Tuesday, February 15, 2022

885 Portage Avenue - Former Royal Bank of Canada

© 2022, Christian Cassidy

Place: Former Union Bank of Canada / Royal Bank of Canada / RBC
Address: 885 Portage Avenue (Map)
Constructed: 1972 - 73
Closed: September 2021

The RBC branch at Portage Avenue at Arlington Street permanently closed in September 2021. The bank had a presence at this intersection for almost 109 years, ever since the Union Bank opened there in November 1912.

Here's a look back at its history.

Quebec-based Union Bank of Canada opened its first Winnipeg branch in 1882. The institution found so much success in Western Canada through brokering land deals and lending to farmers that over the next 20 years it opened a couple of hundred branches in rural communities.

During the 1902 - 1903 fiscal year, the Union Bank opened 22 new branches in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and began construction on a new Western Canadian headquarters on Main Street next to city hall. The steel-framed Union Bank Tower, now a National Historic Site, is considered to be Western Canada's first "skyscraper".

November 27, 1912, Winnipeg Free Press

The connection between the Union Bank and the West grew so strong that in 1912 it transferred its head office from Quebec City to Winnipeg. It also invested in three new local branches to complement its three existing ones. The new locations were Corydon at Pembina, Portage at Colony, and Portage at Arlington.

This first "Portage and Arlington branch" opened in late November 1912 and was located at 869 Portage Avenue between Home and Arlington streets next to the Arlington Theatre. The branch was managed by W. W. Barry.

The fortunes of the branch grew along with the West End and in 1920 a new building was constructed a few doors down at 885 Portage Avenue at Arlington. The $62,000 brick and concrete building contained a bank branch and a retail space. (It could be that the retail space is the building pictured to the left of the brick building in the above photo.)

Another location that got a near-identical building around this time was the Corydon Avenue branch. It still stands today at Lilac Street.

The Union Bank of Canada merged with the Royal Bank of Canada in 1925 to create Canada's largest bank with branches in over 800 communities. Established in Halifax in 1869, the Royal Bank grew into a national presence and relocated its headquarters to Montreal in 1907. It made inroads into the West through an amalgamation with Winnipeg's Royal Crown Bank in 1918. 

The Portage and Arlington branch survived the merger and was re-branded under the Royal name.

June 2, 1934, Winnipeg Tribune

Bank robberies were common back in the days before electronic banking and the Portage and Arlington branch had its share of them.

The most notable came in June 1935 when someone police described as "one of the most nervy stick-up men ever seen in Winnipeg" walked into the branch posing as a telegraph messenger just before closing time and made off with $3,223 in cash, (about $65,000 in today's dollars.) Police got more than they bargained for when they found that the bandit was an escaped murderer from a Florida chain gang. (For more about that robbery and its outcome, see this post.)

Another robbery took place in what would have been the final days of the old building.

On January 18, 1973, a 19-year-old presented a note to a teller and got away with $400 in cash. Employees followed him into the back lane and he turned a fired a C02 pistol at them. Nobody was hurt. He was later captured and sentenced to three years in jail.

February 2, 1973 Free Press

There was more excitement in store for the branch in the early 1973.

On February 1, 1973, Al Fraser took over as manager of the branch from Claude Winter who retired after more than 40 years of service with the bank. This would have been around the time that the old building was torn down to make way for a new building.

The new building was a prototype for "open concept" banking. It got staff out of individual offices and in some cases from behind the teller's counter. If the concept was successful it would be rolled out to other branches as they were being rebuilt.

Newspapers didn't report in detail about the new branch, so the start date of its construction, architect and contractor are unknown. It was reported that it was finished inside with "a colour scheme of red, orange and yellow."

The Royal Bank's "Mary"

The Royal brought in some star power to officially open the new branch on June 22, 1973.

"Mary" was actress and model Kathleen Flaherty of Montreal who appeared in a series of national radio, television and print ads for the bank from 1968 to 1976. Mary was a young, modern, urban woman who helped guide a new generation of bank clients into its branches and familiarized them with new services like the Chargex (now Visa) credit card and automated teller machines.

While in Winnipeg, Flaherty also appeared on the company float in the Manisphere parade and visited her grandparents who resided here.

Left: Dec.  27, 1989, Winnipeg Free Press. Right: Google Street View

The Royal Bank announced in 1989 that it was expanding two of its Winnipeg branches, Henderson at Kimberley and Portage at Arlington, to create regional outlets. It wanted to decentralize some of its services, particularly small business loans, from its Portage and Main headquarters.

The $700,000 addition was built to the the north of the existing building and nearly doubled the square footage of the branch. Much of the extension was built at the second storey level to minimize the number of parking spots that had to be eliminated.

The branch was temporarily closed during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in favour of keeping the Sargent and Sherbrook branch open. It closed permanently in September 2021.

April 22, 1982, Winnipeg Tribune

1 comment:

  1. Great article - I actually hadn't known that the Portage and Arlington branch had closed. One thing that got me searching was your mention of a RB at Henderson at Kimberly. I have lived in this area since 1988 and always known that bank branch to be a CIBC one. The Free Press of Dec. 27, 1989 talks of a RB expansion of its Henderson Hwy branch NORTH of Kimberly. I think the article is referring to the 963 Henderson Hwy branch at Northdale Shopping Centre where I do know there was an expansion at some point.