Location: 662 Main Street (Map)
Constructed: 1906-07 (Reopened 2011)
Architect: Unknown (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 other along Main Street. On a vacant property he owned at Main and Henry, he decided to construct his first custom-built hotel.
April 16, 1907, Manitoba Free Press
Perhpas Bernhardt overextended himself as sold off the 72-room hotel before construction was completed. In April 1907 the keys were handed over to the new owners, Harry and Thomas Bell.
The Bells arrived in Winnipeg in the early 1880's. It appears that Thomas was in the retail grocery business while Harry started out working as an employee at a livery stable, which eventually led to him being a horse breeder. It seems neither had any hotel experience.
The Bell years were uneventful ones. The hotel catered to a steady stream of middle class travelers and traveling salesmen who set up shop for weeks at a time to ply their goods.
ca. 1913 (source)
In July 1912 the Bells sold the hotel for $200,000 to the Bronfman family. They 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. The Bell was their largest property to-date.
Son Sam Bronfman was dispatched to run the Bell. The family invested $15,000 in renovations to provide the latest in fire protection, a first class pool hall, a 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 booze. 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 the federal and provincial liquor laws. Manitoba could ban alcohol consumption within its own borders but it could not prohibit the local production and / or trade of alcohol if it was for consumption in other provinces. The Bronfman family's chain of prairie hotels meant that Sam had an already existing out-of-province distribution network in place. He went from selling liquor by the glass to selling it by the boxcar.
By 1918 the feds and provinces closed this loophole and Sam moved to Montreal where he bought a liquor distribution company that he wold grow into 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 which had taken them over due to the non-payment of invoices. Most of those that survived as independents were hit hard 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 42-property Community Hotels Ltd. In 1963 Labatt began selling off these properties and 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 1950 and 60s and the Bell was no exception.
In the 1990s the began an initiative to purge Main Street of many of its SRO hotels, with the hopes that it would help revitalize the area. Hotels that closed included the Leland in 1996, the Brunswick in 1999 and the Savoy in 2000. The Bell's turn came in 2007 when CentreVenture purchased it from Donald Marshall.
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 offices of social services. 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