The Russell Theatre

15 October 1897

On the site of the National Arts Centre (NAC) there once stood an earlier playhouse called The Russell Theatre with its front entrance on Queen Street. On hundred years ago, it was the centre of arts and culture in Ottawa just as the NAC is today. The three-storey structure, which cost $100,000 to build, was owned by The Russell Company, the proprietor of the adjacent Russell House Hotel, which was itself the city’s leading hotel prior to the building of the Château Laurier. Work on the site began at the end of March 1897 when labourers tore down the old “Leader Hotel,” also known as the “Walsh building,” on Queen Street. The Russell Company, seeking the finest that money could buy, hired the New York theatrical architectural firm of J. B. McElfatrick and Son that had built theatres across the United States. Michigan native Fuller Claflin was the on-site architect. The general contractor for the project was Mr “Ed” C. Horne of New York, with whom Claflin had worked on many similar assignments. Imported talent, mostly from the United States, also made the stage decorations, the tile mosaics, the papier maché work, as well as the ornamental paintings and frescos. Even the masons and bricklayers employed on the job came principally from New York. Dr W. A. Drowne, who had been the manager of the Plattsburgh theatre in Plattsburgh, New York, was hired to manage the new Russell Theatre.

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Cross section of The Russell Theatre, The Evening Journal, 2 October 1897.

The theatre, which was built in the Italian renaissance style, was a marvel of late nineteenth century technology, and was judged second to none among North American theatres. It seated roughly 1,500 patrons on three floors and in ten boxes. On the balcony, there was a large room where light refreshments were served during intermissions and after performances. A ladies’ parlour (a.k.a. bathroom) was to be found on the first floor, with the gentlemen’s toilets on the balcony level. In the gallery, there was a smoking lounge for gentlemen. The steam-heated building was equipped with the latest stage apparatus and a modern electrical lighting system, with the wires carefully run through brass tubing to deter fires. In the case of fire, it had a fire pump with ten water outlets each equipped with fire hoses distributed throughout the building. The ground floor was laid in concrete, and the stairwells were separated from the auditorium by brick walls. The proscenium opening was protected by an asbestos curtain. Asbestos was also used in the plaster to retard burning. In an act of hubris suitable for a Greek tragedy, The Evening Journal said the theatre was “practically fireproof.”

On 15 October 1897, the Russell Theatre officially opened its door to the general public. Seats for the premiere had been auctioned off a few days earlier, with the proceeds in excess of the established ticket prices donated to the Prescott and Russell Fire Relief Fund. Roughly $200 were raised to help victims of a massive bush fire that had earlier destroyed three villages in eastern Ontario—Casselman, South Indian and Cheney’s—killing at least six people and leaving hundreds homeless.

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Advertisement for Kismet, the Premiere Production at The Russell Theatre, The Evening Journal, 15 October, 1897.

The gala opening featured Kismet or Two Tangled Turks, a comic opera in two acts by the German-born Broadway composer Gustave Kirker, with the libretto by Richard F. Carroll. Unfortunately, the play “was not altogether a success” opined The Evening Journal. The performance lacked “snap and vim” and was judged “dull” for long periods. The problem seemed to lie more with the play than with the theatrical company. The newspaper said that Miss Minerva Dorr, who played the role of the Sultan (sic) of Turkey, had a commanding presence and an exquisite voice while Mr John Saunders was very humorous as the Grand Vizier.  The dancers “of the Odalisques” were also judged to be quite pleasing. In general, the theatrical company was considered to have been good, but would have done better with a better play.

If the play was lacklustre, the theatre wowed Ottawa’s elite. Prior to the beginning of the performance, coloured lights played over the stage curtain that was painted with a scene of the loops of the Selkirk River of Manitoba. Being the première, people turned out in their finest with the newspaper giving a detailed account of the outfits of prominent Ottawa women. A Miss Davis wore “a dainty dress of dresden muslin-de-soie over cream silk, the trimming of cream lace and nile green satin ribbons forming a bolero and full front bodice. Diamond and pearl ornaments.”

