EARLY HISTORY OF PORTAGE AND MAIN

by: George Siamandas

Portage Avenue is the best known street in Winnipeg. While it had existed for decades, Portage Ave. had remained a very wide trail for ox carts until the later part of the 19th century.

Henry McKenny who came up in 1859 on the Anson Northup, the first steamboat to reach the Red River Colony from Georgetown Minnessota, is credited with establishing the first business at Portage and Main. Eric Wells writes that after surveying sites in the settlement, McKenny ignored the Forks area, and like a commercial trail-blazer that he was, decided on a location that would one day become the new commercial centre of the city. Portage was surveyed in 1863 and set at 130 feet like Main. By 1869 there were 33 buildings clustered around the corner of Portage and Main.

The development of Portage Ave however, did not come into its own until the first decade of the 1900s. The announcement in 1904 that a new Post Office would be built on Portage and Eaton's new store in 1905 got the ball rolling west. By this time the south-west corner of Portage and Main had already seen the building of the four storey Canada Life Block and at Lombard and Main were a series of early banks.

By 1910 the McArthur Block at 207-221 brought new elegance to the north-west corner. At 12 storeys and clad in elegant terra cotta used in the finest buildings in London and New York, the McArthur reasserted Winnipeg's status a major city with a new skyscraper. This building was best known as the Child's after the famous restaurant.

In 1911 the Bank of Montreal constructed its monumental banking hall at the south-east corner replacing the earlier Canada Permanent Building. New York architects McKim Mead and White who also designed Grand Central Station and Winnipeg's own Union Station, designed the Bank of Montreal.

Photos from the turn of the century frequently show large crowds gathered at P&M. P&M was the city's heart and the place to celebrate and hold parades. Very few changes occurred at P&M and Winnipeg did not re-emerge from its great growth spurt of 1881-1916, until the early 1960s.

In the last 25 years Portage and Main has become the location of our most important office buildings and the most prestigious business address in Winnipeg. But along the way the intersection itself has lost its celebratory role and has become an exclusive traffic corner.

Will the historical photos showing throngs of people remain only a memory, or is there a new evolved role for the most famous intersection in the country?

The future of Portage and Main must be to permit the return of the pedestrian while not significantly impeding the needs of traffic. Our challenge is to facilitate a new Portage and Main that builds on its historical roots and marks this intersection as more than a traffic crossroads.

As late as 1967 the city of Winnipeg had not seen new construction at his site since the building of the Bank of Montreal just prior to WW1.

Richardson Building North East Corner

As the first corner of the three corners of Portage and Main to see redevelopment in the last twenty-five years, the Richardson Building was built as part of Lombard Place in the late 1970s. Their project had been on hold since the 1930s. It symbolized the Richardson family's prominence in Winnipeg and gave us our first real modern skyscraper at 33 storeys.

Trizec: South West Corner

In the late 1970s the South-west corner saw a major demolition of the Canada Life building on Main as well as the demolition of at least six other structures. The underground concourse had forecasted and made mandatory a move of pedestrian traffic below grade, not only to ease vehicular traffic congestion, but also to provide a market for the shops of Winnipeg Square.

Built as a 34 storey office structure along with an underground retail component and attached to the Underground Concourse under the four corners of Portage and Main, the Trizec building was the mid seventies response to the need for development.

Bank of Montreal South East Corner

The Bank of Montreal at the southeast corner has taken a more gentle approach. When it needed space in 1982 it achieved it with the construction of a tower south of its monumental 1911 Banking Hall.

TD Centre North West Corner

That the north west corner of Portage and Main would be demolished was a foregone conclusion. Plans for the demolition of buildings at the north-west corner in the 1970s were not realized initially but in the late 1980s the TD Centre replaced the Childs, Nanton and Toronto Dominion Bank.

Constructed in 1987, our most recent period of downtown development, the TD Centre is notable for replacing the much loved Child's Building originally known as the McArthur Office Block and famous restaurant of the same name.

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