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Union Tower and Scott Fruit Co. warehouse — heritage buildings receive federal funds
Sep 21, 2007

by Bruce Cherney

High above Main Street, steel workers thought that without warning the heavens had opened up on what began as a sun-filled day. To their amazement, out of the clear sky, a mysterious onslaught of windswept spray forcefully blew into them, compelling them to cling desperately to water-slick girders which provided their only possible hope against being swept onto the street far below.

But their surprise quickly turned into anger as they gazed down to the street below and saw people crowded a short distance away from the base of the structure, while others manned water hydrants and a fire engine. The alarmed men on the high-rise pounded their nine-pound hammers against steel, hoping that the anvil-like resonating sounds would alert those below to their plight. A megaphone was used to shout “approaches in not too classical language to the group of civic officials on the steps of city hall,” reported the April 26, 1904, Winnipeg Morning Telegram.

“Their piteous remonstrations were all in vain until a gentleman who was holding the nozzle let go for a minute to spit on his hands. This diverted the stream on to the front of city hall.”

What had been a terrifying experience for the men working high above on Western Canada’s first true skyscraper had started out  as a harmless challenge. At least that is what those below had thought until alerted to the desperate cries from above.  

“For about an hour yesterday afternoon the rains descended and the fountains of the great depth were broken up on Main Street, when Alderman (now termed city councillor) Gibson, chairman of the fire, water and light committee, turned out the fire brigade in answer to a certain challenge that it, the brigade, couldn’t throw a stream over the Galt Block.”

The indignant fire brigade turned out to prove the naysayers wrong and once Alderman McCharles had inspected the hydrants, the men were set to begin demonstrating their prowess with fire hoses.

“It’s wonderful what a mob can collect in front of city when it really wants to,” wrote the Telegram reporter.

Fire Chief Buchanan at first tried the rising a stream of water from hoses by separately hooking up to fire hydrants followed by the fire engine, but soon discovered that when used in tandem a strong torrent was generated. The spray of water easily peaked over the four-storey Galt Block, originally built at 103 Princess St. (Princess and Bannatyne) by the wholesale firm of G.F. (George Frederick) and J. (John) Galt Company, and extended in 1904.

Alderman Fry said the rainbows created by the steady stream of water over the block were beautiful to behold.

But, the aldermen felt a true challenge to the power of the fire brigade's hoses would be offered by the new high-rise Union Bank Tower at 504 Main Main St., next to city hall where Main and William intersected. 

“The test was then found to be eminently satisfactory to the civic authorities, the new Union Bank is the highest building in the city and the agonized cries of the drenched denizens on its top floor were ample proof that Chief Buchanan had got a stream going that in an ordinary blaze would rise above the level of Main Street.”

The tests were apparently undertaken at the request of local insurance companies, who were threatening to increase rates because they believed fire protection in the city was inadequate to meet the challenge of buildings becoming taller such as the new Union Bank Tower.

“I am satisfied that the insurance companies’ rates of the present day in Winnipeg,” said ex-Alderman Barclay,  who was present during the demonstration, “are high enough, if not too high. When you take into consideration the wide streets which are mostly well paved and easily got over, and also the moderate height of the buildings (the majority rose only as high as the Galt Block), these ensure the insurance companies against anything like what one would call a conflagration.

“Anyhow, Winnipeg can flatter herself on having one of the best equipped and well manned brigades for its size, and one that cannot be equalled ...”

The former alderman said it was unfair for Winnipeggers to cover the insurance companies’ losses to fire in other cities such as Toronto, Ottawa or Baltimore when Winnipeg had not been a money-loser for the companies, “ ... as fire protection has been one of the foremost things to be considered by the city council of every year.”

In 1904, Winnipeg was the fastest growing city in Canada. Former Winnipegger and Canadian Pacific Railway employee, C.S. Hutchins of Mount Pleasant, Texas, when he visited in 1904 said he was amazed at the progress made in Winnipeg, and “that he could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the extent of the building operations in the past few years.”

According to a Telegram report, Hutchins believed Winnipeg would soon become the largest city in Canada, and “he had never in all his travels seen any city make such forward strides as this one had done.”

Senator Peter McLaren of Perth, Ontario, during a brief stopover in Winnipeg where he was interviewed by the Telegram, commented more cautiously and instead predicted Winnipeg would be one of the largest cities in Canada within the next 10 years “and commented favourably on the building activity which was to be seen on all sides.”

The “forward strides” of Winnipeg were typified in 1904 by the construction of the Union Bank Tower, a new Dominion Land Titles Office, a new T.Eaton store, as well as the new CPR depot and hotel, among others.  The constant sound of hammers banging nails and rivets was a continual source of pride to Winnipeggers.

A correspondent for the Birmingham (England) Daily Post, interviewed one man in 1904 who called Winnipeg “the wonder city of the world ... There isn’t a town in Canada that is growing like Winnipeg. We’re ahead of Toronto, and Toronto has four times our population — just at present; guess it won’t have for long.”

