Saturday, December 27, 2014

338 Furby - Alfred Block II

Alfred Block, Winnipeg

Place: Alfred Block I (1914-1956), II (1957-present)
Address: 338 Furby Street at Portage (Map)
Architect: Charles A. McCool
Contractor: Fraser Construction Co. Ltd.

The first Alfred Block was a two-storey, mixed use building constructed around 1914 at the corner of Furby Street and Portage Avenue. Despite most of the building's frontage being on Portage Avenue, its legal address was, and is, 338 Furby Street.

Above: May 17, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune
December 22, 1917, Winnipeg Tribune

Numerous tenants, both retail and residential, came and went over the decades. Number 625 Portage, for instance, was long time home to Hill's Waffle Shop which opened in 1930 and remained until the 1950s.

One of the upstairs suites was the first home to the Shinn Conservatory of Music, founded by Welsh immigrant W. H. Shinn, a graduate of the Royal Conservatory of Music. By the 1940s the school, then operated by son B. Franklyn Shinn, took up three suites. In 1947 they moved to a new, stand-alone building on further north of Furby Street.


Top: July 12, 1956, Winnipeg Free Press
Bottom: July 11, 1956, Winnipeg Free Press

At around 6 pm on July 10, 1956 barber Steve Kaye was closing his shop, which was located in the front area of Casey's Billiards Hall at the west end of the building, when he heard a rumble. A large crack appeared in the exterior wall, his front window smashed and the ceiling began to fall in. One of Kaye's employees ran upstairs to notify the apartment tenants to get out and customers swarmed out of the billiard hall "like flies."

The west foundation wall had failed, causing the south west corner of the building to collapse. Thanks to Kay's staff and the quick thinking live-in caretaker who immediately shut off the gas when he felt the building move, there were no injuries.

Two days later the old Alfred Block was demolished, the failure blamed on an excavation on the neighbouring lot. The owner did not miss a beat as three weeks later architect Charles McCool and contractor Fraser Construction were readying the site for reconstruction.

Alfred Block 2

The new building was similar to the old one in terms of size and layout. Construction must have happened quickly as nearly all of the displaced retail tenants moved back in. They were: White's Hardware (619); Scorer Electric (623); Casey’s Billiards and Steve’s Barber Shop (629). The only one that did not return was the Waffle Shop at 625. It was replaced by Scalena’s Restaurant and Snowflake Bakery. The upstairs contained 16 small suites.


A long-time fixture of both Alfred Blocks was Casey's Billiards hall. 

Tom Casey, a genial Irishman, came to Winnipeg from Brantford, Ontario in 1910 at the age of 24. He was a gifted athlete and soon played on local lacrosse and hockey teams. In 1914, the year the building opened, he partnered with Frank Marks to open the Pastime Pool Room at number 629. By 1919 it was known as T. J. Casey Billiards Hall.

Casey was a fixture on the local amateur sports scene, including serving as president and manager of the Winnipeg Arena's baseball club. He even started a short-lived amateur hockey team in Los Angeles. His billiards hall became an unofficial club house for well known Winnipeg sportsmen, professional and amateur alike. (For more about Casey see my post at West End Dumplings.)

Former Cue Club
Former Cue Club

Casey died in 1973 and his billiards hall closed the following year. The space reopened a couple of years later as Olympic Billiards, then in the 2000s it was known as The Cue Club.

After sitting vacant for a few years, the former pool hall and restaurant space were combined to become Pop Soda's Coffeehouse in September 2011. That venture lasted only a year, after a vehicle accident damaged the Portage Avenue frontage of the building. The space is now home to Good Will Social Club. Other retail tenants include Cellular Walk-in Clinic (since 2011) and Elisabeth Hair.

Portage Avenue Mural

In 2011 a mural celebrating Winnipeg's hockey history was added to the Furby Avenue portion of the building, something Tom Casey would have enjoyed, no doubt !

Both Alfred Blocks also have an interesting musical history. Just as the first block turned out a generation of classical musicians through the Shinn Conservatory of Music that operated in a number of the upstairs suites from the 20s - 40s, starting in the 1990s some upstairs suites became practice space for local bands.

Since that time hundreds of bands have used the space, including some of Winnipeg's best known acts such as Greg MacPhersonPropagandhi, Imaginary Cities, Pip Skid and The Weakerthans. (Thanks to Greg MacPherson for this interesting musical tidbit !)

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