Ghosts of Winnipeg past

As I write these words on Wednesday afternoon, the Windsor Hotel is on fire.

The hotel and music venue on Garry Street, built in 1903, has sat vacant since March, when it was closed due to a provincial health hazard order. Its future remained in doubt before the fire. Now, its fate is sealed.

“The structure will not be saved, and we’re in the process of just getting a demolition crew to come by,” Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service platoon Chief Brent Cheater told CBC News.

It’s another historic Winnipeg building now gone to ashes. Famously, Charlie Chaplin stayed there in 1913, during his week-long engagement at the Empress Theatre on Main Street. He wrote a letter to his brother, Sydney, on hotel letterhead, saying he was considering leaving theatre to work in the movies.

It was during that same engagement that Groucho Marx, in Winnipeg on a layover between cities, walked from the Canadian Pacific Railway station on Higgins Avenue and, by chance, caught Chaplin’s performance. The two officially met when their paths next crossed a month later in Vancouver.

The Empress Theatre was demolished in 1979. In its place today is an empty lot. Five active theatres that Groucho would have walked past on that trip are also gone, either to fire or demolition. Now the Windsor has joined them. The train-station building at 181 Higgins Ave. is, thankfully, still with us.

Over my years writing at The Uniter about local history and culture, I’ve come across the stories of many important Winnipeg buildings that are now lost. Theatres, funeral homes, restaurants, venues, department stores, a city hall, an airport, entire city blocks that once stood in the space now occupied by Portage Place. Even the brutalist eyesore that was the old Public Safety Building held historical significance, but that’s gone, too.

I love Winnipeg. There are a lot of things about it that make me sad. One of the saddest is that we take our history for granted. We mourn the loss of these spaces but neglect them while they’re here. Maybe the loss of the Windsor couldn’t be avoided. But it’s still a loss I’ll mourn.

Published in Volume 78, Number 02 of The Uniter (September 14, 2023)

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