The man told the British reporter that the value of buildings going up would probably reach $20 million by the end of the year (the real value of permits issued in 1904 was $9,650,000), that there were 12 miles (19.3 kilometres) of asphalt road, 30 miles (48.3 kiloemtres) of MacAdam road, 17 miles (27.4 kiloemtres) of block concrete road, 44 miles (22.5 kilometres) of boulevards, 16 miles (25.7 kilometres) of stone sidewalks,  and 179 miles (288 kilometres) of plank sidewalks.

The correspondent commented that the 20-year resident of the city was “never so happy as when talking about the growth of Winnipeg. He gazes upon it with the pride of a farmer growing a colossal pumpkin.”

But, it wasn’t just the resident’s swelling pride that attracted the attention of the Birmingham reporter. He said a day did not go by without at least one column appearing in the Winnipeg newspapers boasting about the “marvellous growth of the city. If a citizen goes east for a month’s holiday he is interviewed when he comes back on the wonderful changes that have taken place in his absence.

“You get right to the inner heart of a Winnipeg man if you tell him you have traveled a lot but that Winnipeg is the greatest of all the wonders you have seen. Call it the Paris of the Prairie, and though he has his own ideas about Paris, never having seen it, he knows you mean a compliment and appreciates it. Call it the Chicago of Canada, and then he understands — money-making ...

“Every man in Winnipeg believes in Winnipeg; he is proud of Winnipeg ...”

The Birmingham reporter said that “great skyscrapers are rearing their heads and rivaling those of New York .. You understand its growth — rapid, exotic almost, reared in the hot desire of money-making.”

Wherever there was the potential to make money, banks eagerly followed. After all, the city was Western Canada’s leading centre for transportation, the grain trade, wholesale companies and finance, and its hinterland stretched across the prairies to the Rockies. 

In Winnipeg, a report on the 1904 banking environment claimed continual rapid growth and record “clearings,” the result of “a steady expansion in all lines of trade unaided by any artificial means, which have gone far to inflate the figures of older cities.”

In 1901, Winnipeg bank clearings total $134,199,483; by 1904, the total by the end of the year had nearly doubled to $258,661,033.

Thirteen banks served the city offering a range of services for corporate and private customers.

Bank buildings had been the architectural trailblazers in the city, starting with the Merchants Bank, which was completed at Main and Lombard two years before the Union Bank built its own high-rise building. The Merchants Bank erected the city’s first seven-storey steel-frame “skyscraper,” but unlike the Union Tower it has not survived. The Merchants Bank “skyscraper” was demolished in 1966 to make way for the Richardson Building.

The Union Bank had occupied various rental premises on Bankers’ Row, eventually making the move to develop property on Main Street. According to Heritage Winnipeg, Banker’s Row along Main Street was  named for the many banks which opened their doors in Winnipeg at the turn of the 20th century. There were over 20 banks and other financial institutions on Main Street between city hall and Portage Avenue, including the Bank of Montreal, the Canadian Bank of Commerce and Imperial Bank (which merged to form the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce), the Royal Bank and the Bank of Toronto and the Dominion Bank (which merged to form the Toronto-Dominion Bank). 

Most of the banks had their Western regional headquarters in Winnipeg. The Union Bank of Canada moved its Canadian headquarters to the city.

The Union Tower (now Royal Tower) topped the Merchants Bank structure by a full three storeys, and its size and architectural style contributed to the 10-storey building later being referred to as the first “skyscraper” in Winnipeg and Western Canada. 

The definition of a skyscraper is simply a “very tall building of many storeys” (Oxford English Dictionary), but the Emporis Standards Committee definition reads, “A high-rise building is a multi-story structure with at least 12 floors or 35 metres (115 feet) in height.”

Clearly, the Union Tower at 47.58  metres (156 feet) in height surpasses this criteria. 

In 1996, the skyscraper was officially recognized as a national heritage building. Recently, the federal government announced it will provide funding of up to $1 million through Parks Canada (Commercial Heritage Places Incentive Fund — CHPIF) to Pace-Greentree Ltd., owner of the building, for its  potential $10-million rehabilitation as a commercial office and retail building.

“Thanks to the building owners, the former Union Bank Building will be brought back to constructive life,” said Environment Minister and the Minister Responsible for Parks Canada, John Baird.

Pace-Greentree bought the building in 2001 for $232,000 and then spent $122,000 to repair its dilapidated roof.

At the same time as federal funding for the Union Tower was announced, Baird also said owner Dr. Meredith Penner, a dentist, will be eligible for up to $403,748 in CHPIF money to rehabilitate the historic Scott Fruit Company warehouse, 319 Elgin Ave. The three-storey reinforced concrete, steel and brick warehouse was built in 1914.

A $2-million restoration of the Scott Fruit Company warehouse is nearing completion. The building now houses a single-parents’ organization, a day care, a dental clinic and two suites.

