Sunday, July 10, 2022

629 Alexander Avenue - Former Sherbrook Theatre

© 2022, Christian Cassidy

Place: Former Sherbrooke Theatre
Address: 627 - 629 Alexander Avenue (Map)
Constructed: 1912
Architect: George G. Tetter
Contractor: A. Jameson

February 8, 1949, Winnipeg Tribune (L. Gibbons)

A construction permit for this building was issued to Mrs. Annie S. Conway on July 29, 1912. It was designed by George G. Teeter and estimated to cost $10,500 or about $275,000 in 2022 dollars

This was the second time that Conway and Teeter teamed up to construct a building that summer. In early June, a $90,000 building permit was issued for a double-width apartment block on Kennedy Street. That building still stands today and is appropriately named Conway Court.

Teeter was born and raised in Ontario. Not long after graduating from the University of Toronto he came to Winnipeg and began advertising his practise in January 1906.

By April, he was requesting tenders for a large house in Riverview and the original Tabernacle Baptist Church on Burrows Avenue. Other prominent buildings he designed were: Trinity Baptist Church (1907), Killarney MB municipal hall (1909), King Edward Hospital (1911), Ellesmere Apartments (1911),  Gordon - King Memorial United Church (1913), and the Christie Brown Bakery as supervising architect (1932).

May 28, 1896, Manitoba Free Press

Annie Conway was the widow of auctioneer Michael Conway.

Originally from Tralee, Ireland, Mr. Conway came to Canada as a child and settled at Guelph, Ontario. He came to Winnipeg in 1882 and set up an auction house. Over the course of more than thirty years in business, he sold everything from horses and rugs to vacant land and houses.

Less is known about Annie Conway other than she was born in Ontario. Her age is listed as “50” in both the 1911 and 1916 census records.

The couple don't appear to have been in the property development business but may have collected choice lots and small commercial buildings over the years. A May 1911 newspaper article mentions that Mr. Conway had purchased a vacant lot on Hargrave Street at St. Mary's Avenue next to a lot he already owned to give him 126-foot-wide frontage.

1911 Census of Canada, Library and Archives Canada

The Conways resided at 177 Kennedy Street with their three children, who in 1911 were aged 11, 19, and 22, and a live-in maid. Located just a couple of blocks from the land titles and legislature building, this would have been an affluent neighbourhood at the time.

In October 1911, Mr. Conway unexpectedly died at the age of 65. To provide for her family, Annie got into the property development game.

September 15, 1914, Winnipeg Tribune

Conway hired Teeter to design the 24-unit Conway Court located just a few doors down from the family residence. At a cost of $90,000, about $1.4 million in today's money, it represented a significant investment upon which the future of her family depended.

Conway was a hands-on investor acting as building agent for both the apartment block and the commercial building on the Conway's Hargrave Street lot. She conducted business from the family home.

June 30, 1912, Winnipeg Tribune

The other development by Annie Conway was the Picture Palace Theatre at 627 - 629 Alexander Avenue. It seems a strange venture for her as a neighbourhood theatre represented a much riskier investment than pretty much any other sort of development that could have been built on the land.

It does not appear that Conway was involved in the day-to-day running of the theatre. The building was leased out to theatre operators. The only time a manager is listed by name in street directories comes in the first year, a Mr. Mathesius.

That first year in the street directory there are two residential suites listed upstairs. They were inhabited by J. Fleming, a yardman at the stockyards, and Mathesius. Residents would not be noted in directories again until the late 1920s.

November 2, 1912, Winnipeg Free Press

It is unclear how successful the venue was. As an independent neighbourhood theatre with less than 300 seats, there was no money to advertise and not enough clout to be included in the weekly "at the movies" write-ups in the newspapers.

The only early newspaper mentions of the theatre appeared from November 1912 through May 1913 in classified ads for Emmanuel Baptist Church which used the building for Sunday services after a fire destroyed their church. (It is only in church ads that the building is referred to as Little Theatre. Street directories list is as the Picture Palace Theatre.)

January 14, 1916, The Voice

Theatre management appears to have changed frequently.

New management came in late 1914 and the venue was rechristened the Sherbrooke Theatre. Street directories do not list the name of a manager or any staff that worked there.

The only early newspaper mentions of this new incarnation were a November 1914 ad for the movie Zudora that listed several independent theatres where it would be shown, and a January 1915 Winnipeg Tribune ad promoting an independent film that listed the Sherbrooke amongst the venues where one could go see it.

