Thursday, January 9, 2014

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

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 Mail Order Building was part of a much larger redevelopment plan for of the company's Winnipeg downtown land that was presented to Winnipeg city council in February 1916.

The intention was to build a new,  twelve-storey building that would take up the entire city block from Graham to St. Mary Avenues between Hargrave and Donald Streets. Once completed, the Portage Avenue store would be temporarily relocated there while the existing building was demolished and replaced with a new, eight-storey, stone-facade building that would later be expanded by four floors.

February 22, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

The ambitious project would take between eight and twelve years to complete and, once finished, would have created a single, massive building that ran from Portage to St. Mary Avenues with just a two-storey section notched out at ground level to allow Graham Avenue to pass through it.

Another building, a two or three-storey local warehouse, was slated for the Graham Avenue block to the west of the Mail Order Buildings, (today, CityPlace's surface parking lot).

Eaton's never released a final price tag for the project, which would have been hard to do given the length of time required for its completion, but estimates between $6 million and $8 million ($105 m - $140 m 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.

On March 8 the construction contract for the $600,000 building was awarded to the firm Carter-Halls Adlinger, (J E Buerk, supervising engineer). Their first task was to sink 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 years 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 was maximum building height. The city restricted building heights to 115 feet in the core of the city with a 198 foot limit along Portage Avenue. The restrictions prevented office towers from springing up in adjacent warehouse and residential districts. 

It was felt that the narrow streets, their width now set in stone due to the recent building frenzy, could not handle the required traffic demands. Secondary concerns included blocking sunlight to other buildings and the creation of wind tunnels.

There were some aspects of the proposal that weren't even addressed by development bylaws. The city, for instance, 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. Others had concerns about how fresh air, natural light and rescue crews would reach employees deep within the complex.

March 6, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

While the city 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 if 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, other developers or property owners would be within their rights to squeeze as much onto one plot of land as they wanted and even 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 of the Free Press that appeared on March 2 stating that if Eaton’s were allowed to build such a large building at that location “ will be a listing monument to the selfishness of capital and the amazing indifference of the public to their own interests."

A group of Graham Avenue businesses appeared in opposition, fearing that the lost of natural light and traffic mayhem around such a massive building would devalue their properties.

February 29, 1916, Manitoba Free Press

The proponents of the plan were mainly prominent business leaders who stood to gain from having such a massive, national mail order centre procuring and shipping goods from their back yard.

As for councillors themselves, most leaned in favour of the project. After all, in terms of "feather in the cap" projects for a city to boast of, the Eaton's project was right up there. It would be a mini-city unto itself providing thousands of direct jobs and spin-off employment in everything from box manufacturers to rail yards.

February 21, 1916, Manitoba Free Press

It was a large and complicated proposal so numerous council committee meetings were held in the last week of February and first week of March to allow members to hear from officials in pretty much every city department.

At a special meeting of council on February 23, 1916 an Eaton's corporate manager laid out the company's position. He argued that the Eaton's store built in Winnipeg in 1905 was a "test building" and never meant to be a permanent structure. Originally built as 5 storeys, it by 1910 it had been expanded by 3 storeys then an 8-storey addition was made to the south, (taking it two- thirds of the way to Graham Avenue). 

After years of growing with the city, the company now knew what it wanted for its permanent store - one that would rival the best found in the eastern U.S. and London. With the mail order building, they wanted to construct a facility that would service the rapidly expanding West for decades to come.

February 26, 1916, Manitoba Free Press

There was so much interest from delegations wanting their say that another special meeting of the Fire, Water, Light and Power Committee, (which, it appears, had the final say on approving the plan), was held on February 28th and continued on March 3rd.

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

As for tunnelling Graham Avenue, architect William Bruce said that though they appeared to be part of a single building, these were actually multi-level walkways that would be built over Graham Avenue. The Eatons' lawyer conceded to an agreement with the city solicitor that once built, should they create unintended problems such as wind tunnels, council could order them removed.

The city also got some concessions 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 not yet available in Winnipeg.

The committee broke at 3 pm for deliberations and when they came back 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 steelwork to the fourth floor was up. By early August that work was finished and the brickwork was ready to start. 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 cents per hour wage and struck for 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 workers at job sites across the city took place in September but, by then, most of the Eaton building had been completed.

September 6, 1916, Manitoba Free Press

For one foreign 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 form the 8th floor. Reports in both newspapers the following day said that he was at Victoria Hospital (at that time on River Avenue) in grave condition with a crushed skull and not expected to recover. There is, however, 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. Starting the final week of September 1916, newspaper ads noted that some items, such as saddles, had been moved from the existing store to the main floor of the new building.

December 8, 1924, Winnipeg Tribune

The next major phase of the grand plan went ahead, but not until 1920. It consisted of Mail Order Building Number Two, a twin to Number One, just one storey taller and built along Donald Avenue. (In 1925 an additional storey was added to Number Oneto make them the same height.)

For the next 50 years this was the home to the mighty Eaton's Mail Order Catalogue empire, shipping 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)

As impressive as the Eaton's site became with over 46 acres of floor space by the end of the 1920s, their grand plans never materialized. 

The above postcard shows what the site looked like in 1925. At the far left, the Eaton's store is uniformly eight storeys tall and extends two-thirds of the way to Graham Avenue, (this took place in a series of three expansions of the original 1905 store). 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). South of that is a small garage and entrance that was rebuilt in 1926. Finally, the 4-storey Mail Order Building Number Three, which also contained stables and garage (1912).

In the foreground is the power plant (1910). To the right of that is where the local warehouse was to go, according to the original presentation to city council in 1916. That ended up being built on Alexander Avenue in 1926-27.

The final major expansion of the site took place in 1926. That year, not shown in the above postcard, Number One had another storey added to make the two towers the same height. There may also have been an expansion to the rear of Number Two.

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, which likely led to the plan being put on the slow track. Of course, the stock market crash of 1929 helped put the brakes on any more large retail re-development planned for the city.

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.

Part 2 coming soon !

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