Location: 662 Main Street (Map)
Constructed: 1906-07 (Reopened 2011)
Architect: (1906); BIOS (2011)
Cost: $5 million (2011 renovations)
In 1905 - 06 businessman Joseph Bernhardt was assembling a chain of local hotels. He bought the Windsor, the Winnipeg and one more along Main Street. In the midst of this, a small commercial property he owned at Main and Henry (likely once the first home of Manitoba College) burned down. Bernhardt decided that this would be the site of his first custom-built hotel.
April 16, 1907, Manitoba Free Press
He may have overextended himself as he negotiated the sale of the building while still under construction. When the 72 room hotel was finished in April 1907 he handed the keys over to new owners Harry and Thomas Bell.
The Bells arrived in Winnipeg in the early 1880's. It appears that Thomas worked almost exclusively in the retail grocery business. Harry got his first job at a corporate stables and eventually bred horses. Neither appear to have had any hotel experience.
The bell years were uneventful ones. the hotel had a steady stream of middle class guests, both visitors to the city and traveling salesmen who set up shop for weeks at a time to ply their trade.
ca. 1913 (source)
In July 1912 the Bells sold the hotel for $200,000 to the Bronfman family chain.
The Bronfmans were Russian Jews who came to Manitoba around 1889 and settled in the Brandon area. In 1903 they got into the hotel industry by purchasing the Anglo American Hotel in Emerson then spread out across the prairies. In 1912 they purchased what would be their largest property to-date, Winnipeg's Bell Hotel.
Son Sam Bronfman was dispatched to run it on behalf of the family. He invested $15,000 in renovations and it soon boasted the latest in fire protection, a first class pool hall, comfortable restaurant and a barber shop.
Under Bronfman the Bell found itself on the wrong side of the law on numerous occasions. In 1914 it was part of a political scandal that saw a number of non-existent hotel guests registered as voters in the provincial election. There were also numerous citations for selling liquor after hours.
As is still the case with many small hotels, the main source of income did not come from renting rooms but from selling liquor. When prohibition was proclaimed in Manitoba in 1916 many hoteliers were ruined.
The Bell not only survived but thrived thanks to a gap the existed between federal and provincial laws. Manitoba could ban alcohol consumption within its own borders but it cold not prohibit the production and / or sale of alcohol from Manitoba to other provinces. The Bronfman family's chain of prairie hotels meant that Sam had an already existing distribution network in place. He went from selling liquor by the glass to selling ti by the boxcar load.
By 1918 the feds and provinces closed the loophole and Sam moved to Montreal where he bought a liquor distribution company that would eventually become the Seagram's empire.
The next owner of the Bell had even more trouble with liquor laws. Proprietor William Hogan was charged in 1922 with possessing liquor with the intent to sell and was fined $500. He was charged again in 1924 and sentenced to six months in jail, (which was later quashed on appeal). In 1925 his liquor license was pulled.
Prohibition ended in 1923 but by that time many of the province's small hotels were owned by breweries, taken over for the non-payment of invoices. Ones that remained independent were hit hard again by the Depression and sold out.
The Bell appears to have held out longer than most. Around 1933 George Adam Swan bought the Bell Hotel (and the Brunswick Hotel in 1939). He died a bachelor in 1943 at the age of 55 and left almost all of his $82,000 estate to his employees.
September 10, 1963, Winnipeg Free Press
The Bell eventually became a Labatt hotel, part of the brewery's Community Hotels Ltd. In 1963 the company had accumulated 42 hotels across the province and began selling them off. The Bell was purchased by a group of employees led by manager O. A. LaFreniere.
The next newspaper mention of an owner is Ben Luffman in 1970. By 1983 the Bell Hotel's final owner Donald Marshall was in charge.
August 25, 2007, Winnipeg Free Press
The fortunes of Main Street and its single room occupancy (SRO) hotels began to decline in the 1950s. The Bell was no exception.
In the 1990s Main Street was purged of some of its SROs meant to revitalize the area by reducing the number of bars and undesirable residents. it included the Leland in 1996, Brunswick in 1999 and Savoy in 2000. The Bell's turn came in 2007 when CentreVenture purchased it from Donald Marshall as part of a Main Street redevelopment scheme.
In 2010 the federal and provincial governments along with CentreVenture announced a $5.2m renovation of the hotel to create supportive housing units for the homeless or those at-risk of being homeless.
The 75 single occupancy rooms were reduced to 42 as each room now has a private washroom and kitchenette. The main floor consists of common areas and social services offices. There is no bar.
The Bell reopened June 30, 2011.
Bell Hotel Overview Historic Buildings Committee (pdf)
The Winnipeg SRO Hotel West End Dumplings
Innovative Housing Initiative to promote stability, independence for homeless Joint News Release, April 23, 2010
Photos of the Bell renovations The Bios (architects) Bell Hotel Supportive Housing Factsheet
Bell Hotel ready to welcome new tenants WRHA News Release, June 30, 2011
Inside the Bell Hotel WRHA
Bell Tolls for Downtown Hotel CBC Aug. 31, 2010
Bell to become homeless haven Winnipeg Free Press, April 23, 2010
A home for the homeless Winnipeg Free Press, July 2, 2011