Friday, August 31, 2012

104 - 108 Princess Street - Robinson & Webber Block

Robinson & Webber Block
Place: Robinson and Webber Block
Address: 104 - 108 Princess Street (Map)
Built: 1885, 1946
Architect: Unknown


July 20, 1885, Manitoba Free Press

The Confederation Life Insurance Co. had this building constructed in 1885 as an investment property. The contractor was building supply firm Brydon, Robertson, a short-lived company, (ca. 1882 to 1885), that supplied much of the stone for the 1884 "Gingerbread" city hall. They contracted out the actual construction, the builder is unknown.

Below: ads from 1885, 1886

Being an investment property, there were dozens of tenants who stayed for short periods. Two of the first to occupy the building were Sutherland and Campbell, a wholesale grocery business, and Hodgson and Sumner, a dry goods wholesaler. Their presence was short lived as a January 1886 classified ad lists the building for rent.

In 1904 - 05 the building was expanded by two floors and in the decades to come it was home to wholesalers such as Robin Hood Mills, Consolidated Stationery Ltd. and the Ottawa Fruit and Produce Exchange. Retailers included Maple Leaf Paints (1910s) and a P and B Grocery Store (1920s). Ontario Wind Engine and Pump Co. had temporary offices there in 1904 while their Logan Avenue building was being constructed. Universal Signs occupied space in the 1930s.

February 13 1939, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1937 the third floor of 104 Princess became home to the offices and workshop of the Single Men's Relief Commission which needed smaller premises for their administrative and training centre as the Depression wound down.
The building was the scene of a few protests by men angry at being cut off of relief.


In the mid 1940s the building was purchased by Mr. Alison Baldner, the outgoing president of Robinson and Webber, a wholesaler and re-packager of chemicals ranging from antifreeze and cleaners to insecticides. He retired in 1944 then his son John ran the company, though Alison retained ownership of the building and leased it to the company. The top two floors were rented out to Midwest Storage Co..

March 24, 1945, Winnipeg Free Press

On the night of March 23, 1945 at 10:50 pm the north portion of the building, (104 Princess), caught fire. The chemicals stored there created an intense, three alarm blaze that burned for more than twelve hours then flared up again numerous times in the days that followed.

Fireman Frank Sandison, 48,
of 107 Olivia Street was killed when the fourth floor of the building collapsed from underneath him. Fireman James Smith, 40, of 339 Lipton Street was killed trying to rescue Sandison and other colleagues buried in the rubble. Four other firemen the fell during the cave-in were rescued and brought to hospital in fair condition.

The 104 Princess (north) portion of the building had to be torn down. The south portion, 108 Princess, was saved from destruction (remarkably) due to a dividing wall between the two. The neighbouring Fairchild Building also survived.

April 10, 1045, Winnipeg Free Press

The cause of the fire was never determined. An employee of the company plead guilty to break and enter the night before the fire during which he stole about 300 empty sugar bags. At the coroner's inquiry into the death of the firemen, he said that he did not light a cigarette or do anything else inside the building that could have caused the fire. 

The city contended that the upper floors of the building, the ones the firemen were walking on, were grossly overloaded with stock which led to it giving way. There was competing testimony from various engineers and architects as to how much weight the floors could hold and, in the end, no agreement on what that number should be.

The following month Robinson and Webber applied to build a new, steel reinforced building at 104 that would be used for the storage of approximately 6,700 gallons of methyl hydrate, 1,350 gallons of turpentine, 250 gallons of floor cleaner and 50 gallons of fly spray in jars, bottles and barrels. The building was not built until 1950.


Robinson and Webber remained here until 1955 then moved to 185 Bannatyne. It remained in business until the early 1980s. 

Through to the 1980s the building was again home to dozens of smaller retail and wholesale businesses. In 1984 it was placed on the Historic Building Conservation lists as a grade III structure. In 1990, when the Amy Street steam plan was closed, the building was left without heat and was closed down.


In 2004 the developer who purchased the Fairchild / John Deere Building (now Fairchild Lofts) also purchased 104 - 108 Princess. In 2006 an application was made to have the building demolished, but the Historical Buildings Committee recommend to city council that the property not be demolished. Council agreed.

The building remains empty.

Photo Gallery of 104 - 108 Princess
104 - 108 Princess Street Historic Buildings Committee
104 - 108 Princess Street Winnipeg Building Index

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