Friday, 1 December 2017

Main Street Heritage Becomes Urban Home

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the Scott Block has been reincarnated numerous times, all the while retaining its original character, as a timeless landmark on Main Street in Winnipeg. The block was originally constructed for a furniture company during Winnipeg’s boom period at the turn of the 20th century but bad luck seemed to follow it though the next century, constantly undoing the efforts of its well intended owners. Fortunately, bad luck is no match for perseverance. In 2017 a rehabilitated Scott Block was filled with life once again, a testament to the determination of the owners, Heritage Winnipeg and the City of Winnipeg to preserve priceless heritage on Main Street while adapting to a new century.

Thomas Scott was 29 years old when he first arrived in Manitoba in May of 1870, commanding a unit of the Ontario Rifles in the first Red River Expedition. The founder of the Perth Exposition, Scott was the son of Irish immigrants who had settled in Ontario. Scott’s first stay in Upper Fort Garry lasted only seven months, with him returning to his home in Perth in December of 1870. Scott would soon return to Manitoba, this time as the head of the Second Red River Expedition, arriving at Upper Fort Garry in November of 1871. Sent to defend Canada from the Fenian Raids, their mission came to a close when the United States Army arrested the Irish invaders at the boarder in October of 1871.

The bustling settlement at the meeting of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers must have impressed Scott during his time in Manitoba, for after the Second Expedition, he chose to stay and make Winnipeg his home. Scott continued to be active in the militia until 1874, when he retired and started a furniture company. The Scott Furniture Company, originally located at 276 Main Street between Upper Fort Garry in the south and Bankers Row in the north, the company was well situated in what was then the retail center of Winnipeg. The main focus of the company’s business was outfitting commercial and institutional buildings but they also sold high end furniture to the public. With the arrival of the railway, the city booming and money poured in from all over the world, bolstering the prosperity of Scott’s company.

Thomas Scott, circa 1902.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and Representative Men of Manitoba.
If starting a successful furniture company was not enough to keep Scott busy, he also became involved in politics after his retirement from the military. He contested his first seat and lost in 1874, but would go on to be elected Mayor of Winnipeg in 1877, and was enthusiastically re-elected in 1878. In addition to being mayor, Scott served both as an MLA and MP for numerous years, with his last post ending in 1887.

It was near the end of his political career that Scott decided he had had enough of the furniture business and sold his company to his son, Frederick W. Scott and partner, John Leslie, in 1885. Leslie left the company in 1895, leaving Frederick to continue on his own. By 1904 the furniture company was thriving, giving Frederick the confidence to build the company a new home at 272 Main Street, next door to their old location. Wasting no time, the call for tender went out in March and the building of the Scott Block was finished by December of that year, just in time for Christmas.

The architect's drawing of the front facade of the Scot Block from 1904.
Source: City of Winnipeg and the Manitoba Free Press.
Architect James H. Cadham designed the new building for the Scott Furniture Company. Interestingly, Cadham had also come to Winnipeg with the First Red River Expedition, although he chose stay to after this trip, not waiting to return a second time. Cadham designed a robust six story building in the Romanesque Revival style for the company. The style is evident in the building’s front façade, which was made of thick, rough, red sandstone masonry with round, Roman arches over two of the windows and set back entrance.

Wesley Hall at the University of Winnipeg was constructed from 1894 to 1895.
It is one of the best examples of Romanesque Revival architecture in the province,
a style popular in Winnipeg from the late 1880s until about 1914.
Source: Alpha Masonry.
Romanesque Revival was an expensive style to execute, which is likely why the three facades of the Scott Block not facing Main Street received a simpler treatment. A steel frame supplemented with timber joists was used to support an outer skin of clay bricks on these facades. Other than windows, the only point of interest on these facades was the metal fire escape affixed to the back wall of the building.

