Fisher’s “Folly”

13 February 1919 and 27 November 1924

The Civic Hospital, Department of the Interior, Library and Archives Canada, 3319465.

By 1918, it had become apparent that the three principal hospitals serving Ottawa—the Water Street Hospital, established by Élisabeth Bruyère in 1845 as the Hotel-Dieu Hospital, the Carleton County Protestant General Hospital located on Rideau Street that opened in 1851, and St. Luke’s Hospital on Frank Street established in 1890—had become overstretched. The city’s population had grown considerably and continued rapid growth was expected. As well, its health facilities were increasingly being used by suburban communities. In May 1918, the Boards of the Protestant and St. Luke’s hospitals agreed at a joint meeting that they should send a “memorial” to Ottawa City Council noting the inadequacy of the city’ current hospital facilities and recommending the construction a new, large and modern 500-bed hospital.

The inadequacy of Ottawa’s health care system was dramatically revealed just a few months later with the arrival of the Spanish influenza epidemic in September 1918. Area hospitals were overwhelmed. Health officials were forced to open emergency hospitals, often in schools, in an attempt to deal with the overflow of cases. Before the epidemic petered out, there were roughly 10,000 flu cases and close to 600 deaths in Ottawa out of a population of less than 110,000.

The influenza pandemic had hardly ebbed when on 13 February 1919 more than 100 leading Ottawa citizens, supported by prominent community organizations, presented the two hospitals’ petition. Among a new hospital’s advocates were Mr. J.R. Booth, the lumberman, Sir George Burn, the head of the Bank of Ottawa, Mr. A.J. Freiman, the owner of Freiman’s department store on Rideau St, Warren Soper, one of Ottawa’s electrical barons, and Senator Belcourt, a noted francophone Liberal senator. Organizational support came from the Ottawa Board of Trade, the Rotary Club, the Retail Merchants’ Association, the Trade and Labour Council, the Ottawa Chapter of the Council of Women, the May Court Club, and the Women’s Canadian Club. The proposal called for the construction of a new 500-bed hospital at a cost of $1.5 million. The directors of the Protestant General and St. Luke’s indicated their willingness to merge and turn over all of their assets and properties to the city if the new municipal hospital was built.

Given such high-powered supporters, City Council, led by Mayor Harold Fisher who was a strong advocate for a new hospital, moved swiftly.  Less than two weeks later, Council asked the province for authority to raise $1.5 million in debentures to pay for the new hospital. Over time, the authorized amount increased to $2.75 million as the initial estimates proved to be too low. Another $750,000 was needed for equipment. Prominent residents also provided additional funding. R.M. Cox, a lumberman, left almost $500,000 in his will to the new hospital. Hiram Robinson bequested $100,000 to fund a 70-bed children’s wing, while ex-alderman W.G. Black left $100,000 for the maintenance of the hospital grounds.

As one would expect, the site for the new hospital was contentious. Three successive reports through 1919 looked at potential locations which included Regan’s Hill in Sandy Hill, the Slattery-Bower property in Ottawa East, and Dow’s Lake at the corner of Bronson Street and Carling Avenue. In the end, the final report narrowed the choices down to two—the Protestant Hospital site on Rideau Street and Reid Farm out on the fringes of the city across from the Experimental Farm. The Boards of both the Protestant General and St. Luke’s Hospital unanimously supported the Reid Farm location. While somewhat distant from downtown, though only twelve minutes by car from the Post Office on Sparks Street (now the site of the War Memorial), it offered fresh, country air—a major consideration in these years before air conditioning. As well, the population of the western part of the city was growing rapidly, something that was expected to continue over the coming decades.

After considerable debate, City Council voted 16-4 in early November 1919 to purchase a 23.5-acre portion of Reid Farm for the new Civic Hospital. The price tag was $77,850. The minority on Council who voted against the site were primarily concerned about the distance of the hospital from the bulk of the city’s population, as both the Protestant General and St. Luke’s would close when the new Civic Hospital opened its doors. Alderman Pinard, the leader of the minority, said that while he accepted the point that Reid Farm might be the right site in fifty to one hundred years, one had to also consider the present.

Interestingly, there is no contemporaneous reference in either the Ottawa Citizen or the Ottawa Journal newspaper to “Fisher’s Folly,” the moniker later widely given to the Civic Hospital. While Mayor Fisher was indeed in favour of locating the hospital in Reid Farm, so was most of City Council as well as the hospitals. While there was some community opposition, there was no widespread skepticism as the name suggests. The first reference in the press to “Fisher’s Folly” didn’t seemingly occur until 1959. Subsequent retellings of the Civic Hospital story picked up on this catchy though likely misleading name.

Reid Farm, located in Hintonburg, was bounded by the train tracks to the north (now the Queensway), Fairmont Avenue in the east, Parkdale Avenue in the west and Carling in the south. Reportedly some 200 acres of land was purchased from the Crown in 1829 by one John Anderson who offered to sell 100 acres to John Reid. They tossed a coin to decide who would take the southern or the northern portion. Anderson won the toss and opted for the northern half leaving Reid with the southern portion. Reid and his wife came to settle on the land in 1832, having bought farm implements and oxen. The couple initially lived in a log house before constructing a stone building. At that time, the farm was located in a virtual wilderness, with only a rough trail leading through the woods to Richmond Road. Robert Reid lived on the farm until his death in 1889 when it passed to his son, Robert Jr. and his daughter Agnes, who in turn sold the land to the city and developers. Robert Junior died in 1923 and his sister Agnes, the last of the Reid family, in 1925.

Excavation work on the new Civic Hospital began in July 1920. The architects for the project were Stevens & Lee of Toronto, a firm that had built a number of hospitals across Canada, including Halifax’s Children’s Hospital, the General Hospital in Kingston, and the Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal. General contractors were Ross-Meagher Co. and Alex I. Garvock.

While the hospital was initially expected to open its doors by the end of 1921, there were a number of delays, caused in part by labour issues and supply problems, which pushed the deadline out until the end of 1924. The enterprise was also massive, employing more than 300 workers. Two million bricks were used along with 250,000 terra cotta blocks. It was calculated that there were seven miles of walls.

The new Civic Hospital opened on 27 November 1924 with the Hon. Lincoln Goldie, the Provincial Secretary and Registrar of Ontario, officiating. Also present for the big day was Ottawa Mayor Champagne and former mayor Harold Fisher who was now the Liberal MLA for Ottawa West. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees for the new hospital. Fisher said that it was the greatest day of his life. More than 1,000 guests attended the opening ceremonies. Over the following three days, the general public came to view the new, state-of-the-art hospital facilities.

The Civic Hospital campus comprised of five buildings. The main building was designed in the shape of an “H” with open courts facing both north and south. On the ground floor was the admitting department, the entrance for ambulances, the X-ray department, the isolation unit, as well as the psychiatric and hydro-therapy departments. There was a special admitting department for maternity cases as well as a dedicated elevator to take expectant mothers to the 80-bed maternity ward. There was also a children’s department with playrooms.

The 550-bed hospital had public, semi-private and private wards, with the largest ward having 16 beds. Each bed was equipped with a washstand with hot and cold running water and a mirror. Screens provided privacy. Private patients had private lavatories, with a bath shared between every two rooms. Private patients could also have a telephone for an additional fee. There were two sunshine rooms and three large airing balconies for patients. The top (sixth) floor was the location of the operating and surgical departments with four major operating rooms, an eye-operating room, a plaster room and rooms for other ancillary activities, including sterilization, workrooms and service. Natural lighting was provided for the operating rooms by means of high, vertical, sash windows. The floors in the building were covered in jasmine-coloured “Battleship” linoleum. Western and southern facing walls were painted in tints of French grey while northern and eastern walls were painted a buff colour. 

Four other buildings were linked by underground tunnels to the main building. To the north was a service building which housed the principal kitchen, hospital stores, and staff dining rooms. Its upper floors were used as accommodation for resident staff. North of the service building was the power house that provided electricity and refrigeration. There were also boilers for central heating and laundries. A nurses’ home faced Parkdale Avenue, providing single rooms for all nurses along with parlours, entertainment and living rooms. Finally, there were a building for servants, quarters for carpenters and painters, as well as an incinerator.

 Shortly after the Civic Hospital opened for business, the old Protestant General and St. Luke’s hospitals were closed as was the old Ottawa Maternity Hospital located at the end of Rideau St. near the Cummings Bridge and the adjacent Lady Stanley Institute nursing school. Beginning at 9:30am on 17 December 1924, forty-four patients from the Protestant General were ferried over to the Civic. Those bedridden arrived by ambulance, while ambulatory public ward patients were transported by bus. Private and semi-private patients came by taxi. The first patient to be admitted to the Civic was Donald MacIvor from Niagara Falls, a veteran patient of the Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment. Patients from St. Luke’s were transferred several days later.

Fast forward a hundred years, work is underway to replace the now aging Civic campus of The Ottawa Hospital with a new hospital that will meet the needs of Ottawa residents into the 22nd century. As was the case in 1919, there has been considerable controversy about the location of the new hospital. A proposal to site it on the other side of Carling Avenue across from the existing hospital met with widespread opposition since it meant carving out land from the Central Experimental Farm—a National Historic Site and a treasured part of the greenbelt. A new site close to Dow’s Lake, which had been the previous location of Agriculture Canada’s Sir John Carling building imploded in 2014, was subsequently chosen with The Ottawa Hospital signing a 99-year lease with the federal government. The principal access to the new hospital complex will be via Carling Avenue.

Fittingly, construction of the $2.8 billion dollar, 641-bed hospital is expected to begin in 2024, one hundred years after the first Civic Hospital opened its doors. The new hospital is expected to be operational in 2028.

Sources:

New Civic Development for the Ottawa Hospital, 2021, https://newcivicdevelopment.ca/.

Ottawa Citizen, 1919. “Three Reports Made. Final Choice Narrowed Down To Farm And Protestant Hospital.

——————, 1919. “Hospital Board Favor Reid Farm,” 3 November.

——————, 1919. “Council Decides On Reid Farm As Site Of Hospital,” 4 November.

——————, 1923. “Death Of Robt. Reid, An Ottawa Pioneer,” 9 October.

——————, 1924, “Gives An Idea Of Its Immense Size,” 28 November.

——————, 1924. “Group Of Five Buildings Is Comprised In Civic Hospital,” 28 November.

——————, 1924. “Capital City’s Facilities For Care Of The Sick Unsurpassed As Result Of Its Construction,” 28 November.

——————, 1924. “Patients In Comfort To Civic Hospital,” 17 December.

——————, 1925. “Was Last Survivor Of Pioneer Family,” 11 March.

——————, 1985. “Ottawa Civic Hospital,” 25 April.

——————, 1989. “Civic turns 65 today,” 17 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1919. “Leading Citizens Ask For Modern Municipal Hospital,” 14 February.

—————–, 1924. “Civic Hospital Movement Initiated Six Years Ago Has Interesting History,” 28 November.

—————–, 1924. “Easy To Operate Civic Hospital Up To Capacity,” 28 November.

The West Block Fire

11 February 1897

When people think of a fire on Parliament Hill, their thoughts likely go to the huge conflagration that destroyed the Centre Block in February 1916. To this day, the cause of that blaze remains unknown; a Royal Commission that investigated it did not come to a conclusion. Some people were convinced, and many still are, that it was an act of war-time German sabotage. Others believed that it was caused by careless smoking in the reading room.

Incredibly, however, the Centre Block fire wasn’t the first major blaze on Parliament Hill. Nineteen years earlier, the West Block, then being used as offices for the federal civil service, was almost consumed by fire.

West Block Fire, 11 February 1897, Library and Archives Canada, c-017502

At approximately 4:15 pm on Thursday, 11 February 1897, when most civil servants had already left for the day, a fire was detected in a small tower room used for storage close to an elevator in the attic storey. An elevator operator tried to extinguish it using a hand-held Babcock fire extinguisher. At the same time, three other men pulled out a fire hose that was installed in the corridor, but when they turned it on the stream of water barely extended three feet owing to low water pressure. Another Babcock extinguisher was brought into play, again without much impact. By this time, the fire was well established in the floor and wall.

At 4:35pm, an alarm was sent in the Central Station of the Ottawa Fire Department located off of Elgin Street. Within minutes, the horse-drawn hose reels arrived and were hooked up to hydrants. Meanwhile, the fire burst through the West Block’s wooden roof about 40 feet south of the Mackenzie Tower. An extension ladder was run up against the western wall of the building where a fireman tried to send a stream of water through an attic window. Unfortunately, only a meager stream came out of the big hose. The city’s low water pressure, made worse by several hoses running from the same Wellington Street water main, was responsible. Flames began to shoot out of a skylight located above the elevator shaft as the fire worked its way southward down the corridor.

In desperation, Fire Chief Young called out the steam-driven fire engines which used coal to heat a boiler to provide water pressure. The Union was stationed at the corner of O’Connor and Wellington Streets, while the Conqueror hooked up to the hydrant located on Parliament Hill at the nearest corner of the West Block. Both engines experienced what a journalist called “exasperating delays” to get water onto the fire. It took the Union almost thirty minutes to get its hose, which extended through the main entrance and up the stairs to the attic, into action owing to valve problems and other malfunctions. Meanwhile, the Conqueror, after failing to get sufficient water from hydrants on the Hill, possibly due to ice, had to be moved to a hydrant at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets. A third fire engine from the E.B. Eddy Company was also brought in to help but to no effect as firemen discovered that its hoses were of a different calibre from that used by the city and couldn’t be coupled to city mains.

