A Cornerstone of History: The Doner Block

Lake of the Woods Museum Newsletter
Vol. 12 No. 3 – Summer 2002

by Lori Nelson

 

Three corners of the intersection of Main Street and Second Street in Kenora are graced with some of the town’s finest examples of early architecture and construction.

The handsome red brick edifice, which now houses Tilley’s Pharmasave, was originally built to accommodate the growing business of Hose Hardware. Constructed in 1897, it is one of the few remaining structures in town that was built with brick made locally by the Western Algoma Brick Company.

Opposite it, on the northeast corner, is the Kenricia Hotel. Designed in 1907 by Frank Newell, who was regarded, at the time, as one of North America’s finest hotel architects, the Kenricia was the cornerstone of the town’s efforts to promote itself as a tourist destination. The imposing inn has been a landmark for decades.

On the third corner is the Doner Block, surely one of the town’s most handsome structures. On the exterior it has remained largely unchanged in its 95-year history. Awnings have been removed. Air conditioners now protrude from the windows. But for the most part, it remains as it was when it was first built as the Imperial Bank of Canada. That is, perhaps, what makes it one of the most interesting and unique buildings in the area.

The establishment of the town of Kenora began in the 1870s with the erection of wooden buildings along what could loosely be referred to as a main street. Rustic was the word. The Rideout House, the town’s first hotel, built in 1879, stood out like a sore thumb. It was painted.

As the natural resources of the area were developed. the town became more established and this was reflected in the construction of more substantial buildings. From the late 1880s into the 1890s, several buildings of brick and stone went up along Main Street – Hose Hardware, the old Post Office, and the Hudson’s Bay Company store. 1905 saw the addition of Fife Hardware, the Rioch Block (now Penner’s Jewellers), and the former Town Office (on the southwest corner of First and Main Streets).

The Imperial Bank, at the time, shared the premises of the Brydon Block (now Johnson’s Pharmacy) with G.W. Smith Bookstore. But after doing business in the community for close to 20 years, the powers-that-be at the bank decided that their own building should be erected. A writer for the local newspaper considered it a sign of the bank’s confidence in the town’s future that it was willing to construct such a handsome and solid branch building.

The Toronto architectural firm of Darling and Pearson was engaged to design the new building. Frank Darling had received his training in Toronto and London, England and had been practising for almost 35 years when he designed Kenora’s Imperial Bank. He had built up quite a reputation in the area of Canadian bank architecture. His work included the Bank of Montreal in Toronto, and the Bank of Commerce in Winnipeg, Montreal and Vancouver. As well, he’d designed the Winnipeg General Post Office and the Royal Ontario Museum. Frank Darling is the only Canadian designer to receive the prestigious Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects.

The design that he conceived was markedly different from any other building in town. Most of the business establishments had opted for flat roofs and simple yet substantial exteriors.

Darling’s design was considered decidedly refreshing. He was able to give the building the appearance of massiveness and dignity, even though it was situated on a lot with only a 25-foot frontage on Main Street.

With plans drawn and approved, the contract was awarded to William Garson, a general contractor from Winnipeg, in February 1910. Approximately 20 men were hired to work under the project foreman, A.J. Morton, who had overseen the construction of many impressive buildings across Canada.

By mid-April, the stone foundation had been laid and work was beginning on the superstructure.

The ground floor was to house the banking room. The glassed-in manager’s office was located at the front and featured a wide brick fireplace on the north wall. Solid oak partitions spanned the greater part of the lower level, which was well-lit by a row of windows on the south side. A counting room, and a fire-proof, burglar-proof vault was located towards the back of the bank.

The second floor had five large offices off the main hall, with another front room overlooking Main Street. It too had a fireplace. A large vault and lavatories were, as on the first floor, at the back of the building.

The third floor had been designed to accommodate bank staff. Its layout echoed that of the second level – a large sitting room with fireplace, and rooms off the main hall.

In the basement was the steam heating plant, washrooms, and another vault.

The inside of the building was described by one effusive reporter as having a general air of luxuriousness. It was, in fact, quite simple and unadorned.

Outside was where the building shone. The bank was dressed in fossilized limestone from the contractor’s quarries in Manitoba.

The decorative stepped gables on the four corners of the building are its most unique design feature. They hint at a European influence, primarily Flemish, of the period when cathedrals and other public buildings were characterized by similar, although more elaborate gabling. Of particular note is the positioning of the gables transverse to the main access of the building.

The placement of the windows is also an attractive feature of the bank. The third floor dormers break the monotony of the plain roof. The second floor windows, although vertical, give a horizontal visual effect by their number and proximity to each other that is accented by the eaves of the main roof. Although no longer featured on the present building, fabric awnings on the street level windows softened the appearance of the stone structure and gave it a more welcoming air, a definite asset for a bank.

Construction of the bank continued through the summer of 1910. The completion date specified in the contract was September 1st, but on September 1st, the building was far from finished. The weather was blamed.

One of the other difficulties encountered in the building process was securing local labourers. The labour force was stretched to its limits that summer because there were other building projects on the go besides the bank construction – the courthouse on Water Street, the subway under the railway tracks, and the Tourist Hotel (later renamed the Kenricia Hotel).

After eight months on the job, Morton and his crew put the finishing touches on the building. On Monday, November 12, 1910, the new Imperial Bank of Canada in Kenora opened for business. The second floor was leased to Harold Machin and Frank Ap’John, local solicitors for the bank.

Over its 95-year history, the use of the building has changed. The bank eventually outgrew its premises and moved to new quarters on the opposite side of Main Street. Jack Doner set up his law offices there and since then, the building has been known as the Doner Block. It has housed everything from a craft shop to Treaty 3 offices to a restaurant. A law firm still occupies the second floor.

Inside, changes have been made. An interior wall has been removed here and there, new windows have been installed, wall coverings have changed, paint had been applied, fluorescent lights glare from the ceilings. But much of the original remains – the bank manager’s office, the vaults, the door and transoms, brass hardware, working hot water radiators, balustrades, moulding, and fireplaces.

The Doner Block stands tall and impressively, and continues to evoke the respect all beautiful buildings do from those with an eye to admire them. It has stood for over 90 years on that corner. May it stand with dignity for another 90.

Did you know?

The name “Kenora” is a portmanteau of the names of local towns Keewatin, Norman, and Rat Portage— KE from Keewatin,  NO from Norman, and RA from Rat Portage.