Wednesday, May 21, 2014

445 River Avenue - Gas Station Theatre
circa 2012 © Leif Norman

Place: Gas Station Arts Centre
Address: 445 River Avenue (Map)
1966 Construction: Imperial Oil Service Centre
Architect: Pratt Lindgren Snider Tomcej and Associates
1982 Redevelopment:Osborne Village Cultural Centre
Architect: Stecheson Katz

May 31, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

The term "Gas Station Theatre" is so familiar to people that its easy to forget that the site was home to a gas station for almost sixty-five years !

Imperial Oil opened their first filling station at the corner of River and Osborne in late 1914, their second in the city. This first incarnation, though, was likely at north-west corner of the intersection. In 1916 it was replaced by a new filling station at the north-east corner, where the theatre now stands.

At the time, filling stations were just that - a place to purchase gasoline, oil and lubricants.

The garage part came into play around 1919. River Osborne Garage was located at 421 River Avenue, one building east of the intersection. It was not associated with Imperial Oil. The original owners of the garage sold it in 1921 to Malcolm Bros. and they appear to have been the ones to add Imperial Oil to the mix, likely leasing the neighbouring filling station from the company.

In 1923 the garage and filling station were taken over by Harold and Fred Taunton of Beresford Avenue, who relocated from their original location at Osborne Street  and Glasgow.

April 12, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

In April 1930 Imperial Oil Ltd. took out an $18,000 building permit to build their own service station at the north-east corner of River and Osborne. The lot measured 82 feet x 76 feet and required four driveways, two off of Osborne and two off River. It was Imperial Oil's largest service centre in the city.

Built of reinforced concrete, its exterior was finished in a "Spanish Mission" style with buff colour stucco and tile and brick trim.  

As was their practice, Imperial built the infrastructure but leased it to a third party to operate. Part of the agreement, of course, was that they sold only Imperial Oil products.

Top: June 14 1930, Winnipeg Free Press
Bottom: June 14 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

The first proprietor was Leaney-Jobin Motors, which appears to have opened in stages with a grand opening in mid-June.

It offered a range of automotive services, many of which were only found at car dealerships at the time. Aside from a filling station with four pumps, it had four service bays with two grease pits and a battery repair station. Inside, there was a showroom that could hold three vehicles, (it was an "associate dealership" of Canadian-based Dodge Brothers), as well as a customer waiting room.

The interior was decorated, furnished and fully ventilated to give it the feel of being in a car dealership rather than a neighbourhood garage.

circa 1940s (Gas Station Arts Centre)

Just a couple of minutes from downtown and on the road to the neighbourhoods and municipalities to the south, Osborne Street around River Avenue was an ideal spot for a gas station, and it was full of them. 

By 1931, to the north of the Imperial Station was Roslyn Road Service which consisted of a British-American filling station (seen above) with a relocated Taunton Brothers garage. Across the street was Clark's Service Station with a Can-Oil filling station and next to that was Grosvenor Taxi's garage. There was a filling station and garage located on River Avenue west of Osborne Street as well.

In fact, the intersection was so busy with vehicle traffic that in July 1928 automatic traffic signals went into use there, one of just five in the city to have them.

June 14, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

Aside from having a great location, the first proprietors had a good pedigree in the car business. On the sales side was C. P. Leaney, who had been a district manager of Chrysler Corporation. C. L. Jobin had a long history in vehicle sales and service. 

Despite the splashy opening, prominent location and experienced owners, the business lasted little more than a year ! There is no indication as to what happened to the business.

Top: March 10, 1934, Winnipeg Free Press
Bottom: June 6, 1939, Winnipeg Free Press

Next up were a pair of tenants.

Brown and Winter Ltd. were a long-time motorcycle (Harley Davidson) sales and repair shop formerly located on Ellice Avenue. In 1933 they became Winnipeg's Indian Motorcycle distributor and opened at this location. They, too, only lasted for a couple of years before relocating to Sherbrook Street.

Bob Pacey relocated his used car business, Pacey Motors, to the site in 1933 and ran the garage. When Brown and Winter left, he became the manager of "River and Osborne Service Station", operating his car business as well as the garage and filling station until the late 1940s.

Top: March 16, 1964, Winnipeg Tribune
Bottom: circa 1950s Source: Gas Station Arts Centre

In the early 1950s it had a new manager named by Allan Armitage who became a fixture at the corner for more than two decades.  

