Temples of Commerce

12 May 1955

In the years following the end of World War II, North America experienced massive demographic and economic changes. The birth rate, which had fallen during the Great Depression, rebounded with the return home of millions of soldiers, and rising economic prosperity. Private consumption, suppressed by government during the war years due to the demands of a war economy, took off. Factories, which had previously turned out war materiel, began fabricating cars and other durables that were in turn snapped up by eager consumers with money in their pockets. With growing affluence, increasingly mobile families turned their backs on the cramped, downtown, apartment lifestyles of their parents to pursue the middle-class dream of a detached home with a yard in the suburbs.

Businesses followed the migration. The first modern, suburban shopping mall is reputed to be the Bellevue Shopping Square which opened in 1946 in Bellevue, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. But suburban development was often haphazard and ugly. In 1952, Vienna-born architect and urban visionary Victor Gruen co-authored an article in the magazine Progressive Architecture outlining a better, more holistic approach. Gruen, who is widely viewed as the father of the modern shopping mall, sought to replicate in the suburbs the public square found in old European cities. He envisaged the shopping mall as the centre of suburban social and economic life.

Encouraged by favourable tax treatment, developers in the United States enthusiastically embraced the mall concept, constructing shopping centres across the country; many were entirely enclosed and temperature controlled. Americans flocked in droves to these new temples of commerce. Unfortunately, the ensuing reality was often very different from Gruen’s dream. Suburban malls were often encircled by acres of asphalt parking lots, the very antithesis of what he had in mind. They also drew business away from downtown, contributing to the hollowing out of city centres.

Suburban shopping malls also became popular in Canada. The country’s first was the Royal Shopping Centre, located in West Vancouver in 1950. Construction of Ottawa’s first suburban shopping began in mid-1954. Called Westgate Shopping Centre, it was located in an empty field at the corner of Carling Avenue and Merivale Road across the street from a drive-in cinema. Its architects were Eliasoph & Berkowitz of Montreal. The driving force behind the mall was Lawrence Freiman, a member of a prominent Ottawa merchant family. His father, Archibald Freiman, had started A.J. Freiman Ltd, the city’s largest department store on Rideau Street, fifty years earlier. The construction of a large satellite store which anchored the new mall was a major, multi-million dollar gamble. While Ottawa’s post-war population was burgeoning, Carling Avenue was still not much more than a country road during the early 1950s.

Westgate Shopping Centre
Westgate Shopping Centre advertisement, The Citizen, 11 May 1955

Westgate Shopping Centre boasted eighteen stores laid out in an “L” design, with parking for more than 1,100 cars in front. An overflow parking lot for several hundred more cars was located behind the facility. Mall officials proudly noted that the lots would be kept clean by a mechanical sweeper. Although open-air, customers were protected by a twelve foot covered walkway that extended to the curb; the mall was later enclosed. Music was piped in through a concealed speaker system.

Anchoring the western end of the mall was Steinberg’s groceteria. Reputedly, this was the only place in Ottawa where bakery products were stamped with the day they were made. Steinberg’s advertised that once you enter their store you could feel that “gay, wonderful young at heart feeling.” Beside the grocery store was an ultra-modern Royal Bank branch with diffused florescent lighting and oak counters. Also located in the mall was a S.S. Kresge five-and-dime store, and Throop Pharmacy. Throop’s carried a complete range of veterinary instruments, medicines, and books in addition to the customary products found in drug stores. It also had a china department, a lunch counter, and camera department.The shopping centre’s largest outlet was Freiman’s department store which had two floors, connected by escalators, with a beauty salon and a snack bar on the main level, and an up-scale restaurant located on the lower level. The store, situated at the north-east corner, was decorated to the height of modern commercial design; Lawrence Freiman and the store’s manager had toured the United States for ideas that they could use in their new flagship store. Customers could use their store charge-plate (the predecessor of the credit card) at both the Westgate and Rideau Street stores.

