James Whalen’s Skyscraper

Image by Brian G> Spare
Chicago of the North

by Brian G. Spare

You may look all around the city and ask yourself where? What skyscraper? I assure you Thunder Bay does have one. But it may not be what you think. Today when we hear the word skyscraper we envision buildings towering 50, 80, 100 stories high or more. Structures so tall they literally appear to scrape the sky. What enables them to be so tall is their steel core – a framework of I-beams bolted together – one floor constructed on top of next and the next going up, up, up…

The Chrysler Building in New York constructed in 1930 is 77 stories, 283m high. The iconic Empire State Building built just a year later in New York stands at 102 stories, 381m tall, and was the tallest building in the world for years. But records are made to be broken. The Willis (Sears) Tower erected in 1974 in Chicago is 108 stories, 442m in height. The CN Tower in Toronto built in 1976 stands at 553m high. Although tall and freestanding it doesn’t fit the modern definition of a skyscraper because it’s not multi-storied, not made for year-round habitation and is not surrounded by a curtain wall – a wall designed to envelope the steel core but not add to the building’s structural integrity. After all it’s a great big antenna.

Higher still is Hong Kong’s International Commerce Centre which opened in 2010 and is 112 stories, 484m tall. Currently the tallest skyscraper in the world is the Burj Khalifa tower that opened in Dubai in 2010 and stands at a lofty 163 stories, 830m. That’s nearly one kilometre straight up! And there are taller towers on the drawing board. How tall can these buildings get? It would seem the sky’s the limit.

Chicago of the North”

Before the advent of steel, skyscrapers were made with reinforced concrete. And the tallest they could be built was nine stories. These structures must have impressed people then as much as the steel core towers impress us today. In the early 1900s, James Whalen had a vision of making Thunder Bay the ”Chicago of the North”. He started out by constructing a reinforced concrete building in the Chicago skyscraper Khan architectural style – what we now call the Whalen Building.

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum
Original 1913 photo of the Whalen Building

The site at the corner of N. Cumberland and Van Norman Streets was chosen for what was then called the Commercial Exchange Building. Brown and Vallance architects of Montreal were commissioned to design the building and the Canadian Stewart Company Ltd of Montreal would construct it. On April 7, 1913 construction began and was completed December 5th costing $555,000. January 21, 1914 the Whalen Building opened for business and was was touted as the finest building between Toronto and Winnipeg. Indeed, James Whalen had built an opulent structure with a turret at each corner on the top. Glazed terra cotta carved floral ornaments, human faces, shields, lions and papooses adorned the building’s exterior and lobby. There was marble flooring throughout and standing at eight stories tall was and is a skyscraper.

It’s the hub of the area.”

Eileen Dias the Communications and Events Co-ordinator since 2007 for Thunder Bay Hydro, a long time tenant of the Whalen Building, says, “It’s (Whalen Building) the hub of the area. Everything is within walking distance. On a summer day you can walk across to Marina Park on your lunch break and listen to the musicians there.”

Image courtesy of Thunder Bay Historical Museum
An architectural Feature of the building

… awesome upside potential.”

The Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC) moved its offices into the Whalen Building four years ago. Steve Demmings, CEO and Thunder Bay’s Economic Development Officer, likes being surrounded by the vintage architecture of the historic building. He explains that Thunder Bay is reinventing itself by changing to a knowledge-based economy. He says, “The Whalen Building has awesome upside potential. New businesses and expertise is being attracted to the city because it is a wonderful place to live and raise a family. Many young professionals are finding the James Whalen building is ideally located as a great place to work.”

… incubators for knowledge …”

Mongolia Growth Group Ltd is a young up-and-coming international real estate company based in Thunder Bay. It is concentrating its efforts on the phenomenal growth of the emerging market of Mongolia. Having been in the Whalen Building for a year, they’ve already outgrown their space. The Chief Operating Officer Jordan Calonego sees Thunder Bay’s economy as strong, making note of the increase in engineering, medical, and mining service jobs over the past decade, a strong housing market, and surprisingly low unemployment. He also said that we can make it better. “The key is to generate incubators for knowledge and entrepreneurialism.” He is also currently involved in other businesses which are expanding and renovating buildings in the city, to accommodate the needs of growing demand.

… the future of health care.”

Tornado Medical Systems became the Whalen Building’s newest tenant in May 2011. Tornado is a forward-looking company with facilities in the United States and Canada that designs and manufactures medical devices. Currently, it is developing in Thunder Bay a medical device that assists surgeons. “This is the future of health care,” says Nick Kitchener Project Manager in Thunder Bay. “We see a huge potential for engineers and other technical people to come here to develop these devices as demand for them increases.” As a part of Tornado Medical Systems, we will be involved in other Tornado research and development projects. Tornado came to Northwestern Ontario to expand its research and development base and to grow as a company. Its success benefits our entire region.

… part of our heritage … a beacon to our future.

The Whalen Building has a storied past and an exciting future. What resulted from James Whalen’s vision nearly a century ago houses the visionaries of today. We can reach for the sky and with foresight step toward what James Whalen aspired to do all those years ago. Although he never fully realized his dream of making Thunder Bay the “Chicago of the North”, he started out on the right foot by building our city’s first skyscraper. And 98 years after it opened its doors – big mahogany double doors – it still sits majestically perched atop the bay watching over Prince Arthur’s Landing. All the Canadian winters and weather have taken their toll and it is currently undergoing needed renovations. It’s money well spent. The Whalen Building is part of our heritage. It is a monument to one man’s vision and a beacon to our future. When the renovations are finished James Whalen’s skyscraper can stand tall for another century pointing the way to our city’s prosperity and showing us what we can achieve when we follow our dreams.

The Whalen Building, our iconic skyscraper.

Thank you to the following for assisting with this article:

Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission (CEDC)

Mongolia Growth Group Ltd

Tornado Medical Systems

Thunder Bay Historical Museum

Brian G. Spare is a local author and freelance copywriter who is a regular contributor to Bayview Magazine. Contact him at https://BrianGSpare.com

*Previously published by Bayview Magazine*

Published by Brian G. Spare

I am a thinker and very creative person by nature and love to work with my hands and head and put my heart into all of it. Life is a journey and I am with it all the way ready to embark on the next adventure that life has for me.

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