Thursday, April 13, 2017

637 Main Street - Bon Accord / Mitchell Fabrics Building

© 2017, Christian Cassidy
Place: Bon Accord / Mitchell Fabrics Building
Address: 635 - 645 Main Street, 185 Logan Avenue
Constructed: 1906 - 07
Architect: John D. Atchison

Mr. and Mrs. Fraser ca. 1930s

The now single-storey Bon Accord block stands as a testament to Arthur M. Fraser's protest against property taxes.

Fraser, (1852 - 1948), was born and raised in Scotland. In 1876, he became a lawyer in London, England and the following year married Mary Gordon.

Though he did not move to Winnipeg until 1898, he had visited the city on a number of occasions, (I believe he was a board member of the London-based Land Corporation of Canada which sold land for subdivision along the CPR line, primarily in Western Manitoba and near Regina.)

Soon after arriving, Fraser and his family, which would eventually include ten children, lived at 166 Donald Street.

Fraser quickly became known as a well-to-do property owner. By 1905, his portfolio consisted of more than a dozen pieces of land, including 400 feet of frontage along Main Street. He also became a director of the Standard Trusts Company when it was created in 1902.

Fraser was an outspoken political activist in favour of temperance and against taxation. His lengthy letters to the editor appeared regularly in daily papers, often calling out those in positions of power for their beliefs and policies.

Top: Gospel Hall
Bottom: Nov. 13, 1906, Manitoba Free Press

In 1905 - 1907 Fraser began to develop some of his higher profile properties.

Permits were granted for the five-storey Bon Accord building, the Men's Own Block, a five storey hostel with assembly hall to the east of the Bon Accord at 226 Logan Avenue, plus a 16-storey office building at Main and McDermot. (The tower never got built, you can read more about that in Robert's post at The Common.)
The Bon Accord, far right, ca. 1918, (Virtual Heritage Winnipeg)

The five-storey, brick and reinforced concrete Bon Accord, was constructed in 1906-07. Architect John D. Atchison, (also see), designed the mixed-use building with multiple retail units on the main floor, at least one floor of residential suites and offices on the upper floors.

Tenants started advertising in the block in March 1907 but a powerful rain storm in July caused extensive water damage the top floor. The water came through the stairwells and elevator shaft and ran right down to the basement. As a result, there was a delay in new tenants moving in until late summer.

Initial retail tenants included a clothing store, pawn shop, department store and Chinese goods store. The following year, the Quebec Shoe company opened and was a retail presences for a decade.

The offices were a combination of real estate companies, insurance agents, accountants and the likes of J. D. MacArthur, a well known contractor. Gospel Church occupied suite 106 for many of the early years. In 1930, the Communist Party called it home.

The residents who lived on the second floor were mostly from the working class, with occupations such as elevator operators, CPR employees, bridge builders, Eaton’s clerks and stenographers. The 1911 census lists 62 people living as living on the second floor alone, many of them families.

There were some well-to-do tenants. People like Robert Tate, president of Canada Loan and Realty Company, and Fraser who lived with his family and a nanny on the fourth floor.

Nov. 14, 1907, Manitoba Free Press

A unique feature of the building was the 700 person Bon Accord conference hall that could be entered from the Logan Avenue entrance. It was likely on the third floor of the building as that floor usually appears empty or with just one or two offices listed in Henderson Directories. (Both the Bon Accord and Men's Own buildings had halls.)

The hall was initially given over to Mrs. Sherbinin who also ran the Stranger's Rest Mission further north on Main Street.

It was a place where  "...young men who were in great distress, without friends, without money to buy a meal or a place to sleep” could go to find refuge. It is also where Sherbinin accepted donations of clothing and other materials for the poor. Interestingly, a mission of some sort would be an almost continuous presence in the building until the late 1980s.

Mar. 6, 1904, Winnipeg Tribune

The mission's presence was thanks to Mrs. Fraser. A devout woman, despite having ten children to raise, she devoted much of her spare time to missions working with the poor.

Shortly after arriving in Winnipeg, she was the founder of this city's chapter of the Travellers' Aid Society. A division of the YWCA, it offered shelter and comfort to stranded and destitute travellers, especially women and families who were the victims of abuse or at risk of falling into the sex trade.

Due to her prominent place in this movement and her oration skills, she sat on committees and shared the stage with the likes of Nellie McClung.

It is unclear how long the mission operated from the building. By 1911, the hall contained the offices of the Sunshine Fund, another YWCA charity. The hall was also used by churches as a temporary location and sometimes as a commercial exhibition space.

Apr. 5, 1927, Winnipeg Tribune

The building appears to have been successful, though Fraser was an unhappy man as he became more vocal in his anti-tax crusade.

In March 1922, he co-founded and was the first president of the Winnipeg Taxpayers' Association. They appeared as delegation at various civic and school board meetings offering advice. He also became known for his long - sometimes a quarter of a page - letters to the editor railing against taxes and tax policy.

He routinely appealed the assessment on his properties and made the Bon Accord his centrepiece.

Fraser didn't just feel that the assessments were too high, but that the system of used by the city was "illegal'. Rather than using value and net revenue, he and his lawyers argued, the city should only tax based on gross rental.

In 1926, he found a sympathetic ear in provincial justice Galt, who heard his appeal. Galt shocked the city when he agreed with Fraser's argument and lowered the assessed value of the Bon Accord from $75,000 to $18,000.

Apr. 9, 1926, Winnipeg Tribune

The city appealed that decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. The court, however, said it did not have the jurisdiction to hear the case. In the end, the wording of the property tax bylaw was strengthened and the Bon Accord's original assessment was reinstated.