Through the evening, fire roared through the upper attic story of the building, fuelled by tinder-dry timbers, a warren of wooden panelled offices and piles of paper—government documents, briefing notes, and memoranda. Flames tore through the roof to the south-west of the Mackenzie Tower and then moved eastward reaching the middle of the Wellington Street side of the building, feeding on flammable materials found in a photographic studio and later in the draughting room of the Marine and Fisheries Department.

By 9:00pm, the whole top storey of the western wing of the building was gone. Shortly afterwards, the top storey of the eastern wing was ablaze. Two hours later, the northern and eastern wings were roofless.

Thousands of spectators, including the Governor General, Lord Aberdeen, and his wife, the Countess of Aberdeen, watched in horror despite the bitter cold; the temperature that evening had dropped to -18 degrees Celsius. It was quite a spectacle. The West Block’s turrets and chimneys were highlighted by the flames with the Mackenzie Tower rearing above the chaos.

While firemen battled the blaze, an army of civil servants and Dominion police worked frantically to empty offices of their documents and other valuables. Even if not immediately threatened with fire, offices on the lower floors were inundated by the water being hosed onto the attic level above. Sleighs of all sorts were pressed into service to evacuate things to the safety of the Langevin Block on the other side of Wellington Street. In the Department of Public Works alone, the Minister and his officials managed to save several tons of books and papers. In the Customs Department, rubber sheets requisitioned from Militia stores were used to protect precious books and papers from water damage.

At 11:00pm, at the height of the fire, Ottawa’s mayor called Montreal for emergency back-up. A detachment of fifteen men from the Montreal Fire Department, equipped with a fire engine and two hose reels answered the call. They immediately set off for Ottawa by train, arriving at 3:00am the next morning. But by this time, the worst was over. The fire had been largely subdued, leaving only glowing embers and smoke.

The next day, Ottawa residents could see for themselves the extent of the damage. Virtually the entire building had lost its top attic floor. The only part of the West Block that was spared was the new wing north of the Mackenzie Tower. This wing, being of more modern construction than the rest of the building, had a metal roof.

The fire continued to smolder despite the deluge of water that had been sprayed onto the building. One fire engine, the Conqueror, was kept pumping water onto the West Block through Friday. However, by 3:00pm, it had to cease operations, having exhausted its stock of hard Welsh coal used to fire its boiler. A switch to ordinary bituminous coal proved unsuccessful in maintaining sufficient pressure to drive the water the long distance from the hydrant at Sparks and O’Connor Streets to the top of the West Block on Wellington Street. The fire revived. An alarm was sounded bringing Chief Young, who had just returned to the station for supper, back on the scene along with another hose reel and two ladder trucks. It wasn’t until 8:00pm that the West Block fire was finally subdued by Ottawa firemen after almost 30 hours of continuous gruelling work in sub-zero temperatures.

The clean-up afterwards was also demanding. Owing to the cold temperatures, hoses were buried under as much as a foot of ice. Even if uncovered, the hoses were frozen stiff, requiring them to be thawed out before being moved. The concrete floor immediately under the attic level was also buried deep in debris.

Even before the fire was out, Cabinet met to discuss rebuilding and to find temporary quarters for affected departments. Only the offices of two departments, Inland Revenue and Railways and Canals remained usable. Space was found in the Nagle building opposite the main entrance to Parliament on Wellington Street for Public Works, Trade and Commerce, Customs and the Public Works departments. The Marine and Fisheries Department moved to offices in the Slater Building on Sparks Street. With more than a foot of water sloshing about in the basement of the West Block where the Dominion Archives were kept, it was imperative to move irreplaceable documents to safety in the Langevin Block. A unit of the Governor General’s Foot Guards stood guard while the papers were transferred.

Amazingly, there were few injuries in the disaster. A fireman suffered a seriously cut finger when a glass skylight fell on him. Another man was hit on the head by a piece of slate thrown from the top of the building during the clean-up; his injury, while painful, was not serious. There were some close calls, however. Four firemen who were fighting the fire in the attic felt the wooden floor beneath them begin to give way. They rushed to a ladder at the window. The first three men made it to safety but the fourth, Harry Walters from the Central Fire Station, had just reached the window when the floor disappeared from under him. He was saved from by William Thompson who managed to grab him.

The official report of the disaster didn’t reach a conclusion about the cause of the fire, though newspaper reports speculated on the possibility of a carelessly discarded cigar or cigarette. Later, a consensus opinion blamed the fire on a “heating apparatus.”

The report did conclude that a doorway cut into a fire wall to permit movement from one office to another helped to spread the blaze. As well, valuable time in fighting the fire was lost owing to firemen being unfamiliar with the layout of office rooms and being unwilling to accept direction from departmental officials. Overall, the report found that officials and workmen had exerted themselves “to the utmost” to prevent the fire from spreading and to save valuable papers and documents. “Nothing which could be done was left undone.”

The cost of the blaze was approximately $200,000. This amount did not, however, include the loss of valuable papers and documents. As the West Block was not insured, the government had to bear the entire cost of reconstruction. The Premier, Wilfrid Laurier, immediately requested a “Governor General’s warrant” to raise $25,000 to cover the initial costs associated with the fire, including the rental of new office accommodations for displaced government offices. The warrant was approved General Alexander Montgomery Moore, Commander of Canada’s Militia, who was acting as the Administrator of Canada on behalf of Lord Aberdeen.

Work on re-building commenced quickly. As a stop gap, a temporary roof, 29,000 square feet in size, was erected at a cost of $4,500. This was later replaced by a fire-proof roof covered with copper. Work also began on the clean-up, the re-building of new offices and the re-furbishing of those offices that managed to survive the blaze but were water damaged. Labourers were paid $1.00 to $1.25 per day. Carpenters and painters received $2.00 per day.

Call for tenders for repairs to West Block, Ottawa Journal, 9 August, 1897.

Rebuilding became highly political. The Conservative opposition accused the government of featherbedding and hiring only Hull workers in order to curry favour with Hull voters ahead a forthcoming federal by-election in Wright Country which encompassed Hull.  The Liberal candidate, Mr. Louis Napoléon Champagne, was unapologetic saying Hull wasn’t the only city that had obtained patronage as other places got their share of federal business. He added that the Liberals were prepared to do it again “to those who are really friends of Mr. Laurier.” Champagne won the contest. The day after the by-election, 50 of the 313 workers on the West Block were dismissed, with further dismissals expected in order to reduce the size of the work force to what was appropriate.

Repairs were sufficiently advanced within a year to permit public servants to re-occupy their offices. But work on the West Block was not completed until 1899, more than two years after the fire.

The West Block fire led to considerable reflection on the size of the Ottawa Fire Department and its equipment, and the extent of the fire hazard posed by public buildings, particularly those on Parliament Hill. The Citizen opined that Ottawa was “comparatively helpless in the presence of a major conflagration.” The “noble government structures,” which cost $5-6 million to build, were the “crowing beauty of the Capital of the Dominion.” Yet, the buildings, constructed using wooden beams and partitions and filled with irreplaceable records, papers and documents, were fire traps. The newspaper contended that should fire break out in either the Central Block or the East Block, “the result would be equally bad” as what had just occurred.

It added that the House of Commons was particularly at risk since the Centre Block was built on a higher elevation that the West or East Blocks which meant that water pressure would be even more of a problem. The Library of Parliament was “the most serious case of anxiety,” as it held more than $1 million in books, and contained no dividing walls. Given these risks, the newspaper was appalled that smoking was permitted and argued that smoking should be banned in all public buildings.

These were prophetic words. Virtually nineteen years to the day later, on 3 February 1916, the Centre Block was destroyed by fire. The precious Library of Parliament was the only part of the building saved, owing to the quick thinking of a librarian who had the presence of mind to close an iron fire door that separated the structure from the main part of the building.

Over the decades that followed, the West Block was much altered. In 1911, a new wing was built linking the east and west wings to form an enclosed quadrangle. During the mid-1950s, the West Block suffered from extensive renovations which were unsympathetic to the original design. However, this was better than the alternative. In 1956, the St. Laurent government almost manage to achieve which the 1897 fire had failed to do—the complete destruction of the beautiful and historic Gothic-revival building. The Federal District Commission, the fore-runner of the National Capital Commission, wanted to replace it with a modern office tower. But after a nation-wide protest, wiser heads prevailed and the building was saved. However, the neighbouring Supreme Court building was not so lucky. It was destroyed to make way for a parking lot.

Today, the enclosed quadrangle in the middle of the West Block, now covered by a glass ceiling, is the temporary home of the House of Commons while the Centre Block undergoes much needed restoration and renovation.

Sources:

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1897. “The Western Block in a Blaze,” 12 February.

————————-, 1897. “The Second Alarm,” 13 February.

————————-, 1897. “A Present Danger,” 13 February.

————————-, 1897. “After The Fire,” 15 February.

————————-, 1897. “Their Usefulness Done,” 25 March.

————————-, 1897. “West Block Blaze,” 24 June.

————————-, 1898. “West Block Fire,” 24 March.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1897. “The Talk of Today,” 13 February.

——————————, 1897. “The Official Report,” 17 February.

—————————–, 1897. “The Wright Campaign,” 17 March.

—————————–, 1897.  “An Insult To Hull,” 18 March.

—————————–, 1897. “One Million Dollars,” 27 March.

—————————–, 1899. “West Block Repairs,” 9 August.

Privy Council Office, 1897, “Special Warrant $56,000 [sic] [$25,000], Fire, Western Departmental Buildings – Minister of Public Works,” 17 February, Library and Archives Canada.

Larocque’s

11 September 1971

The early 1970s was a cruel time for Ottawa’s locally-owned department stores. Familiar companies, which had serviced Ottawa residents for generations, seemed to fall like nine pins, replaced by national chain stores. Freiman’s on Rideau Street was bought out by The Hudson Bay Company. Murphy-Gamble’s, the grand old lady of Sparks Street, became a Simpsons. Meanwhile Eaton’s moved into the Ottawa market, launching an anchor store in the new Bayshore Shopping Centre in Nepean. But perhaps no loss was felt as badly as the closure of Larocque’s, the Lowertown emporium that catered primarily to Ottawa’s francophone community. On 11 September 1971, the Ottawa Journal revealed that the venerable store, a fixture at the corner of Rideau and Dalhousie Streets for more than fifty years, would be closing its doors for good at the end of the year. Staff had already been given their notices. It was the end of an era.

Larocque Department Story, Fall 1971, Going out of business, Ottawa Jewish Archives

The store began its career in 1909 when Joseph Alphonse Larocque launched his eponymous dry-goods business at 270 Dalhousie Street. It was a small store, just 400 square feet, but it was a great success. In 1911, Larocque expanded, buying out the stock of the Parisian Milliners, a neighbouring store on Dalhousie Street, at just over 50 cents on the dollar. He advertised hats and feathers for sale at bargain prices. In March 1913, the J. A. Larocque Company supported the inaugural issue of Le Droit, Ottawa’s French-language newspaper. The store advertised that it had Japanese silks for sale in all colours at only 21 cents a yard, and was the only distributor in Lowertown of Butterick Fashions’ dress patterns. The store also noted that it was the sole distributor of the “famous” D & A corsets made by the Dominion Corset Manufacturing Company of Montreal; all sizes were available. A few months later, the Ottawa Citizen reported that J.A. Larocque was “an energetic businessman who gives personal direction to his business.” The newspaper added that his department store had made “rapid strides in the business world of late,” and that his window displays indicated the high quality of his merchandise.

J. A. Larocque Company, advertisement, Le Droit, 27 March 1913.

Less than ten years later, J.A. Larocque was ready to enter the major leagues of Ottawa department stores. In 1922, he began to assemble parcels of land on east side of Dalhousie Street between Rideau and George Streets. The final piece of the puzzle was his purchase of an irregular piece of property owned by the City of Ottawa. The city had acquired the lot when it widened Dalhousie Street. Larocque’s initial offer of $6,000 didn’t meet the city’s reserve price and was rejected. However, his second bid of $8,000 was accepted. In total, Larocque paid slightly more than $60,000 for the land on which he could build a modern, three-story department store.

Building the new department store may have been a financial stretch for Alphonse Larocque. At the same time as he was purchasing the lot from the City of Ottawa, he downsized his operations at 270 Dalhousie citing excessive rent on half of his premises. He announced a big sale and moved what was left of his stock into the store’s annex which was located around the corner at 119 Murray Street.

Regardless, however, work proceeded on his new department store a few blocks south on Dalhousie Street. The building was designed by architects Millson, Burgess and Hazelgrove, with Alex Garvock acting as the general contractor. Construction began in early August 1922, a little later than planned, but was completed and ready for business by mid-May 1923. The three-story building with a basement was built at a cost of roughly $200,000. Including land and stock, the enterprise had a value of $500,000—a huge sum of money in those days. Given its corner location, it had the most display windows of any Ottawa department store, with sixteen on Dalhousie Street, and two on each of Rideau and George Streets. There were three entrances, with the main entrance on Dalhousie Street. Conveniently, all Bank Street and St Patrick Street streetcars stopped outside its door, while Somerset Street cars brough customers to within a block’s walk. Advertising copy of the time boasted of the store’s home-like atmosphere and its courteous and experienced staff of fifty bilingual clerks.

Announcing the opening of J. A. Larocque’s new store at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau Streets, Ottawa Citizen, 11 May 1923.

The business did not thrive. Unlike its competitors, it did little advertising. This was probably a sign of weakness rather than strength. Making a virtue out of a likely necessity, the store posted a small advertisement in the Ottawa Citizen in November 1924 describing itself as “the store that does not advertise.” The stored clamed that it devoted the savings from not advertising to lowering prices. It was not enough. J.A. Larocque Company Ltd went bankrupt in September 1926. Its goods were sold off at 46 ½ cents on the dollar.

