The Cauchon Block / Empire Hotel

Joseph Edouard Cauchon (also) was a Québec-born journalist, provincial and federal politician. Toward the tail end of his career he was appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba (1877 - 1882).

Shortly after leaving office, on October 19, 1884, he opened:

“The new Cauchon Block, one of the handsomest and most substantial in the city... contains eight stores, 6 on Main Street and two on York Street. Each store is 25 by 80 with plate glass fronts. There are some fifty offices in the upper flats.The building is to be heated with steam. There is an elevator ... and altogether the edifice is a decided acquisition to the city. The shops are adapted to either a wholesale or retail business”
Manitoba Free Press, February 7, 1883

Dec 12 1884, MB Free Press

It was intended to be a commercial building but it opened during a slowdown in Winnipeg’s economy and there was trouble filling both the retail and office space. After spending $150k or so to build it, the empty space took its toll and a couple of years later Cauchon was forced to sell.

The new owner reduced rates and began renting the offices out as apartments. This strategy proved more successful and in 1896 extensive renovations were done and the building was re-opened as The Assiniboine Block, Winnipeg’s first apartment building.

In 1904, hotelier brothers the McLaren's bought the building with the intention of turning it into Winnipeg's premiere hotel. In February 1905 it reopened as the upscale Empire Hotel.

As the decades passed, the fortunes of the Cauchon Block / Assiniboine Block / Empire Hotel declined along with other Main Street hotels. This is illustrated by looking at the different styles of dance on offer in 1947 versus 1975 !

Wpg Free Press Jan. 1947
Wpg Free Press Oct. 1975

Great West Life purchased the Empire in 1974 with the intent to demolish it. It was part of a collection of land needed for an eventual $500m CN East Yards Redevelopment project (now known as The Forks).

The hotel was in rough shape but did possess a unique, cast-iron and pressed-zinc façade. Even in the days when heritage preservation was almost unheard of, it attracted attention. GWL allowed Parks Canada to come and do a study of the building but after it was estimated that it would cost between $4m and $6m to convert it into modern office space, the Empire's fate was sealed.

On February 18, 1976 the province declared the façade a provincial heritage object. GWL paid half of the $100k cost to remove about 20% of the façade for future use in the CN East Yards project.

In 1982 the Empire faced the wrecking ball.

As for the façade, when the CN East Yards Redevelopment got underway in 1987 Mayor Bill Norrie pushed the Forks North Portage Agency to find a way to recreate portions of it. It never was re-used and has spent decades sitting in different city storage areas.

Some sections have seen the light of day. One piece is incorporated into the interior of the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitoban.

Most of the footprint of the Empire is the surface parking lot to the north of the Via Rail Station.

For more images of the Empire:
- U of M Building Index
- Heritage Winnipeg (enter Empire in search box)
- Cauchon Block - MHS Essay (Rostecki)