It seems the Journal’s judgement of the Russell’s first theatrical production was an accurate assessment of the theatre’s first seasons—second-rate. In a letter to the editor, a theatre-goer in 1899 moaned that the Russell Theatre had claimed that it had been unable to book first-rate theatrical companies since they had already been contracted to play in Toronto and Montreal. He thought that while the excuse might have been a fiction, the result was “painful.” Another angry theatre patron complained that if Ottawa had to put up with second-rate attractions, at least the prices charged shouldn’t be higher than those charged in Montreal.

Fire put an end to the complaints. On 9 April 1901, roughly two hours after the last patrons had left a production of The Belle of New York, a musical comedy written by Hugh Morton with music again by Gustave Kirker, a fire broke out behind the Russell’s stage. Despite the asbestos curtain and other fire retarding measures, the theatre was quickly gutted, its wooden interior fixtures burning like tinder. The alarm was raised by the theatre’s caretaker who had an apartment close to the stage. He had just fallen asleep when he was woken by a loud rushing sound, with his room filling with smoke. Almost naked, he rushed out of the theatre to the nearby police station to bring help. Dr Drowne, the Russell’s manager, and Mrs Drowne who also lived in the theatre, barely escaped with their lives. They fled with only the clothes on their backs. All their possessions, valued at $2,000, were lost.

By the time Fire Chief Provost and his men got to the Russell Theatre, flames were already shooting through the roof. But firefighters were able to bring the blaze under control by plying water streams onto the structure from the Free Press Building at the corner of Queen and Elgin Streets. While the theatre was a write-off, the firemen were able to save surrounding buildings, including the Russell House Hotel. Aiding them was the weather—wet with the wind blowing away from the hotel.

The cause of the blaze was never ascertained. The caretaker thought it started in the furnace room. Others believed it had been caused by a wayward cigarette dropped by one of the players. However, Dr Drowne disagreed, saying he was very strict with smoking around the stage. Also, he had passed through the theatre after The Belle of New York troupe had left, and had checked on every room before retiring for the night.

The next day, Ottawa residents woke up to the realization that only by chance had a great tragedy been avoided. Had the fire broken out just two hours earlier, many men, women and children might have been trampled in a rush for the doors. Despite the considerable fire precautions taken in its construction, the consensus was that the theatre had not been safe due to insufficient exits, especially from the dress circle and balcony levels. Many considered the theatre to have been a “death trap.”

Speculation also began on whether the theatre would be rebuilt. The initial assessment was not favourable. Fire losses were estimated at $100,000, with insurance covering only $63,000. Also, the theatre had not been profitable; no dividends had been paid since the day it was opened. But at a meeting of directors four days after the fire, management announced that an arrangement had been reached to rebuild the Russell Theatre between the owners of the theatre and the Ambrose J. Small Company of Toronto, a theatre management company that had leased the Russell. Apparently, the Ambrose J. Small Company had already booked engagements for two-thirds of the coming season.

As an aside, many years later in 1919, Ambrose J. Small, who was a major Canadian theatre mogul who owned or operated theatres in several Ontario cities, was to disappear under circumstances worthy of a paperback thriller. After receiving $1.7 million from the sale of his theatre operations, it was alleged that he was murdered by his wife and her lover, with his body incinerated in the furnace of the Grand Opera Theatre in London, Ontario. The allegations were never proven. At one point, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, was approached for assistance in solving the case. While interested, Sir Arthur declined to help. Never solved, the police closed the case in 1960.

Russell Theatre interior, 1928 Mikan 7821743 government

Interior of the new Russell Theatre before its demolition in 1928, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 7821743.

