West End Snapshots: Mall Centre

Mall Centre complex at 491 Portage Ave., now the U of W’s AnX

Today, most people pass by the Mall Centre complex at 491 Portage Ave., now the U of W’s AnX, and don’t give it too much thought. When it was built in 1963-64, however, it was celebrated as a unique, multi-use complex for Winnipeg’s downtown.

 The 4.5 million dollar project was designed by Moody, Moore and Partners, whose work already included the Investors Building at 280 Osborne St. and Federal Building at 391 York Ave.; They would go on to design Lockhart Hall later that decade. The Mall Centre included a nine storey office building, an enclosed shopping mall on the main floor, an attached 300 car parkade, a five storey hotel and was also the new home to the city’s inter-city bus depot.  

 Theodore Matoff, who at the time was an assistant professor of Architecture at the University of Manitoba, wrote in the Winnipeg Tribune that “The Mall Centre is the first commercial project to attempt a regional solution for the prairie winter climate in downtown Winnipeg,” and that by combining so many features into one complex that it “begins to have the excitement of a truly urban way of life.”  He went on, though, to pan its unimaginative design and mediocre surface materials.

By most accounts though, the building was a success. The office tower filled up with clients ranging from insurance companies to local corporate head offices. The shopping mall featured a wide variety of shops including Music City record store, Ben Moss Jewellers, Howard’s Ladies’ Shop, Mall Centre Florists, Paul Charach Photography, Rypp’s Pharmacy and a Bank of Nova Scotia branch. There was even a billiards hall and barber shop in the basement.

 The last part of the complex to open was the bus depot, which opened on June 13, 1964. It replaced the cramped circa 1930 Union Bus Depot located on Graham Ave. behind Eaton’s. The new depot featured sixteen bus bays, a walk-in gift shop with a newsstand and a full service restaurant, originally the Dutch Treat Cafeteria and in later years a Salisbury House.

 A Free Press reporter wrote of the new depot: ”As an example, only 40 buses were in operation in Manitoba in 1931, apart from those in local transit service. Today there are nearly 200 non-transit buses operating in the province and they’re full of people who find traveling by bus both comfortable and economical.... In total, the new Bus Depot is everything the traveler could want and more.”

 Though later projects, such as the Trizec / Winnipeg Square development and Portage Place Mall, touted a similar mix of retail, parkade, hotel and office space in their original plans, they weren’t quite able to pull it off, leaving the Mall Centre a unique complex.

Christian Cassidy explores local history at his blog West End Dumplings

Part of the series: The Urban Issue 2015

Published in Volume 69, Number 26 of The Uniter (March 25, 2015)

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