A Winnipeg Historic Buildings Committee report describes the Union Tower as an example of the Chicago School style of architecture, popularized in major  centres across North America, using skeletal steel and reinforced concrete and a “grid-like organization of windows and wall surfaces.”

When it was completed in November 1904, the Union Tower represented the latest in engineering technology that allowed designers to create taller buildings.

“The network of steel and reinforced concrete ... increased the overall rigidity, thus making taller, sturdier buildings possible. An increase in fire resistance was another advantage of the new system.”

In comparison, local masonry buildings had reached the apex of their useful height of between six and seven storeys.

The Union Tower rises to 47.58 metres (156 feet) above grade, running 18.30 metres (60 feet) on Main Street, 33.55 metres (110 feet) along William Avenue, 24.71 metres (81 feet) at the rear and 34.16 metres (112 feet) on its south side. 

The tower was built for a total cost of $420,000 by the two New York construction companies George A. Fuller Co. and Thompson and Starret and Co.

The frame of riveted interlocking girders was manufactured by Dominion Bridge of Montreal and rose above the foundation of 21 concrete caissons sunk into bedrock.

The ochre bricks came from the Lac du Bonnet brickworks.

The original design (1902) by architects Frank Darling and John Andrew Pearson of Toronto, who had opened a branch office in Winnipeg in 1902, called for only a nine-storey structure, but the modified plan resulted in the then commanding tower dominating the downtown. It remained the city’s tallest building for years.

The Scott warehouse is a more modest example of the Chicago School.

Architects/contractors James and John McDiarmid had no formal architectural training, but the many structures they built in Winnipeg were sturdy and solid. During the 1880s, James (1855-1934), who originally came from Scotland in 1882 and settled in the Poplar Point district, had begun designing as well as building structures such as St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (1894) at the corner of Elgin Avenue and Ellen Street.

The J. McDiarmid Company, which included brothers Peter (1857-1915) and John (1863-1943), was incorporated in 1906.

According to a 2004 report by the city’s Historical Buildings Committee,  the McDiarmids utilized the reinforced concrete and steel support system that reflected new work coming out of the United States when they built the Scott Fruit Company warehouse.

The warehouse measures approximately 16.8 by 33.6 by 14 metres (55 by 110 by 46 feet) and consists of a raised basement with three upper storeys.

A large one-storey addition was built in 1945.

Originally, the warehouse had been surrounded by similar structures of varying sizes and descriptions, but because of demolitions, new construction and vacant land,  today it resides virtually alone on Elgin Street as an example of Winnipeg’s warehouse district heyday.

Owner Robert Ross Scott was born in Pickering, Ontario, on July 27, 1857, and came to Winnipeg at age 25 as a buyer and seller for the Macpherson Fruit Company. When the Macpherson Company dissolved prior to the First World War, Scott and partners Donald Ross Dingwall (jeweller), George Grisdale (Scott’s manager), John Graham (lawyer) and Jean Matheson (nurse) organized a new firm incorporated as the Scott Fruit Company Ltd. with capitalization of $250,000.

The Scott Fruit Company grew rapidly, expanding with branches in Brandon, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Moose Jaw, Lethbridge and Minneapolis.

In 1924, Scott died at his home at 29 Ruskin Row, another heritage-designated building in Winnipeg.

Four years after the warehouse’s completion, the top floor was rented  to the Butterick Publishing Company, Standard Fashion Company and New Idea Pattern Company. In 1926, National Trust Company became the new owners of the building. Two years later, it was sold to Provincial Paper sales Ltd. and the Scott Fruit Company moved to new quarters on Ross Avenue.

The new owners renamed their business Mid West Paper Sales Ltd. and remained in the building until the company moved to St. James in 1956.

The building was purchased and the ground floor occupied by Perfecfit Glove Manufacturers Ltd., which also rented space to Brown-Sharpe Ltd. (clothing) and food brokers National Foodland Company. Other tenants later included Manson Printing Ltd., Squire Manufacturing and Crown Cap.

In 1984, Hart Shapiro and Gordon Lover purchased the property. The annex at 321 Elgin Ave. had already been sold in 1975 to Metro Motors.

Fantasy Theatre for Children, Kimwood Enterprises, Saf-T-Heat and Fast Action Technicians Network were tenants during the 1980-2000 period.

By the time the Scott Fruit Company warehouse was completed, the era of near-unfettered expansion had peaked in Winnipeg. The optimism prevalent two years earlier was replaced by a more cautious outlook brought on by the city’s sedate pace of growth  — the slow and steady, though quite unspectacular pace responsible for preserving many of the heritage buildings from the wrecker’s ball that are now found in the nationally historic Exchange District.

The slowdown in growth and a trend toward corporate consolidation resulted in the Royal Bank of Canada acquiring the Union Bank in 1925. The Royal Bank operated out of the premises until 1992 when it relocated to a new location at Portage and Main.

By 1912, although it wasn’t immediately evident, 40 years of unbridled growth that made Winnipeg the “wonder city of the world” were at an end.