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The Early History of the Cauchon Block, Later the Empire Hotel

by Randy R. Rostecki

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1976, Volume 21, Number 3

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

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The connection between Lieutenant-Governor Cauchon and the building which bore his name appears to have begun late in 1880, when he purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company lots 5, 6 and 7 of Block One of the Company’s Reserve. [1] This would correspond to the present day south-east corner of Main and York, being some one hundred and fifty feet along the former thoroughfare and one hundred and twenty along the latter. It is possible that lots 49, 50 and 51 of Block One were also purchased, [2] being located at the southwest corner of Wesley Street and York Avenue, or just east of the present Canadian National Railways mainline. At about the same time the property was purchased, it was announced that

Mr. [J. P.] LeCourt, architect, has been instructed by Lt-Gov. Cauchon to prepare plans for a range of 6 stores on the east side of Main Street, directly opposite the Hudson’s Bay Company building. The shops have a frontage of 120 feet on Main Street, and will be the same in depth. The upper flats will be fitted up as offices. [3]

At that time, LeCourt was the Dominion government architect at Winnipeg, and would later be responsible for the erection of the 1882 Winnipeg Parliament Building. The link between Cauchon and this architect appears to have been limited, for LeCourt’s plans were not used as a basis of the Cauchon Block. However, a modification of those designs may have been the plan for the LeMoine Terrace, which was built for Cauchon on the Wesley Street property in 1881. [4]

The plans of the Lieutenant-Governor again came before public scrutiny early in April 1881. At that time, it was announced that L. A. Desy, the architect, had drawn up the plans for a one hundred thousand dollar building to be built opposite the Hudson Bay Company store. [5] The configurations of the proposed edifice appear to match with that which was built; for the block

will contain eight stores and thirty-five offices of four rooms each. The frontage on Main Street will be 150 feet. The building will be in the Greek style of architecture, will be four stories high with a basement. The double front will be of galvanized iron, and the rear of white brick. [6]

Desy, it must be added, was the architect of the St. Mary’s Academy on Notre Dame Avenue East (Pioneer Avenue), plus a number of residences and warehouses. Thus, the Cauchon Block was not the only building done by this man in Winnipeg, though it is probably the only one to survive.

Little appears to have been done during the remainder of 1881, though the basement for the huge block appears to have been constructed by April 1882. [7] At that time, Desy called for “separate or lump tenders ... [for] a solid brick block of stores and offices for the Hon. J. E. Cauchon.” [8] The principal contract went to John Ennis, with the brickwork being sub-contracted to the firm of Bronnet and Cassan; cast iron work from Frank Brydges of the Vulcan Iron Works; galvanized iron ornamentation by Linklater and Deslauriers, who also did the gas and steam fittings; and the bricks came from the firm of Thomas, Benoit and Co. [9]

In respect to the work done by the Vulcan Iron Works and Linklater and Deslauriers, it is necessary to expand upon those firms. The Vulcan Iron Works were established in March, 1881 by F. H. Brydges, and by early 1882, the firm was capable of producing “all classes of brass and iron castings ..., from light bracket-work to heavy building fronts ...” [10] New machinery being installed at the time made the foundry capable “of turning out anything in light or heavy machinery or, in fact, anything in manufactured iron or brass work.” [11] Therefore, the Vulcan Iron Works were responsible for the creation of the cast-iron portions of the Cauchon Block, for they were certainly capable by the summer of 1882 of doing so. Also, the theory that those portions were ordered from a mail-order catalogue from the United States is thrown into doubt, for this reason, as well as two others. First, the cost of shipping such parts to Winnipeg would have been phenomenal given the high freight rates of the day. Second, there is no known evidence that the parts were mail-ordered. Thus, given the statement that Vulcan Iron Works turned out the cast-iron parts and knowing that the firm was able to do so, one can only conclude that the cast-iron columns, etc. were made locally.

