Former Union Bank Building and Annex National Historic Site of Canada
Image of exterior
© Parks Canada Agency / Agence Parcs Canada
500-504 Main Street, Winnipeg, Manitoba
Historic Sites and Monuments Act (R.S.C., 1985, c. H-4)
1903 to 1904
Event, Person, Organization:
Union Bank and Royal Bank of Canada
Darling and Pearson
George A. Fuller, New York
Former Union Bank Building and Annex
Research Report Number:
Existing plaque: 500-504 Main Street, Manitoba
Constructed in 1903-1904, this building is Western Canada's oldest skyscraper. It combines the technology of steel framing, a rich exterior and an elegant interior to project a sense of modernity and entrepreneurial success. These qualities reflected the image intended by its original owner, the Union Bank of Canada, which played an important role in financing the development of the West. In the sophistication of its architecture, this headquarters building points to Winnipeg's central position in the rapidly expanding economy of turn-of-the-century Canada.
Description of Historic Place
The former Union Bank Building/Annex is located on the west side of Main St. at the point where it curves southwards from Winnipeg's historic City Hall. Together with the Confederation Life Assurance Building (also a skyscraper and National Historic Site) across Main Street on the east side, the Union Bank comprises the towering gateway to Winnipeg's historic financial district. It is composed of a 10 storey tower with a single storey annex on the southern edge of the building.
Winnipeg's former Union Bank Building/Annex National Historic Site was designated in 1996 because its main block, erected in 1903-04, is the first skyscraper in western Canada and illustrates many of the architectural and engineering developments of its time; the building speaks to the key role played by finance in the expansion of the West in the period 1896-1914, while the takeover of the Union Bank by Royal Bank in 1925 is illustrative of the process of regional alienation; its siting at the northern edge of the financial district made it an important civic and corporate symbol of the role of Winnipeg and of the Union Bank in the economy of the West.
Designed by the Toronto architectural firm of Darling and Pearson, this bank follows the classical palazzo model, one of two Beaux Arts-inspired forms used for early skyscrapers -- buildings of greater than 5 storeys supported entirely by a structural iron or steel frame. It was built on a floating platform by the George A. Fuller Construction Co. of New York. In 1921 a single storey annex was added to the original 10 storey tower to accommodate the Union Bank's savings department. From 1925-1966 this building was occupied as the main branch of the Royal Bank in Winnipeg.
HSMBC Minute, June 1996
The key elements that relate to the heritage value of this site include: the rigid prefabricated steel skeleton of the building as critical to its identity as a “skyscraper”, the massive concrete caissons supporting its foundation as the only visible sign of the building’s innovative floating platform base, the massing and proportions of the ten storey flat-roofed original tower and its single storey annex, the three-part horizontal subdivision of the vertical exterior facades according to the palazzo model, with the distinctive definition (base, piano nobile and attic) and lavish decoration of each level in the Renaissance Italian tradition articulated in early 20th century materials:
- the base level sub-divided into a lower portion (defined by a series of massive arched windows with sculpted terra cotta brackets and cartouches), and an upper portion (defined by strongly projecting cornices and a series of balustrades),
- the seven storey piano nobile level (with its brick face, terra cotta voussoirs, strongly projecting corner quoins, and prominent cornice),
- the two storey attic level (with its regularly spaced porthole windows set in complex surrounds, and its galvanized sheet steel cornice supported by overscaled brackets decorated with a floral motif), the spacious ground floor banking hall with its classically-inspired decor, rich materials and detail, including marble Ionic columns, patterned marble floor, coffered ceiling with moulded plaster elements, the building’s prominent setting as a gateway and a landmark on Winnipeg’s 20th century main street