The department store went into liquidation and was purchased by Vineberg Goodman & Company, a Nova Scotian department store chain that had begun operations in 1904. By 1927, it had outlets in New Glasgow and Truro. It subsequently added an Antigonish branch. Vineberg, Goodman & Co. thought highly of itself. In a 1930 advertisement placed in the Ottawa Citizen, the company claimed to be a business of “transcendent importance in the Maritime Provinces.”

The firm was owned by Harry and Sol Goodman of Pictou County, Nova Scotia, and the Vineberg family of Montreal. The Vinebergs were related by marriage to Harry Goodman. In January 1927, the new owners, changed the name of their new Ottawa business from J.A. Larocque & Company to Larocque Registered, thereby conserving the well-known local brand of the business.

Bankruptcy Sale, Le Droit, 23 September, 1926.

Despite the change in ownership, Larocque’s remained true to its French-Canadian heritage, continuing to offer bilingual service to its customers. In October 1930, on its 27th anniversary (the anniversary of the 1904 start of the Vineberg, Goodman & Company in Nova Scotia), it sponsored a Larocque radio show of French-Canadian folk songs and dance music. The program featured the Larocque Orchestra over CNRO, Ottawa’s radio station owned by the Canadian National Railway, the forerunner of CBO radio.

In 1931, the Goodmans and the Vinebergs went their separate ways, with the Vineberg family taking sole control of Larocque Registered in Ottawa. That year, Joseph Hirsch Vineberg moved to Ottawa with his family from Montreal to become the manager of Larocque Registered. Two years later, he took full control of the company.

Coincidently, that same year Alphonse Larocque staged a comeback, launching another J.A. Larocque department store. The new store opened at 269 Dalhousie Street at the corner of Murray Street, just across the street from where he started his original business in 1909. Confusingly, there were now two Larocque department stores on the same street within just a few blocks of each other. However, in 1934, the second J. A. Larocque Company failed. Ignominiously, its stock again bought out by the Vineberg family and sold off at bargain prices at Larocque Registered at the corner of Dalhousie and Rideau Streets.

Larocque Registered prospered for more than four decades with its principal clientele being Lowertown’s francophone community. When Joseph Vineberg retired in 1947, control of the firm passed to his sons, Nordau S. Vineberg and Lloyd V. Vineberg who became president and vice-president of the company, respectively. Joseph Vineberg passed away in December 1967.

Four years later, Larocque’s also passed away from Ottawa’s retail scene, its loss a shock to its largely francophone staff and clientele. Even as late as mid-September 1971, the department store was still promoting its charge accounts. The Vineberg brothers explained that Larocque’s was caught in a retail no-man’s land, too small to compete with the national chain stores that were entering the Ottawa market, but too big to compete with specialized boutiques.

Vacant for a few months, the old Larocque store became for a while the temporary home of Caplan’s Department store, which was in mid-1972 in the process of a “million-dollar expansion” behind its main store on Rideau Street.

The former Larocque Department Store, now Mercury Court, May 2019, Google Streetview.

Between 1989 and 1993, the former Larocque Department Store, was remodelled and modernized by Barry Padolsky Associates Inc., and is now the home of this architectural firm. Called Mercury Court, the north end of the roof of the building is adorned with the “flying Mercury” weathervane that used to be located on the top of the Sun Life Assurance building at the corner of Sparks and Bank Streets. Mercury Court is also the home of businesses and the Embassy of Sweden.

Sources:

Doors Open Ontario, 2020.Barry Padolsky & Associates, Mercury Court,  https://www.doorsopenontario.on.ca/en/ottawa/barry-padolsky-associates-inc.

Le Droit, various issues.

Jewish Federation of Ottawa, 2020. Vineberg Family Fonds, https://www.cjhn.ca/en/permalink/cjhn86800.

Ottawa Jewish Archives, 2014. Larocque Department Store, 1923-1971, Facebook, 20 August.

Ottawa Citizen, “no title,” 25 September 1911.

——————, “Assignees Wind Up Several Small Business Firms,” 30 September.

——————, 1913. “J.A. Larocque,” 5 December.

——————, 1922. “Sale of City Property,” 19 April.

——————, 1922. “Announcement,” 19 April.

——————, 1924. “The Store That Does Not Advertise,” 19 November.

——————, 1930. “27th Anniversary Sale,” 7 October.

——————, 1971. “Enter the giants,” 25 November.

——————, 1972. “Caplan’s moves temporarily into old Larocque store,” 29 July.

Ottawa Journal, 1923. “Ottawa’s New Department Store,” 19 May.

——————-, 1971. “Ottawa department store to close,” 11 September.

Saltwire.com, 2017. Goodman Family added to Wall of Fame, https://www.saltwire.com/news/local/goodman-family-added-to-wall-of-fame-156351/.

Urbsite, 2020. J.A. Larocque’s Dalhousie Duel, http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2020/01/12-days-of-department-stores-8-ja.html.

Vineberg, Robert, 2021. The Store, A Personal History of Laroque’s, Historical Society of Ottawa, forthcoming Bytown Pamphlet.

The Rise and Fall of the Daly Building

14 June 1905

One of the greatest heritage battles in Ottawa’s history was fought over the future of the Daly Building, a multi-storey, former department store cum government office building located in the block bounded by Mackenzie Avenue, Rideau Street and Sussex Avenue. The architectural and historic merits of the building, constructed in what is known as the “Chicago style,” were debated ad nauseam for years if not decades in Ottawa’s newspapers, at City Hall, and at the National Capital Commission. While all could agree that something had to be done with the aging building, what that something was sharply divided Ottawa residents. As it turned out, the building, which was vacated by its last tenants in 1978, was left empty for thirteen years as the federal government, the owner of the property, dithered. It was hastily demolished in 1991, amidst a huge outcry, after a renovation attempt fell through. Paralleling what happened with LeBreton Flatts, the land was then left fallow for more than a decade. After many different development concepts were advanced and discarded, the government finally leased the property to Claridge Homes for an up-scale condominium building that opened in 2005.

The edifice which was to become known as the Daly Building, was built in 1904-05 by the Clemow Estate, under the supervision of Mr. William F. Powell who managed the Estate’s business affairs. Powell had originally hoped to build a hotel on the site. (This was before the Château Laurier was constructed across the street.) But when his hotel plans fell through, Powell negotiated a deal with Thomas Lindsay, a prominent Ottawa merchant who owned T. Lindsay Company, a department store on Wellington Street, and Larose & Company on Rideau Street. Under the agreement, the Clemow Estate would build a modern, five-storey, department store building that Thomas Lindsay would lease.

In preparation for the project, Powell travelled to New York on a fact-finding mission about the large department stores of that city. He then engaged Moses C. Edey as architect. Edey was no stranger to Ottawa. Born in Wyman, Quebec, the Edey family had come to the Hull area in 1805 with Philemon Wright. Edey was the architect of the Aberdeen Pavilion at Lansdowne Park completed in 1898. For the new department store, Edey chose what was for the time a daring new form of architecture that relied on a steel and stone external framework that permitted the installation of large, plate-glass windows. There was so much external glass that the Evening Journal commented that the building should be called a “crystal palace.” There were no interior walls, allowing maximum flexibility to organize the space. Instead, the floors were supported by 32 steel columns clad in Portland cement. This “Chicago School” form of construction is considered to be the forerunner of the modern glass and steel office tower.

Daly T. Lindsay 15-6-1905 OJ (2)

Thomas Lindsay, builder of what later would be known as the Daly Building, Ottawa Evening Journal, 15 June 1905.

Ground was broken for the five-storey building (four storeys on the Mackenzie Avenue since the edifice was constructed on a slope) in the summer of 1904, and was completed a year later. The new Thomas Lindsay Company department store opened its doors for business on 14 June 1905.

Thomas Lindsay, who had started the eponymous firm roughly fourteen years earlier at his Wellington Street location, was known for selling goods at low prices. His company was advertised as “The House of Bargains” and “the store where money has the greatest purchasing power.” But there was no stinting on the interior furnishings and fittings of his new department store. As well as having wide staircases, the store was serviced by three elevators, two for customers and one for freight. In addition to the natural lighting provided by the large plate glass windows, which were fitted with pivoting devices that permitted them to swivel open for easy cleaning and fresh air, the building was equipped with electric lighting. Around every other pillar on each floor was a large display table for goods. Every floor was serviced by a pneumatic tube, cash-carrying system, and had ladies’ and gentlemen’s toilets, all furnished with hot and cold running water. On the second floor overlooking Major Hill’s Park there was a large drawing room for visitors where they could go to sit, relax, read the latest magazines, or write letters. A ladies’ “retiring room” was off of this.

Daly building 3411920

The “Daly Building,” circa 1913, when owned by the Rea Brothers, Library and Archives Canada, Topley Studios, I.D. # 3411920. The Château Laurier Hotel is on the left.

On opening day, only three floors were finished; the upper two floors were completed by the fall. On the ground floor, off of Sussex Street, there was the men’s and boy’s clothing departments, a grocery equipped with a three-compartment refrigerator, and a drug store. On the first floor (accessed through the Mackenzie Street entrance), were the ladies’ department, and a “small wares” department. There were offices the third floor. Home furnishings, carpets, and hardware were located on the upper two floors once they were completed.

In 1906, Thomas Lindsay Company bought the building, as well as an adjacent empty lot to the north of the original structure, and other nearby properties from the Clemow Estate for reportedly $350,000. Lindsay’s intention was to increase the floor space of the department store by adding two floors, as originally designed by the building’s architect, and by extending the building onto the empty lot. However, these plans were delayed, possibly due to Thomas Lindsay’s declining health. In 1909, Thomas Lindsay sold his controlling interest in the Thomas Lindsay Company to the Rea brothers of Toronto for $300,000; the business had become too much for him. He died shortly after the sale.

The Rea brothers had retail experience in Toronto, having sold a similar store there to Robert Simpson, the owner of Simpson’s Department Store. After a short delay, they changed the name of their new department store to the A.E. Rea Company. In 1913, they undertook the store’s expansion as originally envisage by Lindsay. Other changes included a shortened work week. No longer would employees start work at 7:30am. Instead there would be a nine-hour day beginning at 8.30am, running until 5:30pm. As well, a new money-back guarantee was introduced. Also changed was the advertising policy of the store. Thomas Lindsay had withdrawn all advertising from the Ottawa Citizen in early 1908 owing to the newspaper’s opposition to the City taking over the Metropolitan Company’s water power operations at Britannia. Lindsay, who was a major shareholder in the power company, favoured the sale. Lindsay’s ban on advertising in the Citizen was revoked when the Rea brothers purchased the store.

Daly building extension 1913 LAC3410293 Topley

Construction of the Daly Building extension northward along Sussex Street. The Château Laurier Hotel is in the background, 1913, Library and Archives Canada, Topley Studios, ID #3410293.

In late 1917, the Rea brothers, who had overextended themselves, ran into financial difficulty.  Liquidators were called in to settle their affairs with the stock and assets of the department store sold off at 40 cents on the dollar. The big department store passed into the hands of H. J. Daly who took over the business and ownership of the building in February 1918.

Daly OJ 28-2-1918

Advertisement that appeared in the Ottawa Journal 28 February, 1918.

Oddly, for a building that bore his name for the rest of the century, Daly didn’t own it for very long—less than four years. In 1919, Daly moved his department store operations to a new store built on Sparks Street on a site previously occupied by the Arcade building (roughly where the CBC building is today) which had burnt down in a huge conflagration in December 1917. By mid-August 1919, the Daly Building was vacated and rented to the Federal Government which subsequently bought it for $1 million in late 1921. The H. J. Daly department store did not last long in its new Sparks Street location. It failed in early 1923.

As for the Daly Building itself, it was the home of a variety of federal government departments over the next fifty plus years, starting with the Department of Health in 1919 and ending as the Customs and Excise training centre in 1978. Its last private-sector tenant was Ad Lib, a women’s clothing store.

Discussion about pulling down the building began in 1954 when Jacques Gréber, the noted French urban planner who advised the federal government on how to beautify the Capital, recommended replacing the Daly building with a three-floor parking garage with a park on top. His suggestion did not go over well with Mayor Charlotte Whitton. The Minister of Public Works announced that other departments needed the space and the idea quickly faded.

But by the late 1970s, the building was in poor condition. As well, past renovations, which included replacing the windows during the 1920s and the removal of the decorative cornice in 1964 over concerns that pieces might fall and hurt passing pedestrians, were not sympathetic to the original design. With lots of new federal office space just built in Hull, the Daly Building was surplus to requirements. The Department of Public Works announced that since it was not economic to renovate it, the building would be demolished in 1979.

This set off a huge fight between conservationists and demolishers within the federal government, architect associations, and the heritage community over the merits of the conserving the only example of “Chicago-style architecture” in the city. As the war of words raged, the building slowly deteriorated. On the side of saving the former department store were Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar, and Jean Pigott, for a time the Chair of the National Capital Commission in the mid-1980s. Heritage Ottawa and a dedicated lobby group called Friends of the Daly Building also called for its restoration. Others, however, applauded its demolition. Charles Lynch, the noted Canadian journalist, author, and one-time former governor of Heritage Ottawa called the Daly Building “an ugly duckling: a former failed department store, failed office building, and successful eyesore.” He opined that the structure offered nothing of note or of beauty, either outside or inside, and he would be “honoured to strike the first blow when the wreckers come.” Another commentator wrote that the “heritage movement risked “making a fool of itself by unwise support of an unworthy cause.” He argued that to spend millions to “create a museum for architects when the general population hated the building was a form of “elitism.”

