Our Market Square neighbourhood is rich with stories. 104 King, directly across from Artspace, was designed and built in 1895 to house one of Winnipeg’s largest shoe retailers – Thomas Ryan Boots and Shoes. The owner became one of the most successful shoe retailers in 19th century Canada (known far and wide as “The Shoe King”) and ended up, some years later, as the Mayor of Winnipeg.
Today, that building is primarily a parkade with three retail establishments at street level. If you have visited the Exchange District in 2016, you will know those as the eating-places Chosabi, Bronuts, and King + Bannatyne Eatery.
The architect of the Ryan Block (as it was known at the beginning) was Henry S. Griffith who chose to build in the Richardsonian Romanesque style, the same style architect George Browne would adopt for the Gault Building (Artspace) a few years later, albeit on a grander scale.
Ryan Boots and Shoes was owned by Thomas Ryan who came from Perth, Ontario to Winnipeg in 1874 as a journeyman shoemaker with $70 worth of stock. He was 25 years old. The growth of his business was rapid. The Main Street business moved to 104 King Street in 1895 but there would be one more expansion in 1907 to 44-46 Princess Street (now home of Subway and Clementine).
Thomas Ryan translated his success as a businessman to a career as a politician in Winnipeg, becoming an alderman in 1884 and eventually, in December of 1888, mayor of the city. For one year. (A story for another time.)
After Ryan Boots & Shoes moved out, 104 King (now the King Building) was occupied by a series of wholesale merchants. Eventually it became vacant for four years until 1977, when it was occupied by Gray’s Auctions. After that firm moved out, the building was vacant again, this time for 15 years during which time it became derelict. Bedford Investments took over the building and claimed that while redevelopment was not economically viable, the façade remained salvageable.
In 2010, the building was reconstructed with its north and east facades incorporated into a new parkade. The addition of the three retail spaces qualified the King Building as mixed-use development but, for a number of years beyond completion, those street spaces sat empty and unwanted. The project was held forth as an example of how mixed-use projects don’t succeed in Winnipeg.
The good news is that a few entrepreneurs saw the potential in creating one, two and eventually three smallish food service establishments and by all current indications, have won over the hearts and appetites of local denizens. With the rebirth of the King Building recently enhanced by sidewalk café seating, the Exchange District can boast one more living strip of commercial, walkabout activity to enhance the Market Square experience.
It will be worth sticking around to see just how “Warehouse District” success stories stack up over coming decades as new generations of risk-takers take up the mantle of for-bearers like Thomas Ryan to keep Winnipeg’s historic district vital and prosperous.