The new Russell Theatre reopened on 7 October 1901, almost four years to the day after its first debut. Although rebuilt along similar lines to the original theatre and finished as before in old gold, ivory and red, with shades of blue under the galleries, there were significant differences. Capacity has increased to 1,900 seats from 1,500, with 590 on the ground floor, 500 in the balcony, 700 in the gallery, with the remainder accommodated in twelve boxes. There were other differences too. Most importantly, there were a lot more exits, including four on the gallery and three on the balcony. Frederick Challener, a distinguished Canadian artist, had also been commissioned to paint three murals on the ceiling, depicting the “Triumph of Drama,” “Love” and “Hate.”

Russell Theatre ceiling 1928, Mikan 4821747 Government

Ceiling of the new Russell Theatre showing “The Triumph of Drama” by Frederick Challener, RCA, 1928, Library and Archives Caanda, Mikan 4821747.

The re-opening play was a production of Dolly Varden, a comic opera by the Broadway composer Julian Edwards based on the character Dolly Varden from the Charles Dickens’ book Barnaby Rudge. Miss Lulu Glaser played the lead role. This debut fared better than the first. The Journal’s review described the production as “bright and clever entertainment, while Miss Glaser was “vivacious and dainty.” Unlike Kismet in 1897, Dolly Varden had the necessary “vim.” The newspaper was particularly impressed by a chorus by the entire company performed a cappella. The costumes were also deemed to have been gorgeous.

During that first week, Dolly Varden played for two nights. This was followed by two nights of vaudeville by Shea’s Vaudeville from the Garden Theatre in Buffalo. The week was rounded out by a performance by Louis Morrison in The New Faust on the Friday, followed by Madame Modjeska and Louis James in productions of Mary Stuart and Henry VIII on the Saturday.

The curtain fell for the last time at the Russell Theatre on 14 April 1928. The theatre, along with the now empty Russell House Hotel and other properties on the Russell Block bordered by Sparks, Queen and Elgin Streets and the Canal had been acquired by the Federal District Commission (FDC). All were slated for demolition as part of the Commission’s plan to beautify Ottawa. On that last night, The Dumbells performed in “Bubbling Over,” a series of eleven comedic and musical acts, to a capacity crowd. Led by Captain Merton Plunkett, the troupe was a prominent and extremely popular Canadian vaudeville group that had been formed during World War I by members of Canada’s Third Division. The company took their name from the dumbbell emblem of the Third Division.  At the end of their performance, Captain Plunkett told the audience that it was fitting that a strictly Canadian company should be the last to appear at the Russell.

As The Dumbells were loading their props and other equipment onto a horse-drawn cart after their show, the derelict Russell House Hotel caught fire. Although firemen were able to save the adjacent Russell Theatre from the flames, nothing could save it from the FDC. Three months later, it was demolished. Fortunately, on hearing of the existence of the beautiful ceiling murals by Frederick Challener, Canada’s National Gallery asked that they be saved. The murals now reside at the Gallery. In 1985, the Gallery also obtained Challener’s preliminary scale model of the main mural, Triumph of Drama. See Maquette of Triumph of Drama. 

Sources:

Alberti, Louis-Gèrard, 2015. “The Russell Theatre,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/russell-theatre-emc/.

Bordman, Gerald with Norton, Richard, 2010. American Musical Theatre, A Chronicle, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York.

Evening Journal (The), 1897. “Ottawa’s New Theatre,” 30 March.

—————————, 1897. “Down Comes The Wall,” 30 March.

—————————, 1897. “The Russell House Company,” 7 June.

————————–, 1897. “Opera House Decorations,” 14 July.

————————–, 1897. “At Work On The Scenery,” 18 August.

————————–, 1897. “With The Labor Men,” 21 August.

————————-, 1897. “An Up To Date Theatre,” 2 October.

————————-, 1897. “The Russell Offer,” 9 October.

————————-, 1897. “$200 For Fire Sufferers.”

————————-, 1897. “Up Goes The Curtain,” 16 October.

