The Silvester and Willson building
The stately Silvester and Willson Building was designed by local architect J. H. G. Russel and built in 1904. The building was constructed in the popular Romanesque Revival style at the corner of McDermot Avenue and Albert Street in Winnipeg Manitoba, in what is known as the Exchange District. This building style was popular in warehouse districts throughout North America from the 1880s and into the 20th century.
The sturdiness of this style was meant to appeal to wholesalers looking to promote the idea of the stability of their firms through the design of the structures they occupied.
Willson Stationary, founded by Harvey Lee Willson, specialized in office supplies, furniture, loose-leaf ledgers, blank books and typewriters. Willson partnered with Geoffrey Silvester, a hardware and lumber merchant for Elkhorn Lumber, and built the Silvester and Willson building in 1904. The stationary company occupied 3 floors of the building and the main retail space into the 1960’s.
The building contains some unique elements incorporated into the architecture such as a bird cage elevator (currently not running) and a sky light above the elevator shaft that would flood the building with natural light. Many of the original offices had transom windows above the doors to increase air flow and natural light throughout the building. Offices were divided by walls containing frosted glass, and some of these original features remain in the building today. The 5th floor space contained a room called “Friendship Hall” decorated with ornate tin ceiling tiles. The building became a municipally-designated historic building in 2018.
After 1960, the building has been owned and occupied by various companies and individuals with tenants including manufacturer’s agents, barristers, a dentist, a cigar dealer, a tailor, clothing retailers, and a barber shop.
Building a vision
In 2008, the entire building was purchased with a vision by the Exchange Community Church receiving support from the district churches in Manitoba and Saskatchewan of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The church community had already been operating at 64 Albert Street for a number of years, and when the building across the street came up for sale the founders saw an opportunity to contribute to the exchange community in a new way.
At the time of the purchase, the building’s upper floors were divided into various artist studios, and the church’s vision for the building has been to facilitate affordable community arts space and to preserve creativity and creation in the heart of the Exchange District, and maintain some of the original character of the building.
A space of my own
My first studio space was located at 138 Portage Ave. East, on the east side of the Exchange District where I enjoyed a shared space for almost 2 years. When that building underwent renovations in 2017 and asked the artist residents to leave, I was fortunate to find a space at the Silvester and Willson building.
I occupied a shared studio space on the 4th floor of this fantastic building for 8 years and it was during this time that I was able to build up my art practice, brand, and business as a side hustle while working as a cook full time and raising my daughter.
In 2020, I finally left my job as a chef and gave my full efforts to creating soft action figures and spent all my days in the studio. It was an amazing year! Then on December 21st 2021 I found out that I would have to leave my little ecosystem while renovations and upgrades took place to bring the building up to code.
I was heartbroken to pull apart my little world that had been established there, but I was confident that the future would hold wonderful things for me and my creatures.
I knew there was a strong community of makers and artists in the Exchange District neighbourhood, so I asked around, and was able to secure a temporary work space in a building just down the street for as long as I needed. It was a huge relief not to have to move back into my living room and I am so grateful I got to meet Kevin of EviTen and Joseph of The Traveling Sign Painters as my temporary studio mates!
In July 2022 I received a call that spaces were opening up in the old building again, so I hauled my gear back down the street (some by vehicle, some by hand) and settled back into the Silvester and Willson building. My new space was to be on the 2nd floor, in a fantastic room that used to be the church pastor’s office, decorated with a mosaic of the creation story. It was the perfect space to begin creating my own little universe again!
The last few years have been full of ups and downs and changes and shifts and has really felt like a ship at sea, but the sturdy structure and community inside the Silvester and Willson building and the exchange community at large has been a constant and foundation for me. My art practice would not be where it is without this big brick beast and the folks that believe in its future and want to preserve it’s past.
Today and beyond
As of today, the current main floor retail occupants of the building are Artworks Warehouse, a local art dealer and gallery, and Northlore, a lovely botanical body care company and gift shop. The upper 3 levels of the building are still undergoing renovations to meet city occupancy requirements, and will eventually be available for creative spaces for local artists and businesses.
If you feel inspired to contribute, please check out and support these local businesses, or to assist with the cost of renovations and daily operations of the building, please consider a donation here.