Tuesday, April 10, 2012

323 Portage - The Dayton Building

Dayton Building
Place: Dayton Building
ocation: 323 Portage Avenue (Map)
Opened: 1955
Green Blankstein Russell and Associates
Claydon Construction Co
50,000 sq ft, three storeys
Cost: $1 million

May 30, 1940, Winnipeg Tribune

Clothing retailer Dayton's Outfitters opened in 1935 in the space of a defunct hair salon at 375 Portage Avenue. It was not associated with Dayton's Department Stores of the U.S., it was owned by local businessman Alex Mitchell who admitted decades later that he had "borrowed" the name from the U.S. retailer after a visit to Minneapolis.

Mitchell in 1982

Mitchell was a downtown icon. From the 1950s to 1980s he was likely the area's largest private landowner. It is said that at one point he owned, (or co-owned with the Copp estate), a dozen buildings along Portage Avenue alone. (More about Mitchell and the Mirchell - Copp connection here.)

Dayton's sold clothing for men, women and children and proved successful thanks in part to being one of the few stores that allowed time payments, a sort of layaway plan. On May 31, 1940 the store moved across the street to the Dismorr Building at Hargrave and Portage. The new 15,000 square foot location was four times the size of the old one.

Hargrave looking North
Top: June 8, 1954, Winnipeg Free Press
1954: Time building (left), Dismorr (right)
Today: Time site (left), Dismorr site (right)

In the early hours of June 8, 1954, the Time Building, located across Hargrave Street,  caught fire. Winds of up to 115 kph spread burning debris throughout the downtown setting many buildings ablaze.

Three buildings, including the Dismorr, were destroyed and two more were severely damaged. Dozens of others were impacted, including Eaton's which lost hundreds of windows.

December 28, 1954, Winnipeg Free Press

Despite having a growing real estate portfolio to look after, Mitchell decided that he would rebuild his store on the Dismorr site. In 1954 he hired architects Green Blankstein Russell and Associates (GBR), who did the Dimsorr store conversion for him 14 years earlier, to design the new building.

GBR had come a long way since their first dealings with Mitchell. They designed a couple of U of M buildings, including the Elizabeth Dafoe Library, and were working on their latest commission, the new Great West Life headquarters on Osborne Street.

They went on to design the Civic Centre (City Hall), the Centennial Centre (which includes the Concert Hall, Manitoba Museum and Planetarium), and the Winnipeg International Airport. (For more about the firm's work, see here and here.)

There was another reunion of sorts on this project. The contractor, Claydon Construction Ltd., worked on the original Dismorr Building back in 1910. It was one of their first large-scale construction projects. 

They and went on to construct Winnipeg's Mall Medical Centre, Eaton's Warehouse and Isaac Newton School. They had branch offices in Atikokan, Fort William and Port Arthur. (For more on Claydon Construction / Claydon Brothers.)

Dayton's under construction (left), temporary store (right)
(Source: Jewish Post, November 24, 1955)

While the building was being constructed, Mitchell operated a smaller Dayton's store from the neighbouring Kennedy / Afleck Building which barely survived the Time fire, (the temporary store can be seen above.) Mitchell owned the Affleck building and, it seems, a stake in the Affleck's Shoes as it furnished was Dayton's shoe department and the two shared the same credit department.


Dayton Building
Top: ca. 1950s (Source: Manitoba Archives) 
Bottom: Hargrave Avenue elevation

GBR designed for Mitchell  Winnipeg's first all-glass exterior building. Advances in technology had created lighter weight insulated glass that could withstand Winnipeg's climate. The panels were hung from the steel frame of the building making it one of the earliest examples of curtain wall construction in the city.

A warm green was chosen for the plates, a sharp contrast to the brick, granite and Tyndall stone of the buildings that surrounded it. The ground floor's show windows wrapped around the Portage Avenue and Hargrave Street elevations and were lit with a continuous row of softly coloured bulbs. The effect gave the building a warm glow.

To minimize noise, extra thick floor tiles and acoustic ceiling panels were installed. Special lighting created a soft look to the store's interior and merchandise. The building also had central air conditioning.

Another unique feature is that there is a five-foot tall deck between the floor of one storey and the ceiling of the next. This allowed for easy access to the pipes, wiring and phone lines which normally would be sandwiched into a tight space above the ceiling tiles.

November 18, 1955, Winnipeg Free Press

Source: For more pics go here

When the store opened on November 19, 1955 customers were treated to a gleaming, modern store full of natural light, something that department stores were not known for at the time. The use of a main floor mezzanine maximized sales space, while allowing the main sales floor to be over twenty feet in height.

The top two floors were leased out as office space. The Manufacturers Life Insurance Co. was the initial main tenant.

  December 3, 1955, Winnipeg Free Press

The basement was home to David Pollock's Holiday Restaurant. Its 8,000 square feet was divided into a dining room, coffee counter and tea room for a total capacity of 325 patrons making it one of Winnipeg's largest eateries. The restaurant could be accessed though Dayton's or a separate Portage Avenue entrance, (you can see the "Holiday" sign in the Manitoba Archives photo above.)

The theme, as the name suggests, was being on a holiday. Despite its basement setting, the atmosphere was light and bright. The decor boasted strawberry coloured upholstery with walnut table tops and large white curtains. Framed travel posters covered the walls.