————————-, 1899. “The Russell Theatre,” 18 September.

————————-, 1899. “The Russell Theatre,” 23 September.

————————-, 1901. “The Theatre Fire,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Russell Theatre A Ruin Today,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Opposed To Rebuilding,” 9 April.

————————-, 1901. “Did Not Pay,” 10 April.

————————-, 1901. “Music And Her Devotees,” 13 April.

————————-, 1901. “Theatre To Be Rebuilt,” 13 April.

————————-, 1901. “Russell Will Open Oct. 7,” 25 September.

————————-, 1901. “The Theatre Is Completed,” 4 October.

————————-, 1901. “At The Theatre, Opening Of The Russell,” 8 October.

————————-, 1928. “Dumbells’ Review ‘Bubbling Over,’ A Delight In Music And Comedy,” 10 April.

————————-, 1928. “Five Firemen Hurt When Russell Block Is Prey To Flames,” 16 April.

————————-, 1928, “To Salvage Murals, Russell Theatre,” 22 June.

————————-, 1928. “Strip The Russell, Movable Objects,” 6 July.

Moogk, Edward and Kellman, Helmut, 2014, “The Dumbells,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/the-dumbells-emc/.

NGC Magazine, 2013. “Artists, Architects and Artisans Photo Gallery, 5 November, http://www.ngcmagazine.ca/exhibitions/artists-architects-and-artisans-photo-gallery/Maquette-for-the-Triumph-of-the-Drama-Russell-Theatre-Ottawa.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1901. “Theatre To Be Rebuilt, “13 April.

————————-, 1901. “The Russell Theatre, A Suggestion,” 12 April.

The Russell House Hotel

8 June 1863

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the centre of Ottawa’s social life was the Russell House Hotel that stood on the southeast corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets. It was a grand and stately hostelry that dated back to about 1845. Originally, the hotel was a three-storey structure with an attic and tin roof known as Campbell’s House after its first owner. Located in Upper Town close to the Rideau Canal, it was the main stopping point for people vising Bytown, later known as Ottawa. Its food and other supplies came from Montreal by river in the summer and overland by sled in the winter.

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The original Russell House Hotel, formerly Campbell’s Hotel, c. 1864, Library and Archives Canada, C-002567B

When Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as the capital of the Province of Canada in 1857, the future of the small community was secured. Its population soared after the Parliamentary and Governmental buildings were completed in the early 1860s, and civil servants and Members of Parliament decamped from Quebec City to Ottawa. Thinking ahead to the business opportunities that this influx of people would bring, Mr James A. Gouin from Quebec City bought Campbell’s Hotel. He renamed it the Russell House after the Russell Hotel in Quebec City where he had worked.

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Advertisement, The Ottawa Citizen, 17 July 1863

Advertisements dated 8 June 1863 appeared regularly in the Ottawa Citizen through the latter part of that year announcing that Gouin, the new proprietor of the Russell House, had completely repainted and refurnished “this commodious Establishment,” and that “on the 10th instant” would be ready to receive visitors. The hotel could accept twenty five to thirty boarders “at reasonable rates.”  The advertisement added that Gouin had been “connected for many years with Russell’s Hotel, Palace Street [Côte du Palais], Quebec.” This hotel, located just a few blocks from the provincial parliament buildings (now the site of Parc Montmorency), had been owned by the Russell family, Americans who had apparently settled in Quebec when it had been the centre of the lumber industry. Gouin later built the Caledonia Springs Hotel, a famous spa in eastern Ontario, and was appointed Ottawa Postmaster by Sir John A. Macdonald.

russell-hotel-james-grouin-1895-the-canadian-album

Mr James A. Gouin, First Proprietor and Manager of the Russell House Hotel, The Canadian Album, 1895.