The front façade of the Scott Block was 50 feet long, while the sides of the building were 120 feet. It sat atop of foundation of concrete and stone, with a full basement below. Inside the ceilings were adorned with pressed tin, a more affordable alternative to decorative plaster that added a layer of fire retardant. When it was built in 1904 it was a modern building that made a bold statement, making it clear to all those who passed by, the Scott Furniture Company was a success.

The new Scott Block at 272 Main Street was next door to the
company's former location at 276 Main Street.
Source: Downtown Winnipeg Places.
Unfortunately, the new home of the Scott Furniture Company was short lived. About six months after opening, on June 13 of 1905, an electrical storm sent a bolt of lightening towards the building, hitting the metal fire escape on the rear façade and sadly setting the building on fire. As the flames engulfed the building, all the contents were destroyed along with the company’s former building when the north wall of the Scott Block fell on top of it. When the smoke cleared, $150,000 of inventory was lost, three fire fighters were injured and only the front façade of the Scott Block remained relatively undamaged.

The front facade of the Scott Block after the fire on June 13, 1905.
Source: Peel's Prairie Provinces.
A view of the back of the Scott Block after the fire on June 13, 1905.
Source: City of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba Archives.
Undeterred, Frederick promptly started rebuilding the Scott Block. About five months after burning, on November 15, 1905, the Scott Block was reopen for business. Cadham had resumed his role as the architect, but this time he designed the upper floors of the building as office space to rent, instead of showroom space for the furniture company.

Although misfortune continued to plague the Scott Block. Disaster struck again on March 23, 1914 while over 100 people were at work in the building. A fire erupted from an improperly disposed match by someone in the ground floor offices of the Cowan Construction Company. Flames spread throughout the building, forcing the daring escape of some of the occupants of the upper floors by way of windows and firefighters’ net. Although injuries were incurred and the building with its contents were in ruins, luckily no lives were lost.

The fire at the Scott Block on March 23, 1914.
Source: City of Winnipeg and V. Leah. 
The fire at the Scott Block on March 23, 1914, as seen from the back of the building.
Source: City of Winnipeg and Archives of Manitoba.
Surprisingly, Frederick decided to rebuild the Scott Block for a second time, again in the vision of the original architect, Cadham, whom had passed away in 1907, so the architectural firm of Pratt and Ross were hired. What was left of the exterior walls were attached to a new interior concrete frame while the top story of the building was completely removed and a new iron cornice installed. Starting with the second floor, window wells were inset into the north and south facades, allowing more natural light into the building. Despite the interior being substantially changed, some of the original elements remained, including the main staircase.

The architect's drawing for the second reconstruction of the Scott Block.
Source: City of Winnipeg.
The third incarnation of the Scott Block continued to be rented out as office space with various tenants coming and going. At some point during the 1960s or 70s, metal cladding was installing over the front façade of the building and smooth limestone replaced the rough red masonry of the first floor. Surely the intention was to modernize the look of the building, but the result completely obliterated the historic character of the building.

The metal clade front facade of the Scott Block in 2010.
Source: City of Winnipeg and M. Peterson.
By 2001 the Scott Block sat empty, a shadow of the proud building it once was. It stood decaying until 2010 when Space2Work purchased it, a development company owned by Mark and Shelley Buleziuk. The new owners set about redeveloping the building as commercial space, stripping the interior back to its original elements with newly exposed ceilings soring up to 5.8 meters. On the exterior, the metal cladding was removed to reveal the heavy, red stone of the original design.

The Scott Block in 2010 after the metal cladding was removed.
Source: City of Winnipeg and M. Peterson.
In 2012, the Scott Block was listed by the City of Winnipeg as a municipally designated site, acknowledging its heritage value and protecting it from demolition. Two years later in 2014, construction was complete and Heritage Winnipeg recognized the work done at the building with the Preservation Award of Excellence – Commercial Conservation for “the daring unveiling and conservation of the Scott Block's original handsome façade.”

