‘All we have are the memories’: Historians mourn loss of key Winnipeg Jazz Age building
It took two days to burn 110 years of history in a corner on the outskirts of downtown Winnipeg, where frozen rubble is all that remains of a building that was once a focal point of the Jazz Age and big bands in the city.
The two-story Kirkwood Block, an arrowhead-shaped brick building on the northeast corner of Portage Avenue and Langside Street, was consumed by a fire that began Wednesday and forced residents teams to pour water all night and the next day.
It was partially collapsed into a single level on Friday, with the city preparing for full demolition in the coming days.
It’s the heartbreaking end to a building whose second floor enjoyed a glorious three-decade run, beginning in the mid-1950s, as Harry Smith’s Club Morocco.
“The club has become Winnipeg’s finest nightclub and the oldest jazz club, not only in our city, but in Western Canada,” according to music historian and author John Einarson, who talked about in his book. Heart of Gold: A History of Winnipeg Music.
“I would definitely consider Club Morocco a landmark in Winnipeg’s music history, and we’ve lost it just like we’ve lost so many others over time,” Einarson said during an interview on Friday.
“To see it now gutted is heartbreaking because there are so many memories of so many people who have been there or played there.”
More recently, it housed a handful of independent businesses on the ground floor, including a Japanese donut shop, hairdresser, and convenience store.
Brent Bellamy, senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group, called it a “tragic loss”.
“I worry about the neighborhood and how the neighborhood continues to lose the businesses that used to be there.”
These types of buildings are the lifeblood of a community, often providing the livelihoods of people who not only work but also live in the neighborhood, he said.
“They are part of the DNA and the fabric of the community and when those buildings are lost, we lose that connection.”
The Kirkwood Block was designed by architect John D. Atchison, who was responsible for nearly 100 buildings in the city from the early 1900s to the mid-1920s, many of them in the Chicago architectural style.
Built in 1912 for pharmacist William Kirkwood, it opened in good times, when Winnipeg was flooded with new citizens and new buildings sprang up to meet many needs.
Kirkwood’s pharmacy was located in one of four sidewalk retail stores along Portage and Langside. The second floor hosted a Pentecostal church hall before it became one of the hottest big band nightclubs in town.
Club Maroc was started by Polish immigrant Herschel Schmutkin, who became Harry Smith when Canadian customs said his name was too hard to pronounce.
He was a larger-than-life character full of sass, who decorated his club in a faux African motif, with paintings of warriors with shields, spears and masks, Einarson said.
“Very quickly it became a popular jazz club, as well as attracting artists from across Canada,” he said.
News Radio – MB8:09A look at the history of the Kirkwood Block and the legendary nightclub it housed in its heyday
The club had a dress code that required men to wear a jacket and tie. There were rentals available for those unprepared, but the selection wasn’t the best.
“They had a locker room with a couple dozen of the ugliest jackets you’d ever seen, and you had to choose one,” drummer Wayne Finucan explains in Einarson’s book.
Still, Finucan remembered it as “a cool place, a real fun place at the time”.
When the dance band and jazz era began to wane as rock ‘n’ roll took over the live music scene, Club Maroc began to struggle.
It managed to draw crowds in the 1970s and part of the 1980s, in part because its license allowed it to stay open longer than other drinking establishments, but it also led to a different kind of notoriety.
Fighting, more than dancing, began to happen and the club’s steep staircase was used to send troublemakers away, according to Einarson.
“Harry had his brother, Earl, installed as an enforcer,” he said.
“If someone got a little too drunk…got a little out of control, they would go and puff a cigarette on the person’s hand to get their attention and then physically throw them out.”
Smith finally shut down the club in the late 1980s, but briefly tried to revive it soon after, turning Morocco into a weekday alcohol-free teen club, according to a 1990 Winnipeg Free Press article.
The effort did not last long, and the place went through several owners and incarnations thereafter. It was a bar under several banners, many of which became familiar to police in response to incidents of violence.
It was a far cry from his Pentecostal beginnings.
“My mum wouldn’t let me go to Club Maroc,” Einarson said with a laugh. “She thought it was a bit of a scary place and an adult place too. So I never went inside, but I was certainly aware of the reputation at the time.
“And as I looked back on the story, I became even more aware of its importance in the history of music in Winnipeg.”
“We realize the loss of this one”
Winnipeg has always been a hub for live music, dating as far back as the vaudeville days of the 1920s and 1930s, Einarson said.
“And places like Club Morocco were mainstays of this whole live music scene.”
But as the Jazz Age faded from the memories of the previous generation, the role of places like Morocco also grew.
Einarson said sometimes it takes a misfortune, like this week’s fire, for people to recognize the significance of a building they’ve likely passed without a glance for several years.
“And we realize his loss. He’s gone. He won’t be here anymore. So all we have are the memories of the people who were there.”
The Kirkwood Block may not have the historical significance of the Hudson’s Bay Building on Portage or the Bank of Montreal Building on Portage and Main, but it does have its own significance, said Bellamy.
It was one of the few remaining examples of pre-World War I buildings that defined the city center at one time.
“It really was the strip mall of 1912, with retail storefronts lining the sidewalk and people usually living, or offices, above,” he said.
“If you want to know what Portage Avenue looked like before Portage Place was built, it was really lined with these kinds of buildings. They used to be all over downtown and we kind of lost them, one by one .”
Small mom and pop stores like those that filled Kirkwood’s retail spaces will struggle to survive in other buildings with higher rents, he said.
“We often talk about wanting a modern city with progressive buildings, but it’s the old buildings that are the soil that allows the fine grain of commerce – small business – to really flourish and grow.”
A 2009 report prepared for the City of Winnipeg on the Kirkwood Building: