Most Manitobans would consider Jonathon Toews and the Chicago Blackhawks the crowning cultural exchange between the windy cities. But many are also aware that Winnipeg has often been referred to as the Chicago of the North. To understand why, we need to look back more than 100 years.
Both cities were rapidly expanding prairie metropolises built as much on optimism and corruption as a real economy. Their economies were both based on real estate, transportation hubs and warehousing sites for the growing populations of the rural west. Chicago did grow much larger and earlier than Winnipeg, but our fair city expected to do the same thing, just a bit later. Our fantastic Legislative Building, the Shoal Lake aqueduct, and an architectural building boom all held out the promise of bigger and better (but mostly bigger) things to come. Huge numbers of immigrants flooded the city.
That was over 5 generations ago, almost too remote to recall, and Winnipeg has since the mid-1910s meandered down its own path.
On a recent trip to Chicago I was faced with concrete reminders of that early boom period in many ways, mostly in the form of historic architecture. Architect John Danley Atchison worked in Winnipeg from 1905-1923, and he was responsible for a number of buildings that still stand in Winnipeg. An American educated at the newly founded Chicago Institute of Art in the early 1890s, Atchison was a student of some of the key figures in the so-called “Chicago School of Architecture”, and worked in the famous firm of Jenney and Mundie before coming to Winnipeg. On a walking tour of the early skyscrapers of Chicago, I noticed a number of parallels between that
work and Atchison’s buildings in Winnipeg.