Fort Garry, 1869 by Lionel McDonald Stephenson, ca. 1885
In 1838, Upper Fort Garry was built and soon became the centre of business, government, and education. For more than thirty years it was the nucleus of the City of Winnipeg, but in 1882, it was sold and demolished. The main gate portion of the fort was left intact as an historical landmark in Fort Garry Park. It was presented by Hudson's Bay Company to the City of Winnipeg in 1900 as a monument to the pioneer days.
In 1881, the city's first HBC retail store was completed at the corner of Main and York. The front portion was used for retail business. The back and upper floors were used for the storage of furs and general merchandise. Additions were added from time to time for office purposes and for Land Department and Fur Trade. In 1911, a large modern fire-proof building was erected across the street where the Wholesale Department, the Land, Fur Trade and General Offices of the Company were housed. This became known as Hudson's Bay House.
By 1910 it was already evident that heart of Winnipeg's shopping district had relocated to Portage Avenue and the existing store was no longer in the right place. HBC's retail strategy at that time was to invest in the development of large modern department stores to service the growing population of the west. In the case of Winnipeg this strategy would mean building a brand-new store in a brand-new location.
Old Fort Garry Gate, 1875
The location of the new store site was extremely fortunate. Not only was it directly on Portage Avenue but sat at the corner of Portage and the access road leading to the new provincial Legislature. The Legislature itself opened in 1920. That same year the Company decided to sit tight and defer building until the City's plans concerning the road access were final. On September 25, 1925, work commenced at the corner of Portage Avenue and Memorial Boulevard.
It took 300 men, 120 teams of horses, 20 trucks and two steam shovels to excavate 150,000 tons of earth for foundation of the store. One hundred and fifty-one concrete pillars were driven by hand down 52 feet to bedrock to support the building. Two million feet of lumber, 100,000 tons of concrete, and 125,000 cubic feet of Tyndall limestone went into its construction. At the time, the structure was the largest reinforced concrete building in Canada with a gross area of fifteen acres (over six ha.) of floor space. This massive new Hudson's Bay Company store was the latest addition to the Company's chain of eleven stores that spanned the country from Winnipeg to the Pacific. On November 18, 1926, the new store opened for business.
Construction of HBC Winnipeg store, Portage and Memorial, September 15, 1925. Brigdens
Opening day, promptly at 9:00 a.m., George F. Galt, member of Hudson's Bay Company's Canadian Committee, inserted a golden key into the lock of the central Portage Avenue entrance and entered at the head of a crowd that marched down the aisle twelve abreast for nearly an hour before its pace somewhat abated. Two thousand staff members provided 50,000 customers with excellent customer service.
While it may be difficult to think of a building from 1926 as modern, consider some of the features of the Winnipeg store. There were a dozen elevators - arranged in two banks of six each, facing each other in a concave arrangement. Their lobbies were decorated with immense murals depicting scenes of the Company's early history by artists Adam Sheriff Scott and Edward Tappan Adney. Eight of the original elevators were subsequently removed, as was one of the murals, but the second mural - "The Pioneer" at Fort Garry, 1861 - remains to this day.
Three huge boilers in a power plant 45 feet below street level, supplied by their very own coal bunker, provided steam heat and hot water. Steam was diverted to turbines to generate electricity for operating lights and elevators, permitting the store to provide its own backup power as needed. Three air conditioning units each processing over 68,000 cubic feet of air per minute kept both customers and staff comfortable at all times. More than 8,000 sprinkler heads provided leading edge fire suppression technology. Massive refrigeration rooms held foodstuffs both for direct sale to the public as well as in support of the store's restaurant and cafeteria operations. More refrigeration was found in the state of the art cold storage vault for furs, housed on the 6th floor. The largest fur storage vault in western Canada, it could store 12,000 garments. It was entirely constructed of fireproof tile, insulated by four inches of cork and sealed with Portland cement plaster. The temperature control system kept the vault at a constant 36 degrees Fahrenheit (2.22 degrees Celsius). The various mechanical systems running the store were managed from a single 'big board' display located in the Chief Engineer's office.
HBC Winnipeg Main Street store, early 1920s
The Winnipeg store had every conceivable amenity for its day: a beauty parlour, public telephones, a post office and a library. It would continue to live up to its grandiose beginnings. Later additions would include an auditorium with its own orchestra and, in 1930, the very first of a series of aerial navigation beacons installed in western Canada. At 200 feet in height the beacon could be seen up to 100 miles away. It was first lit March 3rd, 1930 - Beacon Day - the day of the inaugural airmail flight from Winnipeg to Calgary.