Visionaries and Risk-Takers: The First Hundred Years of the Fort Garry Hotel

By Bugailiskis, Giles | Manitoba History, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Visionaries and Risk-Takers: The First Hundred Years of the Fort Garry Hotel


Bugailiskis, Giles, Manitoba History


Monumental buildings have a history that goes beyond their individual style and design features. Oftentimes the story of the owner/entrepreneur, taking a business risk to provide a needed service to the local community, is never told. Nor is the story told about the individuals who provide a public face of the enterprise, the individuals that represent the investor's vision. My aim is to do just that, to recall the fortunes of the Fort Garry Hotel, a grand, luxurious Winnipeg landmark on Broadway.

The Grand Trunk Pacific Railway Era 1904-1919

At the end of the 19th century all the pieces of the puzzle were coming together in the development of Western Canada. British capital was once again flowing into the country, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was expanding in the West, eastern manufacturers were seeking new markets for their goods and the newly elected Liberal government of Sir Wilfred Laurier was pushing for increased immigration and, perhaps most importantly, courting railways to compete with the CPR.

Prime Minister Laurier held intensive secret negotiations with Charles Melville Hays, General Manager of the British-owned Grand Trunk Railway (GTR), incorporated in 1851 and operating lines in United States, Quebec and southern Ontario. The results of the negotiations, announced in Parliament in July 1903, underlined Hays' risk-taking nature and Laurier's desire for railway expansion into the West.

The Canadian Government would build a railway from Moncton to Winnipeg, namely the National Transcontinental Railway to be leased and operated by the GTR, who would then build the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR) from Winnipeg to the Pacific coast. It was later argued that the rail scheme was approved more to carry votes for Laurier than to transport immigrants and freight. Nevertheless, people and grain were moved in great quantities; 330 towns and villages were established along the 1,768-mile GTPR through Western Canada.

In 1904 Hays, now the president of the GTPR, envisioned a chain of elegant hotels built along their rail line with a signature corporate look that art historians have labelled the finest example of a Canadian national style, "the Chateau Style," or the "Francois I Style," based on medieval castles in France. Hays believed that his hotels must not only cater to the travelling public but, in order to be truly financially viable, they must also cater to a city's social life and its social elite.

The hotel chain started in Ottawa with the construction of the Chateau Laurier named after its political patron. The U. S. architectural firm of Bradford Lee Gilbert was hired in 1907 to draw up a set of plans, incorporating an exterior decoration based on Gothic detailing. Due to the projected high cost of the proposal, and Hays' enthusiasm for the chateau-style decoration featured on the CPR's Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Colombia, Gilbert's contract was pulled.

In 1908, the Ottawa hotel project was then awarded to the newly established Montreal architectural firm of George A. Ross and David H. MacFarlane. Ross had previously worked for GTR as a draughtsman. Their proposal for the Chateau Laurier turned out to be very similar to the interior plans prepared by Gilbert, but it also featured a new medieval French castle exterior, and it saved $1 million.

For the GTPR's passenger station in Winnipeg, the company partnered with the other transcontinental carrier, the Canadian Northern Railway, and prepared plans for the "most modern terminal in the world." The contract for the depot was awarded to the prestigious New York architectural firm of Warren & Wetmore, designers of New York City's Grand Central Station.

Charles M. Hays changed Winnipeg's skyline when he announced on 14 August 1910, as President of both the GTR and GTPR, that the "Fort Garry Hotel" was to be built based on a design by architects Ross and MacFarlane. …

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