Thursday, January 9, 2014

333 St. Mary Ave - Eaton's Mail Order Buildings / CityPlace (Pt. 1)

© 2014, Christian Cassidy
Above: 2007, Below 1968 (source)

Place: Eaton's Mail Order Building / CityPlace (Part 1)
Address: 333 St. Mary Avenue (map)
Architect: Graham Burnham Co. (1916); Graham-Anderson (expansion - 1920)
Cost: $6.8m (1916); $2.5m (1920)
Contractor: E. C. Harvey (1916)
Opened: 1916 (as Eaton Place October 11, 1979)

Top: February 22, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune
Bottom: February 23, 1916, Manitoba Free Press

The T. Eaton Company had grand plans for its downtown Winnipeg property more than a decade after opening its retail store on Portage Avenue. It presented the multi-million dollar, decade-long proposal to city council in February 1916 for approval.

The company planned to build a pair of eight-storey mail order warehouses on Graham Avenue. Once completed, the existing retail store would temporarily relocate to one of them so that it could be demolished and replaced with an eight-storey, stone clad building. The three new structures would then have four storeys added to them.

February 22, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

The result would have essentially created a single, twelve-storey building stretching from Portage Avenue through to St. Mary Avenue. A cutaway in the building would allow Graham Avenue to pass through it.

For good measure, the lot west of the mail order buildings would also be developed with a delivery warehouse of two or three storeys with the possibility of one day also housing a small office block or hotel.

T. Eaton Co. executives estimated that it would take eight to twelve years to complete the redevelopment. They refused to give a cost estimate given how long the time frame was, but figures of
$6 million to $8 million, ($105 million to $140 million in 2013 dollars), were used in local newspaper stories.

Construction, 1916. Source: Imagining Winnipeg

The first phase of the project consisted of the eight-storey "Mail Order Building Number One", which is the west tower along Hargrave Street. As this did not contravene the city's development bylaws, Eaton's was allowed to start work on clearing the land and digging the foundation in mid-February while details of the building permit for the larger complex were hammered out.

The construction contract for the $600,000 building was awarded to the firm Carter-Halls Adlinger, with J. E. Buerk as the supervising engineer, on March 8, 1916. The first task was to start sinking 24 caissons to a depth of 52 feet.

Top: February 22, 1916, Winnipeg Free Press
Bottom:  July 17, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

The final proposal, while exciting to see on paper, posed a number of challenges for the city. 

When the decades of an unprecedented building boom trailed off after 1912 -13, the city finally had a chance to catch its breath and spent a great deal of time and money drawing up modern building codes and urban development bylaws. The Eaton's proposal broke many of them.

The most obvious breach was the maximum building height. The city restricted building heights to 115 feet in the core of the city with a 198 feet limit along Portage Avenue. The restrictions prevented office towers from springing up in adjacent warehouse and residential districts. 

It was also felt that the narrow streets, their width now set in stone due to the recent building frenzy, could not handle the commercial traffic such a building would create. There were also secondary concerns that included blocking sunlight to other buildings and the creation of wind tunnels.

Some aspects of the proposal weren't addressed by development bylaws. Officials had no idea what impact so many people and services crammed into such a small area would have on downtown's water system and electrical grid. Some had concerns about how fresh air, natural light and rescue crews would reach employees deep within the complex.

March 6, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

While city officials grappled with the proposal, the community was also split.

The Manitoba Association of Architects took out large ads in both newspapers that went point-by-point through which bylaws and “best practices" would be breached and the potential consequences. They concluded that  "... the best interests of the public are in danger of being set aside for the benefit of a private institution."

Even within the property development community, some spoke out against the plan. It was noted that if Eaton's was allowed to proceed then other developers or property owners would be within their rights to squeeze as much onto one plot of land as they wanted or construct new buildings over street level to connect two existing properties. It would create a free-for-all.

William Pearson of the provincial town planners' committee wrote a  Letter to Editor that appeared in the Free Press on March 2, 1916. He wrote that if Eaton’s were allowed to build such a large building,  “ will be a lasting monument to the selfishness of capital and the amazing indifference of the public to their own interests."

A group of Graham Avenue businesses also appeared in opposition at some of the planning meetings. They feared that the loss of natural light and traffic mayhem around such a massive building would devalue their properties.

February 29, 1916, Manitoba Free Press

Proponents of the plan were mainly prominent business leaders who stood to gain financially from having such a massive, national mail order centre in their midst. It would create hundreds of new jobs and thousands of spin-off jobs for local manufacturers of everything from soap to tractors to cardboard shipping boxes.

As for city council, most members were in favour of the project as some were the very same prominent businessmen who would reap benefits. Even those with misgivings leaned towards approval as this would be a development unrivalled in Canada and maybe even North America.

February 21, 1916, Manitoba Free Press

It was such a large and complicated proposal that numerous council committee meetings were held in the last week of February and first week of March to allow councillors to hear feedback from officials in pretty much every city department and the many public delegations that wanted to weigh in.

At a special meeting of council on February 23, 1916, an Eaton's corporate manager laid out the company's position. He said that the Eaton's store built in Winnipeg in 1905 was a "test building" and never meant to be a permanent structure.

