Friday, January 27, 2017

563 Spence Street - Former Willard Hall

Place: Former 'Willard Hall'
Address: 563 Spence Street
Constructed: 1899
Architect: Unknown

The house at 563 Spence Street was built in 1899 as the family home of James G. Latimer, a contractor and future city alderman and controller. 

Latimer and his wife had already lived in Winnipeg for nearly 20 years and by the late 1890s just two of their eight sons, Bertram and Andrew, still lived at home.

January 6, 1900, Winnipeg Tribune


Mr. Latimer was elected to city council in 1900 and took on James Ashdown for the mayor’s chair in 1907.

It was expected that Ashdown would run unopposed as nobody wanted to take on one of the West’s most powerful businessmen. With just a couple of weeks to go before election day, Latimer threw his hat in the ring. (One Tribune story hints that he got talked into it by a group without his best interests at heart.)

Latimer seems to have received the "anybody but Ashdown" vote, including the tepid support of workers. The labour newspaper, The Voice, wrote: "Labour men may or may not vote for Latimer; they most assuredly will not vote for Ashdown."

In the end, Ashdown won by a vote of 5,091 to 2,352. 

Latimer continued to serve on the Board of Control until 1909. (The Board of Control was an elected body, similar to City Council, except they dealt with financial matters.)

September 17, 1907, Winnipeg Free Press

In 1907, Latimer and his wife moved to Edmonton Street and 563 Spence was sold to Horace Filmore. He had many jobs while living here, including the secretary of the Winnipeg Casket Co., manager of the Great Western Film Co. and, by 1912, was a real estate agent.

In 1912, the home became a rental property, initially as a seven room house then divided into a four suites as a rooming house.

October 12, 1916, Winnipeg Tribune

In September 1927, 563 Spence Street became known as Willard Hall, headquarters of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). It replaced an earlier Willard Hall that opened around 1910 in a home at 473 Balmoral Street.

Just as the WCTU had branches around North America, there were Willard Halls in dozens of cities -  Canada's largest appears to have been in Toronto. They were named for Frances Willard, a pioneering New York suffragist.

The WCTU and other women's groups used the downstairs as a meeting and lecture space. The upstairs contained four bedrooms that were rented out to young women, often from outside the city who came here to find work.

June 28, 1930, Winnipeg Tribune

In 1930, the WCTU rented the property to the Big Sisters Association of Greater Winnipeg, though they and other groups continued to use the home as a headquarters and meeting space for the next two decades.

The Big Sisters Association of Greater Winnipeg, established on November 12, 1926, was the fifth Canadian branch of the North American organization founded in New York City in 1912. They worked with girls who came before the Juvenile Court, often the first time offenders, to provide mentorship, life skills and employment training in the hopes that they would not reoffend.

Initially, the organization had an office at the Juvenile Court, which at the time was located on Portage Avenue at Sherbrook Street. The move to the house meant that they could provide room and board to girls from outside the city.

Over the years, other agencies, including the Children's Home and the Juvenile Court itself, expanded their programming, making some of the volunteer-based organization's work redundant. The Big Sisters Association of Greater Winnipeg announced in January 1949 that it was winding down operations.

The organization reappeared in Winnipeg in 1970 and since 2001 is known as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Winnipeg. Their new headquarters at 532 Ellice Avenue at Langside is, coincidentally, is just a couple of blocks away from the former Willard Hall.

Official Opening, March 30, 1949 Winnipeg Tribune

In March 1949, the home was turned over to a new women's organization: the Wheelchair Club of Winnipeg. They worked with girls affected by polio by providing employment and life skills. After extensive renovations, a handful of them called the upstairs home.

The last meetings took place at Willard Hall in the spring of 1954. It was then sold to David and Mathilda "Tillie" Jones. He was an Eaton's Employee and she a saleswoman at Maclean Hunter. Tillie was also a member of the Wheelchair Club, though her 1976 obituary does not indicate if she was a board member or a client.

The Jones' continued to own the house for at least the next 12 years, renting out three suites upstairs.

The suites appear to have appealed to single senior citizens. Two funeral notices found for the address were for Gustav Skalin, 82, a retired interior decorator, in October 1967 and Gladys Bissett, 60, of Winnipeg, in July 1975 widow.

The final "Rooms for Rent" ad that can be found in the Winnipeg Free Press was in 1994.

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