The hammer finally came down in September 1991 when the National Capital Commission announced that it didn’t believe that a group of developers (Coopdev and its partner Duroc Enterprises) would be able to finish a planned $45 million renovation by September the following year owing to the developers’ inability to find a major tenant for the renovated structure. When Coopdev failed to pay its first $60,000 payment in monthly rent on its 66-year lease, the NCC fired the company. The Daly Building was hastily demolished just a few days later.

Daly 700 Sussex Google

700 Sussex Street, site of the “Daly Building,” Google Maps, May 2019.

Over the following fourteen years, suggestions came and went on what to do with the property. Should it be a park, a parking garage, or some new prestige project? One idea that gained some traction for a while was to build a performing arts centre to celebrate Canada’s indigenous peoples. Noted Canadian architect, Douglas Cardinal, reportedly agreed to design the centre. The idea flopped. In the late 1990s, Gateway Development Corp. proposed building an upscale hotel on the site, with retail stores on the ground level, loft apartments, and, believe it or not, an underground aquarium. The proposal failed to receive the necessary financial backing and the project collapsed.

The NCC finally reached a deal with Claridge Homes and its president Bill Malhotra, under which the developer would lease the site for 66 years and build an eleven-storey condominium building with an open-air roof deck and garden on the eighth floor. The 70 luxury apartments ranged in size from roughly 1,000 to 2,300 square feet in size. The price for the one of the penthouse suites reportedly topped $1.75 million… and this was in 2002! Despite the eyewatering prices, 700 Sussex Drive proved to be a great success and quickly sold out.

While the old Daly department store is now long gone, its spirit is still with us. Dan Hanganu, the architect for the new condominium development, apparently drew his design inspiration from the old department store.

Sources:

Heritage Ottawa, Daly Building, https://heritageottawa.org/50years/daly-building.

Ottawa Citizen, 1905. “Clemow Estate,” 12 June.

——————, 1905. “Opening Of Ottawa’s New Palatial Store,” 10 June.

——————, 1905. “Congratulations,” 15 June.

——————, 1909. “Control May Change Hands,” 3 August.

——————, 1909. “The Lindsay Sale,” 7 August 1909.

——————, 1909. “Style Center Of Canada,” 18 August.

——————, 1909. “A Bit Of Local History,” 20 August.

——————, 1909. “Shorter Hours For Employes (sic),” 25 August.

——————, 1954. “Mayor Calls Greber Parking Plan Speculative Newspaper Story,’” 14 September.

——————, 1985. “An Argument for preservation of the Chicago Style Daly Building,” 16 November.

——————, 1991. “A Thing of the past,” 5 September.

——————, 1991. “Why doom the Daly building now?,” 7 September.

——————, 1991. “Start the Demolition!,” 8 September 1991.

——————, 1991. “Heritage falls off the Day tightrope,” 20 October.

——————, 1999. “Remembering the Daly Building,” 15 August.

——————, 2002, “Long lineup for Luxury Daly Units,” 9 January.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1904. “Palace Store on Clemow Site,” 13 June.

—————————–, 1905 “Many Expressions of Good Will From Many Friends,” 15 June.

—————————–, 1918. “The Rea Store, Announcement Extraordinary,” 5 January.

—————————–, 1921. “Property Transfers For Large Amounts,” 2 November.

 

24 Sussex

28 April 1951

One of the best-known addresses in Canada is 24 Sussex Drive, the official home of the Prime Minister. It is situated across the street from Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General, in the tony New Edinburgh neighbourhood of Ottawa. The home, located on a four-acre estate, is perched on a cliff beside the French Embassy with splendid views of the Ottawa River and the Gatineau Hills. Unfortunately, the house has been unoccupied since 2015, its last residents being Stephen Harper and his family. With it becoming increasingly dilapidated, Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, chose to live with their three children at Rideau Cottage on the grounds of Rideau Hall, rather than punish themselves by living at 24 Sussex Drive.

Actually, the house is worse than dilapidated. That adjective was used more than a decade ago to describe it; unlike fine wine the building has not improved with age. 24 Sussex is stuffed with asbestos, its wiring is a fire hazard, its roof leaks as does the plumbing, there’s mould in the basement, and it is home to little forest critters. As well, the rooms are freezing in the winter and broiling in the summer. There is no central air-conditioning. And then there’s its inadequate security. Just ask Aline Chrétien, who held off an intruder in 1995.

24 Sussex 2010 Wikipedia

24 Sussex Drive, 2010, by Alasdair McLellan, Wikipedia

Simply put, 24 Sussex Drive is scarcely fit to live in let alone be the official residence of the head of government of a G-7 country. Besides the odd coat of paint and roll of wall paper, there has been little significant investment in the fabric of the home since the1970s, the victim of political optics. What prime minister wants to take responsibility for spending millions of tax payers dollars on their home? It’s political dynamite. The last person to have any money spent on the building was Pierre Trudeau back in the mid-1970s when anonymous donors coughed up $150,000 for an indoor swimming pool and sauna connected by an underground tunnel to the main dwelling. Much of the building dates from the early 1950s.

So, how did we arrive at this sorry situation?

Part of the problem may lie in a confusion in the public mind between what is spent for official purposes and what is spent for personal purposes. The two overlap. All prime ministers want 24 Sussex to reflect their personal taste, after all its their home, possibly for a decade or more if they are electorally successful. But frequent leadership changes can lead to wasteful decorating changes. As well, cosmetic alterations can become co-mingled with necessary structural and maintenance expenditures.

Until 1951, Canada’s prime ministers had no official residence. Prime Minister Mackenzie King lived at his home called Laurier House in Sandy Hill from 1923 until his death in 1950.  King had inherited the house from Zoé Laurier, the wife of another former prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier for whom the house was named. R.B. Bennett, King’s predecessor, lived in palatial splendour in a multi-room suite at the Château Laurier Hotel during his term in office. King’s successor, Louis St. Laurent, lived with his wife in a modest, rented flat in The Roxborough Apartments while in Ottawa.

24 Sussex Before Renos

Front of 24 Sussex Drive before the 1950 renovations, Macleans.

In 1943, the federal government expropriated 24 Sussex Street from the then-owner, Gordon Cameron Edwards. (It was Sussex Street not Sussex Drive. The change in name was to come in 1953.) The government was concerned about the possible “commercialisation” of a property so close to Rideau Hall. There was also a concern that other governments might buy the highly desirable property with such commanding views and choice location. The British government had purchased the nearby Earnscliffe, the former home of Sir John A. Macdonald, in 1930 while the French Government had purchased and built its Embassy on the neighbouring property a few years later. With the Mexican government reportedly taking an interest in the old house, the Canadian government decided to expropriate the property. It took three years to negotiate the price after Edwards balked at what the government offered in compensation. The court settled on $140,000 plus costs of $7,319 which was more than the $125,000 the government initially offered but far less than the $251,000 demanded by Edwards.

24 Sussex after renos

Front of 24 Sussex Drive after renovations, author unknown

Almost from the very beginning, Prime Minister Mackenzie King thought that the mansion would make an excellent “permanent and non-political residence for Canada’s prime ministers,” though the idea wasn’t made official until 1949. While the location was superb, many had doubts about the building, then almost eighty years old. At an expropriation hearing, a real estate agent said that the house, which had been previously remodelled in in 1907-10, didn’t fit the needs of 1943. Six years later, the Ottawa Citizen wondered whether remodelling the Edwards home was the right course of action as the building was “already old and out of date” and had no particular distinction. The newspaper also claimed it was draughty, ill-heated, and inconvenient.

The house was originally built over a two-year period from 1866-1868 by Joseph Merrill Currier. Currier was one of Ottawa’s lumber barons, and from 1863 to 1882 the Conservative member of Parliament for Ottawa, barring a few months in 1877 when he had to resign and seek re-election over conflicts of interest. He left politics in 1882 and was appointed Ottawa’s postmaster.

Currier built the home for his third wife, Hannah Wright, a descendent of Philemon Wright, the founder of Hull, Quebec. He called it by the Welsh name Gorffwysfa meaning “Place of Rest”. Reportedly, Currier’s brother James, who was an architect, helped in the neo-gothic design which was undoubtedly inspired by those other neo-gothic buildings under construction at the time—the Parliament buildings. In 1870, the Curriers hosted Prince Arthur, son of Queen Victoria, at a ball held in his honour at 24 Sussex. Prince Arthur, also known as the Duke of Connaught, was later to become Canada’s Governor General from 1911 to 1916. For the royal event, Currier built a ballroom at the rear of the home which was later turned into a picture gallery.

After Currier’s passed away in 1884, his widow lived in the home until her death in 1901, whereupon the house went to their son, James E. W. Currier, who sold it in 1902 to William Cameron Edwards for $30,000. Edwards was at the time the Liberal member of Parliament for the district of Russell. In 1903, he was appointed to the Senate. Edwards made significant modifications to the building, including adding a turret, a curved window on the second floor, and a covered entrance. On his death in 1921, 24 Sussex was bequeathed to his nephew Gordon Cameron Edwards who was the last private owner of the property. After the Canadian government expropriated it, the home was leased on a short-term basis to the Australian government.

In 1948, the government hired the modernist Toronto architectural firm Allward & Gouinlock to renovate the building. The firm’s treatment of the building was not sympathetic to the original design. It totally changed both its exterior and interior. In addition to adding a new wing, the architects stripped the house of its neo-gothic features. Gone were its turret and gingerbread. The ballroom cum picture gallery where Prince Arthur had danced was demolished to make way for an outdoor terrace. The garage and chauffeur’s quarters were also demolished. Inside, the principal rooms were reversed so that they overlooked the Ottawa River and the Gatineau Hills rather than facing the street.

The renovations cost more than $300,000. With an additional $105,000 spent on furnishings, the total cost of the new official residence for Canada’s prime minister came in at roughly $550,000 (equivalent to $6.3 million in today’s dollars). The Conservative Opposition was not impressed. Rodney Adamson, the Progressive Conservative member for York West, commented that it would have been cheaper to build a completely new residence rather than change 24 Sussex St. around so that the Prime Minister could have a view of the Ottawa River.

Subsequently, a Vancouver newspaper whined that the “final piece of extravagance” was an iron fence that was to be built around the property. It opined that maybe next to come were “a platinum portcullis and a squad of gold-embossed halberdiers.” This was clearly a more innocent time when security was not deemed a high priority by some. However, the comment underscored why future governments became squeamish about spending money on the prime minister’s residence. Any money spent would be considered either a waste or self-serving.

Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and his wife, moved into their new home on 28 April 1951, though their official move date was 1 May when their lease was up on their apartment at the Roxborough. The prime minister was not keen about having an official residence. “Uncle Louis” was a modest man. Before he would move in, he insisted on paying $5,000 per year for room and board, roughly what he had been spending before. This amounted to one-third of his prime ministerial salary. Politicians and bureaucrats reluctantly acquiesced to this demand, and it was written into the legislation passed for the maintenance of the home. Some years later, the law was changed so that the prime minister lived rent free. C.D. Howe, the Minister for Trade and Commerce, called the new prime ministerial residence “not a palace” but “dignified” and “well-equipped,” an official residence of which Canadians could be proud.

There are fourteen principal rooms in the house, with a formal drawing room and dining room for 24 persons overlooking the Ottawa River. There is a pine-panelled library to the left of the main entrance with an open fireplace. The ground floor was designed so that 150-200 guests could easily circulate between drawing room, dining room and library. A kitchen and pantry are also on the ground floor. On the second floor are the family living room and the main bedrooms with bathrooms. On the top floor are guest and staff bedrooms. A small elevator was installed that ran from the basement to the top floor.

There was some speculation in the press about the home’s name. Its original Welsh name was not in the running; few could spell it or pronounce it. The Ottawa Journal argued that to follow the British example and call the home 24 Sussex Street would be too prosaic. However, Canada House, Beaver House and Maple Leaf Gardens were already taken, and it couldn’t come up with a better idea. Regardless, newspapers thought that given time the address would become as well-known as London’s 10 Downing Street or Washington’s White House.

That prediction has come true. However, today the home is more infamous than famous. Instead of being dignified prime ministerial residence, it has become a money pit. More than ten years ago, a real estate agency thought that the property, then appraised at $7.5 million, was worth more without the house.

Many want the building pulled down, including Maureen McTeer, the wife of former prime minister Joe Clark. McTeer thinks it’s a dump without any redeeming architectural merit. Others, including some historians, disagree. Now that roughly a dozen prime ministers have lived in it, perhaps the residence has acquired some prime ministerial patina that’s worth preserving. As well, the residence has hosted distinguished visitors, such as the Queen, Sir Winston Churchill and John and Jackie Kennedy, who have provided their own gloss.

Renovating the old house will not come cheap. In 2018, the National Capital Commission, announced that to fix up the six official residences owned by the Government in the Ottawa region would cost $83 million over ten years. Only Rideau Hall, the Governor General’s home, and Stornoway, the official residence of the Leader of the Opposition, are in good condition. Ominously, Harrington Lake in the Gatineau hills, the country home of the prime minister, is considered to be in poor condition. If governments shy away from spending money on the official residence of the prime minister, the odds of a summer retreat getting sufficient funding look even more grim. Meanwhile, entropy prevails. The official residences continue to deteriorate and the cost to restore them continues to climb.

Sources:

CBC, 1980. A Tour of 24 Sussex with Maureen McTeer. https://ca.video.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?hsimp=yhs-rogers_001&hspart=rogers&p=Maureen+McTeer#id=2&vid=c131ed57812f112dec7e53683dbe3e4e&action=click.

Calgary Herald, “Face-Lifting Starts on P.M.’s New Home,” 13 December.

NCC, 2019. 24 Sussex Drive, http://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/24-sussex-drive.

Ottawa Citizen, 1949. “What Kind Of House At 24 Sussex?” 4 October.

