Andrew Cotter, chairman of the Thunder Bay Heritage Advisory Committee, speaks Friday at a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of the city-owned Whalen Building.
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When James Whalen built the iconic building that bears his name in Port Arthur’s downtown core, his dream was to make it the cornerstone of commerce in the Chicago of the North.
One hundred years later the building still stands, a Thunder Bay landmark that represents the grandeur of the city’s past and offers a glimpse at its future.
Whalen, a business magnate who at one time owned as many as 77 businesses throughout Canada, saw his fortune dissipate as the Great Depression dug its claws into the young country’s financial well being. But his legacy lives on today, one worth keeping says Andrew Cotter, chairman of the Thunder Bay Heritage Advisory Committee.
At a ceremony on Friday marking the building’s 100th anniversary, Cotter said preserving the building’s rich heritage is a way of keeping the community’s history alive and well.
“I think it’s important because these buildings are one of the only indications we have of our city’s history, our country’s history,” Cotter said.
“I think this is a very good investment. It’s almost like a living museum, if you’d like to call it that, of what was happening at that time.”
All it takes is a close-up look at the structure, which recently underwent a multi-million dollar refurbishment and is set to see the interior of three floors redone to attract new tenants.
“The building was beautiful in stature. If you look at the exterior of the building, all of the ornate symbolisms on the building, the statues and the heads that represent all the provinces, they all just signified Canada and its growth at the time,” Cotter said.
Built to last on the site of the city’s former car barn, the 65,000 square foot Whalen Building features a concrete foundation, reinforced concrete walls and cost $475,000 to construct – that’s about $11.3 million in today’s dollars.
Originally designed by Montreal architects Brown and Vallance to house Whalen’s growing empire, two years after his 1929 death the building was sold to the Port Arthur Public Utilities Commissions for $175,000 in a tax arrears sale.
It also became Port Arthur’s seat of government, with city hall occupying the second and third floors through 1969, when amalgamation hit the twin cities. At that time it was turned over to Thunder Bay Hydro, which still resides there to this day.
Joel DePeuter, the manager of the city’s realty services division, said they’ve spent millions renovating the building because city council sees it a valuable asset to its economic future.
Today, in addition to Thunder Bay Hydro, the building hosts the Community Economic Development Corporation and Cancer Care Ontario. Until recently is was also the home of the Thunder Bay and District Social Services Administration Board, which moved to its own south-side headquarters two years ago.
DePeuter said the building’s importance stands for itself.
“It symbolizes a remarkable history of the City of Thunder Bay. It is in a location which is up-and-coming. It ties in nicely with the waterfront development and it feels that this building is a tool for economic development and the space within it can be used for job creation ... within key economic sectors.”
DePeuter added it’s hoped to include the Whalen Building in the city’s Open Door event in 2014.
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