Thursday, 24 November 2016

Victory on Main Street

269 Main Street is an address that has had a long history of tenants. For the past 80 years, the address has been home to the Victory Building, originally called the Federal Building. However, before the Victory building was constructed, a handful of other buildings were also located on the lot.

The very first building to stand at that location was The Grace Church, built in 1871. Over the next decade a number of small commercial establishments popped up, as well as a residential unit on that corner which served as a classroom for the newly created Winnipeg School Division before the Central School was constructed.

It was prime land, and the Northern Pacific Railway Company wanted to build a hotel on it. Their plans were realized when the Manitoba Hotel opened on the site on New Year’s Day, 1892. It predated the Royal Alexandra (which wouldn't be built until 1906) as Winnipeg's best luxury hotel. It was unlike anything that had been built in Western Canada at that time, and was ranked among the most prestigious hotels in the country.

The Manitoba Hotel
Unfortunately, less than a decade after its grand opening, the Manitoba Hotel burned down in the early hours of February 7, 1899. The story goes that it was so cold, (-53 degrees with the wind-chill) that the firefighters' hoses froze, and they were unable to do anything to save the building.

The Manitoba Hotel engulfed in flames
 
After the fire burned out

After the Manitoba Hotel burned down, the lot sat empty for close to a decade, until 1911, when the Industrial Bureau Exposition Building opened its doors. Businesses would rent space inside the building to display and sell their latest technological innovations to the public. During the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, the building was used as the headquarters of the Citizens Committee of 1,000.


The Exposition Building
This building also had a short lifespan, and was demolished to make way for the construction of the new Federal Building. Construction began in 1935, and the building opened in 1936. It was built by the department of Public Works, now known as Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC), the federal department that still owns the building today. George William Northwood was the building's architect.

Back in the early 1930s the average per capita income in Manitoba had fallen 49%, and the province and the city were in desperate need of jobs and income. The Federal Building project was a boon to the community, as it was one of the only buildings constructed in Winnipeg during the Depression. The project saw 1.5 million dollars in contracts flow into the economy, and a large number of jobs were created.  As a result, it is considered to be the second largest depression relief project in Canada, and one of the most effective job-creation projects that took place in Winnipeg during the 1930s.

To provide employment relief for Winnipeg during the project, efforts were made to have as many construction resources and materials come from local sources as possible. With just one exception, every company that worked on the building as a general or subcontractor was Winnipeg or Manitoba based. Even the building's exterior was local in origin, being made from Tyndall stone, a type of limestone native to Manitoba.

The Victory Building, formally called the Federal Building. Date unkown
The Federal Building was designed to efficiently house the offices of multiple government departments in one location, which was a new idea at the time, and which continues to be the case today. The building is seven stories high, with four stories in the tower. In its earlier days, the top floor served as a residence for the people who worked shovelled coal into the furnace that heated the building.
Victory Building in 1935, formally called the Federal Building
It’s also extremely well-constructed. The steel used came from Selkirk, Manitoba and was put through an extensive series of tests at the Agricultural Engineering Laboratory at the University of Manitoba. During the construction, the Winnipeg Free Press reported that the contractor was able to give an ironclad guarantee that the building would hold up against anything it might encounter in its lifetime.

The Victory Building was designated as a Classified Federal Heritage Building by the Department of Canadian Heritage on October 10, 1990. It is a prime example of Classical Modèrne, a school of architecture that uses elements from other classic styles like Beaux-Arts and Art Deco. Classical Modèrne was often used for buildings constructed as relief projects during the Depression in Canada and the United States, and is embodied in the designs of many different types of institutional buildings, such as museums, courthouses, banks, and government offices. Buildings in this style usually have exteriors of smooth, flat stone, have recessed windows, and their design motifs are typically balanced and symmetrical.

Looking up from the main doors


 As expected for a building in this style, the Victory Building has many elegant touches, both inside and out. For example, the main stairwell in the foyer proves to be more important and elegant than one would think a stairwell could be. It isn't just a bare or boring set of stairs – it has beautiful original railings, and surprisingly interesting views. Its walls and stairwell are also made of Tyndall stone, and the railings are brass.

Brass railings on the stairs
 On November 7, 2005, the Federal Building was re-named the Victory Building by PSPC, in honour of Canadian Veterans, and also to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.

A study was completed by PSPC in 2006 to identify areas that could be restored to be more in keeping with the building’s original heritage character. The study confirmed that "many interior areas of the Victory Building have been altered to meet modern requirements without much consideration for its heritage character over the years."  Pages upon pages of documents provide details on the changes that have been made to the building since the 2006 study. It is impressive how much detail, thought and careful work have gone into ensuring the heritage value of this building would be preserved as close as possible to its original state.

Lobby light fixtures

Since the study was done, experts from the Canadian Conservation Institute and PSPC’s Heritage Conservation team have targeted areas for restorative work, to return the building to its original beauty. For example, the team worked to uncover the original colours and stencil pattern found on the ceiling. These intricate features were painstakingly restored when the ceiling was rehabilitated in 2013. Work was also performed on the main lobby elevators to return them to their original appearance.

The beautifully detailed ceiling

Overall the Victory Building is valued for its architectural, environmental and historical significance. It contributes to its environment because it is a large, highly visible structure on Main Street with a bold, dramatic impact on the streetscape. It is a very attractive building with a commanding presence. It has architectural heritage value due to its height and tower, its arched windows at ground level along Main Street, its decorative entrance, and the unique angle on which it’s situated.


The impressive lobby elevator

After the revolving door of buildings that have been located at the site throughout our city's earlier days, we are thrilled to see that the iron-clad guarantee made by that contractor all those years ago has proven to be true, and that the Victory Building is here to stay. Its unique heritage character has been maintained excellently, and it will continue to be a Main Street landmark for future generations.

Crest on the exterior of the building

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