Building Winnipeg's New City Hall

Ending 60 Years of Bickering

By George Siamandas



Winnipeg had been slow to renew its ageing gingerbread city hall. As early as 1910 city fathers had planned to replace it but the First World War postponed it. After WW2 there were plans to replace it once again, but it would take another 16 years of studies and planning before they would actually build it. For decades Winnipeg had envied Saskatoon, Edmonton and Vancouver, cities that had finer civic buildings. By the time Juba was elected he was a big proponent of building a new one. And to dramatise the bad condition the old one was in, he took out an insurance policy on himself should the old city hall collapse on him while he was on the job.

But deciding to build it wasn't easy. Civic voters had twice turned down money by-laws refusing to pay for building another pet project: the Disraeli freeway. A writer in 1957 chided councillors that there was enough paper from research and studies to build the first floor and that they should just get on with building a new one. Finally in 1957 the city was successful in having taxpayers agree to spend $6m on a new city hall. Voters had opted by 79% for a site across from the legislature at the corner of Broadway and Memorial Blvd. A Canada-wide design competition was held in 1958 and 91 proposals were received, some them quite futuristic. Up to date even for the year 2000.

The winning proposal was more conventional and came from Winnipeg's Green Blankstein and Russell. The plan to build it on Broadway was abandoned, as Premier Roblin persuaded the city to reconsider the location and put it back in the heart of the warehouse district. As a tool of urban renewal, and together with the plans for a new Concert Hall it was seen as a necessary rejuvenating influence for the area.



By now the old 1886 Gingerbread city hall had few supporters. While some called for it to be saved and used as a civic museum, these thoughts were termed the thoughts of "dreamers and idealists." Alex Clifton-Taylor an architectural critic from England called it "unbelievably ugly" in a Sept 15, 1956 article, and much too small for a city of Winnipeg's size. Clifton-Taylor observed that the old city hall had been built in the Victorian period, a time in which "artistic taste was low." And that a "newly rich class (of Winnipeggers) with lots of money and no taste" had built it. Just to check on his credentials, though the Free Press reporter took him to see the legislature, which he liked.



In approving the new city hall, thrifty Winnipeggers had provided for no frills. This was still a prairie town that counted its $6M public dollars carefully. GBR was challenged to create a contemporary Tyndall limestone building over a steel facade with its interior finished in black Quebec granite. And to provide a high level of interior design within.

But clearly there had been no money to pursue the cautionary note at the bottom of the city's report recommending the GBR design. It had urged that people want "the buildings that represent their social and civic life not to be just functionally fulfilling, they want their aspirations for monumentality, joy, pride and excitement to be fulfilled as well."

But costs gradually mounted adding another $3M to the cost. To bury this overrun they renamed it from City Hall to the Civic Centre to express the larger project that had been evolving as parkade was added. Alderman Crawford who was in charge of the project proclaimed the new city hall was so well built with 900 tons of steel, that its life expectancy was 200 years. Winnipeg's new city hall opened Monday Oct 5 1964.



Upon completion it was named the ugliest building in Canada, "a prison, a shoe box, Lenin's tomb." And immediately as the 600 workers took their places the staff complained about overcrowding and being "packed to the gills." It was already too small.


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