by George Siamandas

On November 8 1979 Winnipeg heritage enthusiasts marched on city hall to protest the proposed demolition of the Bank of Commerce and the Bank of Hamilton the two pillars of Banker's Row. The two banks were the nucleus of Main St's Banker's Row. The Bank of Commerce that had been their owner and had occupied the space had moved into the Richardson building. It no longer needed them and wanted to demolish them. This was in the period of time when Winnipeg city planners had been formulating a strategy to preserve and find new used to Winnipeg's Historic District, now called the Exchange District. New by-laws providing for the city's authority to put buildings on a preservation list and to designate significant ones historic had just been passed.

The Bank of Commerce had been empty 10 years and the Bank of Hamilton 1 year and a half. It saw no value in the buildings but had seen how the Richardson building had improved values at Portage & Main. It wanted to see them gone and requested a demolition permit from the City to clear away the Bank of Hamilton at 395 Main and the adjoining Bank of Commerce at 383 Main. Their lawyer a William Grimble argued that were a financial burden and were difficult to lease out to other users. It would be the first test of the bylaw the and for this first test the heritage community got organized.

The ring-leader was a mild mannered high school Social Studies teacher and former President of the Manitoba Historical Society and later Heritage Winnipeg, called David McDowell. McDowell is one of these volunteers that gently but firmly drives community causes and in this case the heritage community. He was there at an important time when a message needed to be sent. It was a debate between hard economics and the public interest. In a year long campaign, he helped make the case that the Banks owed more to Winnipeg than an empty lot. The heritage advocates got some help from a different breed of city planner than you will find today.

At that time there were two activist city planners working for the city: Chuck Brook and Steve Barber. They believed their job was not just to react to things but to serve as advocates of the by-laws and to work with businessmen, property owners and the community to help bring plans about. These two planners actually helped plan and execute the campaign.

The 1979 Council unanimously voted to list these buildings historic. It was kind of curious to read the names of people who are now not normally thought of as being strong heritage advocates leading the councillors. James Ernst moved the motion to protect them. Mike O'Shaughnessy said "the Bank had made enough unearned income to maintain them for hundreds of years." Al Golden at the time a businessman and investor said he had tried to look at the buildings but the bank had said they were not available. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet had also been refused a lease on the building.

John Bertrand writing in the Tribune the next day wrote about how "victory kisses and unrestrained cheers echoed through city hall." McDowell said a precedent had been set. Over the last 20 years, the city has gone on to designate another 180 or so historical buildings.


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