A view of the HBC department store in Winnipeg (1931) by Bridgens
Source: Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, 1987/363-W-315/102.
I remember Winnipeg’s Hudson’s Bay Company store. The way the store used to be back in the 1960’s which formed part of my own upbringing.
By 1910 Winnipeg’s new economy moved to Portage Ave and The Bay wanted to be where the future commerce was going to be.
Montreal architects Barott and Blackader designed the building as a fine example of Beaux-Art styling. The construction used materials almost entirely from Manitoba. This called for 125,000 cubic feet of Tyndall limestone from Gypsumville. Workers removed 150,000 tons of earth with 120 teams of horses, twenty trucks and two steam shovels. They pounded in 151 piles to the bedrock. This building became part of the earth, part of Manitoba and part of Winnipeg.
This massive 675,000 square foot department store occupied a prime piece of real estate. The store faced Portage Avenue along with the newly constructed Manitoba legislature just down the street.
The building used three boilers to provide hot water and steam for the turbines which generated its own electricity. It became the model of self-sufficiency. The building was the largest concrete enforced structure in Canada at the time. Looking at the Tyndall stone exterior you can see fossilized shells. A touch of irony as the store would eventually become a fossil itself.
The store opened on November 18th, 1926 to thousands of customers with thousands of staff. With an arcade, restaurants, beauty salons, furniture, clothing and of course furs, The Bay could satisfy almost any consumer desire.
Several decades later, The Bay became part of my childhood. Our father returned from a stint with the RAF and entered the Bay management program. Our mother worked in the Bay’s personnel department. They met, fell in love, and produced two other life-time Bay customers.
The Bay sent our dad and family on a whirlwind tour of the country. I was born in Toronto, but I eventually lived in eight cities across Canada. We ended up in Winnipeg. Three times. Most people leave Winnipeg not to return, but we managed to come back on each occasion.
When we lived in Winnipeg the second time, our father became the manager of women’s fashions. He had a great office and a big leather chair. On Saturdays, I would hop the bus, and spend the day in the store. It transformed to become my playground. Being 11 years old, I was entrusted with a bus ticket to get downtown, and another to get back home in the off chance I couldn’t get home with my dad.
During this time I would run up to the Paddlewheel restaurant. Burger and fries please! And a chocolate milk! The restaurant of course resembled a traditional ship with a moving, slightly dangerous paddlewheel churning away. The ceiling painted blue for the sky and white for the clouds. You can imagine an 11 year old going on imaginary trips for all of lunchtime. The restaurant became a precursor of things to come as it closed on January 24th 2013. For its last meal, the restaurant ran out of food. One of the few times when demand out ate supply.
The rest of the staff always knew who I was and always smiled at me. I hope it was because I was a pleasant quiet child. Not the delinquent son of a senior manager.
Winters brought in the most magical time. Christmas. The Bay showed over exuberance in the way of decorations even though they must have eaten away at the profits. The store windows were sights to behold. The best ones used animatronics for little cartoon like animals and the celebrations they must have had. Inside the store amazed young and old. Of course Santa appeared in a makeshift workshop at the North Pole. Exhilarating and terrifying all at the same time.
Even if I can’t remember the exact decorations or what I asked Santa to bring me anymore, the sense of wonder I felt still remains. I over romanticize the past, but rarely do senior adults feel that sense of wonder. When you encounter such a person, sit and listen. You can still feel the passion within.
Eventually we left for Montreal, but returned one last time to Winnipeg. Eventually dad retired. We didn’t seem to have a driving reason to go downtown any longer. The other malls were opening up. I even worked in one of the suburban Bays for a period of time in sporting goods.
The new economics slowly drained away the life-force from what used to be the flagship store for the Bay.
Over the past few years, The Bay closed off the top floors of the store. Now The Bay only occupies the main and second floor. The store used to service thousands of customers in a day. But now the aisles seem mostly empty. Customers look to their on-line gods now.
The store intends to shut its doors in February 2021.
The City of Winnipeg granted the store a historical designation in January 2019. So the exterior must remain, along with some of the outside canopy and the interior curved elevator lobby. Mostly everything else will have to be eviscerated. It seems like a favorite eccentric uncle with dementia. The exterior is still there, but everything that gave it character has been removed.
Developers may be thinking of installing atriums which would bring light to the interior of a structure well past its prime and well past its place in this new economy. Creative destruction. The tearing down of the old to allow the reallocation of freed up assets. Economists have a way with words.
Appraisers place a zero price on the building. What with the taxes and improvement costs, this is likely a generous price. But the value of the Flagship Hudson’s Bay Company building goes beyond the price. And with 151 piles, the Bay remains part of the province and the city.
I’ll sadly watch the old Bay transform, but I look forward to its rebirth. And remember.