The firm of Linklater and Deslauriers dealt in hardware, stoves, tinware, sheet iron, copper wares, roofing, steam-heating, plumbing and gas-fitting. [12] The company was formed in 1881, and was composed of David Linklater and Phillipe A. Deslauriers, both of whom were tinners. They were the manufacturers of “the celebrated galvanized iron cornice, and as an instance of their work, have supplied the Cauchon Block ... with that material under a contract, including steam-heating of $22,000.” [13] Given the value of the entire building, and knowing that the steam-heating of a building at that time did not come as an expensive item, one must assume that the bulk of the $22,000 contract was for the metal portions of the facade other than the cast-iron work. Again, one must resort to known facts in order to prove this case. The main shop of Linklater and Deslauriers was located at 520 Main Street at that time. However, because they began to produce pressed metal building parts, it was necessary to erect a special warehouse to manage this aspect of their business. This structure was built in 1882, was two stories in height, was seventy-two by thirty feet in size, and cost two thousand dollars. It was located at the corner of Common (Henry) and Lizzie Streets. [14] Furthermore, forty men were employed at that building in the manufacture of galvanized wares. [15] Thus, one is given to conclude that the pressed metal portions of the facade, like the cast-iron parts, were manufactured in Winnipeg. Knowing that the processes for creating the pressed metal parts were available in the city, it does not make too much sense for the builders to have ‘mail-ordered’ these parts either. The end product of those manufacturing processes was the Cauchon Block, the front facades of which were entirely products of local industry. This is perhaps more unusual than the ‘mail-order’ theory, for the industries of Winnipeg were still supposedly in their infancy during 1882. Therefore, the Cauchon Block is a rarer example of this type of work, for the older areas where the traditional cast-iron facades existed were able to take advantage of cheaper freight rates in order to create such buildings.

By the late summer of 1882, the new Cauchon Block had reached its third storey, and the work was progressing quite well, even with a contract completion date of 1 April 1883. [16] The 750,000 bricks from St. Boniface were being laid by men who were earning as high as five dollars a day. Carpenters received between $2.75 to $3.00 for a day’s labour, and the fifty men on the project were each earning an average of four dollars a day. [17] Wages and the costs of materials were high because of the great land and building boom which created shortages of both commodities. Also, the costs of living and of materials were probably double those of normal times. Cauchon estimated the cost of the Block was somewhere between $128,000 and $130,000 [18] though if the building had been erected in quiet times without the inflationary tendencies, the cost might have been about $65,000, which was still quite expensive.

The Lieutenant-Governor based the erection of his palatial building on that site for several reasons. First, economic studies were not yet in existence, and thus, capitalists often gambled with their investment in a building. Second, the great boom was famous for the amount of gambling in land and futures which did occur. In this regard, Cauchon based his building “on the strength of sales he had made” in land,

and on which he had already received large payments when he commenced operations. He also anticipated that the Canada Pacific Hotel [the site of the Fort Garry Court] was going ahead, and that a railway station was to be built in that end of the city, and trains would cross the river near the Assiniboine river [bridge?]. [19]

But the hotel was not built and the railroad did not pass through the area at the time, and the Cauchon Block, with its many useful offices, became a gamble which did not pay off during the lifetime of its first owner. It is ironic that the Block became a successful building because of the coming of a railroad in the area, that being the Canadian Northern Railway main-line after the turn of the century.

Cauchon fully expected to receive forty thousand dollars a year, [20] in rents from this building, and the structure would have ‘paid for its construction costs’ in just over three years. Unfortunately, the boom-time conditions upon which the statesman founded his speculations were interrupted in 1883. Even while the building was being constructed, the forces of the land rush had begun to seriously flag. When the edifice opened in February 1883, [21] it was found that the building was not easily rented, and it was only partially occupied by late April. [22] The managers resorted to the medium of advertising, but this did not appear to draw too much attention in a city where businesses were failing daily. A description of the completed building reads in the following manner:

Cauchon Block, c1882-1883

The new Cauchon Block, one of the handsomest and most substantial in the city ... contains eight stores, 6 on Main Street and two on York Street. Each store is 25 by 80 with plate glass fronts. There are some fifty offices in the upper flats. The building is to be heated with steam. There is an elevator ... and altogether the edifice is a decided acquisition to the city. The shops are adapted to either a wholesale or retail business. [23]

Of course, the building did not lie vacant, for several businesses located there. The Winnipeg Bottling Works occupied a store [24] as did John Woltz, a local jeweller who was later arrested and found guilty of defalcation. [25] Unfortunately, the ‘hard times’ did not draw the types of tenants who would have been able to pay two to three thousand dollars a year in store rentals, or five to seven hundred dollars per annum for suites. Also, the connection of Woltz with the Block, and his subsequent conviction would not be likely to effect the reputation of the structure in a positive manner. Thus, the Cauchon Block languished as a business building during 1883 and 1884.

