Manitoba History: Historical Tour: Selkirk, Manitoba
by Wendy G. Smulan
Studying architecture is one method of examining history, but in addition to architecture are the stories of people that make those buildings. It is the stories of people in conjunction with the architecture that creates a complete picture of what life was in the past and how it impacts the present. Selkirk, Manitoba was established by a few wealthy and influential investors that had the vision of Selkirk becoming Manitoba’s capital of trade and industry. A political battle ensued between Selkirk and Winnipeg to be the central power in the province, which has made Selkirk’s history particularly interesting. The result is the richness of the town’s heritage and architecture that remain today as landmarks. Selkirk is particularly fortunate to have a highly active heritage committee that is devoted to recording and preserving the town’s significant architecture. The University of Manitoba, Faculty of Architecture and in particular the work of Dr. Bill Thompson and his students have also contributed a great deal to the documentation and study of the town’s architecture. Architecture is a symbol of a people’s culture, politics and community, and the landmarks of Selkirk help tell its story.
The Selkirk Post Office was the town’s first public building, constructed between 1907 and 1909. Not only did the building house the post office located on the main floor, but also contained the fisheries office and Indian agency on the upper level, and the customs office on the lower level. The architectural firm hired to design the building was James Chisholm and Son, one of Winnipeg’s first architectural firms.
Shortly after the turn of the century, the news was released that the town would be receiving a new public building. The construction of such a large building by the federal government was important to Selkirk and symbolised the town’s progress. Controversy arose over the location because many of the merchants argued it should be at the intersection of Eveline Street and Manitoba Avenue closer to their business establishments.  Despite their protests, the government built the post office at the corner of Manitoba Avenue and Main Street. At the time of the building’s construction there were no buildings on the surrounding lots and the post office became Selkirk’s central land-mark. The post office remained as the centre of activity for many years until the government constructed a new post office in 1956.  The old Post Office building was then sold and converted into apartments that remained occupied for 20 years and then was abandoned for several years. In 1984 the building was restored and opened as a community art centre, making it once again the centre for community activity. 
The Post Office is an example of the Beaux-Art Classical style, a style that was revived at the turn of the century in Paris, and then in North America from a renewed interest in classical aesthetics. The Beaux-Art style is identified by classical architectural elements seen on the building, such as: the dentils within the bracketed cornice, voussoirs, exaggerated key stones and stone string courses. The detailing of the cornice and masonry work on the building help to make it a monumental structure in Selkirk.
Upon entering the Post Office from Main Street, one passes through a wooden, segmental arched doorway which opens into a reconstructed glass vestibule. A great deal of the structure, woodwork and terrazzo floor are original to the building. The preservation of this building as a community art centre demonstrates it to be a significant building in the foundation of the community, and its history.
A different type of public building that serves the town and symbolises the success of the community are its churches. Knox Presbyterian Church is a fine example of a church that signifies Selkirk’s development as a community, being the first congregation in town. The church began in a small log cabin on Eveline Street and evolved into the large Gothic Revival structure that stands today. The initial structure was built in 1876 and saw two expansions, first in 1904 and second in the 1960s. The magnificence of this building is experienced in the interior chapel, where the stained glass glows with warm intensity and colour. The woodwork on the interior is highly detailed. Also noteworthy are the curved wooden pews.
The Gothic Revival style is identified by the steep pitched roof, small rose window, and pointed arch windows and doors. One must note the detailed masonry mouldings around the pointed arch windows, the corbelling, and the exceptional stained glass that has been dedicated to the memory of local congregation members. The typical Presbyterian bell tower and spire, located originally on the southeast corner before the 1904 addition mark this building as one of Selkirk’s finest landmarks.
One cannot pass through the town without taking notice of the brightly painted blue lift bridge. A rumour began in 1911 that a bridge was being built to connect Selkirk and East Selkirk across the Red River. It was not until the Depression in the 1930s that the bridge finally began to take shape after the federal, provincial and municipal governments agreed to share the cost. The opening of the bridge was delayed for several years while the governments argued over funding for the maintenance costs. In the spring of 1937, the bridge had not yet opened and the river became impossible to cross. Meanwhile, the governments had quietly reached a settlement and planned an official opening of the bridge. Frustrated, Ed Maloney, a local resident took matters into his own hands and lowered the span by the manual crank to allow people to cross.  The bridge was in full use that day, only to be promptly closed by the government until the official opening only two days later. The bridge marks an interesting moment in the history of Selkirk and its development as a prairie town.
Selkirk has an engaging political history because of the men who had a vision of Selkirk as Manitoba’s centre of trade, export and finance. However, that vision was short lived and by the turn of the century it was apparent that the main rail line would cross through Winnipeg and not Selkirk. A great battle was lost and one that residents of Selkirk still mention.
Selkirk then changed its goals to become the centre of agriculture for the Interlake Region and a summer resort for Winnipeggers. In 1892 a group of businessmen formed the Selkirk Electric Railway Company to build a link between the town and Winnipeg.  In 1908, the Winnipeg Selkirk and Lake Winnipeg Railway Company (W.S & L.W.), affiliated with Selkirk Electric Railway opened the line between Selkirk and Winnipeg with daily trips.
A building with a significant history is the old Eaton General Store at Eaton Avenue and Eveline Street. W. H. Eaton, relative to Timothy Eaton, was one of many original investors in Selkirk and took a steadfast interest in the town’s growth and prosperity. Eventually, the Eaton General Store closed and the building became the train station, where visitors to Selkirk got their first glimpse of the town and local people gathered to travel into Winnipeg for its urban conveniences.
