Sunday, June 22, 2014

541 Selkirk Avenue - The Merchants Hotel

© Christian Cassidy, 2014

Merchants Hotel, Selkirk Avenue
Place: Steiman Block / Merchants Hotel
Address: 541 - 543 Selkirk Avenue
Architect: Max Blankstein (1913) and Green Blankstein (1933)
Cost: Unknown
Contractor: Unknown


The Merchants Hotel opened in 1914, not a as a hotel but as a commercial block. Ninety-eight years later, it was purchased by the province and is being redeveloped into a multiple use building focused on education, but also with housing and retail components. For more info, see themerch.ca. For photos of the interior prior to its redevelopment see my Flickr album.

Former Steiman Block / Merchants Hotel
Sarah and Robert Steiman, ca 1899 (Click for source information)

The Steimans, Robert and Sarah were from what would now be considered Latvia. They were married in Liverpool in March 1899 and in 1899 or 1901 came to Canada. (Robert's Free Press obituary says 1901, but the family memoir says it was 1899.)

After doing odd jobs for a time, by 1905 Robert opened a hardware store at 511 - 513 Selkirk Avenue, the former liquidation location for Winnipeg Hardware Ltd.. He called it, simply, R. Steiman Company.

With the future looking bright, the couple began sending for other family members. In 1906 they built a house at 531 Selkirk, that by 1910 was home to Robert's parents, father Mendel worked at the hardware store, as did his sister Rose. Brother Arthur was a pressman at Willson’s Stationery. Another brother, Max, would become a Main Street retailer. There were other Steimans living there as well, such as Marv, a cigar maker, and Hyman, a tailor who had a shop at 577 Selkirk. (All of these Selkirk Avenue addresses are now demolished.)

Robert and Sarah lived not far away at 431 Selkirk Avenue. By this time they had four children as well as Sarah's parents and sister living with them. The couple would go on to have ten children. For a more detailed history of the Steiman family, see Mendel's Children: A Family Chronicle by Cherie Smith.


Top: ca. 1934 (Source: Mendel's Children)
Bottom: Dec. 14, 1914, Winnipeg Free Press

Steiman's store was doing so well that in 1913 he hired architect Max Blankstein to design the three-storey Steiman Block at 541 - 543 Selkirk Avenue. The store, called  R.Steiman Hardware and Furniture, opened in 1914 selling hardware on the main floor, furniture on the second floor and warehouse space on the third.

A retailer of phonographs since at least 1909, Steiman was one of six authorized Gramophone Company / His Masters Voice dealers in the city. The shop specializing in record players, radios and phonographs was located in the neighbouring building, 547 Selkirk Avenue.

Above: Dec. 14, 1932, Winnipeg Free Press
Below: Jun. 15, 1932, Winnipeg Tribune

In the mid-1920s Steiman converted most of the warehouse level into Steiman's Hall, which had a separate entrance off of Andrews Street. The hall became a vital community gathering place, especially for the Ukrainian and Jewish communities. Over the decades, it hosted countless socials, political speeches, club meetings, union events, dance classes and dramatic productions.

The Steiman Hall portion of the building usually had a small retailer on the main floor, such as a deli or tailor, and offices on the second floor that usually featured Jewish doctors and dentists.

Jul. 7, 1933, Winnipeg Free Press


The Depression took its toll on the hardware merchant. Unable to sustain such a large store, he decided to convert it into a hotel. 

In July 1933 he applied for, and got, a beer licence, said to be the last one issued in the North End before the war. He then hired the firm Green Blankstein, one of its partners being Cecil Blankstein, son of the original architect, to design the conversion. In November 1933 a $5,000 building permit was issued for work.

The store's main floor retail space was pared down to create a lobby, dining room and beer parlour. The upper floors became home to 40 hotel rooms.

Contractors who worked on the project included: F. Gorner of 545 Redwood Avenue, carpenter; S. Kowalski of 119 Lorne Street,  plastering and brickwork; John Fabris and Son of 537 Sherburn Street, tile and marble; and Partridge-Halliday of 144 Lombard Street, plumbing and heating.

Jan. 11, 1934, The Jewish Post

The Merchant's Hotel opened the week of January 11, 1934 with little attention from the mainstream daily newspapers. It was, after all, a working class hotel in a working class neighbourhood. (Note that there were a number of Merchants' Hotels around at the time, including in Selkirk and Portage la Prairie. They were not related to this one.)

A scan of some 1940s Henderson Directories shows that most of the handful of long-term guests there at any given time were CPR employees. Others were truck drivers, bakers and labourers.

