Developer turns again time on Winnipeg’s 136-year-old Fortune Block

Winnipeg’s Pollard family has turned back the calendar 136 years into history.

They didn’t need a time machine but did require several million dollars and 2 ½ years to perform major reconstructive surgery on two of the city’s oldest buildings.

Now, the Fortune Block and its attached twin, the Macdonald Block, look exactly as they did when they first went up at the corner of Main Street and St. Mary Avenue in 1883.

Well, almost.

If John Pollard and his son, Ryan, tore up the asphalt and returned the streets to dirt roads, replaced the growl of engines with the clop of horses, and removed all of the electrical wires and lights — then things would look exactly like 1883.

It was a time when the city was 10 years old, having been incorporated in 1873, and steamboats still plied the rivers. The population was 7,900, but about to explode over the next few years as the railroad arrived.

Mark Fortune served on city council from 1879-1881 and became wealthy through real estate. He founded the Winnipeg Real Estate Board but lost his life aboard the Titanic on a return trip from Europe in 1912.

He built the commercial building that bears his name but sold it immediately to Alexander Macdonald, one of the founders of the Manitoba Free Press, president of A. Macdonald & Co. grocers, president of Great-West Life Assurance Company, president of the White Star Manufacturing Company and president of the Canada Free Trade League.

He also served on city council from 1887-1888 and was mayor in 1892. In 1910, Macdonald was listed as one of Winnipeg’s 19 millionaires.

Decades of neglect had taken a toll and the buildings were on the brink of demolition when the Pollards began working on the buildings.

“There’s been a big transformation here. It is kind of like a time machine, but it’s more so about looking at the building through the lens of history,” said Ryan, who oversaw the restoration after John bought the buildings in 2016.

“It’s all turned out really well. I think that we’ve captured the spirit of the original buildings.”

The exterior bricks are blasted clean, erasing decades of grime and revealing an unexpected red detail around the window arches.

Large windows and doors matching the original street-level storefronts have been reinstalled after punching through walls.

Elaborate cornices and a decorative metal railing around the perimeter of the rooftop have returned.

Buildings had been vacant

When John, co-CEO of Winnipeg-based Pollard Banknote, made the purchase, the properties were at a tipping point — almost literally.

Ryan Pollard stands outside the Macdonald and Fortune blocks, with his focus now shifted from renovations to leasing the newly renovated spaces. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

Except for a couple of street-level businesses, the Fortune Block had been vacant, the heat shut off to the upper two floors, for almost 50 years. Walls and ceilings were shedding their plaster in piles on heaved hardwood floors, staircases were leaning away from walls.

Windows were broken and the rooms littered with dead pigeons, according to Ryan.

The then-owner of both blocks had a deal to sell to a developer who planned to raze the buildings and replace them with a 150-room extended-stay hotel.

But the city stepped in to protect the buildings, placing them, along with the nearby Winnipeg Hotel, built in 1873, on the city’s list of historical resources.

With the hotel deal dead, the owner looked to offload the buildings, and that’s when John moved in. He now owns the Fortune and Macdonald blocks, the Winnipeg Hotel and the empty lot between them.

‘Straight to the sky’

Walking through the properties, father and son soon learned they had bought a lot of work and hired Jilmark Construction and Unit 7 Architecture to help out.

“When we originally took it there was a hole, basically straight to the sky,” Ryan said about the roof of the Fortune Block, which had fully collapsed.

With nothing to keep out the elements, a tree was growing nearby and water had been trickling as far down as the street-level bar, Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club.

“There was a lot of cleanup to do, for sure,” Ryan said.

However, the building was in decent shape for the most part.

A third-floor room of the Fortune Block in 2006, included in a 2015 report for the City of Winnipeg’s Historical Buildings Committee. (Murray Peterson/City of Winnipeg)

“The bones, if you want to call them, were good,” Ryan said. “It was just all beat up … buried underneath a lot of dirt.

“But other than that, the inside hadn’t really changed that much [from its original design].”

Having been vacant for so long, the Fortune Block avoided the fate that befell the Macdonald, where there had been “one terrible renovation after another” throughout the 13 decades, Ryan said.

“We started to uncover a few things and realized relatively quickly that most of the Macdonald Block was unsalvageable. Anything of any historical significance had been lost to time.”

The internal structure of the block had been altered and divided into different commercial spaces and hotel suites over the years.

While it has that 1883 look on the outside, the inside has been gutted and rebuilt. Any materials that could be salvaged were reused elsewhere, such as a stairwell railing that became wainscotting along a new hallway.

The space is a blank slate for whoever leases it, Ryan said.

Time capsule

The Fortune Block, on the other hand, is like walking into a time capsule.

