The Winnipeg Exchange District

In the late 1880’s the CPR helped to define Winnipeg as the "Gateway to the West" and by 1905,it was the fastest growing city of its size in North America. The City's Exchange District, named for the Winnipeg Grain and Produce Exchange founded in 1887, became Winnipeg's economic hub. In 1911, there were twenty-four rail lines converging on the City, establishing it as one of the largest rail centres in the world, servicing more than 200 wholesale businesses and warehouses centred in the Exchange, thus linking it to the labor movement. As the city flourished, the Exchange became home to dozens of British and Eastern Canadian financial institutions. The District’s opulent theatres and cabarets, became the entertainment and vaudeville showcase for Western Canada. The Exchange also became the city's publishing core, boasting three daily newspapers.


Conservation of the Exchange District was and is a combined effort of the City of Winnipeg, the province, the government of Canada, Heritage Winnipeg, the Manitoba Historical Society, the Exchange BIZ and its precursor, The Old Market Square Association. Conservation began in 1974 in an effort to "recycle the City’s heritage buildings". A series of bylaws were passed in the 1970s and 80s, first to protect individual buildings on the merits of their architectural and/or historical significance, followed by area protection,  and then the creation of the Historic Winnipeg design designation for the Exchange District. "This legislation is intended to protect the overall character of the District by requiring a system of design review for all buildings, streetscaping, and new construction within the area." Heritage and redevelopment programs followed, supported by building rehabilitation and economic incentives, provincial assistance for designated sites, Heritage Tax Credits and a fund for conservation work as well as historical research.


The Exchange District was designated a National Historic Site in 1997. The site consists of a largely intact, densely built, turn-of -the-century warehousing and business centre of some 150 stone, brick and terra-cotta-clad buildings. The district, not far from the historic corner of Portage and Main, covers 20 city blocks, many with narrow angled streets and covered alleys.


“This remarkable group of commercial buildings vividly illustrates Winnipeg's transformation between 1878 and 1913 from a modest pioneer settlement to western Canada's largest metropolitan centre. The district's banks, warehouses, and early skyscrapers recall the city's dominance in the fields of finance, manufacturing, wholesale distribution and the international grain trade. Designed by a number of well known architects, the buildings of the Exchange District reflect an approach to architecture that was innovative, functional and stylish. The First World War and the Great Depression contributed to the end of Winnipeg's spectacular boom era, leaving the district virtually intact. Through the efforts of dedicated citizens since the 1970s, the Exchange District has been preserved as a distinctive legacy from a formative period in Canada's economic development.”


The Exchange District BIZ promotes local businesses and the historic architecture of the area by offering information, 5 different walking tours, and manages an outdoor festival venue. The area has been developed to offer shopping, restaurants & bars and entertainment, is actively promoted by Tourism Winnipeg and is frequently used as a set by the film industry.


Sources and further reading…

The Exchange District BIZ

City of Winnipeg, Heritage Conservation: The Exchange District National Historic Site

The Exchange District A National Historic Site Heritage Interpretation Strategy July 1999



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