Three of the building's tenants put their heads together to create a unique tradition: the afternoon fashion show. Modelling agency Bette Bonn Ltd. provided the women who wore Dayton's latest fashions and walked the interior of the show windows that wrapped around the main floor of the building. Then it was down to the Holiday Restaurant for a more formal fashion show.

Holiday Restaurant lasted until 1967. It then became the Prime Rib Steakhouse until 1973.

Above: November 1976 ad
Below: October 27, 1976, Winnipeg Free Press

The Dayton Building survived two near-disasters.

In 1973 the neighbouring Affleck Building was the scene of a major fire that destroyed its top two floors. The Dayton survived with just smoke and water damage.

On October 26, 1976, a man turning from Portage onto Hargrave swerved to miss a car and struck the traffic light standard on the boulevard. Dazed, perhaps unconscious, after hitting his head against the steering wheel, the car continued through the store window and a further 68 feet, coming to a stop at the back wall of the store. Despite it being 2:30 p.m. on a weekday, the only injuries were to the driver and the 22 year-old pedestrian who came through the window into the store on the hood of the car. She had to be hospitalized.

Dayton's had a "Drive Thru Sale" to sell off damaged merchandise. The above Free Press photo was featured prominently in the ad.

In the early 1960s Dayton's grew to three stores. They opened in Polo Park Shopping Centre and, briefly, had a store on Rosser Avenue in Brandon. By 1970 it was back to just the Portage Avenue location.

By the 1980s Dayton's was facing a myriad of problems. There was a recession, downtown's fortunes continued to slide in favour of suburban malls, and retail stores were getting larger. Alex Mitchell, now in his eighties, was not up to the task of expanding the store and revamping its image.

Ron Orchard, company comptroller, told the Free Press on April 9, 1983 that: "We're too big to be a small, independent shop and we're too small to be an efficient department store."

Dayton's closed on July 31, 1983.

In 1984 four Vancouver businessmen, two of whom moved to Winnipeg, spent over $750,000 to completely overhaul the Dayton's store space into the 350-person capacity Dayton's Nite Club that featured live music, an in-house deejay and four bars. Renovations included bricking over the main floor show windows to give the interior an urban street feel.

The tone of the club was upscale. There was a hefty cover charge, doormen, a strict dress code and drinks went for $3.50 each. 

On December 20, 1984 it opened to the public. Gordon Sinclair Jr. wrote that "Dayton's is, unquestionably, the most sophisticated looking joint of its genre in town —elegant without being stuffy, big without being overwhelming," (Winnipeg Free Press, January 30, 1985.)

The following year, media articles appeared about "PR problems" that the bar was having. this included the steep prices and bouncers turning away certain people away at the door. Co-owner and manager George Kingra denied that the group overestimated the Winnipeg market but denied that they were looking to sell. 

In February 1986, though, it was announced that the club was closing for renovations and would reopen under a new ownership group and name: Times Nite Club.

Times was much more in keeping with the informal atmosphere of Winnipeg clubs. Gone was the dress code, cover charges were lowered, the stand-up portion of the bar areas were expanded. Large video screens complimented a lazer light show and live bands were a rarity. A California theme was created using sunset motifs and live palm trees.

As the nineties progressed, crime in and around the bar increased. It culminated in the March 1999 murder of a 20 year-old woman in a random attack inside the club by another 20 year-old woman.

Portage Patio

In 2007 it was time for a new club. Nearly $2 million was spent to renovate the space into the ultra- modern Ultraclub (for interior photos.) Work included refitting the main floor with windows and, eventually, glass doors leading to a patio on Portage Avenue.

To overcome the safety concerns about downtown night clubs, Ultra's owners created a security system better than what some airports had at the time. Between 20 - 25 security staff would be on duty each night, there were metal detectors and ID scanners at the door as well as 16 security cameras inside and out. There was also an over 21 age restriction. (Winnipeg Sun, December 13, 2007.)

The club was popular on weekends but could not draw a crowd during the week. By 2009 it was only open Friday and Saturday nights. With the new MTS Centre now open across the street, owners decided that Blush's final night would be New Year's Eve 2010.

They reopened the building the following year, opting for a new concept, the unfortunately named 4Play sports bar. It clsoed in early 2013. Since then, it was to be a supper club and a brew pub, but neither project materialized.

Likely the longest term tenant of the Dayton Building is the Age and Opportunity Centre which opened there in 1978. Another retailer, LA Collections, has been there since 2006.

As for Alex Mitchell, he maintained an office in the Dayton Building that he visited regularly until just weeks before his death on September 10, 1996 at the age of 93.

Logos: 1940s, 1950s, 1960s - 83.


  1. I think LA Collections is either relocating or opening a second collection in the old Colour your World space on Portage (at Ashburn?) near Rae and Jerry's.

  2. One Wednesday night in 2008, Blush Ultraclub also featured a relatively unknown Lady Gaga, just before she hit it big.

  3. That location that LA Collections is must be mostly basement - good for them if they're moving up in the world. Too bad they're outa downtown, though.

    Lady Gaga - interesting ! at the other end of the block - the Clarendon Hotel - thy featured an unknown band in the mid 80s called the Tragically Hip !

  4. I used to go to a bar there called Richard's American Bar..I think it was only open from 1991 to maybe 94 or so.

  5. The building is for sale. Likely it will be bought for demolishing and putting up something bigger in the space. I liked reading your post about it. I tried to find photos from inside the building, but no luck. It had some real history in Winnipeg, being an early all glass building.