The wood panelling on the entrance stairwell is original and the layout is exactly as it was when it was newly opened for commercial space, with curved corners in common hallways, doors with transom windows, and restored skylights.

Like something out of a old detective film, the original layout of the Fortune Block is intact with curved corners in common hallways, doors with transom windows, and restored skylights. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Without electricity in the 1880s, natural light, in combination with strategically placed windows in the hallways, was used instead.

Ryan’s team did extensive research. They used old photos and the original layers of anything “we were able to uncover when we started to peel the layers of the building back” to echo the original design.

Sometimes they found remnants that could be used by craftspeople to recreate new versions, like the rooftop railing and cornice. Even the original paint schemes and colour palette were found and copied.

Much of the Fortune Block was there, just needing to be rediscovered, like arched entranceways between the Macdonald and Fortune blocks that had been entombed in walls.

“[The two blocks] sort of grew apart but we’re stitching them together again,” Ryan said.

A grand staircase in the Fortune side looked decrepit, pulling from the wall, but the crews carefully took it apart, labelled every piece, and sent it to a shop to be sanded and cleaned.

A new frame was built but everything else was preserved “and it all clicked back together pretty nicely,” Ryan said.

All doors were rebuilt as exact replicas based on the few that were still there. Same with baseboards and other millwork.

If it couldn’t be restored, it was built “exactly the way it would have been,” Ryan said.

New building codes meant some creative solutions to retain the original character, such as making the steel fire doors in the colour of wood with mock panelling rather than an industrial grey.

The grand staircase’s original railing was 28 inches (71 cm) but new codes require it to be 36 inches (91 cm), so wood was added to the original spindles.

And there are new amenities, like a high-efficiency heating system and, on the Macdonald side, an elevator. As well, a rooftop patio with a view of The Forks, Union Station, and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights has been added.

Some slopes and off-angles where wall meets floor or ceiling still hint at the project’s challenges, but Ryan is extremely pleased with the result.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot about the history of building and kind of Winnipeg, as a whole, throughout the course of the project,” he said, adding he intends to install some plaques about the buildings and their namesakes.

He didn’t want to reveal the cost of the restoration but said it was “a significant amount of money.”

When the city was pondering whether to protect the properties, proponents of demolishing them estimated the cost of saving the blocks would exceed $17 million.

Economically, it would have been easier and cheaper to take down and start over, Ryan admitted.

“But that’s not what the project was about,” he said.

“We were real keen to do a heritage restoration project — and this was a challenging one — but that’s what we set out to do. The project was never, at its core, financially motivated.”

Next up — restoring the Winnipeg Hotel, one of the oldest buildings in the city’s downtown.

“We haven’t had very much time to think about exactly what that is going to be, but the loose plan is to redevelop it into a boutique hotel,” Ryan said.

The Winnipeg Hotel, left, in 2016, with the Macdonald and Fortune blocks to the right. (Google Street View)

“We like the idea of keeping the same use,” he said, noting the hotel’s bar is the oldest business in the city to be continually operating out of the same location.

The space between the buildings is tentatively being eyed as a summertime outdoor cafe and music venue that can complement Times Change(d), or a patio if a restaurant opens in one of the buildings.

Through the years

This is how Winnipeg looked in 1883, just as the Macdonald and Fortune blocks opened. The drawing shows Main Street, looking north from Broadway. The tall building on the left is the Hudson’s Bay Company store. The Winnipeg Hotel, Macdonald Block and Fortune Block are outlined in red. (J.M.W. Jones Co./Archives of Manitoba, Frederic Demers/CBC News Graphics)A drawing of the Macdonald and Fortune blocks as seen in 1884. (Archives of Manitoba)A horse and wagon stand against the curb in front of the Macdonald and Fortune blocks in this photo from 1892. The former Dominion Hotel (later the Blue Note Café and then Fat Angel Bistro) is the shorter building left of those blocks. The Winnipeg Hotel is left of that. (Victor Acker Collection/Archives of Manitoba)The Winnipeg Hotel, at left, and the Macdonald Block and Fortune Block, far right, circa 1926. At the time, the Macdonald Block was the Commercial Hotel. The Winnipeg Hotel is on the left and the smaller building in the middle is the former Dominion Hotel (later the Blue Note Café and then Fat Angel Bistro). (Thomas Burns Collection/Archives of Manitoba)The Macdonald and Fortune blocks as seen in 1961. (Archives of Manitoba)The Macdonald and Fortune blocks in 2009, with the Fat Angel Bistro beside them. (Google Street View)The buildings as they looked when John Pollard bought them in 2016. (Google Street View)The buildings as seen in October 2018, after the exterior bricks were blasted and new storefront windows installed. (Google Street View)

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