Like its namesake at Quebec, the new Russell House Hotel was conveniently located at short stroll from Parliament Hill. It immediately attracted the great and powerful, becoming the home for many Members of Parliament, including Sir John A. Macdonald, in need of a place to live while the House of Commons and Senate were in session.  On Confederation Day, 1 July 1867, the Russell House was full, hosting prominent Canadians from across the country who had come to Ottawa to bear witness to that first Dominion Day, now known as Canada Day. Other prominent early guests included George Brown, the fiery Liberal MP. He was apparently staying at the Russell when he penned a complaint to Macdonald regarding the cost of building the Parliament buildings saying: Never mind expenses. Go ahead. Ruin the Country. Stop at nothing. Why not fountains and parks and gardens? It is also believed D’Arcy McGee, the Canadian nationalist and Father of Confederation who was assassinated in 1868 penned some of his poems at the Russell House Hotel.

russell-hotel-topley-studio-fonds-lac-pa008436

The Russell House Hotel, July 1893, Topley Studio Fonds/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008436.

The hotel was enlarged during the 1870s, with the “New Wing” erected on the Elgin Street side across from the Central Chambers (which still stand today). The hotel’s dining room was located in this wing. In 1880, the original Campbell’s Hotel building was torn down and was replaced by a new, larger, five-storey building on Sparks Street, built in the French Second Empire style, with shops located at ground level. Shortly afterwards, a final extension was made on the east side of the building towards what was then known as Canal Street. (Canal Street disappeared with the building of Confederation Plaza and the extension of the Driveway in 1928.) In the end, the hotel boasted more than 250 rooms.

The hotel reached its peak of popularity during the 1880s and 1890s, and was famous across the country as the place to stay while visiting the nation’s capital. The hotel’s manager, François Xavier St Jacques, who succeeded Gouin, was a living legend. Known as “the Count,” St Jacques was a great eccentric who greeted guests wearing high heel shoes that gave him an odd gait. Visiting Victorian luminaries, such as Oscar Wilde, Lilly Langtry, Lillian Russell, and the boxer “Gentleman” Jim Corbett were Russell House guests. Sir Mackenzie Bowell lived there for seventeen years, including when he was prime minister from 1894 to 1896. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was another long-term tenant, staying at the Russell for ten years before moving to Laurier House in 1897. The hostelry with its long bar and leather chairs was also the site of many political intrigues and debates over the decades, second only to the Parliament buildings themselves.

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Russell House Hotel Dining Room, May 1884, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-027059.

The Russell House Hotel, synonymous with Ottawa and renowned across the country for elegance and fine dining, was eclipsed by the Château Laurier Hotel when that hotel opened for business a short distance away in 1912. By then, the grand old lady had become worn and shabby. In 1923, several thousand dollars was spent upgrading the main entrance and the rotunda, but it was too little too late. By that point, the hotel was rat and cockroach infested.

At noon on 1 October 1925, the hotel closed for good, a victim of rising costs and declining occupancy rates. Paradoxically, bookings during the hotel’s last summer had been strong, with the hotel attracting both tourist and convention business; the Russell was the headquarters of the Dominion Trades & Labour Congress that year. But that was not enough to keep the venerable hotel from closing. On its last night, more than 150 guests were booked into the hotel. They had to take “pot luck” for supper in the cafeteria as food supplies were limited. In the rotunda, a number of old timers sat on battered chairs reminiscing about happier times. One hotel veteran was moved by the occasion to pen a poem entitled “Old Russell Farewell.” Its first verse went:

Adieu, adieu old rendezvous

With saddened hearts we’re leaving you;

‘Twas here friends were wont to meet;

Here argued we affairs of state,

How oft’ we talked long and late,

To make the other fellow know.

Ah! Life is but a passing show.

The next morning, with guests forced to seek their breakfast outside of the hotel, the place was virtually deserted. By shortly after noon, the only employee left out of a staff of 150 was a desk clerk tallying up the last day’s receipts. Gone also were the hotel’s “permanent” residents who had called the hotel home. One had been living at the Russell for thirty-three years.

