area boasts many heritage buildings and historic sites from the period of 1880 to 1920, when Winnipeg was known as “Gateway to the West” and “Chicago of the North”.

On the recent Doors Open Winnipeg weekend, I took a guided walking tour of the east end of the Exchange. The tour focused mainly on the area east of Main Street, where the warehouse district once resided and where events of significance to Winnipeg’s General Strike of 1919 took place. Today the area is home to condos, restaurants, nightclubs, theatres, businesses, and retail outlets.

Bijou Park

Bijou Park

The tour started in front of Bijou Park. In 1873, a jail containing cells on the main floor and underground, was built on this site. The jail was demolished in 1884 and Clements Block and Bijou Theatre built in its place. The Bijou Theatre featured vaudeville acts until it was converted to film in the 1920s. The remnants of Clements Block and Bijou Theatre burned in 1979. Today, Bijou Park is home to craft and food vendors during the many summer events occurring in Old Market Square at the centre of the Exchange.

Banker's Row

Part of Banker’s Row on Main Street

The tour then crossed Main Street and what was once known as Banker’s Row. The two block stretch of Main Street from Portage Avenue to Bannatyne Avenue was home to 20 financial institutions in the late 1800s. Each institution sought a unique way to attract customers. The architecture of each building is therefore different from the ones beside it.

Winnipeg Bank of Toronto

The Bank of Toronto Building now houses a restaurant.
The bank catered to wealthy females and had a powder room.

The streets on the east side of Main Street were home to the Warehouse District. The Winnipeg Transfer Railway ran along what is now Waterfront Street at the east end of the district. The spur line connected to the Canadian Pacific Railway to the north and the Canadian National Railway to the south, providing means for warehouses to transport goods.

Ashdown Warehouse

The Ashdown Company was one of the biggest users of the Winnipeg Transfer Railway.
The Ashdown Warehouse building now houses condos.

Waterfront Street condos

Waterfront Street now runs where the Winnipeg Transfer Railway once did.
Modern condos and office buildings line the street.

Bain Building

The Bain Building, once a large grocery brokerage, provides a good example of the Richardsonian Romanesque architectural style common in the area. The style featured solid Tyndal stone bases, arched windows, and columns alongside doors.

Stephen Juba Park

Stephen Juba Park, opened in 1983 on the east side of Waterfront along the banks of the Red River, is named after Winnipeg’s longest standing mayor.

James Avenue Pumping Station

James Avenue Pumping Station

The James Avenue Pumping Station was built between 1906 and 1908 to create a dedicated fire protection system drawing water from the river. It was built largely in response to a typhoid epidemic which occurred after a serious 1904 fire forced fire fighters to pump river water into the mains of the artesian well system providing water to the city’s core. The new high pressure system was built at a cost of $1 million and introduced mains and hydrants separate from the domestic water supply. Today the building sits empty with discussions underway about its future. The building was constructed around the machines which means the equipment cannot be moved out. Because of its heritage designation, the building cannot be torn down.

Winnipeg Mere Hotel

The recently built Mere Hotel on Waterfront Street is not part of the tour, but participants couldn’t help noticing the distinctive facade.

Hell's Alley

Hell’s Alley

The lane between James and Market Avenues is known as Hell’s Alley because of its role in the 1919 General Strike. Unemployment, poor working conditions and low wages among the largely immigrant working class, and inflation led to labour unrest that culminated in 1919 in one of the most influential strikes in Canadian history. On May 19, 30,000 works walked off their job. The strike lasted until June 26. On June 21, now known as “bloody Sunday”, strikers gathered to protest because streetcars had started running again. Strikers stopped one streetcar and set it on fire. The Northwest Mounted Police rode into the crowd with baseball bats and firearms, killing 2 people. (The entire Winnipeg police force had been fired for refusing to sign papers agreeing to never unionize.) 200 people, including women and children, sought refuge in this alley. The police swept through the crowd and arrested over 90 people.

Hell's Alley railway tracks

The old railway tracks on Hell’s Alley have not been paved over because of the alley’s significance in Winnipeg history.

Pantage's Theatre

Pantages Theatre opened in 1914. It is still in use as a theatre today.

Jane's Restaurant

Interior architectural features of the Union Bank Building, a 10 story building which was Winnipeg’s tallest building when it was erected in 1904, are visible in Jane’s, the Red River College Culinary Arts Programs’ fine dining restaurant that now occupies the main floor.

