Friday, January 27, 2017

563 Spence Street - Former Willard Hall

Place: Former 'Willard Hall'
Address: 563 Spence Street (Map)
Constructed: 1899
Architect: Unknown

The house at 563 Spence Street was built in 1899 as the family home of James G. Latimer, a contractor and future city alderman and controller. 

Latimer and his wife had already lived in Winnipeg for nearly 20 years by this point and just two of their eight sons, Bertram and Andrew, still lived at home.

January 6, 1900, Winnipeg Tribune

Latimer was elected to city council in 1900 and took on James Ashdown for the mayor’s chair in 1907.

It was expected that Ashdown would run unopposed as nobody wanted to take on one of the West’s most powerful businessmen. With just a couple of weeks to go before election day, Latimer threw his hat in the ring. (One Tribune story hints that he got talked into it by a group of people without Latimer's best interests at heart.)

Latimer appears to have received the "anybody but Ashdown" vote, including the tepid support of workers. The labour newspaper, The Voice, wrote: "Labour men may or may not vote for Latimer; they most assuredly will not vote for Ashdown."

In the end, Ashdown won by a vote of 5,091 to 2,352. 

Latimer continued to serve on the city's Board of Control until 1909. (The Board of Control was an elected body, similar to City Council, except they dealt with financial matters.)

September 17, 1907, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1907, Latimer and his wife moved to Edmonton Street and 563 Spence was sold to Horace Filmore. He had many jobs while living here, including the secretary of the Winnipeg Casket Co., manager of the Great Western Film Co. and, by 1912, was a real estate agent.

In 1912, the home became a seven-room house for rent. It was then marketed as a four-suite rooming house.

October 12, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

In September 1927, 563 Spence Street became Willard Hall, the headquarters of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). It replaced an earlier Willard Hall that opened around 1910 in a home at 473 Balmoral Street.

The WCTU had branches around North America and Willard Halls in dozens of cities. Canada's largest appears to have been in Toronto. They were named for Frances Willard the pioneering New York suffragist.

The WCTU and other women's groups used the downstairs as a meeting and lecture space. The upstairs contained four bedrooms that were rented out to young women often from outside the city who came here to find work.

June 28, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

In 1930, the WCTU rented the property to the Big Sisters Association of Greater Winnipeg, though it and other groups continued to use the main floor as a headquarters and meeting space for the next two decades.

The Big Sisters Association of Greater Winnipeg, established on November 12, 1926, was the fifth Canadian branch of the North American organization founded in New York City in 1912. They worked with girls who came before the Juvenile Court, often the first time offenders, to provide mentorship, life skills and employment training in the hopes that they would not re-offend.

Initially, the organization had an office at the Juvenile Court which at the time was located on Portage Avenue at Sherbrook Street. The move to this house meant that they could provide room and board to girls from outside the city.

Over the years, other agencies such as the Children's Home and the Juvenile Court itself expanded their programming and made some of the Big Sisters' work redundant. The Big Sisters Association of Greater Winnipeg announced in January 1949 that it was winding down operations.

(The organization, with a very different mandate, reappeared in Winnipeg in 1970 and since 2001 has been known as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg. Their new headquarters at 532 Ellice Avenue at Langside is just a couple of blocks away from the former Willard Hall.)

Official Opening, March 30, 1949 Winnipeg Tribune

In March 1949, the home was turned over to a new women's organization called the Wheelchair Club of Winnipeg. It worked with girls affected by polio to by providing employment and life skills training. After extensive renovations to the house a number of girls moved in upstairs.

The last meetings took place at Willard Hall in the spring of 1954. It was then sold to David and Mathilda "Tillie" Jones. He was an Eaton's Employee and she a saleswoman at Maclean Hunter. Tillie was also a member of the Wheelchair Club, though her 1976 obituary does not indicate if she was a board member or a client.

The Jones' continued to own the house for at least the next 12 years, renting out three suites upstairs to seniors. (These included, Gustav Skalin, 82, a retired interior decorator, in October 1967 and Gladys Bissett, 60, of Winnipeg, in July 1975 widow.)

The final "Rooms for Rent" ad that can be found in the Winnipeg Free Press ran in 1994.

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