Initially, its then owner, Russell L. Blackburn, planned to tear down the old hotel and replace it with a modern $1 million hostelry. However, Ottawa City Council balked at his demand to fix his property tax at $7,400 for twenty years. The empty building went into limbo, though the many ground-floor stores continued to operate until the Federal Capital District (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, expropriated the Russell block of buildings and torn them down as part of its efforts to beautify the capital. In its place, the FDC built Confederation Plaza in commemoration of the diamond anniversary of Confederation in 1927.

The FDC bought the hotel property and the adjacent Russell Theatre property for $1,270,379.15 (equivalent to roughly $17.7 million in today’s money). The deal was still incomplete when just before midnight on 14 April 1928, the hotel went up in flames in a massive fire. Virtually all of Ottawa’s available fire equipment, which at the time was still being pulled by horses, were called in to tackle the blaze. Five firemen were injured by falling debris and flying glass. The cause of the fire was never ascertained. There was a suspicion of arson as first responders found fires in various places on different floors. However, the fire marshal speculated that had the fire been due to an electrical fault, the fire could have easily spread through the walls and floors before the alarm was called in. Alternatively, the evening’s high winds could have carried embers from floor to floor through the hotel’s many broken and open windows.

russell-hotel-fire-samuel-j-jarvis-lac-pa-025085

Russell House Hotel after the fire, 1928, Samuel J. Jarvis/Library and Archives Canada, PA-025085.

Thousands of Ottawa citizens watched the firemen fight the blaze. Many were in evening clothes having just left parties and dances. Guests at the Château Laurier Hotel located across Connaught Plaza from the Russell watched the fire from the windows of their rooms. Other spectators arrived by car, with the best parking spots on Parliament Hill near the East Block. There, people watched in the comfort of their heated automobiles. Knowing that the building was slated for demolition, people cheered as the fire progressed. It reached its height at about 2.30am when the flag pole over the central entrance succumbed to the flames. At 4am, more than a thousand hardy spectators were still on hand despite the cold. The firemen were able to contain the blaze, and stop the conflagration from spreading to other structures. At one point Ottawa’s City Hall further down on Elgin Street was threatened. Ironically, the City Hall was to be destroyed by fire three years later.

russell-premieer-hat-co-1928-lac-mikan-4821789

The Premier Hat Company before the fire, 1928, Library and Archives Canada, Mikan 4821789.

Losses from the Russell Hotel fire were relatively modest given the scale of the blaze. The Hotel was insured for only $30,000, the low amount reflecting the fact that it was almost derelict and had been emptied of its contents. Some of the small, street-levels shops were not so lucky. “The Treasure House” owned by Herbert Grierson, which sold jewellery, pottery, paintings, china and leather goods, suffered losses of $15,000-$20,000, of which only $8,000 was covered by insurance. The Premier Hat Company lost $10,000 in stock but carried only $2,500 in insurance. Looters also walked off with dozens of hats; one was seen carrying seventeen. Although the owner, Mr Samuel Gluck, was on hand, he was unable to rescue his stock in time owning to difficulty in obtaining a moving truck. Eighteen crates of Persian and Chinese carpets worth $90,000 were also stored in the former cafeteria of the Russell on Elgin Street awaiting auction. Fortunately, the carpets escaped with only minor water damage. They were disposed of in a “fire sale” held a few days later.

With the hotel ruined, the authorities moved to clear the rubble. It took longer than expected with the city threatening legal action against the wrecking company if it didn’t hurry up. But at precisely 1.06 pm on Saturday 10 November 1928 the grand old Russell House Hotel, which had been the focal point of Ottawa social and political life for over sixty years, entered history. The last remnant to go was its 80-foot chimney. Recognizing the historic nature of the event, A. Brahinsky, a representative of City Iron & Bottle Company, announced the time of the pending demolition to allow citizens to come and watch the spectacle. Hundreds cheered as the chimney crash to the ground, brought down by heavy cables and a horse truck. There must have been a few tears, however. The Ottawa Journal commented that “there must be many among us who, as one by one the old landmarks go, feel little but loss of happy reminders of a brave and gracious past.”