There were also a range of smaller, more specialized stores at the mall. Reitman’s offered a full range of women’s fashions, while Tip Top Tailors offered “tailored-to-measure” and “ready-to-wear” suits for men. Two shoe stores offered footwear for the whole family. At Lewis & Sons, patrons could ensure the perfect shoe fit by using the company’s modern X-ray machine. A Handy Andy store offered automobile accessories, hardware, and sporting equipment. There were also a women’s lingerie store, a children’s clothes store, a flower shop, a milk bar, and a candy store. Paul’s Service Store offered “head to foot service” where customers could have their hats cleaned, their shoes re-heeled, and their clothes washed or dry-cleaned. At Miss Westgate restaurant, tired shoppers could enjoy steak and barbecue chicken. For private functions, the “Flamingo Room” was available for up to 45 guests.

When the Westgate Shopping Centre opened on 12 May 1955, it was an instant sensation. Customers arriving by car were greeted by uniformed attendants who directed traffic. At the inaugural breakfast at Freiman’s department store, Mayor Charlotte Whitton congratulated Lawrence Freiman for “this magnificent enterprise,” for his imagination, and his “faith in the west end of Ottawa.” Later, a “cavalcade” of a dozen cars carrying beauty queens made its way to the mall. At the front of the parade were television stars, Dick MacDougal and Elaine Grand. MacDougal was the host of the CBC news program Tabloid, while Grand starred on Living, a news-style programme devoted to women’s issues.  In the second vehicle rode George Murray, a popular Irish tenor and performer of folksongs and ballads, and his wife, singer Shirley Harmer. Both had appeared on a number of CBC television programmes, including the variety show, The Big Revue. After performing for the crowd, the celebrities signed autographs for their adoring fans.

As Lawrence Freiman had hoped, Ottawa quickly grew out to and beyond the mall. Indeed, within two years, Carlingwood Mall was constructed three kilometres further west on Carling Avenue; Westgate was no longer the “western gate” to the capital. Today, roughly 300,000 people live within ten minutes’ drive of Westgate, more than justifying Freiman’s faith in the area. Fifty stores now call the shopping centre home, up from the original eighteen. But time has not been kind to the original mall occupants. All of the department stores as well as the grocery store are long gone; the Royal Bank branch is the sole survivor. The largest mall store is now a Shoppers Drug Mart, located where Steinberg’s used to be. Many of the mall’s tenants are small, service-oriented businesses; healthcare features prominently.

The future of Westgate Shopping Centre, and other suburban malls in Ottawa, is uncertain. Throughout North America, such malls have been steadily losing business to Walmart, big box stores, and on-line shopping, with some experts predicting their ultimate demise. Changing shopping habits and demographics have already claimed Ottawa’s Herongate Mall which was largely bulldozed in 2012. On the other hand, the opening of a huge Tanger Outlet mall in Kanata in October 2014 suggests that the suburban shopping centre has retained its appeal in the Ottawa area, though smaller traditional malls may continue to decline. Should Westgate and other neighbourhood malls disappear, their passing will be felt by many, especially seniors, for whom the malls provide a valued “community space,” where they can meet friends, and socialize, especially during Ottawa’s long winter months.


Azrielli, David, 1997, The Architect As Creator Of Environments: Victor Gruen, Visionary Pioneer Of Urban Revitalization, Carleton University, April, http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/ftp04/mq22107.pdf.

Badger, Emily, 2012. “The Shopping Mall Turns 60 (and Prepares to Retire),” CityLab, 12 July, http://www.citylab.com/design/2012/07/shopping-mall-turns-60-and-prepares-retire/2568/.

Gladwell, Malcolm, 2004. “The Terrazzo Jungle,” The New Yorker, 15 March, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/03/15/the-terrazzo-jungle.

Merrick, Amy, 2014. “Are Malls Over?” 11 March, The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/are-malls-over.

Ortega, Lauren, 2012. The Rise of the Mall, Columbia University, New York, http://www.film.queensu.ca/cbc/B.html.

Parlette, Vanessa & Cowen, Deborah, 2011. “Dead Mall: Suburban Activism, Local Spaces, Global Logistics,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 35, Issue 4, July, http://www.ijurr.org/details/issue/1082215/issue.html.

Queen’s Film and Media, CBC Television Series, 1952-1982, http://www.film.queensu.ca/cbc/B.html.

The Ottawa Citizen, “Eyes of All Ottawa Will Be Focused on Westgate Tomorrow,” 11 May 1955.