The building changed hands after being the centre of transportation and it has not been preserved or restored to its original appearance. The stout, but sturdy building is typical of a boomtown building with a parapet to give it greater height. There has been added decoration on the front facade with brick corbelling above the entrance and the symmetrical windows. The building is obviously important to Selkirk’s development and growth.
The Garden on Eaton, is a Queen Anne Revival style home that has been converted into a tea and craft house. The home is a good example of how historic buildings may be preserved and reused for contemporary purposes. The building has many of the characteristic features of the Queen Anne Revival style home found throughout Selkirk, with its tower and spire, intersecting gable roof, veranda (that has been enclosed), columns and asymmetrical design.
Another noteworthy Queen Anne Revival style home is the former Stuart Residence on Eveline Street.  The Selkirk Electric Company (S.EL.C.) was the first company to bring electricity to the town in 1904. The residence was built under the supervision of James Stuart, one of the founding members of S.EL.C. The home was built beside the electrical plant (which no longer exists) to house the company engineer, who happened to be James Stuart’s son. S.EL.C. had many difficulties providing reliable electricity to the town, and as a result of many complaints, the company was sold in 1906.  James Stuart’s son continued to be engineer for the new company as James Stuart was a member of the new electric company, until 1915. The house is currently owned by the Town of Selkirk and is under review for municipal heritage designation. It is possible that in future the home will be converted into a museum for the town, separate from the Selkirk Marine Museum, which is only one block south of the Stuart residence.
The Stuart residence was built from brick that came from a brick plant owned by James Stuart in Manitoba. The masonry work is very detailed with brick string courses and segmented arches over the doors and windows. The veranda is original to the home with its decorative balusters, and shades a small bay window.
St. Clement’s Anglican Church on the south side of town was one of three churches in Selkirk affiliated with the Church of England, which during the 1870s attempted to convert local Natives to Christianity. The church stands alone surrounded by a large cemetery that contains the graves of many of the founding families of Selkirk. The building is a sturdy stone structure in the English Parish Gothic Revival style with crenellation crowning the bell tower and pointed arch windows and door. The entry to the chapel is through the bell tower where one may see the thickness of the stone walls by the inset windows. The chapel is simple, but has beautiful stained glass windows that are best seen from the interior. The masonry work is very rustic. Finer cut stones provide subtle contrast which highlight the door and windows as well as the crenellated battlements and moulding on the bell tower.
At the corner of Eveline Street and Manitoba Avenue, the old centre of Selkirk’s business community when the town was first established, is the former Dominion Bank built in 1905. The building is a modification of the “Chicago School” style, it is symbolic of industrial growth and technological innovation, which marked Selkirk as being a modern town. The style is atypical for a bank, which may explain the suggestion that its original function was something other than a bank. The “Chicago School” architecture began in the mid nineteenth century in the Midwest and was predominantly used for commercial buildings. The building initially appears to be in the Classical style, with its cornice, frieze, dentils and pediment.
However, the heavy cornice separating the first and second levels, the canted corner, and the window groupings in three signify the building as being inspired by the “Chicago School” architectural style.
The building as it stands is in need of much repair and restoration, and the present owners of the building are currently working to do so. The building has great potential to be a more significant landmark to the town of Selkirk, but it also stands as a reminder of the commitment of the people of Selkirk to preserve their architectural and cultural history. The hard work and dedication of the people of Selkirk has been ongoing, and the rewards are the many well preserved and documented architectural landmarks that tell the story of the town’s historical development.
The author wishes to express her deepest gratitude to Mr. Frank Hooker, Chairman, Selkirk Heritage Committee for sharing so much of his time and knowledge. In addition, she extends her appreciation to Dr. George R. Fuller of the University of Manitoba, Department of Interior Design for his suggestions and comments.
Hooker, Frank (Chair of Selkirk Heritage Committee). Interview by author, 14 January 1997, Selkirk.
Hooker, Frank (Chair of Selkirk Heritage Committee). Interview by author, 15 July 1997, Selkirk.
Humphreys, B. A. The Buildings of Canada. Montreal: Reader’s Digest Association, 1990.
Potyondi, Barry. Selkirk: The First Hundred Years. Winnipeg: National School Services, 1982.
Rostecki, R. R. “Former Public Building: 406 Main Street, Selkirk, MB.” For the Historic Resources Branch, Province of Manitoba, September 1988.
Selkirk Heritage Committee in conjunction with University of Manitoba, Faculty of Architecture. Compilation of data collected to document history of Selkirk buildings built prior to 1940.
Smith, Alicia, in conjunction with the University of Manitoba, Faculty of Architecture, “The Former Stuart Residence: 478 Eveline Street, Selkirk, MB.” For the Selkirk Heritage Committee, May 1997.
1. R. R. Rostecki, “Former Public Building: 406 Main Street, Selkirk, MB.” (For the Historic Resources Branch, Province of Manitoba, September 1988), 2.
2. Ibid., 5.
3. Selkirk Heritage Committee in conjunction with University of Manitoba, Faculty of Architecture. Compilation of data collected to document history of Selkirk buildings built prior to 1940.
4. Barry Potyondi, Selkirk: The First Hundred Years (Winnipeg: National School Services, 1982), 138.
5. Ibid., 100.
6. Alicia Smith, “The Former Stuart Residence: 478 Eveline Street, Selkirk, MB.” (For the Selkirk Heritage Committee, May 1997), 1.
7. Ibid., 2.
Page revised: 27 August 2020