Born in Winnipeg in 1914, he was a  World War II Veteran who lived on Anderson Street with wife Joan and three children. In 1955 the name of the station was changed to "Al's River and Osborne Service" then to "Al's Esso Service".

Top: January 17, 1967, Winnipeg Free Press
Bottom: ca. 1970, Winnipeg Building Index

By the 1960s the service station was outdated. In June 1966 local architect Pratt Lindgren Snider Tomcej and Associates put out a tender to rebuild the site as Winnipeg's first "Imperial Centre". These were a combination 24-hour Esso gas station, tire shop, garage and retail store that carried items such as car accessories, barbeques, lawnmowers, lawn chairs and tents.

At least two other Imperial Centres opened in the city, one at Portage and Simcoe and another at 614 St. James Street.

During this period, Al left to work for a car dealership, (he retired in 1981 and died in 2001 at the age of 86). The last manager of the station was Wally Hamsey in the late 1970s.

By the end of the 1970s the service station industry changed again. Garages were passé and convenience stores, self serve pumps and automatic car washes were in. Esso vacated the corner in 1979 after a 63-year presence.

In 1981 the first Core Area Initiative began. It was a five-year, $100 million urban revitalization fund run by the three levels of government. The program chose Osborne Village as one of its target neighbourhoods for funding and the former Esso site was an obvious choice for redevelopment.

In August 1982 the three levels of government agreed to provide the Riverborne Development Association, a community group, with $445,000 to purchase the empty building. The group's long-term redevelopment plan was for a cultural and performing arts centre that, unlike venues like the Playhouse and Concert Hall, would be affordable to small and alternative companies.

 May 4, 1983, Winnipeg Free Press

On the heels of the CAI grant, Riverborne received another $700,000 "jobs grant" from the federal government, (thanks to the fact that their Member of Parliament, Lloyd Axworthy, also happened to be the federal Employment and Immigration minister).

After eight months of work, the site was transformed into the Osborne Village Cultural Centre and Gas Station Theatre. On the evening of May 31, 1983 a V.I.P. opening night celebration was held.

June 3 1983, Winnipeg Free Press

The 232 seat  theatre lived up to its goal of being an affordable venue. It cost $150 per day to rent, which included the services of a lighting technician. Operating costs were offset by a $50,000 provincial grant and membership revenue.

The first show opened on June 1, 1983, the Ottawa-based Great Canadian Theatre Company’s Sandinista which ran until June 5.

April 3, 1996, Winnipeg Free Press 

It hasn't always been smooth sailing for the theatre. 

Though the Osborne Village Cultural Centre (OVCC) had its own board, the building was owned by the Riverborne Development Corporation. In 1993 OVCC were evicted for falling behind in the rent and Riverborne took over its management. The theatre continued to struggle and rumours started that it might be redeveloped for a more profitable use, such as retail or residential. 

After a messy, sometimes public fight and some political involvement, that issue was resolved when Redboine sold the property to the OVCC for $1 on April 3, 1996.

October 23, 2004, Winnipeg Free Press

The theatre continued to struggle financially. Though it was a popular venue, their rental rate of $500 a day, still steep for many community-based performing arts groups, was about half of what it actually cost to run the venue.

Small losses continued through the early 2000s and at their July 2004 board meeting the OVCC voted to put the theatre up for sale for $1 million. A possible deal with the U of M fell through and by October the NorthWest Company (Giant Tiger) put in a conditional offer that was accepted. They had until January 1 to close the deal.

A community group calling itself High Octane began to seek out new members and fundraise to save the venue from being sold. At a special membership meeting of the OVCC on December 14, 2004 the old board was replaced by a new one that vowed to keep the theatre open. The NorthWest Company walked away from its purchase.

Since that time, the organization has re-branded itself as the Gas Station Arts Centre. Its flagship event, the Winnipeg Comedy Festival, now features year-round programming.

In 2013 it celebrated its 30th anniversary and began community consultations about a possible redevelopment that would still include a theatre and arts centre, but add other uses to make the site more viable.

Redevelopment Initiative Gas Stations Arts Centre
Gas Station has big plans for the Village Winnipeg Free Press
Gas Station eyes major expansion CBC

Our History Imperial Oil
Vintage Imperial Oil service station ads Glenbow Archives

December 21, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune 

 February 17, 1967, Winnipeg Free Press

1 comment:

  1. Great story. Osborne was tottering ever so close in 1980 to deterioration. The Core Area Initiative and federal funding directed by Axworthy got offices on the street, a seniors home built and helped renovated numerous homes. The decade ended better than it started.