———————-, 1955. “Westgate: A Milestone for Ottawa,” 11May.

———————-, 1955. “Opening At Westgate, Adventure In Faith,” 12 May.

———————-, 1955. “Westgate Business ‘Terrific,’ Cash Registers Play Merrily,” 13 May.

———————, 2014. “Tanger outlet opening signals maturation of Ottawa’s retail scene,” 17 October.

Our Farm

12 May 1886

It would hard to exaggerate the value of the Central Experimental Farm to the well-being of Ottawa, its residents, and indeed of all Canadians. The 425-hectare (1,050 acres) working farm established in the late 19th century, initially on the outskirts of the city but now long encircled by suburbs, constitutes the most important green space in the city. With free admission to its grounds, the Farm has something for everyone. Best known are its Ornamental Gardens, lovingly maintained by Farm gardeners, and volunteers, called Friends of the Farm. Beds of peonies, irises, and day lilies, as well as a host of annuals, attract residents and visitors alike, including newlyweds seeking the perfect backdrop for their wedding memories. In the spring, rows of lilacs and winter-hardy roses propagated by Farm experts delight the senses. The working dairy farm and agricultural museum provide Ottawa’s urban youngsters a year-round taste of rural living, while walkers and cyclists can explore the Farm’s treed lanes that divide research fields, free from city fumes.

Experimental Farm
Central Experimental Farm, Field of Sunflowers, 2014

Across the road from the Ornamental Gardens is the Dominion Arboretum, a 29-hectare park, home to more than 1,700 species of trees and shrubs. Each spring, its crab apple, cherry and pear trees come into flower, their pink and white blossoms perfuming the air. Stretching down to Dow’s Lake and the Rideau Canal, the Arboretum is a favourite of walkers, joggers, picnickers, and dog owners. In wintertime, outdoor enthusiasts toboggan down its slopes.

The Farm has, however, a far more important and serious side. Its fields and greenhouses are the home of the Eastern Cereals and Oilseed Research Centre for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, responsible for crop development in eastern Canada of corn, soy beans, spring and winter wheat, oats, and barley. It also has a national mandate “for assessing and utilizing biodiversity and environmental resources for Canadian agriculture.”

Established on 12 May 1886 by the government of Sir John A. Macdonald with the support of Sir John Carling, Minister of Agriculture, the Farm was the product of recommendations of a parliamentary committee chaired by Georges Auguste Gigault, MP for Rouville Quebec, which had studied how best the government could support and encourage Canadian farmers. Despite farming being then the mainstay of the Canadian economy, Gigault’s committee had discovered that farmers had little knowledge of the appropriate seeds to plant, did not systematically follow crop rotation, were unaware of how to improve soil fertility, and did not know how to effectively breed and raise livestock. Gigualt recommended the establishment of agricultural schools and model farms to which Canadian farmers could turn for advice.

With Gigault’s proposals favourably received, agricultural research facilities were subsequently established across the country with a mission to improve the crops and agricultural practices of Canadian farmers. The Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa was the crown jewel in the network, with other smaller research centres set up in Nappan, Nova Scotia; Agassiz, British Columbia; Brandon, Manitoba; and Indian Head, Saskatchewan. Today, there are nineteen such facilities across Canada.

In November 1886, an initial 188 hectares (466 acres) of farmland in Nepean Township was purchased by William Saunders, the first Director of Experimental Farms, at a cost of $120,000. Saunders, an eminent botanist, entomologist and agriculturalist, was attracted to the property by its proximity to Parliament Hill, only five kilometres away. Three years later, James Fletcher, the first Dominion Botanist, planted the first 200 trees and shrubs in the Arboretum. More land was purchased during the 1920s and in the 1940s to expand the Farm to roughly its current size, though some 38 hectares (93 acres) of surplus land was sold in 1988.

Saunders encouraged farmers, gardeners and horticulturalists to send samples of their seed to the Central Experimental Farm for testing of their vitality and germinating power. Subsequently, the Farm began distributing three-pound bags of high-quality seed to Canadian farmers for free through the mail. This highly successful program improved the yield and quality of barley, spring wheat, field corn, peas, and potatoes, thereby raising farm incomes.

