We’ve gotten word from Hudson’s Bay Company management that the company’s ‘original’ flagship location in Downtown Winnipeg may be closing soon. Our source tells us The Hudson’s Bay Company is seeking to transfer ownership the building to the Manitoba Government in exchange for tax benefits. Hudson’s Bay would like to sell the building but its value is limited due to the estimated $8million/per-floor renovation cost to convert it to offices.
The Downtown Winnipeg store was the ‘original’ Hudson’s Bay Company flagship store, with seven levels and a trading area of about 675,000 square feet. It opened in 1926 and cost $5million, an enormous sum at the time. It competed with the neighbouring 885,000 square foot Eaton’s Store. The Winnipeg Bay store lost its company flagship status when the then-Toronto flagship Hudson’s Bay store opened at The Hudson’s Bay Centre, 44 Bloor Street West, in 1974.
The current store has several unoccupied floors and uses only about 240,000 square feet of the building’s 656,000 square feet. The store had a 67,000 sq ft Zellers store located in its basement briefly, now closed. Today it was announced that the stores sixth-floor Paddlewheel Restaurant will not be renovated (it was supposed to be kept open), leading to our source contacting us by email.
We found this wonderful description of the store’s opening, as written by George Siamandas of the blog ‘Winnipeg Time Machine’ (we underlined parts we found interesting):
The Hudson Bay store opened in Winnipeg on November 18 1926. People lined up for blocks around; one of the plate glass windows was broken and car loads of police were on hand to maintain decorum. Fifty thousand Winnipeggers went through the store that first day. But only the basement and first two floors were complete for opening but at least the store was ready for the Christmas trade. Two thousand staff were there to help the throng of opening day customers.
The first customer was Mayor Ralph Webb who bought a silk tie for $1.25. A Mrs Schultz of Pritchard Ave actually was the first customer in line. In the lower level was a supermarket: sirloin steak was 22 cents a pound, corn flakes a dime and sugar sold for 72 cents for a ten pound bag. The lower level also housed hardware, sporting goods. Clothing however was surprisingly expensive at prices of $15 to $150 for women’s dresses. There was even a 3,000 volume lending library on the second floor. The Bay would make 5 tons of Christmas cake for the Christmas season and was the biggest fuel dealer in Winnipeg delivering coal till 1960 when gas was introduced.
BUILDING THE NEW STORE
A lot of men worked round the clock to dig the Bay’s foundations by shovel, horse drawn scrapers as well as the two steam shovels on the site. Most of the Bay was built with a “Made in Manitoba” philosophy where as many goods as possible were bought here in Manitoba. The Tyndall stone, 1 M bricks, plaster from Gypsumville, the steel frame from Selkirk’s Rolling Mills, 2 M board feet of lumber from Winnipegosis. And as a modern fire-proof building, it had 32 km sprinkler pipes and 8,000 heads.
At one time it had its one well which at 600 feet was the deepest in Canada. While not of drinking quality, it was used to flush toilets and to air condition the air. It was used until 1971 at which time it was capped off because the water had turned salty in efforts to dig deeper. Originally the Bay had twelve elevators. Half were removed in 1948 to install elevators. In the 1930s a beacon on top of the Bay helped guide airplanes to the city as air mail service was inaugurated.
WHY THE BAY WAS SO LONG IN COMING
For a company that had owned a lot of North America (All the land that drained into Hudson Bay) and all of downtown Winnipeg till after 1870, it took the HBC a long time to build a modern store – 21 years after Eatons. WW1 delayed it at least ten years. And Winnipeg seemed to have headed into decline by the 1920s. The original store built in 1881 had been on Main St and York. But the Bay saw the reality of retailing lay on Portage Ave. The first real urban store was in Vancouver in 1887. Donald A Smith who ran the Bay then imported managers from Harrods to run these stores. The trading posts evolved into department stores as the west filled up with new settlers.
At one time the Bay owned everything in downtown Winnipeg and built on the western boundary of its reserve. Ironically it had to repurchase the land from a Col Pierce who made a bundle from advance knowledge of the store’s coming before the Bay’s own real estate people knew of the store’s construction. Hudson Bay did not become a Canadian company till 1970 when it became headquartered in Winnipeg. It had previously been London-based. In 1979 Ken Thompson bought 76% of Bay shares. They sold off the 178 northern stores in 1987 after losing money.
Canada’s Hudson’s Bay Company’s history is significant and the company is far older than Canada itself. From the Heritage Winnipeg Archives:
“The Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest commercial corporation in North America, and is one of the oldest in the world.
It as once the de facto government in parts of North America before European-based colonies and nation states existed. It was at one time the largest landowner in the world, with Rupert’s Land being a large part of North America. From its longtime headquarters at York Factory on Hudson Bay, it controlled the fur trade throughout much of British-controlled North America for several centuries, undertaking early exploration. Its traders and trappers forged early relationship with many groups of First Nations/Native Americans and its network of trading posts formed the nucleus for later official authority in many areas of Western Canada and the United States.
In the late 19th century, its vast territory became the largest component in the newly formed Dominion of Canada, in which the company was the largest private landowner. With the decline of the fur trade, the company evolved into mercantile business selling vital goods to settlers in the Canadian West. Today the company is best known for its department stores throughout Canada.
The Hudson’s Bay Company Archives are located in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. They also classify the Bay in downtown Winnipeg as the flagship store.”
Times change. Fortunately it sounds like at least the building will be salvaged and not torn down like Winnipeg’s Eaton’s store. For more on Winnipeg’s Eaton’s store, check out this wonderful blog called The Department Store Museum (and click HERE for their page on Winnipeg’s Bay flagship)
Hudson’s Bay Company website: www.hbc.com