——————, 1950. “Approve Act Charging PM $5,000 For Home,” 21 June.

——————, 1951. “St. Laurents Move Into New Home,” 1 May.

——————, 2004. “Martin family finds it chilly in drafty old mansion,” 17 November.

——————, 2008. “It’s a tear-down,” 3 December 2008.

——————, 2013. “Inside 24 Sussex,” 30 November.

——————, 2013. “A Timeline of Troubles At 24 Sussex Dive,” 30 November.

——————, 2017. “This Old House,” 13 February.

——————, 2018. “NCC Seeks $83m to Address ‘Critical’ Maintenance Issues,” 17 October.

Ottawa Journal, 1949. “A Name for the Prime Minister’s Residence,” 4 October.

——————-, 1949. “24 Sussex St.”, 8 October.

——————-, 1950. “Cost of Renovating Residence at 24 Sussex for Prime Minister Startles Opposition,” 23 March.

——————–, 1951. “Apartment Living Over The St. Laurents Now Living in 24 Sussex,” 1 May.

Vancouver Province, 1951. “24 Sussex Street Nearly Ready,” 13 April.

—————————–, 1951. “Iron Fences And High Taxes,” 9 July.

Windsor Star, 1950. “24 Sussex Tradition In The Making,” 19 June.

Devlin’s-Morgan’s

23 March 1973

Ottawa residents of a certain age may recall a department store called Henry Morgan & Company located on the south side of Sparks Street close to Elgin Street, a spot now occupied by the Royal Bank of Canada. Morgan’s, as it was known to all, was a branch of an upscale Montreal-based department store chain that had come to the nation’s capital in 1951 with the purchase of the venerable retail firm of R.J. Devlin & Company from the Devlin family.

Devlin

R.J. Devlin & Company, 76 Sparks Street, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3422789.

R.J. Devlin & Company had deep roots in Ottawa, dating back to 1869 when its founder, Robert James Devlin, came to the city from London, Ontario to start a furrier business. Devlin was born in 1842 in Londonderry, the son of an Anglican priest. His father died when Devlin was just twelve years old. A guardian subsequently took the young lad to Canada. Took is the operative word. Devlin was a wealthy young man, having inherited $30,000, a huge sum in those days. But when he was out one afternoon as a volunteer water-carrier for the London Fire Brigade, his so-called guardian absconded, leaving Devlin penniless. Forced to look quickly for work, Devlin found a job in a fur factory. He later worked as a journalist for the London Free Press writing a humorous column called Korn Kob Jr. At some point, he met the Hon. John Carling, later Sir John Carling, a prominent London businessman who represented the city in both the provincial and federal governments. Carling advised Devlin that he should start a furrier business in Ottawa which at the time was growing rapidly, the government having just moved there from Quebec City. He arrived in 1869 and set up a fur and hat store on Rideau Street close to the canal. He later moved to No.37 Sparks Street across from the Russell House Hotel. The store’s sign was a large tin hat on which was written the store’s motto — “Hats that R Hats.”

Devlin’s three-story shop at 37 Sparks Street sold hats on the ground floor, had a fur “salon” on the second floor, and the Devlin fur workshop on the third floor; Devlin’s manufactured all its fur products on-site. The store itself was famous for its mirrors. They were carefully angled in the stairwell to allow a person on the ground floor to see end-to-end through the second-floor fur salon as well as up the stairs to the workshop. This must have been a handy feature for salespeople to monitor the store for shoplifters.

Devlins ad ODC 25-9-1869 dated 14-9

An early Devlin’s advertisement, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 25 September 1869.

Each Saturday, when Devlin received the week’s sales tally from the store’s accountant, staff could judge how successful the week had been by Devlin’s choice of cigars. If sales and profits were strong, he would send a clerk over to Nye’s Cigar Store in the Russell Block to purchase 25 cent cigars—the very best. If sales were lacklustre, the clerk would buy cheap ones. Staff wanting a raise would know to approach Devlin only when he purchased the expensive cigars.

In 1891, Devlin built a four-storey building on a 66 x 98-foot lot, formerly known as the Kenley property, at 76 Sparks Street between Elgin and Metcalfe Streets. Before the growing company occupied the entire building, also known as the Carleton Chambers, Devlin’s rented space to a number of tenants, including Ahearn & Soper, Robert Masson’s Shoe Company, and the Ottawa Citizen newspaper. Reportedly, Devlin had difficulty renting the fourth floor since potential tenants didn’t trust the elevator to go so high, and were reluctant to walk up four floors. During the early twentieth century, the store expanded beyond hats and furs to become a women’s and men’s clothes store.

What particularly distinguished R.J. Devlin & Co. from its competitors was the store’s advertising. The advertising copy, which was always prepared by Devlin himself, often took jibes at politicians of all stripes, as well as Ottawa and its residents. A friend of Mark Twain, Devlin had a devilish wit. He called the beaver “Canada’s original lumber king whose tail is as devoid of fur as the head of the average senator.”

Devlins asphalt 30-6-1893 OJ

R.J. Devlin’s satirical advertisement regarding the state of Sparks Street. Ottawa Journal, 30 June 1893.

He frequently complained about the state of Ottawa’s roads, especially Sparks Street. In one of his ads, he quipped that “fishing was recorded as good on a ravine called Sparks St – but if any of my patrons will come to the opposite bank and shout, I well send over a boat and ferry them across.” Another read “my business is located behind a rut on what is known as Sparks Street – not the small rut over on Elgin Street but the large one near the middle of the block [i.e. in front of Devlin’s store].” In 1893, he wrote a satirical piece arguing that Ottawa citizens didn’t need a clean, solid, enduring pavement on Sparks Street. Leave well enough alone. If it was good enough for our forebears it’s good enough for us – as long as “you wear long boots or are handy on stilts.” Sparks Street was finally paved in 1895.

Devlin didn’t spare himself either. For one sale he advertised: “There is a surplus of furs which I should not have – and a chronic deficit in my bank account which the manager says he won’t have – so – betwixt the Devil and the Deep Sea, etc.” Another read: For sale – Grey goat coats $6 – they are grey and the are goat – and they are six dollars – which is all I can truthfully say about them.” Another went: “Waterproof coats $5 – they are not even good coats – unless they possess some hidden virtue of which the undersigned is unaware.”

Robert Devlin’s greatest advertising coup occurred in 1889. On 11 November of that year, his advertisement predicted that winter would start in Ottawa on 27 November with a major blizzard accompanied by howling winds. To prepared for the coming storm, men and women should purchase fur coats and warm sleigh robes from his store before it was too late. Recall that these were the days long before Environment Canada, when people relied on the Farmers’ Almanac and weather “seers” for their forecasts.

Devlin's snow prediction OJ 12-11-1889

Devlin’s advertisement warning Ottawa residents that winter would begin with a major snow storm two weeks hence on 27 November, Ottawa Journal, 12 November, 1889

The city waited with bated breath to see if his prediction would come true. The 27th began grey and dull with a stiff wind. The temperature was in the upper thirties, Fahrenheit. Through the morning, the temperature dropped. The occasional snow flurry changed into a heavy and persistent snowfall. By evening, the snow was so deep that the street railway stopped working. The first sleighs of the season appeared on city streets. The snow continued for close to twenty-four hours, with more than a foot on the ground, just like Devlin had predicted.

Devlin was lionized by the success of his prediction. More than 250 people sent him their congratulations. When asked by a Journal journalist the secret of his success, Devlin demurred, reportedly saying “Do you think I am going to impart my priceless system…mine is the only infallible and true method and I mean keeping it too (sic) myself.” Devlin was crowned by the public as Ottawa’s “prize weather prophet.”

Many years later, Devlin’s advertisements were collected by his sons and given to the Women’s Canadian Historical Society of Ottawa, the forerunner of The Historical Society of Ottawa, and were housed in the Bytown Museum, then operated by the Society. The three leather-bound volumes are currently stored for safe keeping in the City of Ottawa Archives.

With his unorthodox advertising methods, and a strong reputation for quality furs, Devlin’s prospered. Governors general and prime ministers patronized his store. In 1901, an association of Canadian women presented the future Queen Mary with a mink and ermine wrap made in the Devlin workshop. Famous Hollywood stars including Lilian Russell, Maureen O’Sullivan, Jimmy Cagney, and Gene Tierney were Devlin customers. The fabled Pavlova and Field Marshals Ferdinand Foch of France and Douglas Haig of Britain patronized the store. When Winston Churchill visited Ottawa in December 1941, Devlin’s made a sealskin hat for the British prime minister over night. It was presented to the great man by the Parliamentary Press Gallery.

In 1949, R. J. Devlin & Company celebrated its 80th anniversary. By this time, the store had passed to Robert Devlin’s sons, W.F.C. (“Ted”) Devlin and Brian Devlin; R.J. Devlin himself having died in 1918 at the age of 78. Three years later, in April 1951, the brothers sold the landmark store to Montreal’s Henry Morgan & Company. Ted Devlin stayed on as a director of Devlin’s which was now operated as a subsidiary of Henry Morgan & Company. All of Devlin’s staff were retained by Morgan’s as were Devlin’s policies, including the staff pension fund which was instituted by Ted Devlin in one of his last acts as the company’s president.

While Morgan’s initially ran the store under the Devlin name, six months after the purchase, Morgan’s send 10,000 Ottawa residents a questionnaire asking them whether it should retain the historic name or change it to the Henry Morgan Company. Five thousand people responded with a two to one margin in favour of changing the name.

In 1960, Morgan’s of Montreal was purchased by the Hudson’s Bay Company. While billed as a “merger,” it was in fact an acquisition under which Morgan shareholders received one Hudson’s Bay share and $14 for every Morgan’s share. The deal was worth $15.4 million. While the takeover was reported in the press, few realized the takeover had occurred as the Bay ran Morgan’s outlets, including the one on Sparks Street in Ottawa, under the Henry Morgan & Company name.

In November 1971, the Hudson’s Bay Company bought Ottawa’s A. J. Freiman’s department stores. With Freiman’s main store on Rideau Street, just a short walk away from the relatively small and elderly Morgan’s outlet on Sparks Street, Morgan’s future looked grim. On 23 March 1973, the hammer came down. The Hudson’s Bay Company announced that Morgan’s on Sparks Street would close for good. But, the Hudson’s Bay, still operating under the Freiman’s name in Ottawa, promised that no jobs would be lost with a new giant Freiman’s store to open later that year in a new west end shopping centre. That fall, with Freiman’s now operating under the Hudson’s Bay brand, a huge Bay store opened in the new Bayshore Shopping Centre.

Sources:

Hudson’s Bay Company, 2019. Morgan’s of Montreal, http://www.hbcheritage.ca/history/acquisitions/morgans-of-montreal.

Ottawa Citizen, 1931. “Great Devlin Storm Prediction Caused A Sensation In The Eighties,” 5 December.

——————, 1949. “Firm of R. J. Devlin Now Celebrating It’s 80th Anniversary Year,” 5 March.

——————, 1951. “Morgan’s Buys Devlin Company,” 17 April.

——————, 1954. “Bound Volumes of Old Devlin Ads Given To Women’s Historical Society,” 15 June.

Ottawa Journal, 1889. “Winter Is Here,” 28 November.

——————-, 1889. “Prophet Devlin Comes Out On Top,” 28 November.

——————-, 1918. “R. J. Devlin Dead And City Loses Leading Citizen, 22 August.

——————-, 1951. “Devlin’s Becomes Morgan’s After Vote By 5,000 Residents,” 29 October.

——————, 1973. “Morgan store closing ends retailing legend,” 23 March.

 

Women’s Memorial Building

21 December 1925

Intimations received mid September 1925 that the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King had informally agreed to provide a plot of land for the proposed Women’s Memorial Building must have been greeted with considerable satisfaction by Mrs. Asa Gordon. (Her first name was Amelia, but she was always known as Mrs. Asa Gordon.) Then in her late 70s, Mrs. Gordon had spent a lifetime in service, toiling for the great causes of the day, especially temperance and women’s suffrage. At one time, she was the Dominion President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union as well as the Dominion President of the King’s Own Daughters, an international Christian service group. She had also been a founding member of the Ottawa Women’s Club organized in 1914. Another cause dear to her heart was the erection of a memorial that would recognize the contribution of women to Canadian society, and their service through the Great War. She and the Ottawa Women’s Club had approached the government the previous January and had lobbied hard for funding. An Order-in-Council dated 21 December 1925 made official the government’s offer of land for the memorial.

Women's Memorian OJ30-1-26

Proposed architectural drawing for the Women’s Memorial Building,  The Ottawa Journal, 30 January 1926.

The site for the proposed Memorial Building was immediately to the south of the Dominion Archives building between Sussex Street and Lady Grey Drive, close to Nepean Point Park. It would have been difficult to find a more prestigious location. The government also drafted architectural plans for the proposed four-storey edifice that would conform with the nearby neo-gothic Parliament buildings and the baronial-style Château Laurier Hotel. There was a catch, however. Canadian women would have to raise $100,000 of the estimated $250,000 price tag for the Memorial Building before construction would commence. To this end, Mrs. Gordon, despite her advanced age, threw herself whole heartedly. The Ottawa Women’s Club immediately pledged to raise $5,000. Within two months almost half of that amount had been raised.

The reasons behind Mackenzie King’s support for the Women’s Memorial Building are unclear. It has been suggested that he wanted to curry favour with a large new electorate; women had only received the federal vote in 1918. However, it’s possible that the grant of land was a sincere gesture, particularly given King’s attachment to his mother. Regardless, politicians of all strips quickly got on board.