The Exchange District offers other walking tours, including a tour of the west end of the area, food tours, and speciality tours focusing on Newspaper Row, the 1919 General Strike history, the Theatre District, and the darker secrets of the city. Tours operate from June 1 to August 31.

Have you taken one of the Exchange District tours? Do you have a favourite walking tour in another city? 

PIN ITArchitecture and history in Winnipeg's Exchange District

  30 Responses to “Architecture and History in Winnipeg’s Exchange District”

  1. Hi Donna, what great photos of the Exchange District ! Sometimes it is hard to get the right perspectives but you’ve really pulled it off with these. I have not done this particular tour but used to have a branch on Portage so have walked most of it at one time or another . I try to do both a walking tour and a bus tour of most cities with notable architecture and would like to do this one if I return to Winnipeg

  2. Like many Americans (United Staters), I’m fairly ignorant about all Canada has to offer, including it’s cities.When Americans think of Canada, we tend to think of Nova Scotia, Montreal, Toronto, Banff and Vancouver. We think of the rest as “I’m not sure what’s there, but I think it’s cold”. And now I’m going to look for Winnipeg on a map. It’s that bad.

    • Suzanne, the places you mention in Canada are great spots, but there are also wonderful spots to visit in the rest of Canada. Winnipeg is directly north of Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota. And yes, it can be very cold in the winter (although sunny most of the time)..The summers are warm and wonderful.

  3. Thanks for sharing some of Winnipeg’s history. Seems like they’ve done a great job of preserving some architectural gems.

  4. Never been there, Donna. Looks very nice, maybe I should go.

  5. Lovely tour of my hometown, Donna! the Open Doors event is a great thing, as it offers people the opportunity to get into buildings they’ve only seen the outside of.

    Thx for the heads-up on the new hotel on Waterfront Drive. I’ll have to look for it!

  6. I love old buildings. Thanks for sharing some of Winnegeg’s.

  7. It’s wonderful how they’ve preserved so many historical buildings in Winnipeg. These styles of old buildings are so interesting in your photos.

  8. I’ve not done very many walking tours though I can’t really say why. The couple I’ve gone on were well worth it, especially one in New Orleans.

    • I enjoy walking tours – guided or on my own. In new cities, I sometimes use a travel guide book as a guide for my own walking tour. A tour in New Orleans would be fun.

  9. Donna, I hope you don`t mind but I printed this post off so my husband could read it. We live in Ontario and I had no idea that anything like that existed in Winnipeg. Some of those buildings were amazing. what really struck me was the Ashdown warehouse converted to Condos and I thought how nice that was and then you showed the other condos and there was no comparison – the Ashdown is unique while the other ones are like Condos everywhere. Thanks for sharing this.

    • There are a couple of other old warehouses in the Exchange District that have been converted into condos. I toured a show home in one during a previous Doors Open weekend and it was quite stunning.

  10. I once spent a night and part of a day in Winnipeg. Wish I’d had more time to explore. My best souvenir was a flannel nightgown, which I wore until it became a rag and some lambswool flip flops that I am still wearing, in fact right now. Just sayin. My memories of this undersung city.

  11. Thank you for the guided “armchair” tour of Winnipeg using your beautiful photos and descriptive writing. The buildings are magnificent and so distinctive. Winnipeg looks like a beautiful city to visit.

  12. It sounds like this was a good walking tour and that you learned a lot. After being in Vancouver last week, I realized that there are so many places in Canada I would like to visit. I grew up in Northern Vermont so I used to visit Montreal a lot so I thought I’d seen Canada. Now I realize it’s such a big country with so much to offer.

  13. I love these kinds of tours. . .whether I am actually taking them or doing it by armchair as I did with this one. Great post – most interesting topic.

  14. Love the interesting facades of old buildings, they have so much character. And that hotel-wow! Were those lights on the Mere building?

  15. […] areas, panel discussions, haunted history tours. Last year I took a guided walking tour of the east end of Winnipeg Exchange District, a National Historic Site with heritage buildings dating from 1880 to […]

  16. […] Market Square is an urban park located within the Exchange District National Historic Site, a 20 block area in the centre of the city. It is the original centre of culture and commerce for […]

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