The Scott Block remained vacant, being dealt another bitter blow in its long history. New concrete floors were too heavy for the building’s structure, rendering them unsafe, resulting in no occupancy permit being issued. Faced with the burden of an unrentable building in need of costly repairs, the owners asked the city to remove it from the List of Historical Resources to make it easier to sell. Heritage Winnipeg opposed the delisting, fearing it would set a dangerous precedent, allowing this heritage building to be demolished due to a costly mistake.

The Scott Block in 2014 after being renovated.
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and Gordon Goldsborough.
Fortunately, the City of Winnipeg sided in favour of preserving heritage, and the Scott Block remained listed and protected from demolition. In light of the decision, the owners decided to redevelop the building once again, this time as 40 micro apartments on the top four floors and commercial space on the ground floor and in the basement. Targeting people interested in living an urban, car free lifestyle, with the apartments ranging in size from 400 to 700 square feet.  

In April 2017, after spending around $7 million on renovations, the Scott Block was reborn as the Scott Block Lofts. The building features a rooftop patio, two two-bedroom apartments, a collection of one-bedroom and bachelor apartments, four affordable apartments and two commercial spaces. Bike storage is available and there are three indoor parking spaces for the commercial units. As of November 2017, all the residential units are occupied and construction is being completed on the commercial units. When finished, Brandish, a marketing company and the Grey Owl Coffee Company will be moving into the spaces on the main floor.

The newly renovated Scott Block in 2017.
Source: Space2Work.

Heritage Winnipeg is thrilled to see the Scott Block again wholly occupied and full of life as both a commercial and much needed residential space. The success of the project is a testament to the owners recognizing the high demand for residential rental units in the downtown of Winnipeg.


Alpha Masonry

Architectural Style of America and Europe

City of Winnipeg

Downtown Winnipeg Places

Heritage Winnipeg

Historica Canada

Manitoba Historical Society

Peel’s Prairie Provinces


This Old House

West End Dumplings

Winnipeg Architecture Foundation

Winnipeg Downtown Places

Winnipeg Free Press 

Monday, 6 November 2017

James Henry Ashdown – From Tinsmith to Titan

Blog by Cheryl Mann, on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg

James Henry Ashdown was eight years old when his family emigrated from London, England to Upper Canada in 1852. Ashdown’s family lived in several places in Ontario before Ashdown left home at 18 to become a tinsmith’s apprentice. After his apprenticeship, Ashdown went to Kansas to work construction in Fort Zarah. After ten months of construction, Ashdown was ready for something new and headed north, destine for the Red River Settlement in Manitoba. Ashdown arrived in June of 1868 and quickly set about finding work. Cutting wood on the banks of the Assiniboine River, helping build the St. Charles Catholic Church and working on a survey crew were just some of the jobs he took up. Ashdown scrimped and save, amassing enough savings to buy George Moser’s tinsmith shop at the corner of Portage Avenue and Main Street in Winnipeg in 1869. After purchasing an additional lot at the same intersection, Ashdown erected a sign there officially announcing the business as “James H. Ashdown Hardware and Tinsmith”.

An undated water colour of Fort Zarah in Kansas.
Source: Dead Towns of Kansas and Kansas Historical Quarterly
Ashdown’s entrepreneurial efforts where soon interrupted by the political turmoil unfolding around him. The territories of the Hudson’s Bay Company, including the Red River Settlement, where soon to be sold to Canada. But Metis leader Louis Riel was leading a rebellion, believing that the Red River Settlement should be an autonomous region, not under the rule of Canada. While Ashdown supported the annexation of the settlement with Canada, he also believed the Metis had legitimate claims, imploring with cabinet minster Joseph Howe to work with the Metis, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Reluctantly, Ashdown went on to join 21 armed men that were seizing government pork supplies under the pretext of protecting them for Riel. On December 7, 1869, Ashdown and the group surrendered to Riel’s forces and were imprisoned at Upper Fort Gary. 69 days later, in February 1870, Ashdown was released. Riel and his government were successful in negotiating a treaty with Canada in 1870, allowing peace to return to the settlement again. Known as the Manitoba Act, the treaty allowed the settlement to become the self governing province of Manitoba, while still under the control of Canada.