Top: Jan. 11, 1934, The Jewish Post
Bottom: Nov. 17, 1934, Winnipeg Tribune

Unlike many other hotels, the Merchants rarely advertized in its early years, perhaps a handful of classified ads per year in the daily papers the Jewish Post. A sign, perhaps, that Steiman had a steady stream of regular clientele.

In 1935 R. Steiman Ltd., the hardware store, went bankrupt and a new retailer was found for the space. Steiman then turned all of his attention to the hotel. More advertisements appeared, especially in the Jewish Post, and in 1938 - 39 an extensive interior renovation took place.

Former Steiman Block / Merchants Hotel
Two of Steiman's sons, ca. 1935 (click for source information)

Both the hotel and the Steimans, had a quiet existence. There were no major hotel incidents, such as crimes or fires, that I could find reported in the newspapers.

The Steimans were involved with many Jewish organizations, sitting on many boards. They often used the Merchants as a meeting space or fundraising venue for these organizations. It was also a starting point for many Jewish settlers and visitors to the city.

 
Top: July 3, 1939, Winnipeg Tribune
Bottom: Aug. 8, 1953, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1947 the Steimans sold the hotel and retired to California, where they originally intended to settle when they first came to North America almost 50 years earlier.

Robert died in Vancouver while visiting relatives on July 30, 1953. Sarah died in Los Angeles in 1957. Both are buried there.


John Konosky was the Merchants Hotel's manager in 1946, the last year the Steiman's owned it. He, wife Mary and son John  lived on the premises. The following year Konosky is listed as the proprietor. 

John was born in the Ukraine but raised in Silver, Manitoba where he married wife Mary. They first entered the hotel business in places like Gladstone, Riverton and Transcona before moving to Winnipeg to manage the Merchants.


Konosky retired in 1957 and dedicated more time to his passion: Ukrainian country music. Together with Joe Wozlowski and Stan Kostiuk, he made up the Primrose Trio that released a number of albums under the V Records label.

Source: 1955 Saskatchewan Business Directory (Peel's)

The next owner is "Selkirk Hotel Ltd." , a partnership that began in Estavan Saskatchewan in 1949. 

Ben Zelcovich was an Estevan businessman who purchased the town's Clarendon Hotel in 1949. One of his business partners was Menashe Mandel, who relocated to Winnipeg and purchased the Merchants Hotel from Konosky in 1957. I am assuming that it included business partner Zelcovich as he came from Saskatchewan to be the hotel's manager.

Another business partnership Mandel was involved with had purchased land at Balmoral and Notre Dame for a future hotel development. In 1966, after other partners sold off their interest, Mandel went built the Balmoral Hotel, likely with Zelcovich in a minor role.

Former Steiman Block / Merchants Hotel
Top: ca. 1960 Archives of Manitoba (click for source informaion)
Bottom: Mar. 26 1964, Jewish Post

In 1961 the hotel was owned by the Cipryk family. Father Adam was the president of the company, though it was son Robert who was the manager / proprietor from 1961 to 1972. They also co-owned the Aberdeen Hotel with a man named George Prost.

Robert, just 28 at the time they purchased the Merchants, was also president of the St. James Rams Football Club and by 1966 was elected president of the Manitoba Hotel Association.

Mar. 6, 1972, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1972 the Cipryks sold to George Prost. He renovated the hotel, including the beverage room, and brought in live bands nightly. Prost ran it until 1980.

This was also around the time when Selkirk Avenue's reputation began taking a violent turn.

Until this point, the Merchants was seldom in the news for anything other than the odd fight. The frequency of fights, robberies and other criminal doings in the vicinity of the hotel picked up though the 1970s and 1980s. By the late 1990s it was so notorious that some began calling for the city to purchase the hotel and close it down, something it had already done with the Leland Hotel and Portage Village Inn when they became too troublesome. 

Ross Kennedy, a co-owner of the Balmoral Hotel and Headingley Inn, bought the Merchants in 1980 for a reported $600,000. He said that he would sell it to the city for $1.2 million, double the assessed value, because it included a money-making business. The city went no further.

Kennedy maintained that shutting down the hotel would not deal with the larger issues that led to violence in the neighbourhood, it would just make people walk further to get to another bar or vendor. To help combat the crime issue, he did agree to cut back the hours of the bar to 9 p.m. weekdays and midnight on weekends.

Nov. 23, 2009, Winnipeg Free Press

The final owner of the Merchants Hotel was Bob Major, who took over on January 1, 2006.

