Description of Historic Place
The Great-West Life Building, also known as the Chamber of Commerce Building, is an eight-storey steel, concrete and brick structure erected in two stages between 1909 and 1923 in downtown Winnipeg. The provincial designation applies to the building and the land it occupies.
The Great-West Life Building, centred in Winnipeg's and Western Canada's historic financial and grain marketing headquarters, is an exemplary Neo-Classical office tower combining the traditional ornamentation of a Renaissance Revival palace of commerce with the advanced steel frame and fireproof construction techniques of its era. Designed by J.D. Atchison, one of Manitoba's foremost early architects, the building displays grand formality and elegant detailing, as well as materials of Canadian origin, most notably Kootenay marble from British Columbia. These features were meant to convey an image of excellence, soundness and wealth on behalf of the first owner-occupant, the homegrown Great-West Life Assurance Co., for many years the only Canadian life insurer based in Winnipeg. As such, the firm was one of the pillars that established the city as a regional financial centre. Its former head office, now extensively restored, recalls the pioneer dynamism of the local business community. The building also is an important component of an early twentieth-century streetscape on the southern edge of the Exchange District National Historic Site of Canada.
Source: Manitoba Heritage Council Minutes, September 6, 1984
Key elements that define the heritage character of the Great-West Life Building site include:
- the corner location at northwest Lombard Avenue and Rorie Street in proximity to Winnipeg's historic Main Street financial district
- the structure's visual and operational connections to contemporaries such as the Union Tower and Grain Exchange buildings, etc.
Key elements that define the building's impressive Neo-Classical architecture and progressive construction technology include:
- the nearly square massing under a flat roof, with projecting end bays on two highly stylized facades and the balance much plainer
- the main (south) facade sheathed in white Kootenay marble and featuring a rusticated base, a two-storey middle with a paired and fluted Corinthian colonnade, and a top segment (the 1922-23 addition) continuing the motifs presented below in a less elaborate manner in smooth ashlar marble
- the east facade largely repeating its southern sibling, with shallow pilasters in place of the colonnade
- the profusion of openings on all sides, set in cast-metal decorative surrounds on the first four floors of the south and east facades, including large segmental-arched windows with voussoirs on the main floor, the middle's rectangular openings, the simpler, smaller openings in the top, etc.
- the grandiose recessed entrance featuring double wood and glass doors set in stylized brass screening with a crest and nameplate and topped by pronounced voussoirs and a console keystone
- the elaborate details, including modillioned and lion-head-bracketed cornices, decorative panels of low-relief urns, stone balustrades, a flagpole centred atop the main facade, florets, etc.
- the construction materials and methods (concrete substructure, steel, tile and brick superstructure, etc.)
Key elements that define the building's interior layout, finishes and details include:
- the formal arrangement of public, semi-private and private spaces around a central-hall plan
- the classically appointed main floor, including the deep central foyer with floors and walls of white Italian marble and elevators with bronze grilles and fittings, flanked by spaces with double doors, double-height columns, coffered ceilings, brass finishes, quarter-cut oak trim, etc.
- the second storey's marble corridors, wainscotting and detailing, areas with decorative plaster columns, coffered ceiling and boardroom with mahogany fireplace, panelling, doors, window frames, trim and furniture, an ornamental Florentine ceiling, plank floors a marble-pedimented doorway, etc.
- the U-shaped marble staircases with intact decorative metal balustrades and railings
- the details, including doorways with brass fittings, washrooms with marble stalls and floors and ceramic tiling, vaults throughout, etc.