Historic Sites of Manitoba: Birks Building / YMCA Building (276 Portage Avenue, Winnipeg)
A lot at the southeast corner of Portage Avenue and Smith Street was purchased in 1890 by the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) for construction of its first permanent facility in Winnipeg. It took several years to plan and fundraise for the four-storey building that was designed by architect George Browne and constructed by J. A. Girvin and P. Burnett at a cost of $68,500. It held offices, a public reading room, a 150-seat lecture hall and 600-seat auditorium, library, meeting and classrooms, boys quarters (with reading room and parlour), furnished bedrooms on the upper levels, and dormitories on the fourth floor. The gymnasium featured Winnipeg’s first indoor swimming pool and two bowling alleys.
By 1909, the YMCA had outgrown the building so it moved to a site on Vaughan Street and the prominent jewellery firm of Henry Birks and Sons moved in, renovating it into retail space with the help of architect J. D. Atchison and, later, Percy Erskine Nobbs of Montreal.
In 2001, the building (a municipally-designated historic site) was given a Preservation Award by Heritage Winnipeg. A plaque on the northwest corner of the building, facing Portage Avenue, indicates that, on 3 November 1910, the building hosted the first meeting of the Winnipeg Rotary Club, the first club outside of the United States. Attending the meeting were P. A. C. McIntyre, William N. Brown, W. T. Pearce, Raymond Kershaw, and Arthur Willans Morley. A Winnipeg Rotarian, Dr. Leslie Pidgeon, served as first President of Rotary International from outside the United States, in 1917-1918.
276 Portage Avenue, Birks Building (Former YMCA Building), Winnipeg Historical Buildings Committee, April 1991.
We thank Nathan Kramer for providing additional information used here.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 2 July 2020
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