This infuriated Fraser, who claimed it was an illegal act by the city, and he never forgot it. He continued to fight the battle of the building's assessment in hearings in subsequent years and pointed out the injustice in many letters to the editor.

In 1928, Fraser announced that his family, the children were grown by now but two daughter remained at home, were moving back to England. The Free Press notes quoted an unnamed real estate agent as saying his departure: “...will be a distinct loss to the ranks of investors who have shown their faith in the future of the city.”  

He did not move to England. He ended up in Montreal but kept an interest in at least some of his local  properties and contributed his letters to the editor at assessment time.

Apr. 17, 1935, Winnipeg Tribune

Fraser sold the Bon Accord in 1932 for the sum of $75,000 to Mrs. Matilda Wilson, a widow. Wilson moved into the block, suite 407, but died in 1934.

The building's sale may, in the end, have not been completed or was just a sale just on paper as it was sold again in 1935, this time for $35,000 to builder Frank Lount. According to the Tribune, Fraser was still the owner at the time.

Along with the sale, it was announced that the top four storeys of the building would be dismantled, leaving just the main floor and basement.

Dec. 9, 1935, Winnipeg Tribune

It is unclear if the dismantling was a condition of sale by Fraser - a final "screw you" to the city for the high assessment.

The low sale price and the fact that Lount made no public comment about the need to take of the top floors off leads me to believe that it was a condition of sale.

Fraser couldn't help but send one last letter to the editor, which appeared on December 9, 1935 Winnipeg Tribune. With it, he included before and after photos of the Bon Accord as an: “…illustration of what the present system of assessment and taxation is doing in Winnipeg, razing its buildings and ruining its property owners.”

The dismantling, which cost about $8,000, began in the last week of April 1936.
Bon Accord, right, showing different storefronts, ca. 1966 (Warkentin)

After the elimination of the top floors, the Bon Accord name pretty much disappears. The various storefronts developed so that they did not even appear as if they belonged to the same building.

The 1940 Henderson Directory shows that there were five main floor units: the Oak Theatre; New Main Café; J. Mindess and Co. Jobbers (clothing store); Shorty’s Billiards parlour; and an empty space. In 1944, that void became Mindess, Gilfix and Malt, forerunner to Mitchell Fabrics. Also around 1944, the pool hall became Union Gospel Mission.

Jan. 14, 1939, Winnipeg Tribune

The Oak Theatre first began advertising in January 1939 and was located at number 645. It formed a cluster of theatres near the intersection with the Starland and Rex across the street.

It was a neighbourhood cinema that showed second run films and could be leased out by local speakers and preachers. The exact number of seats it had is unknown, but it must have been small considering the building was only one floor with a basement !

The Oak closed in 1962.

The New Main Café, a Chinese restaurant, first appears in the Henderson Directory of 1932. An early owner was Wong Jim Quong.

The café's fate mirrors the fortunes of that section of Main Street. Even in the 1930s and 1940s it could be a rough place. but it took a drastic, downward spiral in the 1950s.

It seems that the management, likely the Pang family, allowed illegal drinking to take place in the basement level which led to many gruesome incidents.

In 1955, a group purchased pop upstairs then went down to mix it with rubbing alcohol. The party soon took to the streets and ended with the murder of August Flatfoot on Higgins Avenue.

In 1959, a man who had been drinking in the basement came upstairs and punched 73-year-old William Kmet of Fraserwood, MB, a patron in the café, in the head. He died of a brain hemorrhage.

Later that year, another assault in the basement left a man with a broken finger and needing 28 stitches.

The café's name comes up numerous times in relation to court cases involving murder, assaults, theft and prostitution until it was finally closed down in 1962.

Mar. 24, 1934, Winnipeg Free Press

Union Gospel Mission
has had a permanent presence in Winnipeg since they opened at 637 Main Street in 1933.

The organization's international headquarters was based in St. Paul, Minnesota and had missions in Canada, Great Britain and the U.S.. The first head of the Winnipeg mission was  Edward C. Clarke, who had previously established missions in Buffalo, N.Y. and Erie, Pennsylvania.

Union Gospel was open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and offered meals, a place to sleep and spiritual guidance. In 1944, they relocated within the building to unit 645.

They were a fixture in the space until around 1980 when they moved to their present home on Princess Street.
645 Main Street ca. 1991 (Warkentin)

Through the 1980s, number 645 was home to the Indian and Metis Pentacostal Church and Mission. It was then briefly an outreach centre for the Indian and Metis Friendship Centre.

Sept. 5, 1956, the  Jewish Post

It was fabric store Mitchell Fabrics that outlasted all of the other businesses.

The roots of the store go back to a wholesale jobbers (clothing and textiles) run by Samuel Mindess and Frank Gilfix. Their partnership appears to have formed in 1906 when they had an office on the second storey of the Bon Accord Building.

After the deconstruction, they moved to 619 Main Street but returned to the Bon Accord around 1943.

Nov. 28, 1966, Winnipeg Tribune

When Mendel Mitchell of Reinland, Manitoba returned from World War II he settled in Winnipeg and went to work for what was then called Mindess, Gilfix and Malt. In 1947, he became a partner with Frank Gilfix and the store was renamed Mitchell and Gilfix.

The name Mitchell Fabrics first appears in the 1961 Henderson Directory. Later that decade, Mitchell began expanding into neighbouring retail units. It is unclear when he bought the building outright. (For more about the history of Mitchell Fabrics.)

Mitchell's remained a fixture in the Bon Accord for 70 years. In February 2017 they announced that the store would close.

My photo album of the Bon Accord Block
A look back at Mitchell Fabrics West End Dumplings

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