The J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store in 1900.
Source: City of Winnipeg and M. Peterson Collection
Freed in the fledgling province, Ashdown was able to return to focusing on his hardware business. Demand for metal and hardware products was high as immigrants from around the world where settling in western Canada. Ashdown was soon expanding his Winnipeg operations as well as opening branches in Portage la Prairie, Emerson and Calgary by 1889. In 1895 Ashdown built a warehouse at 167 Bannatyne Avenue, which after many additions became a massive six story structure. Ashdown became a man of power and influence, a boy with humble beginnings and little formal education had become a millionaire by the age of 66 in 1910.

An undated photo of James Henry Ashdown
Source: Manitoba Historical Society and Archives of Manitoba
Throughout the years Ashdown became more than just a hardware mogul. He lobbied for the Incorporation of Winnipeg, served as Director of the Great-West Life Assurance Company, a Director of the Northern Crown Bank, was a founder of Wesley College (current University of Winnipeg), and even served as the Mayor of Winnipeg from 1907 to 1908. Yet throughout all this time, one thing remained consistent – the J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store at 476 Main Street in Winnipeg. The building changed many times but for 100 years, Ashdown Hardware stood proudly in Winnipeg's Exchange District. The original tinsmith’s shop that Ashdown bought in 1869 was replaced with a brick structure in 1975, with additions added in 1880 and 1885. It was the headquarters of an empire, housed in a crumbling three story building.

In 1904, Ashdown spent $7000 on replacing the crumbling foundation. Only months later in October, disaster struck and Ashdown’s business went down in flames. The fire started across Bannatyne Avenue in the Bulman Block with strong winds fanning the flames towards Ashdown’s. As the flames engulfed the hardware store, paint and kerosene tins exploded, making saving the building impossible.

Fortunately, the new foundation under the store was unfazed by the flames.  Making use of it, Ashdown teamed up with Winnipeg Architect J.H.G. Russell, who had worked on the new foundation, to begin rebuilding.  The structure when up fast and furious, taking full advantage of unseasonably mild weather, with two floors stocked and ready to serve the 1904 Christmas crowds. A temporary roof kept out the snow and cold, ready to be removed so the final four floors could be added later.
The J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store in 1904.
Source: Archives of Manitoba
When spring arrived in 1905, the Davidson Brothers of Winnipeg along with another contractor, Hudson, resumed construction on the hardware store. A steel skeleton was encased in red brick, 21 inches thick on the bottoms floors to support heavy loads, tapering to 13 inches on the upper floors. Limestone was use to trim the ground floor while the remaining five floors were trimmed with terra cotta. Large plate glass windows on the ground floor ran along Main Street and part of Bannatyne Avenue with an iron cornice above, inviting the public in. Overall the design of the building was rather simple, with most of the decorative elements appearing on the top story, where terra cotta panels and a large cornice with dentil detailing drew the eye upwards. Inside, cast iron columns supported robust timbers and steel girders, this time protected from fire by automatic sprinklers with flammables stored in an underground vault. The original 1905 building had two passenger elevators, with a freight elevator installed in 1917. When finished, the Ashdown’s new hardware store cost a total of $110,000 to build.

The J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store in 1929.
Source: City of Winnipeg and Archives of Manitoba
Ashdown died in 1924, leaving the company to the care of his son, Harry Ashdown. During Harry’s time as president, the hardware store underwent major changes, with a one story addition designed by architects Moody and Moore, added to the north side in 1959. At the same time, the brick façade of the building was covered in plaster, some windows on Bannatyne Avenue were covered and the windows on the Main Street façade replaced with horizontal windows made of glass block. The cornice detailing was also removed, replaced with monochromatic finishes popular at the time, almost completely erasing any character of the original building. The business continued at its flagship location until 1970, when Harry died.