The year 1884 witnessed the first great changes in the Block since its erection. First, Cauchon had been forced to mortgage the property to the Quebec firm of Dunn and Price. This financial body was bringing pressure to bear upon Cauchon, who owed them one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. However, the ailing former Lieutenant-Governor was in no position to pay his debts, as the following interview with ‘a man who knew all about it’ will testify:

“And how is the old man [Cauchon] himself?” “Well, to use a more familiar than elegant expression, he is all ‘broke up’ about the block. He lives in a suite of rooms in the block and never pays any rent (of course the property has passed out of his hands) but I am afraid that when the block is sold in September the poor old man will be turned adrift, for I understand he is now penniless.”

“Those are hard lines,” remarked the reporter.

“Yes, and what makes matters worse is that he is unable to do anything. He is practically an invalid. He is hardly able to move about, in proof of which he is never seen on the streets driving.” [26]

A number of the stores were empty, and instead of the forty thousand dollars in rents Cauchon had dreamt of two years earlier, it was estimated that the Block only derived “about $7,000 a year.” [27] Thus, some other usage for the Block had to be found.

Dunn and Price found the solution when they turned the building into an apartment house. Unofficially, the building with its three to four room suites had been occupied for residential use for some time, and in July 1884, it was noted that the upper stories of the Block rented “very well indeed,” mainly to young men, though a number of families and a dancing school occupied space. [28] Residential units were at a premium in Winnipeg because of a housing shortage which had developed during the rapid growth of the city. Thus, taking into account the situation as it existed, and seeing that the first building to be erected as an apartment block in the city was rising at Donald Street and Ellice Avenue, [29] Dunn and Price foresaw the market for apartment housing and acted accordingly.

According to Fred C. Lucas’ Historical Souvenir Diary of the City of Winnipeg, the Cauchon Block apartments received their first official tenant on 19 October 1884. [30] The basement was fitted up with two offices adapted for a surgeon or physician ... [with a restaurant] in the building and all modern conveniences and appliances being provided for those occupying the premises.” [31] In thus opening when it did, the Cauchon Block had the distinction of becoming the first apartment block to open in Winnipeg, for it received its first tenant at least a month prior to the completion of the Westminster (alluded to above). [32] Again, one may see an historic precedent being set in that building, for the Cauchon Block became the first of a type of residence which has remained popular to the present day.

The first in a series of conflagrations occurred on the afternoon of 3 April 1885, when a fire started in the furnace room. [33] Among the thirty-two [34] residential tenants forced to evacuate the premises were Sedley Blanchard, lawyer; Henry T. Champion, banker; H. J. Eberts; Miss Henderson, music teacher; J. E. Gelley, prominent contractor; H. W. A. Chambre, real estate agent; and W. B. Scarth, later a Member of Parliament. [35] The enumeration of those residents will serve as an indication that the nature of the Block was high class. The fire was so exciting that “for a time all thoughts of the Riel rebellion were banished from the minds of the citizens.” [36] The damage was chiefly at the rear of the structure, to the amount of ten thousand dollars. Only a solid brick fire-wall appears to have saved the entire building from destruction.

E. J. Price became the sole owner of the building during 1889, but the deletion of H. G. Price and T. H. Dunn as owners did not appear to have effected the type of tenant the Block attracted. The building remained out of the news until the second fire in 1895. This time, the results were more tragic, for three people lost their lives. The fire broke out at about six o’clock in the morning of December 16, at the rear of the American Plumbing Company premises at the northwest corner of the building. This spread to the elevator shaft and was soon out of control. However, only one staircase was in the building, and this was ablaze, trapping the tenants. Most of the occupants were rescued by firemen and heroic bystanders, except Major and Mrs. J. F. B. Morrice, both of whom perished in the flames. A critically injured fireman died a few days later. [37] Other prominent citizens who escaped the flames were W. B. Lait, architect; Joseph Martin, M.P.; D. S. Curry, city comptroller; and others. The north-east wing of the building was totally destroyed, and the damage to the entire Block amounted to between twenty and thirty thousand dollars. Only the outer walls remained in position, held up by two large chimneys, [38] though these collapsed a month or two later. [39] Again, the same firewall which had stopped the fire in 1885 prevented the Block from meeting a fiery end.

