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Manitoba History: Commemorating Winnipeg’s Newest National Historic Sites: The Exchange District and Union Bank Building

by Parks Canada

Number 38, Autumn / Winter 1999-2000

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to

On the 2nd of October of this year, at a ceremony held at Pantages Playhouse Theatre, plaques were unveiled marking the designation of two new national historic sites in Winnipeg—the Exchange District and the Union (Royal) Bank Building on Main Street. The ceremony, sponsored by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, featured a period fashion show, musical entertainment, an historical reenactment, remarks from a number of federal, provincial, and municipal dignitaries, and, of course, the unveiling of the two new bronze plaques In his speech Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray considered the national designations a “platform” to help launch the rejuvenation of the city’s downtown core which would return the area to the “beating heart” it once was during the city’s boom between 1881 and 1918 when the Exchange District was born. Exchange District BIZ chair Doug Dealey also used the occasion to speak of the new era of downtown redevelopment which will return the district to its former splendour as a prime business, cultural and entertainment destination, while Richard Agway, the chairman of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC), noted that the Union Bank Building “marked the emergence early in this century of Winnipeg, along with Toronto and Montreal, as one of the three major banking centres in the nation.” Other speakers at the plaque unveilings included William Neville the Manitoba representative on the HSMBC, author Christopher Dafoe, Heritage Winnipeg President Bernie Wolfe, Roxy Freedman, the Deputy Minister of the provincial department of Culture, Heritage and Citizenship and Winnipeg MP Reg Alcock representing the Honourable Sheila Copps the Minister of Canadian Heritage.

At a ceremony held at Pantages Playhouse Theatre on 2 October, plaques for the Exchange District and Union Bank national historic sites were unveiled. Federal MP Reg Alcock shakes hands with Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray.
Source: Parks Canada

This panoramic view of the west side of Main Street in 1911 is available in a poster set from the Exchange BIZ located at 314-63 Albert Street, R3B 1G4. The posters are available in three formats: standard poster set ($15.00), mounted on wood separately ($135.00), and mounted on wood as one ($160.00). Each poster measures 34"x13". For more information please contact the Exchange BIZ by telephone at 204-942-6716 or by fax at 204-943-8741.

As part of ongoing efforts to commemorate and interpret the Exchange District National Historic Site a Heritage Interpretation Strategy was recently developed by the Exchange District Heritage Partnership. Thy Partnership was comprised of representatives from the three levels of government, from Heritage Winnipeg and from the Exchange District BIZ and was chaired by Wayne Copet, Executive Director of the BIZ. For further information about the Strategy contact the Exchange District BIZ at 204-942-6716.

The Exchange District National Historic Site

The Exchange District, in down town Winnipeg, lies just north of Canada’s most famous corner—Portage and Main. The Exchange District derives its name from the Winnipeg Grain Exchange, the centre of the grain industry in Canada, and many other exchanges (wholesale trade, finance and manufacturing) which developed in Winnipeg during the period from 1881 to 1918.

At the turn of the century, Winnipeg was one of the fastest growing cities in North America and was known as the Chicago of the North. Some of Chicago’s architects came north to practice in Winnipeg and many local architects were strongly influenced by the Chicago style. What remains of their work today is the Exchange District—one of the most historically intact turn-of-the-century commercial districts in the continent, encompassing some 20 city blocks containing approximately 149 separate buildings, 117 of which predate 1914.

Traders at the Princess Street Grain Exchange, circa 1896.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Banking companies, eager to establish a presence, built elegant western headquarters to reflect the success and optimism of the day. Winnipeg’s banks financed the growth of the grain trade, construction of warehouse facilities and factories and the distribution of goods to the prairies.

Winnipeg became the third largest city in the Dominion of Canada by 1911 with 24 rail lines converging on it and over 200 wholesale businesses. As a result, most of the Exchange’s brick buildings have been extended, proof of the hectic pace of building expansion. The Great War from 1914 to 1918 slowed Winnipeg’s growth, however, and with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1913, there was a new route for shipping goods from Eastern Canada and Europe to the West Coast and from the Far East to the larger markets on the East Coast. Most of Winnipeg’s development thereafter occurred on Portage Avenue and streets to the south. Winnipeg’s slow growth meant that few of the Exchange District’s Chicago-style building would be demolished.

Strong citizen dedication to the conservation of the Exchange’s unique character has preserved the area as a distinctive legacy of a formative period in Canada’s economic development. The Exchange District flourishes today as Winnipeg’s commercial and cultural nucleus. This thriving and unique neighbourhood is home to an array of specialty retailers, restaurants, nightclubs, art galleries, wholesalers and Winnipeg’s theatre district. Its cobblestone streets, attractive architecture, and inviting, friendly pedestrian environment also contribute to the Exchange District’s popularity as a period backdrop for today’s movie industry.

The Exchange District looking southwest from City Hall, 1905.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Union Bank Building National Historic Site

Power, domination, and stability—the very qualities necessary for a bank which aspired to be the leading financial institution in Western Canada. These characteristics were no doubt behind the decision by the Union Bank in 1903 to build their Winnipeg headquarters and the city’s first skyscraper.

The Union Bank and old City Hall in the Exchange District, circa 1910.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Located at the southern boundary of the City Hall block, the Union Tower served as a beacon at the entryway to the financial district. This prestigious site posed certain construction difficulties, however. The location of the proposed building was on the site of an old creek where bedrock was seventy feet below grade and the soil was unstable mud. Using a technique from bridge engineering, concrete caissons were laid in the soil, creating a stable, though floating, platform.

Designed in the Chicago School style by Darling and Pearson, the eleven storey steel and reinforced concrete building featured a Renaissance Italian palazzo exterior design. Its distinctive two-part base, faced in terra cotta, consisted of the main floor banking hall, with massive arched windows, and bank offices on the second floor.

The expanding economy of western Canada in the early twentieth century, and in particular the wheat boom, were very profitable for the Union Bank. As a result, the company moved its headquarters from Quebec City to Winnipeg in 1912 and an annex was added to the tower in 1921 to serve as the savings department. When the prairie economy faltered, however, the Union Bank’s aggressive western expansion resulted in serious financial difficulties for the company, forcing a merger with the Royal Bank in 1925.

Page revised: 1 April 2016

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