Originally built five storeys tall in 1905, it had already been expanded by 3 storeys and then extended to the south taking it two-thirds of the way to Graham Avenue.
The company now knew what it wanted in a permanent store and it would be one that rivalled the best found in the U.S. and England.

The massive scale of the building project it proposed would allow them to serve the West for decades to come without the need for more expansion.

February 26, 1916, Manitoba Free Press

There was so much interest from public delegations wanting to have their say that the special meeting of the Fire, Water, Light and Power Committee of council, (which, it appears, had the final say on approving the plan before going to council as a whole for final approval,) held on February 28th had to be continued for a second day on March 3rd.

In the latter part of the March 3rd meeting, it was city council's turn to quiz The T. Eaton Company's architect and legal team.

As for tunnelling Graham Avenue through the building, architect William Bruce said that though it appeared that it was actually a number of multi-level skywalks that would span Graham Avenue to connect the two buildings. The Eaton lawyer and city solicitor reached an agreement that should the skywalks create problems such as wind tunnels, the city could order them removed.

The city also got a concession about the use of better fireproofing material in parts of the building, especially stairwells. These were new products coming on the market in places like New York and Chicago and not yet available in Winnipeg.

The committee broke at 3:00 pm for deliberations and when they returned, voted in favour of the new height limit and the extension over Graham Avenue. 

Eatons' grand plan was approved.

Carter Halls Adlinger ad, 1917 Henderson Directory

A ceremonial sod-turning took place at 11:45 on March 14, 1916. Eaton's store manager A. A. Gilroy, company president Sir John C. Eaton, and vice-president Harry McGee all took part.

Construction on the building went quickly. By early July the steel work to the fourth floor was up and in early August the brickwork was ready to begin. Eaton's used a custom green / brown brick manufactured by the Don Valley Brick Co. of Toronto.

A holdup came on August 2nd when a temporary strike by two-hundred unskilled labourers, mainly foreigners, took place on the site. They were unhappy with their twenty-five cent per hour wage and struck for a rise to thirty-five cents. The contractor offered to raise it to twenty-seven and a half cents and they went back to work the next day.

A follow-up strike made up of hundreds of construction workers at sites across the city took place in September but by then most of Mail Order Building Number One's major work had been completed.

September 6, 1916, Manitoba Free Press

For one worker, tragedy struck just weeks before the project was complete. 

At 4:45 pm on the afternoon of September 5, 1916, Sam Anderchuk (or Andruchuk) was unloading lumber at the east side of the building when he was struck by a brick that fell from the 8th floor.

Reports in both the Tribune and Free Press said that he was taken to Victoria Hospital, which was located on River Avenue at the time, in grave condition with a crushed skull and was not expected to recover. There was no follow up article about his death. 

Anderchuk, 35, had a wife and three children back in Austria.

December 8, 1924, Winnipeg Tribune

It does not appear as if Mail Order Building Number One had a grand opening. Newspaper ads in the final week of September 1916 noted that some items, such as saddles, had been moved from the existing store to the main floor of the new building.

The next major phase of the grand plan, the adjoining Mail Order Building Number Two along Donald Street, went ahead but not until 1920. Number Two was nine storeys tall and in 1925 an additional storey was added to Number One to make them the same height.

For the next 50 years, these buildings were home to the mighty T. Eaton's Co.s Mail Order division empire that shipped everything from soap to pre-fab houses across the West. Its main floor was also used to display new industrial equipment such as farm machinery and vehicles. 

Eaton's downtown campus (source)

By the end of the 1920s, Eaton's had an impressive 46 acres of floor space to work from.

The above postcard image shows what the site looked like in 1925. At the far left, the Eaton's store (1905 with two expansions) is uniformly eight storeys tall and extends two-thirds of the way to Graham Avenue. South of the store is the four-storey Eaton's Annex (1909).  

Across Graham are the twin Mail Order Buildings, Number One (1916) and Number Two (1921). (Not shown in the photo is the 1926 addition of one floor to Mail Order Building Number One to make the two buildings the same height.)

South of that is a small garage and entrance that was rebuilt in 1926. At the very right of the photo is Mail Order Building Number Three (1925) that contained stables and garage.

In the foreground is the power plant (1910). To the right of that is where the local delivery warehouse was to go, but ended up being built on Alexander Avenue in 1926-27.

In his book Eaton's, A Store Like No Other, Russ Gourluck notes that after John C. Eaton died of influenza in 1922, his replacement was the much more conservative Robert Eaton. It was likely he who slowed down the Winnipeg redevelopment plans and there was little new development on the site after 1926. The stock market crash and Depression then intervened and Eaton's grand plan was never completed.

The site changed very little over the next five decades with the exception of a multi-level parkade added next to the power plant in 1956-57.

The shopping habits of Canadians, however, were changing. Beginning in the mid 1970s Eaton's impressive downtown campus began to devolve.

See part 2!

October 20, 1949, Winnipeg Tribune

My Eaton's photo gallery
Eaton's Catalogue Building  Winnipeg Building Index
Before e-Commerce Museum of Civilization
Canadian mail Order History Library and Archives Canada