By this time, calls to shut down the hotel were more frequent and, though there was opposition at his liquor permit hearing, the bar was granted a new lease on life.

Major pointed out that the vast majority of the crime that the Merchants was being blamed for - beatings, stabbings, armed robberies, drug dealing - took place on the streets around the hotel and that the business was being unfairly blamed as the "cause". While renovating, he invested in video security equipment inside and out and said he freely shared the video with police when they were investigating incidents.

The tipping point came in April 2011 when Sheila Fontaine, 42, was murdered when she was swarmed by a group of teens outside the hotel when she stepped out for a cigarette.

Merchant's Hotel, Selkirk Avenue

In late 2011 the province asked the University of Winnipeg Community Renewal Corporation to produce a building condition report, business plan and to gauge interest among area social agencies and community groups about the redevelopment of the site. The building's location, on the western edge of Selkirk Avenue's "social service agency alley", made it a good fit.

The condition report was positive and a coalition of 20 Selkirk Avenue area social service agencies signed on to explore the redevelopment. In April 2012 the province paid $1.3 million for the hotel and four vacant lots to the north, used as hotel parking, and transferred ownership to the coalition.

Top: Selkirk Avenue frontage
Bottom: Andrews Street, including new housing development
 Source: the merch.ca

The lead on the project, dubbed Merchants Corner, is the North End Renewal Corporation. The vision is for the building to become a satellite university campus, featuring retail stores, social service offices and seven suites. A new, 17-unit affordable housing apartment complex will be built on the vacant lots to he south of the building.

History Links

My photo album of the Steiman Block / Merchants Hotel
Steiman Block / Merchants Hotel Historic Buildings Committee
Mendel's Children: A Family Chronicle Cherie Smith
Memoirs of a Manitoba Maydl Cherie Smith (The Scribe)
Winnipeg's Selkirk Avenue in 1914 Abe Padolsky (MHS)
Jewish Post and News archives

Media Stories

New plan for old hotel 
The Times /Canstar (June 2014)

"Meet me at the Merch" 
North End Renewal Corporation (video)

Prince's charity interested in old Merchants Hotel 
Winnipeg Free Press (May 2014)

Few tears shed for Merchants
Winnipeg Real Estate News (May 2012)

Merchants Hotel set for major redevelopment 
CBC Manitoba (April 2012)

Creating a Community Hub at Merchants Corner
University of Winnipeg (April 2012)

Community group plans to buy the Merchants Hotel 
Winnipeg Free Press (September 2011)

Merchant Hotel opens in heart of North Winnipeg 
Jewish Post (January 1934) 

Notes

When piecing together the history of a 100+ year-old building mainly though newspaper archives, there will be some discrepancies. I noted ones I found below. If you have additional information or corrections, instead of making nasty comments or emails, why not share it with me at cassidy-at-mts.net ! I would be more than happy to update this post to include it !

- One building history says that a third storey was added in the 1950s. As per the above photo and stories about the building in its early days, the third storey appears to have existed from day one. There was at some time in the 1950s a single storey extension built to the west of the hotel that served as its diner.

- Robert Steinam's obituary article in the Free Press says that he and Sarah came to Winnipeg in 1901, but the family memoir says it was 1899.

- The City of Winnipeg historic buildings report says that the Steiman family owned the building until ca. 1926, which is eight years before the Merchant's Hotel even opened. There are numerous accounts that say Robert Steiman was the owner of the hotel.

- Hotel histories are difficult to research as there was usually a primary owner who acted as a "front man" for a number of secondary investors. Often I will find articles claiming three different people owned a hotel at the same time, which is, technically, correct ! The Zelcovitch - Mandel partnership, for instance, went on to include the Balmoral Hotel and Pembina Hotel.

More images
Former Steiman Block / Merchants Hotel
 The Steiman name peeking through on the tablet atop the building

Steiman hardware ad, May 1928, Jewish Post

Former Steiman Block / Merchants Hotel
 A sign on what would have been the west exterior wall of the hotel covered up when the 1950s diner extension was built

 Former Steiman Block / Merchants Hotel
Closing time

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article Mr. Cassidy. I truly am enjoying your articles on Winnipeg buildings and history that goes with and around them.
    Your research is top notch and the personal time spent going thru archives to produce this blog is amazing.
    Kudos to you and your fine work.
    I eagerly await the next instalment.
    Cheers,
    Glen Schattner
    Sanford,Manitoba

    ReplyDelete