In addition to recognizing Canadian womanhood in all their activities, including as pioneers, war nurses and mothers, the building was to be the headquarters of national Canadian women’s organizations. The building would be non-sectarian and open to all women regardless of race. It would be a place for women’s groups to hold their national conventions and banquets. To accommodate everybody, Richard C. Wright, the chief architect of the Public Works Department, designed a four-story neo-Gothic building to be built of Nepean sandstone. As well as providing space for the national headquarters of the major Canadian women’s organizations, the edifice would contain a 2,000-seat auditorium, a banqueting hall, a museum/Hall of Fame, and archives. In addition to offices and a memorial for the historical contributions made by women to Canadian society, the building would also be used “for the cultivation of the finer arts and sciences,” and to provide an “inspiration for the future.”

An interim committee of Ottawa women, with Mrs. Asa Gordon as chair, was appointed to oversee fundraising activities until a national board was elected. To this end, representatives from more than two dozen national women’s organizations gathered first at the Ottawa City Hall on Elgin Street and later at the Château Laurier Hotel to elect a permanent governing committee and to endorse the Memorial Building proposal. Among the women’s organizations that gave their support were: The King’s Daughters, The Catholic Women’s League, The Hadassah of Canada, The Women’s Art Association, La Fédération des Femmes Canadiennes Françaises, and La Fédération Nationale St. Jean Baptiste. The representatives at this inaugural meeting naturally chose Mrs. Gordon as their President. The organization was later incorporated as the Women’s Memorial Building Federation.

At the municipal level, Ottawa Mayor Balharrie threw his support behind the Women’s Memorial Building proposal. In March 1926, he appeared at a benefit concert of religious music held at the Keith’s Theatre organized by the Ottawa Women’s Club. At the benefit, Mayor Balharrie noted that monuments to deeds of men were commonplace, but that there were few to women. He reviewed the careers of famous women, including Florence Nightingale who organized nursing care for English soldiers during the Crimean War and in so doing turned nursing into a respectable profession, and Edith Cavell, an English nurse who was executed by the Germans during the Great War for helping Allied soldiers to escape from occupied Belgium. He added that Canada owed much to women, “to none more that its mothers, who worked quietly and prayerfully at home during the dark days of the war.” He hoped that the provincial government would contribute much of the necessary $100,000 that the women needed to raise before the federal government would commence construction. Later, the City pledged $5,000 to the building fund. The concert only raised $100 for the building but it was optimistically viewed as the “nucleus” of the $100,000 fund.

Over the following years, women’s groups and churches, especially in the Ottawa area, held teas, benefits and socials to raise funds for the Memorial building. Any society or individual that donated $25 or more could enter the name of one person on the Memorial’s “golden scroll.” The name of every donor who gave a $1 or more would be entered in the “Book of Remembrance.” The name of any child, aged 16 or younger, who gave $1, with the consent of her parents, would be entered into the “Child’s Book of Remembrance.

Mrs. Asa Gordon campaigned tirelessly for the building. She argued that the memorial would be “a factor in the unifying of all classes, creeds and nationalities into the highest Canadian citizenship.” She requested grants from both Premier Taschereau of Quebec and Premier Ferguson of Ontario. When the provincial leaders came to Ottawa for meetings, Mayor Balharrie asked Premier Ferguson for a $25,000 provincial grant for the building. Ferguson said that the issue had come up at conference, but that some premiers were “not fully seized with the proposal.” He thought that a publicity campaign was needed to educate the people. Once citizens showed that they were “in sympathy” with the idea, he was sure that provincial legislatures would provide the necessary backing. Premier Taschereau said he would follow the lead of Ontario’s premier.

Funds trickled in. To give publicity to the Memorial, Mayor Baharrie gave the unveiling of a tablet that was to be installed on the wall of the Memorial Building a prominent place in Ottawa’s centenary celebrations held in mid August 1926. The brass tablet was engraved with Canada’s coat of arms in its centre with sprays of maple leaves and the word “Memorial” over it. On the left-hand side were the words “Dedicated to the Women of Canada,” with the same words in French on the right. The names of every person who donated $1,000 or more would be immortalized on the wall of the Memorial Building alongside the brass tablet.

Lady Byng, the wife of the Governor General, was asked to unveil the tablet at a ceremony to be held on the proposed site of the building on Lady Grey Drive. Among the invited speakers were Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Sir Henry Drayton, who would represent the opposition Conservative Party, and the Bishop of Ottawa. Souvenir booklets were prepared as a way of raising funds.

In the event, Lady Byng declined the invitation as her husband’s term of office ended before the Ottawa’s centenary festivities began and they had left the country. There was also a change in government, with the minority Liberal government replaced by Arthur Meighen’s Conservative Party in the famous “King-Byng Affair.” (Lord Byng had refused King’s request for new elections following the Liberals’ defeat in the House of Commons, but instead asked Meighen to try to form a new government. The Conservatives held 116 seats to the Liberals’ 101, with the remaining 28 seats shared among Progressives, Labour and Independent members. Meighan tried, but subsequently failed to win a vote of confidence in his government. New elections were finally called with King’s Liberals winning a majority in September 1926 just a month after Ottawa’s centenary celebrations.)

With political sands shifting, the organizing committee, headed by the indomitable Mrs. Asa Gordon, quickly tacked, and asked Mrs. Meighen to unveil the brass tablet. In the event, Sir Henry Drayton, the acting Prime Minister in the absence of Arthur Meighen, represented the federal government, and Lady Drayton did the actual unveiling. Mackenzie King, who was out of Ottawa, sent a congratulatory telegram, as did Lady Byng. At the ceremony, Sir Henry said that there were “some things on which we are all agreed upon, and this is one of them.” He also claimed that the Conservatives were at least partially responsible for the memorial building, saying that “this is one of the things which we let Mr. Mackenzie King do; in fact, we assisted him to do it.” However, in his speech, he entirely missed the point of the building. Instead of focusing on the accomplishments of women as men’s equals, he applauded their supporting role. “The man who gets the best start in life is he who thinks he has the best mother in the world. Another essential to success is when a man believes he has the best wife.”

Over the next few years, fund-raising went on across the country, especially in the Ottawa region. It was hard going. A national membership campaign was launched in May 1928. However, the response was tepid. In Ottawa, where the objective was to raise $1 from every woman and girl, only 1,000 people contributed.

Some women were dead set against the proposed memorial. Lady Henriette Pope, a prominent Ottawa citizen, wrote a letter in 1926 to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen voicing her opposition to the use of public funds to what she called a “vainglorious scheme.” She thought that instead of allocating money to fund a monument to women, Ottawa City Council should use its $5,000 to help the poor buy fuel. When there was talk that the City might increase its contribution in 1930, she wrote a second letter saying that the inability of the committee of ladies to succeed after four years of ceaseless efforts was evidence that “the women of Canada will have none of it: their innate good senses and good taste repudiate such glorification”. City Council desisted.

Women's Memorial Foundation winding up 20-5-1936

Winding up notice of the Women’s Memorial Building Federation, Ottawa Citizen, 20 May 1936.

By early 1931, Mrs. Asa Gordon and her Women’s Memorial Building Foundation had raised only $46,407 in cash and pledges, far short of the $100,000 goal. The idea of erecting a building on Lady Grey Drive was slipping away. Promotion of the scheme shifted to emphasize the benefits to Ottawa, especially the attraction of a new large auditorium which could be used as a theatre that Ottawa lacked owing to the demolition of the Russell Theatre. Mrs. Gordon said that the Memorial building would be like London’s Albert Hall, and would be part of the beautification of Ottawa.

It was not enough. With the country gripped by the Great Depression, there was no money for a Women’s Memorial Building. In June 1932, the coup de grace came with the death of Mrs. Gordon, aged 85, in Columbus, Ohio, where she had been attending a meeting of the Sons and Daughters of the King. With the death of its most avid supporter, the building project also died. In December 1934, the City of Ottawa transferred the $5,000 it had promised to the Building Fund in 1926 out of an escrow account into the City’s general account as it seemed unlikely that the building would ever be constructed.

In 1936, at a special general meeting of the Canadian Women’s Memorial Building Federation at the King’s Daughters’ Guild on Laurier Street in Ottawa, acting President Jane R. Stewart signed the document winding up the Federation. The Federation returned the bulk of $26,293 it held in cash and investments to contributors, giving them back their subscriptions, plus 5% interest. 98 per cent of contributors of $2 or more were tracked down. The largest was the Ottawa Women’s Club which received $4,500. The estate of Mrs. Asa Gordon received $3,000. After paying liquidation and legal fees, the remaining $3,000 was turned over to the Crown in 1938.

Today, the site of the proposed Women’s Memorial Building is occupied by the National Gallery of Canada.

Sources:

Montreal Gazette, 1926. “Mrs. Meighen To Unveil Tablet,” 14 August.

———————, 1935. “Canadian Women’s Memorial Building Federation,” 26 November

Ottawa Citizen, 1925. “Grateful To Govt. For Building Site,” 25 September.

——————, 1926. “Drive Launched To Get $100,000 Memorial Fund,” 23 January.

——————, 1926. “Two Deputations To Mr. Ferguson,” 10 June.

——————, 1926. “unveiling Brass Insert, August 19th,” 3 August.

——————-, 1926. “Plan Unveiling Founders’ Tablet,” 13 August.

——————-, 1926. “Memorial To Women Of Canada Will Be Erected In Capital,” 16 August.

——————-, 1926. “Commemorate Beginning Of Rideau Canal Construction And Women’s Memorial Building,” 19 August.

——————-, 1928. “Campaign In Aid Women’s Memorial Building Fund Is Starting Today,” 15 May.

——————-, 1930, “Letter to the Editor from A. E. Gordon,” 24 February.

——————-, 1930, “Lady Pope Protests,” 14 July.

——————-, 1934. “No title,” 12 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1925. “Govt. Accedes to Desire For Women’s Hall,” 12 September.

——————-, 1926. “Representatives of 440,500 Women Endorse Memorial Building Plan,” 30 January.

——————-, 1926. “Canadian Women’s Memorial To Be Erected On Lady Grey Drive, Near Nepean Point,” 30 January.

——————, 1926. “Mayor Balharrie Approved Plan To Erect A Woman’s Memorial,” 22 March.

——————, 1926. “Says Women’s Memorial Building Factor In Unifying All Classes,” 29 April.

——————, 1926. “City To Give $5,000 To Aid New Memorial,” 27 August.

——————, 1926. “Lady Pope’s Protest,” 10 September.

——————, 1937. “Returns $26,293 To Contributors,” 30 January.

——————, 1937 “Ottawa Women’s Club Will Receive $4,500 In Memorial Funds,” 1 February.

——————, 1938. “Return Contrbutions To Memorial Federation

Province (The), 1926. “Women’s Memorial At Ottawa Will Cost $250,000,” 4 April.

Urbsite, 2014. Ottawa’s 1926 Centenary Projects & The King-Byng Affair, 2 February, http://urbsite.blogspot.com/2014/02/ottawas-1926-centenary-projects-king.html?q=Women%27s+Memorial+Building.

 

Sappers’ Bridge

23 July 1912

It ended with a crash that sounded like a great gun going off, the noise reverberating off the buildings of downtown Ottawa. After faithfully serving the Capital for more than eighty years, Sappers’ Bridge finally succumbed to the wreckers in the wee hours of the morning of Tuesday, 23 July 1912. However, the old girl didn’t go gently into that good night. It took seven hours for the structure to finally collapse in pieces into the Rideau Canal below. After trying dynamite with little success, the demolition crew rigged a derrick and for hours repeatedly dropped a 2 ½ ton block onto the platform of the bridge before the arch spanning the Canal gave way. Mr. O’Toole the man in charge of the demolition, said that the bridge was “one of the best pieces of masonry that he [had] ever taken apart.”

Sappers' Bridge Burrowes
View of the Rideau Canal and Sappers’ Bridge – Painting by Thomas Burrowes, c. 1845, Archives of Ontario, Wikipedia.

The bridge, the first and for many decades the only bridge across the Rideau Canal, dated back to the dawn of Bytown. In the summer of 1827, Thomas Burrowes, a member of Lieutenant Colonel John By’s staff, gave his boss a sketch of a proposed wooden bridge to span the Rideau Canal, which was then under construction, from the end of Rideau Street in Lower Bytown on the Canal’s eastern side to the opposing high ground on the western side. Colonel By accepted the proposal but opted in favour of building the bridge out of stone rather than wood. Work got underway almost immediately, with the foundation of the eastern pier begun by Mr. Charles Barrett, a civilian stone mason, though the vast majority of the workers were Royal Sappers and Miners. On 23 August 1827, Colonel By laid the bridge’s cornerstone with the name Sappers’ Bridge cut into it. The arch over the Canal was completed in only two months. On the keystone on the northern face of the bridge, Private Thomas Smith carved the Arms of the Board of Ordnance who owned the Canal and surrounding land. The original bridge was only eighteen feet wide and had no sidewalks.

Reportedly, one of the first civilians to cross Sappers’ Bridge was little Eliza Litle (later Milligan), the six-year old daughter of John Litle, a blacksmith who had set up a tent and workshop where the Château Laurier Hotel stands today. Apparently, Eliza was playing close to the Canal bank on the western side when she was frightened by some passing First Nations’ women. She ran screaming towards Sappers’ Bridge which was then under construction. A big sapper picked Eliza up and carried her over a temporary wooden walkway and dropped her off at her father’s smithy.