In October 1915, the Sherbrooke was finally included in the Winnipeg Tribune's "at the movies" section allowing for a brief description of its fare for the coming week.

Starting in January 1916, longer "advertorials" were published weekly in The Voice. One said of the venue, "This charming little now putting up a very attractive program.... The theatre is sanitary, warm, well decorated, and comfortable."

These notices trail off in April 1916.

September 16, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

In September 1916, a new season and a new round of ads for the Sherbrooke Theatre appear in the daily papers announcing that it had "re-opened under new management".  Starting in January 1917 the name of the theatre was tweaked by dropping the 'e' at the end of Sherbrook.

These ads appeared regularly until March 1917. It is unclear if the venue then closed, changed management, or if it was just deemed that city-wide ads did not attract enough new patrons to justify their expense.

November 20, 1917, Winnipeg Tribune

Conway advertised for yet a new theatre operator in November 1917. This appears to be the last newspaper mention of the Sherbrook Theatre.

The venue continues to appear in street directories until the 1921 edition, which would have been compiled in 1920, when 629 Alexander is listed as 'vacant'.

It is likely that Conway sold the building in 1920. That same year, she and her youngest son moved from the family home at 177 Kennedy to an apartment.

Not long after, Conway fell into poor health. She and her son moved to Los Angeles in 1922 in the hopes that a warmer climate would improve her health, but she died there in January 1923.

Conway's body was returned to Winnipeg and she is buried in St. Mary's Roman Catholic Cemetery with her husband.

October 12, 1921, Winnipeg Free Press

The new owner advertised in late 1921 that he was willing to renovate the building into a warehouse or storage facility for the right tenant.

After a brief stint as a fence maker's workshop, the building became home to Peterson Auto Repairs from about 1923 to 1925. The shop could be accessed through a garage door at the rear of the building.

After Peterson, the building again sat vacant until the Fairbairn family arrived in 1928.

November 14, 1958, Winnipeg Tribune

Robert L. Fairbairn was born in Scotland and came to Canada as a young boy in 1910. He became a carpenter and opened a workshop at 629 Alexander called Fairbairn Furniture. His family, wife Elizabeth and eight-year-old Alan, moved into the suites above the workshop.

Both Robert and Alan were military men. Not long after coming to Canada, Robert went back overseas to fight in the First World War. Alan Fairbairn served in World War II and after the war continued on in military service in various senior roles until 1968.

Fairbairn Furniture did not advertise, though classified ads show that after the war Fairbairn began building boats in his workshop. By 1950, his focus had shifted entirely to boats and in 1958 the company name was changed to Faircraft Boats Ltd..

Rear view, 2022, (Christian Cassidy)

Bill Burdeyny, an outdoors writer for the Winnipeg Tribune, wrote in a 1974 column that he still used his Faircraft boat regularly and described it as, "... a 12-foot aluminum Faircraft model, different to many in that the bow form is crimped rather than welded. It has a plywood floor for additional strength and a great comfort on a hot day. The gunwales and keels are also made of wood."

Fairbairn must have done well with the boat business as he and Elizabeth moved from the cramped confines of the apartment above the factory to the 5000 block of Roblin Boulevard in the late 1950s.

Faircraft Boats closed in 1960 and Fairbairn leased the shop to Goodman Canoe and Boat Works which stayed for about a year. In 1963, he put the building up for sale for $10,000.

Robert Fairbairn died in 1965.

Long gone ghost signs, 2022, (Christian Cassidy)

By 1966, the building was home to Renew Heating and Industrial Supplies Ltd. and in 1970 became the local Canadian Hilti sales and service outlet.

The building was put back up for sale in 1972, this time for $30,000, and the address is not mentioned again in newspapers until it was sold at a mortgage sale in 1983.

2007, Google Street View

The last commercial tenant of the building was Recon Heating Supply Ltd. which appeared there in the mid-1980s after the mortgage sale.

Fred and Isobel Zilkey farmed north of Manitou before moving to Winnipeg in 1959 with their children. Fred worked as a serviceman for Winnipeg Supply and Fuel Ltd. for a number of years before starting Recon.

Ross Zilkey, their son, was manager of the U of M Bison's Men's Basketball team in the 1970s, including the Hall of Fame 1975-76 team. He worked for his parents and eventually took over the business when they retired.

In 1997, the business was reorganized with additional business partners and rechristened Recon Controls Ltd.. In 2007, Recon moved to a new location.

Since that time, there have only been residential tenants in the building.

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