It was announced early in 1896 that the Cauchon Block was to be converted into a modern tenement building on the American plan. [40] Ample room was to be provided in the halls and corridors for exit, and fire doors were to be installed between each of the four sections. A hydraulic elevator supplemented these measures. The destroyed section was rebuilt in brick as a two storey wing, and the street elevation of the surviving building was restored to its former appearance. The architect of that rehabilitation was Charles H. Wheeler, the cost being thirty thousand dollars for the whole job. [41] With its new arched windows on the main floor and fresh paint and renamed the Assiniboine Block, it was ready for occupancy by late August of that year.

Another fire, more minor and less tragic than the one in 1895, occurred on 17 January 1897, when the new wing caught fire from a “cigar or substance” which was thrown into a dust and waste chute. Only five or six hundred dollars damage resulted this time, though the effects of a number of tenants suffered. [42] Quick action from the fire brigade quenched the flames in a hurry. With that, the Assiniboine Block existed in a very quiet state for the next eight years.

The year 1904 brought the second great change to the fortunes of this building. The Canadian Northern Railway had purchased the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway yards on the Hudson Bay flats to the east of the Assiniboine Block. By running the main line of this road just to the rear of the apartment house, the value of the land upon which the Block was located jumped from ten thousand to thirty-five thousand dollars within a year. [43] It was during 1904 that the McLaren Brothers, Archibald, Alexander and John, purchased the premises. The McLarens had been well-known hotelkeepers since the early 1880s when they had taken over the Brunswick Hotel and turned it into one of the finest hostels in Winnipeg. The McLaren interests had sold the Brunswick early in 1904, and appeared determined to retire with their “small fortune.” [44] However, the opportunity arose to purchase the Assiniboine Block from the Winnipeg Realty Corporation, [45] and the McLaren Brothers seized it.

During the last half of 1904, extensive renovations were carried out on the Assiniboine Block. In all about fifty thousand dollars were spent to convert the building into a hotel. The architects, Alexander and William Melville, found that “the building lent itself readily to conversion into a hotel ... and succeeded in producing admirable results in the interior alterations, finishings, and decorations.” [46]

The new luxury hotel was christened “The Empire,” “a happy idea in these days of empire building,” [47] and was opened on 2 February 1905 to the admiring citizenry of Winnipeg. Quarter-cut oak panelling adorned the entire first storey, and fluted oak columns with Ionic capitals sup-ported the ceilings. [48] The main floor windows exuded the charm of the near east, for they were Moorish in design and were accentuated by stained glass. The hotel could accommodate one hundred and seventy-five to two hundred guests with ease in the upper stories which were carpeted with Brussels, Wilton and Axminster rugs. “Good taste is in evidence in all parts of the hotel and the patrons of the Empire will feel that everything possible has been done for their comfort.” [49] Thus, the building became a “splendid addition to the first-class hotels of Winnipeg.” [50]

The luxuriance of the Empire did not last long; for the opening of the Royal Alexandra the following year ensured the shrinkage of the former hostelry from the ranks of the first-class. Realizing their situation, the McLarens sold the Empire to R. J. Mackenzie, a contractor, in 1909 [51] and they went on to the new Strathcona (Cornwall) Hotel and later built the McLaren Hotel. Mackenzie continued to operate the Empire into the 1920s. The later history of the hotel has become less significant than the origins of the building, for when the McLarens sold the property, the hotel ceased to be a first-class hostelry. Its days of fame and glory began to wane after 1909.

