Friday, 22 July 2016

Winnipeg's Exchange District: A National Historic Site

Written by Laura Wiens, Heritage Winnipeg Marketing and Communications. On Behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

This Sunday saw Winnipeg Fringe Festival wrap-up. It was another successful year of celebrating the arts in Winnipeg. Much of the programming for the Fringe Fest is took place in The Exchange District. Between the theatres and other venues, Old Market Square and The Cube Stage, the Exchange District bustled with tourists, and Winnipeggers from all demographics enjoying the historic area of our downtown. 

We are lucky to have the Exchange District, and it is a vital piece of our city’s architectural and cultural identity. It spans 20 city blocks to the east and west of Main Street, and is home to approximately 130 significant heritage buildings.  Yet if history had gone differently, we might not have an Exchange District as we know it.


The area that would become The Exchange District National Historic Site. Source: The City of Winnipeg.
The Exchange District was designated as a National Historic Site on September 27, 1997 by the Federal government.  It is the most historically intact commercial district of its kind in North America. The Exchange illustrates Winnipeg’s key role as the centre of grain, wholesale trade, finance and manufacturing from between 1880 and 1913. The buildings of the Exchange showcase the Italianate, Beaux-Arts, Richardsonian Romanesque, and the Chicago School styles of architecture.


The Exchange District’s growth slowed in 1914 due to the start of the First World War and also the opening of the Panama Canal for trade. Locally, more development began on Portage Avenue and Osborne Street. With no investments in the area, the buildings in the Exchange simply sat vacant, as it would have been too expensive to demolish them.

Many of the buildings sat underused and left to decay for many decades.  By the 1970s, the Exchange District was in a bad state, and it would take a lot of hard work and commitment to make the area economically viable again.

The Exchange District, seen from above. Source: Heritage Winnipeg Archives

Winnipeg’s Environmental Planning Committee commissioned a Historic Restoration study of Winnipeg’s 20-block Warehouse District in 1974. This document encouraged heritage conservation and rehabilitation in the area. Unfortunately, it did not attract much interest.

Luckily it wasn’t long until things would start changing for the better when the Heritage Canada Foundation became interested in the area in 1975, and they commissioned their own study called “Winnipeg’s Historic Warehouse District.”

The study was completed in 1976, and Heritage Canada announced they ultimately wanted to see the Warehouse District protected and preserved. They put their money where their mouth was, and offered $500,000 towards preservation and restoration in the area. They had two conditions:

1. The City of Winnipeg would match their $500, 000; and
2. Legislation would be put in place to protect the District for future generations.

Shortly after that, the “Old Market Square Association” was formed and the city started planning a public space to attract people to the District. Revitalizing the Warehouse District was fine and good, but even back then they knew that for the District to be well protected it would need a large capital investment, and for businesses and retail to start opening.

The vision for Old Market Square was a farmer’s market, green space and a stage for hosting events. Decades earlier, there had been an original “Old Market Square,” located where the Public Safety Building now stands. Vendors rented stalls and sold a wide variety of meat, cheese, fish, vegetables and other items to the public. The original Old Market Square was a popular place for shopping, and socializing. It was shut down and civic offices were built on the site in 1919, when the market became a popular spot for protestors during the General Strike. This building was eventually demolished to make way for the Public Safety Building built in late 60’s.

Old Market Square in 1976. The Public Safety Building is visible in the top left corner.
 Source: U of M Archives, Winnipeg Tribune Photo Collection

The Old Market Square Association succeeded in creating a new public square, the same Old Market Square that is still there today. It is at the site of the demolished Fire Hall No. 1. By the late 70s, the Old Market Square Farmer’s Market was in full swing, and it was becoming more popular all the time. It attracted approximately 7,000- 8,000 people on the days it was open.

The Old Market Square Association started running tours throughout the Exchange District. The tours were to educate the public about the District’s history. They also put up signs at major corners like Notre Dame & Portage, Main & Bannatyne and Main & McDermot to let people know they were in or approaching the Historic District, and give directions to Old Market Square and information about the walking tours.

The Old Market Square Association's 70s logo. Source: Heritage Winnipeg Archives.

The city created a proposed historic bylaw in 1978 that would protect the appearance and character of the Exchange District. The new by-law stated that anyone wishing to do renovations to their buildings, additions or build something new would need to seek permission from the city. The by-law would include guidelines for:

            * Exterior materials
            * Textures
            * Colours
            * Light Fixtures
            * Signs & awnings
            * Any other design feature
            * Limitation of new construction projects to 8 stories in height

A companion heritage by-law would also allow the city to save historically significant buildings from demolition. The next year the city protected the District further, and established it as the Historic Winnipeg Restoration Area.

The Restoration area came with a list of what types of establishments were and were not permitted in the area. The list of prohibited establishments is very specific.

No funeral parlours or veterinary hospitals allowed. Source: Heritage Winnipeg Archives

Throughout the 80s and 90s major improvements were made to the Exchange District. The Heritage Program ran from 1981-1986, and the Exchange District Redevelopment Program ran from 1986-1991.

Finally, in 1997, The Exchange District became a National Historic Site but the work didn’t stop there. Heritage conservation is work that must be kept up, lest the buildings fall into neglect or disrepair. The Exchange District continues to be a vital part to Winnipeg’s heritage, arts and cultural communities. Thanks to heritage protection, it will remain this way for future generations to enjoy.

In 2016 we continue with positive initiatives such as Mayor Bowman’s recently formed Task Force Committee made up of representatives from the heritage, arts and cultural sectors to create collective and realistic solutions to issues facing the heritage and arts communities.