Where some see headaches, the new owner of one of Winnipeg’s most historic — and rundown — hotels sees business as usual.
As an independent developer and property manager, Neil Soorsma has plenty of experience taking on troubled tenements in the city.
“It’s not all that bad,” he says about the Royal Albert Arms Hotel, which opened in 1913 in Winnipeg’s then-booming downtown as migrants poured in by the thousands.
“We’re not going to fix it up in six months by any stretch, but our way of doing things is to methodically go through the building and correct all the deficiencies.”
Deficiencies abound at a hotel that has never been referred to as opulent. For most of its 100-plus-year history, the Royal Albert has been a long-term-stay hotel.
It still is today, says Mr. Soorsma, who purchased the building for $1.34-million at a mortgage sale after the previous owner ran into financial difficulties.
Like many low-cost, multiresidential buildings in the city’s core, the Royal Albert had fallen into disrepair, creeping ever closer to becoming so decrepit it could lose its heritage status and, in turn, fall to the wrecking ball.
Although plenty of rooming-house hotels have met this fate, the Royal Albert Arms is not just any old, dingy hotel of disrepute.
Rather, the four-storey hotel of 53 tiny rooms sharing a handful of bathrooms on each floor holds an outsized place of prominence in Canada’s modern cultural history. The Royal Albert is one of Winnipeg’s most iconic music venues. It also has national renown — it was a breeding ground for music in the 1980s through the late 2000s, where now-famous bands played before they were big.
As Dave Bidini, author and guitarist for the Rheostatics, wrote in his memoir On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock, “the Royal Albert Hotel in 1987 was our baptism into rock ‘n’ roll and the road.”
The same could be said for many other bands, local and famous, says filmmaker Randy Frykas, who made the documentary Call to Arms: The Story of the Royal Albert.
“If you were going to Winnipeg, you had to play the Albert because back in the day Green Day played there, or the Melvins played there or some other famous band — so then you wanted to, as well.”
Yet, like many other small, but storied, rock venues in North America, the very seediness that made it the ideal punk-rock venue is also what imperils its future.
Moreover a series of misfortunes — from a water main break that shut down the lounge to a national headline grabbing grisly murder in one of its rooms — have turned the historic hotel into a sore spot in the city’s historic Exchange District, an up-and-coming downtown neighbourhood of turn-of-the century warehouses and office buildings.
Ironically, the Albert helped spark the area’s renaissance, says David Pensato, executive director of the Winnipeg Exchange District BIZ (Business Improvement Zone).
“It’s sort of sad that the stretch of Albert street that helped to kick-start the renewal of the Exchange District has ended up being the worst part of the district today.”
But the Albert’s new ownership offers renewed optimism, and not just for the building itself. It is also a hopeful beacon for other aging music venues that have shaped modern music and now teeter on oblivion, says Alan Cross, a Toronto-based music historian.
“A lot of these heritage places are the anchor to a [music] community,” says the host of the syndicated radio program The Ongoing History of New Music.
“The punk scene, for example, would not have happened in New York if it had not been for CBGB [a music club in Manhattan’s East Village].”
The same could be said for Canada with venues such as the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. Yet many are gone or closing. In Toronto, the El Mocambo and The Silver Dollar Room are among the more notable venues closing in recent years. While the El Mocambo is reportedly being renovated by Dragons’ Den star Michael Wekerle, and the Silver Dollar rebuilt as part of a larger multiresidential project on its former site, their absence leaves a hole in the music scene — even if they do eventually return anew, says one of the filmmakers behind Soundcheck TO, a documentary examining the importance of small music venues in the city.
“Every time something older with history gets knocked down and replaced with something shiny and new it’s going piss people off — heck, I’m young and it pissed me off,” says Laura Macinnes-Rae, a Ryerson University student who made the three-part doc series with other classmates as a thesis project.
To survive, she adds, aging venues need proprietors who also own the building and are committed to it as a music venue.
Often a heritage designation is not enough to save a building, notes Ms. Macinnes-Rae, pointing out the Silver Dollar had heritage status and is still being replaced.
Demolition is also a concern in Winnipeg’s Exchange District whenever a heritage building changes hands, says Cindy Tugwell, executive director of Heritage Winnipeg.
“Pretty much right away, we get an idea of intent when someone purchases a building.” So far so good with the Albert’s new ownership, she says, adding Mr. Soorsma immediately started improving the building.
By contrast, Ms. Tugwell has seen many other instances where new owners do nothing.
“They’re willing to sit on it and lose money, letting it become derelict, so it can be delisted, torn down and redeveloped.”
She adds this appears to be the case for another heritage hotel adjacent to the Royal Albert.
The St. Charles Hotel — also built in 1913 — holds a similar soft spot in the hearts of the city’s music fans. One of the first discotheques in the 1970s and later home to a nascent electronica scene in the 1990s, it has sat vacant for years.
Ms. Tugwell says the owner, who did not respond to an interview request, initially stated plans for a boutique hotel when he purchased it in 2005. Nothing of significance materialized since, she adds, aside from a request in 2014 to delist heritage status.
Mr. Soorsma says he has no intention to delist the Royal Albert. Nor does he plan to go upscale.
“We’ve got a number of people in the city who work for temp services and they need a clean, safe, decent place to stay,” he says, adding it could also serve as a youth hostel.
Already the Royal Albert can boast one publicity coup with the recent announcement that a well-known name among local foodies, Alycia’s, would open on its main floor. Renowned for Ukrainian fare in the North End for decades, the beloved restaurant closed in 2011 and since reopened in the lake community of Gimli, north of the city.
Mr. Soorsma says Alycia’s new Albert location will do more than bring the lunch crowd. It will draw tourists, too, seeking authentic Ukrainian cuisine.
Reviving the lounge as a thriving venue isn’t out of the question, either, adds Mr. Soorsma, who went to many gigs there. “I would love that.”
To that end the hotel now has an open-mic night and a handful of heavy metal events tentatively scheduled for the fall.
For many bands that played there, and their fans, that’s truly music to their ears.
The Royal Albert Arms hotel served as a hub for Winnipeg’s punk and alternative music scene from the 1980s until 2011 when a water main break closed the lounge. The following is a list of some famous bands that played there:
Green Day, Husker Du, The Melvins, Scream (Dave Grohl’s band before he joined Nirvana), Nickelback (which opened for another band), Sloan, DOA, Andrew W.K., Rheostatics, Propagandhi, Chocolate Bunnies from Hell, Nomeansno, Sum 41, Billy Talent.
More about its history
According to Heritage Winnipeg research, Royal Albert Arms Hotel’s opening in 1913 was overshadowed by the opening of the Fort Garry Hotel, the Grand Trunk Pacific’s prestigious railway hotel. The only press coverage at the time was a photo of the Albert’s excavation the previous year.
Prior to construction, a rooming house stood on the site with 11 suites. Soon after the Royal Albert opened, it also became a longer-term-stay rental as the city’s fortunes fell after its importance as a grain transportation centre diminished following the opening of the Panama Canal.
The hotel was built for $85,000 — or about $1.8-million in today’s dollars — by W.M. Scott, a prominent engineer who built hydroelectric dams for Winnipeg Hydro, the forerunner to Manitoba Hydro.
Designed by Edgar D. McGuire, the Royal Albert, at 48 Albert St., featured a European style, and at one time had red-clay tile roofing, stylized iron lights and wrought iron balconies. Inside, it featured dark woodwork and decorative plaster, some of which can still be seen today.