With the contemplated demolition of the Empire Hotel by the Great West Life Assurance Company as their part in the East Yards (former Hudson Bay flats) development, many questions have been raised as to the significance of the building. This building is significant in many ways. First, Joseph Cauchon, though he had certain failings, was a figure of national and provincial importance. Second, the Empire Hotel possesses a very unique primary facade of cast-iron, galvanized sheet metal, and pressed zinc, and is probably the only building with this type of facade in the country. A small handful of cast-iron fronted buildings are known to exist in Canada and these are all in Eastern Canada. A. J. Diamond, an architect, has stated that the Empire has the best all-metal facade he has ever seen, and says that demolition of the building is a mistake. [52] Third, the parts for that facade were produced locally, utilizing local craftsmen and talents. This is very significant given the early date of construction and the level of industrial development in Winnipeg at the time. Fourth, the Cauchon Block was the first apartment house to open in Winnipeg. Fifth, the Empire was probably the finest hotel in the Canadian West when it opened in 1905, [53] and for this reason, the building is historically significant. Sixth, and by no means last, the Empire because of its venerable age and prominent location has become a treasured landmark to Winnipeggers. As in 1905, “The Empire is now an institution of the city of which the citizens can afford to be proud.” [54]

Notes

1. C. J. Brydges to Hon. J. E. Cauchon, 5 November 1880. In D 40/2, Letterbook—Land Commissioners’ Outward Correspondence, Hudson’s Bay Company Archives, p. 329.

2. Cauchon built the LeMoine Terrace, named for his third wife, on this site circa 1881. See footnote 4.

3. Manitoba Daily Free Press, 10 November 1880, page 1.

4. Winnipeg Sun, 17 November 1881, page 1. Cost $10,000, listed as a ‘block of stores.’ A photograph in the Provincial Archives of Manitoba shows that this structure looked more like a commercial building than a row of houses.

5. Free Press, 2 April 1881, page 1.

6. Weekly Free Press, 12 April 1881.

7. Free Press, 12 April 1882, page 5. Tender—“basement already built.”

8. Ibid.

9. Sun, 31 August 1882.

10. James E. Steen and W. D. Boyce, Winnipeg, Manitoba and Her Industries. Winnipeg: Steen and Boyce, January 1882, page 43.

11. Ibid.

12. Weekly Free Press, 5 January 1883, page 2.

13. Ibid.

14. Sun, 19 September 1882.

15. Ibid.

16. Sun, 31 August 1882.

17. Ibid. These were in line with wages elsewhere in the city.

18. Ibid.

19. Sun, 15 July 1884.

20. Sun, 8 August 1882.

21. Free Press, 7 February 1883, page 8.

22. Free Press, 28 April 1883.

23. Free Press, 7 February 1883, loc. cit.

24. Winnipeg Daily Times, 12 September 1883.

25. Times, 20 September 1883. See also Times, 26 September 1883 for the chattel Auction at the Cauchon Block.

26. Sun, 15 July 1884 loc. cit. The name of the authority was not stated.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. The Westminster Residential Block, now demolished.

30. Lucas’ date, which appears on page 194 of that book, is unverified at the present tine, and it is not known where he drew his information, as there is no citation.

31. Ibid.

32. Free Press, 12 December 1884.

33. Free Press, 4 April 1885, page 4. A later account placed the fire as starting in the bad office of W. B. Scarth. See Free Press, 18 January 1897, page 4.

34. City of Winnipeg Tax Office Records.

35. Free Press, 4 April 1885, loc. cit. Also Tax Office Records.

36. Ibid.

37. Manitoba Morning Free Press, 17 December 1895. Also same for 22 January 1896.

38. Free Press, 19 December 1895, page 6.

39. Free Press, 27 February 1896, page 8.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid. See also Tenders in Free Press, 26 February 1896, page 5.

42. Free Press, 18 January 1897, page 4.

43. Tax Office Records, 1903; 1904.

44. Winnipeg Daily Tribune, 31 January 1905, page 2.

45. This firm was the successor to E. J. Price, who died in 1899.

46. Free Press, 4 February 1905, page 9.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Winnipeg Evening Telegram, 3 February 1905, page 11.

51. Tax Office Records, 1909-1910.

52. A. J. Diamond, lecture at Public Archives Building, 11 February 1976.

53. So stated in the Telegram, 3 February 1905, page 11.

54. Tribune, 31 January 1905, page 2.

See also:

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Empire Hotel / Cauchon Block (171 Main Street, Winnipeg)

Page revised: 15 September 2013

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