The Central Experimental Farm’s national and international reputation was cemented by the development of the Marquis brand of wheat in the early 20th century by Sir Charles Saunders, the son of William Saunders. Marquis wheat matured seven to ten days earlier than Red Fife, the most popular grain grown at that time, had a high yield, and made excellent bread. The shorter growing period allowed farmers to plant further north, effectively doubling the amount of land that could be profitably tilled on the prairies. By 1918, close to 90 per cent of the wheat grown in western Canada was of the Marquis variety. While better wheat hybrids came to replace Marquis over time, virtually all types of wheat grown in Canada over the past 100 years are derived from it.

The Farm also made a name for itself in horticulture, developing fruit trees and flowers that could withstand the rigours of a Canadian winter. Of particular note, is the Explorer series of roses and the Preston lilac, Syringa prestoniae, a late blooming, winter-hardy variety developed by Isabella Preston during the 1920s. Eighty of her cultivars are recognized in the International Lilac Register.

In the Second World War, the Farm was mobilized to support the war effort. Among other things, it invented a process to preserve fruit that “the boys in the hottest and stickiest Africa will find hard to tell from the fresh produce.” It also developed things that we take for granted today, such as oil from sunflowers and rapeseed (canola). It additionally made parachute cords from flax, and researched rubber-bearing plants such as Russian dandelion and milkweed. During the Cold War, the Farm investigated how radioactive contamination could be removed from animal products, especially milk.

In the 1970s, the Farm’s help was also enlisted in the war on drugs. A three-acre plot of marijuana was planted for scientific purposes, mostly for studies to determine its cancer-causing properties rather than its medicinal value. The plot was surrounded by an ordinary farm fence, and was hidden by corn fields…until the marijuana plants grew 20 feet tall! With the marijuana field located off of Ash Lane, the road naturally became known as “Hash Lane.” Ostensibly, the field was secret, but it was widely known among university students.  As well, what secrecy there was would have been lost following a Montreal Gazette article in early 1971 titled “A ‘pot’ farm thriving in central Ottawa.”

The Central Experimental Farm has had a profoundly positive impact on the farming community and the well-being of all Canadians since its establishment almost 130 years ago. While agriculture is no longer the backbone of the Canadian economy, the Central Experimental Farm continues its important mission of improving Canadian agriculture. Over the past two decades or more, it has been working in the forefront of gene manipulation of crop plants. It’s also undertaking biosystematic (the study of biological diversity) research of vascular plants, fungi, bacteria and invertebrates important to agriculture, as well as studying the long run environment impact of agricultural practices. In recognition of its importance to the history of Canadian agriculture, the Farm became a National Historic Site in 1998, thus preserving it for future generations.


Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada, Central Experimental Farm, http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/about-us/offices-and-locations/central-experimental-farm/?id=1170701489551.

Dictionary of Canadian Biography, George Auguste Gigault, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gigault_george_auguste_14E.html.

———————-, William Saunders, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/saunders_william_14E.html.

Friends of the Farm, Highlights of the Farm’s History, http://www.friendsofthefarm.ca/highlights.htm.

Interview with Dr Ernest Small, http://www.druglibrary.org/olsen/hemp/iha/jiha6208.html.

Smith, H. 1996. Ottawa’s Farm, A History of the Central Experimental Farm, General Store Publishing House, Burnstown, Ontario.

 The Huron Examiner, 1891. “Seed Testing at the Central Experimental Farm,” 30 January.

The Montreal Gazette, 1971. “A ‘Pot’ Farm Thriving in Central Ottawa,” 2 March.

The News and Eastern Townships Advocate, 1962. “Central Experimental Farm,” 2 August.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1928. “Experimental Farm Extension,” 22 February.

——————–, 1936. “50th Anniversary, Opening of William Saunders Building in Memory of 1st Director,” 6 June.

——————-, 1946. “Need Larger Acreage at Experimental Farm,” 21 December.

——————-, 1986. “Experimental Farm, 100 years old, Research Centre Kicking up Heels,” 28 April.

The Sherbrooke Examiner,1887.  “Distribution of Samples from the Central Experimental Farm at Ottawa,” 22 January.

Image: Central Experimental Farm, Field of Sunflowers, 2014, by Nicolle Powell