Description of Historic Place
The Portage La Prairie Public Building, now the city’s City Hall, is a substantial two-and-a-half storey buff-coloured limestone public building with a roof of grey galvanized iron. Prominently located on the main street of Portage la Prairie, it was constructed in 1896-98 as the Dominion Post Office, Customs House and Inland Revenue office for an ambitious town. Designed by Thomas Fuller, the Chief Dominion Architect of the National Department of Public Works, the building blends architectural elements drawn from Second Empire, High Victorian Gothic and Richardsonian Romanesque styles.
Portage La Prairie Public Building was designated a national historic site in 1983 because:
- it is representative of small urban post offices by Thomas Fuller;
- it possesses architectural merit, that is to say it has not undergone major exterior alteration; and
- it is in harmony with its environment.
As a newly independent nation in the late 1800s, Canada needed its government to provide basic services within its jurisdiction across the developing continent. The Department of Public Works named a Chief Architect to oversee construction of buildings to house these services as well as to establish a recognizable federal presence. Thomas L. Fuller (1823-1898) was an English architect whose term as Chief Architect (1881-1898) saw many buildings constructed across the country. The post office in Portage la Prairie, completed in 1898, was one of 66 small urban post offices constructed in the period, of which only this one survives in western Canada.
While each of the 66 buildings contributed to an identifiable genre, they were designed individually to be compatible with their sites and to use materials readily available locally. Standard plans included an open hall plan on the main floor that was broken into a lobby and a mail-processing area. Upstairs were the offices of the Customs and Internal Revenue departments. The third floor served as the living quarters for the caretaker; the basement held storage, the furnace and the fuel supply (coal).
The exterior of the Portage La Prairie Public Building continues Fuller’s vision, which was carried out in public buildings across the country. Executed in rough-faced limestone with dressed stone trim, the building rests on a foundation of rubble fieldstone while its upper floors are made of timber frame carried internally on cast iron columns. Like other of Fuller’s design, this building shows eclectic stylistic influences. The symmetrical bays and flanking front entrances, the mansard roof and the classical details show the influence of the French Second Empire style, while the varied roofline, attention to the colour and texture of the stone and advancing and receding volumes blend in a High Victorian Gothic influence. The varied massing and wide voussoir trim over the doors and windows express the American influence of Richardsonian Romanesque style, all typical of public buildings of the era.
Despite its adaptation to continuing changes in government processes, the Portage La Prairie Public Building has seen little exterior alteration with the exception of window replacement and the construction of a single-storey addition to the rear during the renovations of 1920-1922. Materials, rhythms and details of this addition were blended sensitively as the Public Building was expanded to meet the increased need for space for Customs offices. The building was rehabilitated in 1960 as the Portage la Prairie City Hall. Civic administration and the mayor’s office now fill the main floor while the second floor has seen use as a court, a library and an arts centre. Two prison cells remain from a period when the RCMP detachment occupied the basement. In 2005, the two original entrances, the stairway on the west side and the upper floors’ millwork were restored to maintain the viability of City Hall for the future.
Source: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, June 1983.
Key elements, which contribute to the heritage value of the Portage La Prairie Public Building, include:
- its visual prominence in the Saskatchewan Avenue streetscape;
- its design with two major façades, making use of its corner site;
- the integrity of the building’s exterior design and materials, notably the varied stonework, from the undressed stone foundation to the hammer-dressed limestone blocks of its elevations and the finely-dressed stone trim;
- its blocky massing, enlivened by advancing and receding volumes of the three-bay façade;
- the two front entrances, each projecting out and identified by short robust piers, flanking the central bay;
- the animated roofline with varied gables set in with decorative stonework and punctuated with differing windows;
- the vertical lines of the iron-sheathed mansard roof and heavy dentilled cornice.