Back in those early days, there were two Bytowns. Most people lived in Lower Bytown. It had a population of about 1,500 souls, mostly French and Irish Catholics. The much smaller Upper Bytown, which was centred around Wellington Street roughly where the Supreme Court is situated today, had a population of no more than 500. This was where the community’s elite lived, mainly English and Scottish Protestants. The two distinct worlds, one rowdy and working class, the other stuffy and upper class, were linked by Sappers’ Bridge. While the bridge joined up Rideau Street on its eastern side, there was only a small footpath on its western side. The path wound its way around the base of Barrack Hill (later called Parliament Hill), which was then heavily wooded, past a cemetery on its south side that extended from roughly today’s Elgin Street to Metcalfe Street, until it reached the Wellington and Bank Streets intersection where Upper Bytown started. It wasn’t until 1849 that Sparks Street, which had previously run only from Concession Street (Bronson Avenue) to Bank Street, was linked directly to Sappers’ Bridge. During the 1840s, that stretch of path to Sappers’ Bridge was a lonely and desolate area. It was also dangerous, especially at night. It was the favourite haunt of the lawless who often attacked unwary travellers. Many a score was settled by somebody being turfed over the side of the bridge into the Canal. People travelled across Sappers’ Bridge in groups: there was safety in numbers.

Bytown, which became Ottawa in 1855, quickly outgrew the original narrow Sappers’ Bridge. In 1860, immediately prior the visit of the Prince of Wales who laid the cornerstone of the Centre Block on Parliament Hill, six-foot wide wooden pedestrian sidewalks supported by scaffolding were added to each side of the existing stone bridge. This permitted the entire 18-foot width of the bridge to be used for vehicular traffic.

But only ten years later, the bridge was again having difficulty in coping with traffic across the Rideau Canal. There was discussion on demolishing Sappers’ Bridge and replacing it with something much wider. The Ottawa Citizen opined that such talk verged on the sacrilegious as Sappers’ Bridge was “an old landmark in the history of Bytown.” The newspaper also thought that it was far too expensive to demolish especially as the bridge had “at least another century of wear in it.” It supported an alternative proposal to build a second bridge over the Canal.

In late 1871, work began on the construction of that second bridge across the Canal linking Wellington Street to Rideau Street, immediately to the north of Sappers’ Bridge. It was completed at a cost of $55,000 in 1874. It was called the Dufferin Bridge after Lord Dufferin, Canada’s Governor General at that time. Another $22,000 was spent on widening the old Sappers’ Bridge on which were laid the tracks of the horse-drawn Ottawa Street Passenger Railway.

Despite the upgrade, Ottawa residents were still not happy with the old bridge. Sappers’ Bridge was a quagmire after a rainstorm. On wag stated that “It is estimated that the present condition of the bridge has produced more new adjectives that all the bad whiskey in Lower Town.” One Mr. Whicher of the Marine and Fisheries Department was moved to write a 24-verse parody of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Bridge about Sappers’ Bridge. In it, he referred to “many thousands of mud-encumbered men, each bearing his splatter of nuisance.” He hoped that a gallant colonel “with a mine of powder, a pick and a sure fusee (sic)” would blow it up. His poem was well received when he recited it at Gowan’s Hall in Ottawa.

Sappers' Bridge 1878 Wiliam Topley -Library and Archives Canada
Sappers’ Bridge (left) and Dufferin Bridge (right), c. 1878, Topley Studio and Library and Archives Canada. The old Post Office is in the centre of the photograph. Notice the horse-drawn passenger railway in operation on Sappers’ Bridge.

But it took another thirty-five years before the government contemplated doing just that.  As part of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s plan to beautify the city and make Ottawa “the Washington of the North,” the Grand Trunk Railway began in 1909 the construction of Château Laurier Hotel on the edge of Major’s Hill Park, and a new train station across the street. Getting wind of government plans to build a piazza in the triangular area above the canal between the Dufferin Bridge and Sappers’ Bridge in front of the new hotel, Mayor Hopewell suggested that Sappers’ Bridge might be widened as part of these plans in order to permit the planting of a boulevard of flowers and rockeries to hid the railway yards from pedestrians walking over the bridge. He also added that public lavatories might be installed beneath the piazza.

Sappers' Bridge Demolition Ottawahh
Demolition of Sappers’ Bridge, 1912. The arch of Sapper’s bridge is gone leaving only the broken abutments and rubble in the Canal. The newly built Château Laurier hotel in in the background on the right. Dufferin Bridge is in the centre of the photograph. Bytown Museum, P799, Ottawahh.

In the event, the federal government decided to demolish Sappers’ Bridge. Both the Dufferin and Sappers’ Bridges were replaced by one large bridge—Plaza bridge. This new bridge was completed in December 1912. The piazza over the Canal was also built. It was bordered by the Château Laurier Hotel, Union Station, the Russell House Hotel and the General Post Office. A straw poll conducted by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper of its readership, favoured naming the new piazza “The Plaza.” However, the government, the owner of the site, had other ideas. It decided on calling it Connaught Place, after Lord Connaught, the third son (and seventh child) of Queen Victoria who had taken up his vice-regal duties as Canada’s Governor General in 1911.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the beautification of downtown Ottawa continued. The Federal District Commission, the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, expropriated the Russell Block of buildings and the Old Post Office to provide space for a national monument to honour Canada’s war dead. The war memorial was officially opened in 1939 by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In the process, Connaught Place was transformed into Confederation Square.

Little now remains of the old Sappers’ Bridge. Hidden underneath the Plaza Bridge is a small pile of stones preserved from the old bridge with a plaque installed by the NCC in 2004 in honour of Canadian military engineers. The bridge’s keystone with the chiselled emblem of the Ordnance Board was also saved from destruction. For a time it was housed in the government archives building but its current location is unknown.

Sources:

Ross, A. H. D. 1927. Ottawa Past and Present, Toronto: The Musson Book Company.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1871. “editorial,” 3 May.

————————, 1972. “A Dirty Bridge,” 10 April.

————————, 1874. “Sappers’ Bridge,” 9 October.

————————, 1913. “‘Connaught Place’, Cabinet’s Choice of Name for Area Formed By Union of Sappers’ and Dufferin Bridges,” 24 March.

————————, 1925. “Muddy Sappers’ Bridge In the Seventies,” 18 July.

———————–, 1928. “Girl of Six Was the First Female To Cross Sappers’ Bridge Over Canal,” 23 June.

The Ottawa Evening Journal, 1910. “Widening of the Bridges,” 3 June.

———————————–, 1912. “Early Days In Bytown Some Reminiscences,” 27 April.

———————————–, 1912. “When Ottawa Was Chosen The Capital of Canada,” 4 May.

———————————–, 1912. “Bridge Is Blown Down,” 23 July.

———————————–, 1914. “Notable Stones In the History Of The Capital,” 16 March.

The Victoria Memorial Museum

10 May 1901

At the end of Metcalfe Street between McLeod and Argyle Streets can be found the Canadian Museum of Nature, housed in a magnificent baronial building with beautiful stained glass windows. Constructed over a several-year period during the first decade of the twentieth century, the edifice’s official name is the Victoria Memorial Museum Building, in commemoration of Queen Victoria who died in January 1901. Within weeks of her death, the government chose to honour her reign by the construction of a museum.

Victoria Tower post card
Post Card of The Victoria Memorial Museum, before 1915, Valentine & Sons’ Publishing C. Ltd, London, Toronto Public Library.

On 10 May, 1901, a sum of $50,000 appeared in the supplementary estimates for the 1901-1902 fiscal year for the commencement of work on the Victoria Memorial Museum. After considerable debate, the appropriation was approved by the government of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, though the Conservative opposition complained about the lack of a definitive plan for the building.  The government was also uncertain of its location. It favoured siting the building at Major’s Hill Park, with a bridge across the Rideau Canal connecting the Park to Parliament Hill, roughly where the Château Laurier Hotel is situated today. However, others thought Nepean Point might be a good location. Still others objected to both locations arguing that the land should be conserved for parklands. They preferred a location somewhere in the south of the city. Mr. Joseph Tarte, the Minister of Public Works, assured the House that no work would commence until he and his colleagues were convinced they had found the best design and the best site for the new building. To that end, he had sent David Ewart, the Chief Dominion Architect, to Europe to look into museum designs.

The site finally selected for the new museum was a property owned by the Stewart family a mile due south of Parliament Hill. Located there was a stone building called Appin Place surrounded by fields and gardens. Appin Place was a homestead that dated back to 1856, though actual construction of the house was delayed until 1862 owing to the death of the property’s owner, William Stewart, who had been the Member of Parliament for Bytown in the Province of Canada legislature. Appin Place, whose paddock was sometimes used as a cricket pitch, was a well-known landmark. It was surrounded by a massive cedar hedge that was noted for its beauty. The hedge had been transplanted from a nearby swamp during the 1840s. The house itself was built on the highest point of land in “Stewarton” in a direct line and level with the Centre Block on Parliament Hill. Appin Place was reportedly where Lord Dufferin had presented the colours to the Governor General’s Foot Guards in 1874. The government acquired the land for $73,500 at a sheriff’s sale in 1903 or early 1904.

The museum was designed by David Ewart, and built by George Goodwin of Ottawa. Goodwin had won the contract for building the museum with his bid of $950,000, excluding the cost of the electrical work, heating and furnishings. His was the lowest of four bids on the government contract. He would later come to rue winning the contract. The total cost of the building came to roughly $1,250,000, equivalent to more than $27 million in today’s money. Goodwin had previously worked on other public works projects, including the construction of the Trent Valley and Soulonges Canals.  The new museum measured 430 feet by 169 feet with a tower 97 feet high. Its walls were built using Scottish work masonry in Nepean brown stone, with trimmings in Nova Scotia red stone. Credit Valley stone was also used. The four-story building was fire-proof with its floors made of porous terra cotta covered with concrete. Wooden sleepers were set into the concrete to which wooden floors were fastened. The walls of the basement were lined with enamelled brick.

Demolition of the old stone Appin Place took only three days in mid-April 1905. Work on the foundation of the new museum commenced almost immediately. The structure was scheduled to take four years to build. But problems, disputes, and tragedy dogged the construction which took longer than expected. Goodwin wanted to substitute stone quarried in Ohio for the Nova Scotia stone, but was overruled by government; the contract called for Canadian stone throughout. In 1908, a labourer fell to his death while working on the building. He apparently lost his footing when he was 70 feet up on the girders. While he survived the fall, he sustained grievous injuries and died at St. Luke’s Hospital. By 1911, six stone cutters who had worked on the building had died from “stone cutters’ lung disease”—an illness, now called silicosis, caused by the inhalation of dust—that causes shortness of breath, cough, bluish skin, and ultimately death.

The name and organization of the new museum also proved to be controversial. A delegation of Ottawa’s finest, including Thomas Ahearn and Warren Soper (the partners who owned Ottawa’s electrical company and electric railway), J.R. Booth, the timber baron, and Erskine Henry Bronson, after whom Bronson Avenue was later named, appealed to the Prime Minister. They wanted the new museum to be called the National Museum of Canada, reporting to a special government commission comparable to the British Museum in London and the National Museum in Washington D.C. Laurier promised to consult his Cabinet. The appeal failed.

Victoria Memorial Museum without tower LAC PA-48179
The Victoria Memorial Museum Without its Tower, Library and Archives Canada, PA-48179.

As the building was finally nearing completion in early 1911, cracks began to appear in the front tower owing to settling. A slight separation was also noted between the tower and the main building. The Ottawa Evening Journal ominously noted that the contractor, George Goodwin, was the builder of the Laurier Tower, an addition to the West Block on Parliament Hill erected a few years earlier that had subsequently collapsed. Government engineers initially thought that the cracks in the museum would soon be remedied. However, they proved to be wrong. By late 1911, cracks had appeared on both sides of the entrance rotunda. Some were as much as five inches across. The cracks were plastered over several times, only to reappear. In late 1913, the Department of Public Works denied that it was considering dismantling the tower. However, by the summer of 1915, it became obvious something had to be done to ensure public safety. There was even talk of tearing down the entire building. In the end, engineers decided that while the building could be saved, the tower had to come down. It was simply too heavy to be supported by the foundation which rested on unstable clay. Goodwin, the builder, who reportedly lost a fortune on the building, died later that same year. It is said that he had tried to warn the government about problems with the building’s specifications but his concerns had been brushed aside.

Victoria Memorial Museum inside, 1913, Geological Survey of Canada LAC-065507
Inside of the Victoria Memorial Museum, 1913, Geological Survey of Canada/Library and Archives Canada, C-065507.

Despite worries about its solidity, staff moved into the Victoria Memorial Museum in 1911 in order to get ready the many artifacts in the government collection. This included the Geological Survey’s collection of Canadian ores and minerals, fossils, stuffed mammals and birds, insects, as well as First Nations’ handicrafts, phonographic records of songs of indigenous peoples, as well as antiquities and other objects of scientific value. The National Gallery of Canada, with its over four hundred paintings, sketches, etchings and sculptures, also moved into the Museum. In 1913, the Museum acquired a complete skeleton of a “duck-billed” dinosaur, of the family Trachodonatae, discovered in the Red River Valley of Alberta. According to the Ottawa Evening Journal, the fossil was three million years old. Today, this animal is known as a hadrosaur, the old name of Trachodon no longer being used. The fossil, which can still be seen at the Museum of Nature, is actually about 65 million years old.

When the museum first opened its doors to the general public is a bit murky. The National Gallery of Canada located in the Museum building opened in mid-May 1912, from 9 am – 5 pm Monday to Saturday. It is probable that the Geological Survey’s collection opened at the same time. Admission was free. Owing to the great popularity of the museum, opening hours were subsequently extended to Sunday afternoons despite opposition from some clergy.

When the Centre Block on Parliament Hill was gutted by fire in early 1916, the Victoria Memorial Museum was quickly fitted out as the temporary home of the Senate and House of Commons. The House of Commons was located in the lecture hall while the Senate was housed in the hall previously devoted to fossils and extinct animals, a fact that caused great hilarity. Some wags noted that little had changed. Parliament met at the museum until 1920. The previous year, the body of Sir Wilfrid Laurier had laid in state in the temporary House of Commons chamber.