The J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store in 1970.
Source: City of Winnipeg and Archives of Manitoba
Big 4 Sales purchased the building from the Ashdown’s in 1970. The retail store owned the property until 1995, when the city as part of its plan to revitalize the civic campus, purchased it. In poor condition and vacant, the building was slated for demolition. Concerned citizens, building owners and Heritage Winnipeg rallied against the city’s decision, fighting to have the building added to the City of Winnipeg's List of Historic Resources, which would protect it from demolition. After a long and heated exchange, the heritage supporters won out, and the building was sold to Shelter Canadian Properties who set about restoring and rehabilitating the heritage features. The building was eventually renamed the Crocus Building, after the investment fund that operated there. The address was also changed, from 476 Main Street to 211 Bannatyne Avenue. Even after the fund failed in 2004, the sign sadly remained on the building until 2017. 

After being rehabilitated, the building was renamed the Crocus Building, seen here in 2004.
The McKim Communications Group had been in the building for several years before it acquired the naming rights. The new McKim sign was unveiled in January of 2017, signalling a new chapter in the building’s history. McKim uses about 10,000 square feet of the building, sharing the remaining space with Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers, Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Across the Board Café, among others. Once again standing proudly at the corner of Main Street and Bannatyne with its bright red brick and new imposing cornicing. The former J.H. Ashdown Hardware Store is a testament to the enduring success of one of Winnipeg’s founding fathers and the timelessness of out built heritage.

Images of McKim Building in 2017.
Source: McKim Communications Group


CBC News Manitoba

City of Winnipeg

Dead Town of Kansas

Dictionary of Canadian Biography

Demolishing a Piece of Winnipeg’s History by Allan Levine in Heritage, Fall1998

Manitoba Historical Society

McKim Communications Group

PSB Empire of the Bay

Real Estate News

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Haunted Heritage

Guest post by Matthew Komus, tour guide and heritage consultant with many of Manitoba’s historical sites and museums.

As Halloween will soon be upon us it seems like a good time to talk about heritage and hauntings. A great number of heritage buildings are said to be haunted. This should not be unexpected as supernatural and heritage worlds both share a common connection to the past. This connection is especially true when talking about museums. Museums are places that showcase the past. They exhibit to the visitor the way we used to live but they can be much more than that. As Jay Winters says: “Museums are, in a way, the cathedrals of the modern world, places where sacred issues are expressed and where people come to reflect on them.”[i] The theme of reflection fits well with the spirit world. If museums function as the connection between the past and the present, and ghosts come from the past to visit the present, it should not be surprising the museums would often find themselves the home of supernatural activity.

In the early 1900s Winnipeg was growing rapidly and plans were drawn up to build several new fire halls in a short period of time. The typical hall consisted of “beige-coloured brick exteriors, two floors, three or four apparatus bays, and characteristic three-story tower for draining and drying fire hose.”[ii] The No. 3 hall was a special case. The hall was to be located on Maple Street just back from Higgins Avenue and the Canadian Pacific Station. The city leaders realized this meant thousands of tourists and new arrivals to Winnipeg would view the station only minutes after arriving in the city. This resulted in the No. 3 hall having far more ornamentation then the other buildings.

Fire Hall No. 3 with the Canadian Pacific Station in the background.
Source: Matthew Sinclair
Station No. 3 was the oldest operating fire hall in western Canada when it was closed in 1990. The building found a new role as the Fire Fighters Museum of Winnipeg. On exhibit are numerous wagons, vehicles and equipment from over a hundred years of fighting fires in Winnipeg.

The museum is home to more than just artifacts; it has a live-in apparition. The ghost apparently has a keen interest in what’s going on at the museum. One instance took place when a volunteer was performing maintenance work on one of the old fire engines. Busy with his work he was not paying much attention to his surroundings. The volunteer then felt someone tapping him on the shoulder. Annoyed to be interrupted he looked up to see what was so urgent, only to realize no one was standing next to him. The volunteer really started to feel a chill when he realized the museum was closed and no one else is in the building. There have been many incidents similar to this and the firefighters think they know who is haunting the station.

