The historic Windsor Hotel in downtown Winnipeg has burned to the ground.
Fire crews responded to the Garry Street landmark just before 11 a.m. to heavy smoke billowing from the hotel’s windows.
Brent Cheater, platoon chief of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, said the brick building had wood walls and floors, making it a “highly combustible” building.
“As the building burns, the floors burn away. The floors hold the wall in the positions that they are in and once those start to burn away, the building starts to fall apart,” Cheater said in front of the smouldering landmark Wednesday afternoon.
Just 15 minutes after crews pulled away from the potential collapse zone, the south side of the building caved in, leaving a crater in its main structure. Bricks were seen falling from the hotel’s exterior onto cars parked in the attached parking lot.
The platoon chief said fire crews did not attempt to check the building for people.
“I will not put my crews at risk by going in there on a possibility there might be somebody in there,” he said. “If somebody’s in there … they’ve broken in there, they’re in there illegally. And they take their life into their own hands.”
Because the building was supposed to be vacant, Cheater said the cause of the fire was not immediately known but crews are investigating.
The hotel was set ablaze in August 2022 but the damage was contained to a suite in the building and no one was injured.
Tom Bilous, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said on top of the building collapsing and putting nearby buildings at risk, the environmental impact could be dangerous.
“The smoke and the carcinogenic toxins and whatnot,” he told 680 CJOB. “You don’t have to be a chemist to know that you’d want to be away from that stuff.”
The hotel was first constructed in 1903 and was known then as the La Claire Hall Apartments. The building was renovated in 1930 and converted to a hotel complete with a name change, according to the Manitoba Historical Society.
It gained popularity through the decades as a go-to blues bar drawing big names, but in recent years served the city’s independent punk, metal and rock music scenes.
The music venue in the basement of the downtown Winnipeg building closed in January 2020 amid a string of crimes, including a shooting that killed one and injured two.
A March inspection of the hotel by the province found a number of health hazards in the 130-year-old building, including “damage to floors, walls and ceilings as well as broken doors, doors without locks or handles and issues with pest control,” according to a provincial spokesperson.
The province placarded the hotel rooms and lounge on March 17 and it was closed, the spokesperson said.
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Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg, said buildings from the early 20th century have “a lot of asbestos” in them and with the building’s collapse, the airborne exposure increases tenfold.
“What kind of health risk are we putting these communities in, people who live and work in the periphery, because of an absentee building owner?” she said, adding she hadn’t seen any permits taken out for maintenance of the building in recent years, which explains its order to close due to disrepair.
Heritage Winnipeg tried to have the building designated as a historic site but the request was denied in 2010.
The fire also sparked renewed conversations about the risk vacant buildings pose, Mayor Scott Gillingham said.
“Property owners have to use different materials to secure the site that much better to prevent people from going in and squatting on the site or trying to reduce the amount of fires that happen,” he said. “And right now at a time when we need a lot of housing, we need these properties transformed into housing.”
Coun. Sherri Rollins, who chairs the city’s property and development committee, says the city needs tougher policy that addresses vacant buildings.
“How did a fire happen? And how does a fire happen that ends up with impacts in the downtown?” Rollins said.
The Fort Rouge-East Fort Garry councillor said buildings like the Windsor, which was flagged as a risk by the city’s informal problem properties committee, need to be secured better or flipped after they’re no longer of use.
“This status quo is going to change in the city of Winnipeg and we will stop seeing these fires in derelict and vacant buildings.”
A demolition crew arrived Wednesday afternoon to tear down the remainder of the building.