Confederation Life Insurance

Confederation Life Insurance – The Building of Confederation Life captures the story of Winnipeg, a young, once-thriving city that has struggled through its middle ages and is thriving again. It was fitting, then, that an elegant, no-frills, Chicago School-style building was built on Chicago’s north side at a time when nothing else seemed possible. Advanced technology then resulted in a building that has stood the test of time and is ready to rise as a glittering monument to Winnipeg’s resilience.

In 1868, the Canadian government passed the country’s first insurance law. The law required companies to maintain assets in Canada to cover their liabilities, something that some British and American companies operating in the country did not want to follow. Their departure from Canada opened opportunities for Canadian insurance companies to enter and meet the needs of the growing country. John Kay Macdonald, a 32-year-old English immigrant, had a background in finance and firmly believed that insurance was an important social safety net for society. In 1869 Macdonald and several other important businessmen, including Sir Francis Hincks, Lieutenant Governor William Pearce Howland and Senator William McMaster, joined to form the Dominion Life Association, a new insurance company.

Confederation Life Insurance

The Toronto corporation changed its name to the Confederation Life Association in March 1871 during the formation process and officially began operating in November of that year. Macdonald was initially overwhelmed by his responsibilities as manager of the new company and resigned from the position, although he remained heavily involved. After a few years, he returned as manager in 1874 and helped to found and expand the company. The expansion of the Confederation Life Association included the opening of operations in Winnipeg in 1879.

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Advertisement for the Confederation Life Association in 1898. Source: Internet Archive and Canadian Men and Women of Time: A Handbook of Canadian Biography

The Confederation Life Association first moved to the Biggs Block in Winnipeg, located on the east side of Main Street, about midway between Market Avenue and Bannatyne Avenue. The three-story brick building stood at the north end of Bankers’ Row, a collection of stately bank buildings built to meet the needs of our thriving prairie town. In 1911 the building was no longer sufficient to accommodate the company that was flourishing. Led by manager Daniel McDonald, the Confederation Life Company began building a spectacular, modern skyscraper.

The new Confederation Life Building in Winnipeg was built at 457 Main Street for about $600,000 on the same site as the Biggs Block, which was demolished. The 100-foot fountain section along Main Street is ten stories tall, while the north wing, which extends eastward from the rear of the building, is eleven stories. It was large enough to house the offices of Confederation Life as well as several other prominent professional and financial firms with retail space on the ground floor. Construction by the Carter-Halls-Aldinger Company of Winnipeg began in 1911 to a design by architect James Wilson Gray. Gray was a prolific Scottish architect who worked in Toronto and designed many buildings before beginning his most significant project, the Winnipeg Confederation Life Building, which officially opened in 1912.

Gray designed the Confederation Living Building to follow the curve of Main Street, creating an elegant, curved facade that contrasts sharply with the other linear, dimensional buildings that surround it. Designed in the Renaissance-Renaissance style, it is characterized by its symmetrical facade, pronounced horizontal bands that divide the three different styles of facade and the large and decorated avenues crowned by a wide and imposing cornice that stretches over the sidewalk extends. The building also follows Louis Sullivan’s principles of the First Chicago School, an architectural style that embraces the new steel structure technology used to build skyscrapers. The unencumbered walls were marked by many windows, while the facade remained relatively simple, simply celebrating the pattern created by the windows in the innovative structure. The use of steel also accommodated curves, which was best shown in the design of the curved facade. The six-inch white terracotta was used to cover the facade with the base in gray granite, polished. The other sides of the building were unremarkable, with beige bricks and various windows.

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Built in 1895, the Reliance Building in Chicago exemplifies Chicago’s First School as the Confederate Life Building and also has a white terracotta facade.

James Wilson Gray designed the Renaissance Revival Confederate Life Building and Chicago’s First School in the style with a curved facade that follows the arch on the street.

The Confederation Life Building has been owned by the insurance company of the same name for almost 50 years, during which time it was well maintained and well utilized. Some renovation work was done in 1939-40, but there were no major changes. In 1960, Confederation Life Insurance built new facilities and then sold their 1912 building. Winnipeg was no longer a thriving city and the glory of Bankers’ Row was a faded memory. Parks Canada highlighted the importance of the building in 1976 by installing a plaque naming it “Building of National Architectural Significance”. The shiny new plaque did little to improve the building’s fate. The rent fell through and by 1977 the building was empty and neglected. The pigeons moved and the heating was turned off, further shortening the decay of the building. The City of Winnipeg also recognized the importance of the building and placed it on its historic resource list in 1980 to protect it from demolition, but is doing nothing to address the general neglect.

Time has passed, but Parks Canada has not forgotten the Confederation Life Building. In 1983, the federal government, with the support of the home community, leased more than half of the building area and planned to move 250 people into the six basement floors. Unfortunately, the long vacancy, with the help of vandals and pigeons, led to a significant deterioration of the building. Extensive renovation work was required to make the building habitable again. The building’s owner planned to invest $2.5 million in renovations, while Parks Canada committed $225,000 to improvements.

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The Confederate Life Building was structurally sound throughout its history, likely due to the 55-foot caissons that sat on the bedrock that supported it and the solid steel and concrete construction. But it was too expensive to adapt the building to the current regulations while preserving and restoring all the historical features. Important features, such as the three-bay, copper-steel, open-cage elevator system, would have been costly to repair and could not meet current regulations. Consequently, it was decided to focus only on the restoration of the public view areas, the facade and the foyer, with Parks Canada undertaking some additional “contemporary style” renovations. Many of the irreplaceable historical features of the building have thus been lost.

The imposing facade and frame of the Confederation Life Building is the only specific part of the building protected by the City of Winnipeg’s Heritage Designation, which also precludes demolition.

The building’s owner hired architects Stan Osaka and Lorne Beally while Parks Canada’s restoration department finalized their plans. Outside, the white terracotta facade has been cleaned and restored. On the ground floor of the building, the woodwork, marble panels and ceiling of the foyer have been restored along with the pink marble terrazzo floor, main staircase and plasterwork (egg and arrow, Lonza language, and models of grapes and vineyards). The ground floor restoration also included the two shop window offices.

The facade of the Confederation Life Building underwent a major transformation when it was cleaned during the 1983-84 renovations.

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Beyond the first floor, oak wood, frosted glass doors, maple flooring, and some hardware were salvaged from the upper floors and installed in new locations. Two remaining latex and frosted glass mounts were replaced and rewred. On the fourth floor, the wood and oak paneling was reinstalled in the director’s cloakroom and in the meeting room, and the rooms were furnished with period furniture.

In addition to the restoration, a new sprinkler system and a new heating and cooling system were installed. New elevators have replaced the originals and new double sealed windows have replaced double glazed windows to increase energy efficiency. Additional bathrooms were built as the entire building only had two such facilities.

The original double doors of the Confederate Life Building were removed at some point in its history, but were later replaced with new ones inspired by the building’s original plans.

After extensive renovations, Parks Canada entered the Confederation Life Building on December 1, 1984, which marks the beginning of a new era for the building. The heritage movement grew in popularity and efforts were made to revitalize downtown Winnipeg. After moving into the building, the tenants spent about $1.5 million on renovations over the next six years. An additional $1.4 million was spent on renovations in 1996-97. The people who gathered in the city center and in the nearby Stock Exchange district came to life as it was designated a national heritage site. 2007 a

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