The No. 3 hall was equipped with four fire poles to ensure a speedy response. On June 9th, 1915 the station was responding to a house fire when twenty-five year-old firefighter Peter McRae somehow lost his grip while sliding down the pole and fell hard onto the floor below. The fall resulted in McRae’s death. It was a tragic accident for the fire hall, to lose the young Scottish fire fighter but an even great tragedy for his wife and two young sons. The firefighters believe it is McRae’s ghost that continues to keep an eye on things.

Fire Hall No. 3.
Source: Matthew Sinclair
Haunted buildings tend to be spread throughout Winnipeg but in the case of the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia, two spooky buildings are located only feet apart. The St. James Museum uses exhibits and programs to tell the story of the communities of St. Francis-Xavier, Headingley, St. Charles and St. James. The museum consists of three buildings, the Brown House, a Red River Frame cabin built in 1856, the former Municipal Hall of St. James-Assiniboia, built in 1911, and a newer building used for displays and events.

The Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
The Brown House was not originally located on the museum site. Instead it was located in the parish of Headingley along the Assiniboine River. The Brown House has a kitchen, parlour and dining room on the first floor and four bedrooms on the second floor. The house remains largely unchanged from its original appearance. To help create the appearance of being back in time the museum has furnished the home with period appropriate pieces. The house was named for its builder and first owner William Brown. Born in 1809, Brown came to the Red River Settlement in 1830 in the employment of the Hudson’s Bay Company. After eleven years with the Company, Brown retired and begin a new life as a farmer. He would pass away in the home he built in 1891 at age 82.

The Brown House is now used by the museum to stage re-enactments of what early farm life would have been like in the settlement. Summer students are hired to play the various roles of the Brown family. Over the years the summer students have witnessed a number of unexplained events in the house. These events include doors slamming shut by themselves even when there is no breeze. Open windows have also slammed shut even though the windows are very tight to open and in some cases have even had sticks holding them in place. Two students once witnessed the lid of an antique trunk rise up and then slam shut without any touching it. Staff have locked the house up for the night only to come back the next morning and find chairs and other items have been moved around.

The Brown House at the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
Many of the museum staff have heard children’s voices in the home and suspect the ghost may be that of a little girl. The house features an old checker board and it is not uncommon to find the checkers have been rearranged as if someone was playing a game over night. If the ghost is a child, she seems to enjoy the company of other kids. If no school tours have visited the house in some time the ghost is known to cause more trouble.

Located just west of the Brown House is the Municipal Hall. It is an attractive two-story brick building with a stone foundation and cupola above the front door. It was built in 1911 for the Rural Municipality of Assiniboia, which was later merged into the city of St. James-Assiniboia. The town hall held administrative offices on the main floor and the council chamber on the second floor. At one time there was even a police station and jail cell in the basement.

The Municipal Hall at the Historical Museum of St. James-Assiniboia.
Source: Mark Komus
Due to all of the supernatural events the museum has, on occasion, had psychics visit. One medium was going through the town hall when she had a vision of a tall man in a military uniform. This vision connects to one of the most unnerving incidents in the museum. A summer student was working in the town hall when a tall man dressed in a military uniform came in. He asked her for information about an old air field in the area. She told him she would look it up and turned her back to try and find the information. Her back was turned only for a few seconds but when she looked back the man was gone. The student was positive she did not hear the door open. She walked through the building to make sure the man had not just wandered off but he was nowhere to be found.

The following stories are recounted in great detail in 
Haunted Winnipeg: Ghost Stories from the Heart of the Continent
Haunted Winnipeg may be found HERE

Additional information on the Winnipeg Ghost Walk can be found at

[i] Winter, Jay. The Legacy of the Great War: Ninety Years On. Columbia: University of Missouri, 2009: 34.
[ii] City of Winnipeg. 56 Maple Street - Fire Hall No. 2. Winnipeg, 1990.