Victoria Memorial Museum today Google
Museum of Nature, Victoria Memorial Museum Building, 2017, Google Street View.

Over its life of more than 100 years, the Victoria Memorial Museum building has undergone two major renovations. During the early 1970s, it was closed to allow for workmen to stabilize the building which was still sinking into the Ottawa clay that lay beneath it. In 2010, a major building renewal and renovation took place. A 65-foot glass tower was installed in the same location as the old tower that was torn down in 1915. It was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth in 2010 and is called the “Queen’s Lantern.”

Sources:

Canadian Museum of Nature, 2018. Historical Timeline, https://nature.ca/en/about-us/history-buildings/historical-timeline.

Globe, 1912, “The National Art Gallery of Canada,” 4 May.

—————————–, 1915. “”Contractor Goodwin Dead,” 1 December.

—————————–, 1916. “Tempoarary House of Parliament,” 5 February.

Globe and Mail,” 2006. “New life for old bones,” 21 October.

Ottawa Evening Journal, 1904. “Commons And Ottawa Items,” 25 March.

————————–, 1904. “To Build Royal Victoria Museum,” 27 September.

————————–, 1905. “Number One Hard Wheat Threated by the States,” 10 February.

————————–, 1905. “Appin Place, Historic House, Will Disappear,” 4 March.

————————–, 1905. “Stewart Homestead A thing Of The Past,” 17 April.

————————–, 1906. “He Must Use The Canadian,” 2 May.

————————–, 1908. “Fatal Fall From Victoria Museum,” 16 June.

————————–, 1910. “Deputation on Change of Name,” 8 December.

————————–, 1911. “One Million And A Quarter Dollars of Estimates Passed,” 24 March.

————————-, 1911. “Cracks In Museum Wall Is Not Growing Larger,”21 April.

————————-, 1911. “Five Stone Workers Dead,” 8 May.

————————-, 1912. “Art Gallery To Open On Saturday,” 14 May.

————————-, 1913. “Dinossaur (sic) Is Secured For Museum,” 4 January.

————————-, 1913. “Museum Tower,” 2 October.

————————-, 1915. “Sealed Tenders for Partial Removal Of Tower,” 11 August.

————————-, 1915. “Contractor For Museum Warned Minister Plans Would Not Suit,” 12 August.

————————-, 1914. “Fine Skeleton Of Dinosaur At Victoria Museum,” 12 September.

The Ottawa City Hall Fire

31 March 1931

Ottawa’s first city hall was a wooden structure built close to Elgin Street in 1848 by Nicholas Sparks. It had originally been a market. But when the market failed the following year, eclipsed by the more popular Byward Market in Lower Town, Sparks donated the building to Bytown (later known as Ottawa) as the town’s city hall. For close to thirty years it served in this capacity, for a time also doubling as the community’s fire hall. Pressed for space, the city’s municipal offices moved into a bespoke building constructed in 1876 on an adjacent lot located on Elgin Street between Queen and Albert Streets—roughly where the National Arts Centre is today. The four-storey, stone building was designed by the architects Henry H. Horsey of Ottawa and Matthew Sheard of Toronto in the French Empire style, a mode of architecture which was much admired during the late nineteenth century. The City Hall, built for $85,000, was apparently considered by many at the time as “the finest example of municipal architecture.”

City hall old LAC C002185
The first Ottawa City Hall constructed in 1848. The main floor was used as a fire hall.  Library and Archives Canada, C-002185.

But by the 1920s, the City had once again outgrown its now aging city hall. In 1927, the Liberal government of Mackenzie King came to an agreement with the City over the eventual expropriation of the building, along with the Police and Central (No. 8) Fire Station buildings located behind it, the Russell Hotel, the Russell Theatre, and the Post Office, in a grand plan to beautify Ottawa through the creation of Confederation Park, the construction of a War Memorial to honour Canadian service personnel who died during the Great War, and the widening of Elgin Street. Although the Russell Block was expropriated in 1927 by the federal government, and the City itself took over several buildings including Knox Presbyterian Church for the widening of Elgin Street, plans for the park stalled with the coming of the Great Depression in 1929 and the election of a parsimonious Conservative government under R. B. Bennett in 1930.

City Hall Topley StudiosLACMikkan3325359
Ottawa City Hall, 1877-1931, Elgin Street, Library and Archives Canada, Mikkan 3325359.

The municipal offices were still located in their Elgin Street premises when a fire gutted the building.  During the evening of 31 March 1931, two men passing by the nearby Post Office spotted smoke and flames coming from the top corner of the north-east side of the City Hall. The passers-by rushed to the No. 8 Fire Station. The fireman on duty initially thought the men were pulling an April Fool’s prank on him. But after stepping outside, he quickly call out the fire fighters. The first alarm sounded at 9.25 pm with a second alarm sounding a few minutes later, calling in fire fighters from across the city.

Firemen initially entered the east tower of the Hall that led to the office of Vincent Courtemanche, the City’s paymaster. Courtemanche was working late that night preparing workers’ pay sheets. Hearing the hubbub outside his office, he initially thought a prisoner had escaped from the police lock-up. On finding that the City Hall was ablaze, he rushed upstairs to warn Finance Commissioner Gordon who was also working late. The two men fled the building after retrieving $8,000 in cash and $20,000 in cheques. Gordon also managed to save a cheque-writing machine newly purchased for $1,000.  Reportedly, a one-ton safe was dragged be two policemen and two volunteers from the Treasury Department to the offices of Hugh Carson Ltd, the maker of leather goods at 72 Albert Street, for safe-keeping.

The fire started in the office of T. B. Rankin, the accountant of the City’s engineering department located on the northeastern corner of the top floor. Firemen were able to bring two hoses to Rankin’s office, but the blaze had already spread through the false ceiling and could not be contained. It quickly swept through the neighbouring offices of the Waterworks department and the draughting room of the Works department. The office of the building inspector was also consumed by the flames.

Downstairs, a meeting of the Central Council of Social Agencies was underway in the Board of Control boardroom. Controller J.W. York, who was attending the meeting, immediately called Mayor Allen and other councilmen. After saving the records of the Board of Control, Controllers Gelbert and York, along with a Journal newsman, went upstairs to salvage records from the Waterworks and Works departments. The three men had a narrow escape when a wall collapsed under the pressure of the water from the firemen’s hoses on the other side of the wall of the room they were in. They were forced to drop everything and flee to safety. Following his arrival on scene, Mayor Allen took charge of saving documents. Men frantically slid steel filing cabinets filled with important municipal records down the building’s marble staircase to get them outdoors.

The fire was intense. Seven firemen were injured when the top floor on which they were working collapsed without warning, dropping them more than fifty feet into the basement. Some were pinned for more than an hour under smoldering debris while their colleagues desperately dug to free them. Rev. Father J. L. Bergeron of Ottawa University smashed the glass of a basement window and crawled in to administer last rites to the pinned men. Fortunately, the sacrament was not needed. All the trapped firemen were rescued by their colleagues who “worked like Trojans” to get them out. None of their injuries proved to be life-threatening. But it was a narrow escape. Later in the Water Street hospital, one of the injured admitted that they had received “a real break,” though he phlegmatically added that it was “all part of the game.” Ironically, just two weeks before the fire, the City’s Board of Control had received a report indicating that the Works department vault was supported by only one girder that placed it at risk in the event of a fire. The Board of Control had discussed the building of a more secure vault at the rear of the City Hall at a cost of $70,000 dollars but no decision had been taken.

One hundred and twenty-five firemen from across the city were called out to fight the blaze. To help increase the water pressure, an old steam engine from No. 7 Fire Station was brought into action. A detachment of the RCMP was also called in to help Ottawa police keep more than 20,000 on-lookers from hindering the work of the fire brigade, and to keep them a safe distance from falling debris and flying embers. Just after midnight, tons of masonry from the stone tower at the south-west corner collapsed sending the vault in the Assessment department through the floor through the Health department, the Board of Control room, and the Central Canada Exhibition offices.

Fortunately, the fire didn’t reach the ground floor office of N. H. Lett, the City Clerk. His precious records of elections, plebiscites, and vital statistics survived the fire. Paintings and other valuables were also rescued, including portraits of former mayors and pictures of the King and Queen. Small busts of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier were later found in the Mayor’s Office intact albeit somewhat water damaged. The stock of a little cigar stall that stood at the front entrance was also saved. Estimated losses associated with the fire were placed at more than $200,000. Total insurance coverage amounted to only $91,200 for the building and $10,000 for contents. The cause of the blaze was never ascertained.

Even before the flames were extinguished, work began on finding temporary accommodations for civic workers. The City obtained permission from the federal Department of Public Works to use two floors of the Regal building on O’Connor Street that had just been vacated by the Department of Labour for the Confederation Building on Wellington Street. But efforts to move furniture into the building and set up a switch board were quickly halted when the owner of the building objected. As the City began seeking other alternatives, Mayor Allen and other City Controllers worked out of Controller York’s law office. Some city services set up temporary offices at the Coliseum on Bank Street, others on Bank Street and in LeBreton Flats. Three days after the fire, the City found satisfactory accommodations in the Transportation Building on Rideau Street. (The Transportation Building, built in 1916, stands at the corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive and is now incorporated into the Rideau Centre.) Previously the home of the Auditor General, the City rented the top three floors at a cost of $22,500 per year, equivalent to $1.50 per square foot. Most civic departments eventually moved here.

Despite the confusion in the days immediately following the fire, most municipal services were unaffected. City staff were paid on time that week by City Paymaster Courtemanche using temporary facilities at the Police Station. Only Ottawa’s sweethearts were disappointed. City Clerk Lett halted the issuance of marriage licences for twenty-four hours owing to his stock of blank certificates being waterlogged.

The Mayor and Council quickly initiated talks with the Bennett government over the future of the gutted City Hall building. The Mayor proposed that the federal government purchase the land for $2 million consistent with the 1927 plan to establish Confederation Park on the site. But Bennett’s government demurred. The price tag was simply too great. Discussions then focused on whether to restore the damaged building, rebuilt on the same site, or seek an alternate site for a new City Hall. The Ottawa Journal was of the view that restoring the damaged building was a waste of money. It opined that the fire had shown the “folly and danger” of its “ugly, wooden towers which architects of a generation or two ago seemingly insisted upon.” It added “The truth is that a lot of mid-Victorian architecture was as slovenly as the dress of a lot of mid-Victorian women – and about as useless.” What had been viewed as the epitome of fine municipal architecture fifty years earlier was now thoroughly out of fashion and a fire hazard to boot.

It took some months for Council to make its decision to demolish the gutted building, contracting with D. E. Mackenzie to pull it down for $1,800 in October 1931. The City retained ownership over the cornerstone, and all plaques and memorials. The decision to demolish the old building was not unanimous. Mayor Allen and Controller Gelbert favoured erecting a temporary roof and using the basement as the civic employment office. A number of potential locations were discussed for a new home for the City Hall, including sites on Wellington Street next to St. Andrew’s Church between Kent and Lyon Streets, the west side of Elgin Street between Queen and Albert Streets, as well as rebuilding on the existing site. But with a price tag of $600,000, and in light of the considerable expenditures the City had recently incurred on sewer upgrades following the sewer explosions earlier that year, and the cost of building a water purification system, city fathers believed it prudent to wait until better economic conditions prevailed before re-building. It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that Ottawa moved into new accommodations constructed on Green Island. The new City Hall building was officially opened by Princess Margaret in early August 1958. The structure, now known as the John G. Diefenbaker building, is currently occupied by Global Affairs Canada.

With the creation of a single-tier city structure, and the merger of surrounding communities into the City of Ottawa in 2001, city government moved to the offices of the defunct Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton at the corner of Laurier Avenue and Elgin Street, facing Confederation Park. Interestingly, this is roughly the site proposed for Ottawa’s City Hall by the Ottawa Citizen newspaper in 1931. 

Sources:

Citizen (The), 1931.”5 Firemen In Narrow Escape, Property Loss $15,000,” 1 April.

—————-, 1931. “Ask Government If It Wants City Hall Razed,” 1 April.

—————-, 1931. “City Hall Built in 1875-76, Renovated During 1910-11,” 1 April.

—————-, 1931. ‘For A New City Hall,” 2 April.

Ottawa Evening Journal (The), 1931. “Mayor and Board See Premier About City Hall,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “How Ottawa City Hall Looks Today After Night Blaze of Six Hours,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Three firemen Say They Had A Lucky Break,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Cause of Blaze – A Mystery To Chief Lemieux,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Thrilling Scenes And Brave Rescues Mark City Hall Fire,” 1 April.

————————————, 1931. “Fourth Floor Collapses Trapping Seven Men Under Debris In Cellar,” 1 April.

———————————–, 1931. “Board in Special Meeting Decides on New Offices,” 1 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Ask Government $2,000,000 For City Hall Site,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “City Business Carried on Despite Difficulties Faced Securing Temporary Offices,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Why Waste $150,000 On An Inadequate Building,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Wretched Wooden Towers,” 2 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Will Consider Construction New City Hall on Present or Some Other Location,” 3 April.

———————————-, 1931. “New Quarters For City Staff Are Arranged,” 4 April.

———————————-, 1931. “Will Demolish The Fire Ruins Of City Hall,” 12 August.”

———————————-, 1931. “Another Site For New City Hall Offered,” 18 September.

———————————-, 1931. “Decide To Tear Down City Hall Ruins At Once,” 3 October.

———————————-, 1931. “Still Unable Start Tearing Down Building,” 6 October.