Thursday, August 12, 2010

The sky-scraper

In the summer of 1907, the excitement surrounding the growth of the city of Winnipeg was heightened by news that local developer A.M. Fraser would construct a 14-storey office building on the east side of Main Street, between McDermot and Bannatyne. Designed by a 37 year-old Chicago-schooler, John D. Atchison, the new building would exceed the Union Bank tower by about 50 feet. It would be the "largest and finest" building in the city, and "in fact one of the very finest on the continent."

Architectural rendering of a new office tower to be built on the east side of Main St. between McDermot and Bannatyne. Credit

Little is known about A.M. Fraser, except that in 1906 he had built a five-story office building at the northeast corner of Logan and Main, originally called the Concordia, and later the Bon-Accord Block. A substantial structure relative to the older, smaller buildings around it, the Bon-Accord, along with the Royal Alexandra Hotel two blocks north, represented what many citizens hoped would be a physical improvement on north Main. Like other office buildings in the neighborhood, the Bon-Accord struggled to find office tenants in the '10s and '20s, and converted some units to residential. A fire in 1945 led the owners to dismantle all but the ground floor. Today, this remaining portion of the Bon-Accord is the home of a popular and long-time Main Street enterprise, Mitchell's Fabrics.

The Concordia/Bon-Accord Block, nearing completion in 1906. Credit

East side of Main St., c.1918, showing the Bon-Accord Block on the right

Fraser seems to have owned land behind the Bon-Accord on Logan Avenue in preparation for his building, since in January of '06, the Telegram reported that he had donated this "valuable site," which measured 50' x 99' to the Men's Own of Winnipeg, a social agency aimed at the care and conversion of impoverished men of the city, of which Fraser was a board member. On this site the Men's Own would construct a five-story mission in 1908. The mission was demolished in the early 1990s.

When Fraser approached the City of Winnipeg about constructing a 14-storey office further south on Main, the City's Board of Control opposed the construction, saying that it was too tall--in spite of the building's approval by the City's Water, Fire and Light Committee. A testament to the high property values on that portion of Main at the time, Fraser told the Telegram that "it would not pay him to erect a smaller building."

A Winnipeg by-law created mandated that any building exceeding 120' would need to be approved by the City. Since Fraser's planned building surpassed this height by about 80, he went to City Hall for approval.

The development was "heartily endorsed" by the Winnipeg Real Estate Exchange, who also opposed the height restriction by-law in general, "provided that proper fire extinguishing apparatus and water service is installed throughout the buildings."

Mayor J.H. Ashdown, who had since 1868 watched the city go from a few small wood building dotting Main, seemed to feel that the business district should grow upward no further: "My own opinion has been that the Merchants [sic] bank is the utmost height that should be allowed," he said. "There is plenty of land and no occasion for such high buildings." The Merchant's Bank that Ashdown referred to, at the corner of Main and Lombard, was only 110' tall.

View of Main Street, c.1913, showing where A.M. Fraser's proposed building would have been built, and how tall it would have been relative to surrounding buidlings. Credit

The Winnipeg Telegram printed an editorial in favor of the new building, and skyscrapers in general, suggesting that the the Board of Control was senselessly meddling in the path of the city's progress:

"Cities of consequence on this continent have buildings in their business centres that are termed in the humorously descriptive phraseology of the people, "sky-scrapers."

[...]

"The Board of Control of Winnipeg in reporting against the granting of a permit for a sky-scraper is flying against the spirit of the business world of modern cities, which rightly or wrongly have a tendency to concentration. It is opposed to an enterprise which is an inspiration of the economic idea of the age.

[...]

"In an intelligent community the solution of the question of the height of a building might generally be left to the people who building them, and the people who will seek to occupy them.

"It is unreasonable to believe that a capitalist, who will erect an expensive building of a class that is loosely accused of being insanitary, dangerous and with social disadvantages repugnant to the popular taste, does not know the reasonableness of his investment.

"The stream does not rise higher than its source, and a sky-scraper will not rise one storey higher than the tastes, desires and demands of the people of an intelligent and progressive city."


A permit was eventually issued to Fraser, and in mid-July, the Telegram reported that the work was set to begin in two weeks.

Canadian Wheat Pool Building, now the Canadian Wheat Board headquarters, built in 1928. Credit

In the end, for reasons unknown at this time, Fraser never did construct the building, and the old frame buildings on the site stood for some years more, until they were torn down and in 1928 replaced by the Wheat Pool built, an eight-storey Deco-inspired edifice. By then, economic conditions on Main Street had changed considerably: the Wheat Pool was one of the few new tall office buildings constructed in Winnipeg between 1917 and 1965. Had Fraser's skyscraper been built, it would have been Winnipeg's tallest downtown office building from its completion until the Royal Bank building was built at the corner of Portage and Fort St in the mid-'60s.

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