Today, no trace of the old Russell House Hotel remains. The site of the hotel is now occupied by the War Memorial.

 

Sources:

Cockrane, William, Rev., 1895. The Canadian Album. Men of Canada; or Success by Example in Religion, Patriotism, Business, Law, Medicine, Education and Agriculture, Bradley Garretson & Co: Brantford,

Evening Journal (The), 1924. “Fixed Hotel Assessments,” 2 October.-

—————————, 1925. “Reached No Decision Over Hotel Request,    23 January.

—————————, 1925. “New Russell House Is Going Out Of Business After Being In Operation Over 50 Years,” 1 September.

—————————, 1925.  “Russell Hotel Comes To An End Of Long Career,” 1 October.

—————————, 1928. “Five Firemen Hurt When Russell Block Is Prey To Flames,” 16 April.

—————————, 1928. “Russell Hotel For 60 Years Past An Intimate Part Of City Life,” 16 April.

—————————, 1928. “Demolish Russell,” 9 November.

—————————, 1928. “Hundreds Watch Demolition of Big Chimney At Russell,” 12 November.

—————————, 1928. “The Old Russell House: Some Memories,” 13 November.

—————————, 1934. “Understanding Shown In Letters Between King, Ministry and Ottawa Concerning Beautification of City, 6 January.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1863. “Russell House,” 17 July.

————————-, 1925. “Russell Hotel Closes Doors: Passing of Historic Hotel Is Devoid Of Any Ceremony,” 1 October.

————————-, 1928. “Fire Will Help Park Scheme To Pass Commons,” 16 April.

 

A Free, Public Library

30 April 1906

While libraries have existed since the emergence of writing in Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt more than four thousand years ago, free, public libraries are a recent phenomenon, dating back only to the nineteenth century. Previously, libraries were the preserve of the Church, kings and wealthy private citizens—the small minority who were literate and had the resources to afford books. Mass education was viewed by elites with suspicion. It might lead people to question their station in life. In a largely agrarian society, knowing how to plough fields, grow crops, and raise livestock were deemed far more important skills for the common person than reading and writing.

Ideas became to shift during the industrial revolution. Social reformers started to advocate in favour of educating workers in order to advance science and reduce superstition. Increasingly, an educated workforce was seen as an economic blessing rather than a social curse. With thousands of men and women pouring into the cities seeking employment in those “dark satanic mills,” the Church and temperance supporters hoped that edifying lectures and libraries would reduce crime, and keep people out of bars and brothels during their (limited) time off. Starting from the early nineteenth century, mechanics’ institutes and literary and philosophical societies, often sponsored by wealthy industrialists, began popping up in the major cities of Britain. These institutions provided lectures on scientific subjects to their members, typically industrial workers and clerks, who could join for a small fee. They also operated libraries and reading rooms for the benefit of their members. In Britain, the Museums Act of 1845 allowed boroughs to raise funds to support museums and libraries for the edification of the general public.

Similar developments took place in Bytown, later Ottawa, albeit with a lag. Calls for a library to be established in Bytown started as early as 1837. Four years later, a small, circulating library opened for subscribers out of the offices of Alexander Gray, a jeweller and bookseller. Unfortunately, it apparently failed after only one year. In 1847, the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute was founded by the town’s leading citizens. In addition to uplifting educational lectures, the Institute provided a library for its members. Drawing principally upon the English-speaking community, the Institute was unable to attract sufficient members, and quickly became inactive. It was, however, revived in 1853 as the Bytown Mechanics’ Institute and Athenaeum (BMIA). Area Francophones established their own cultural institution, l’Institut canadien français d’Ottawa in 1852 that still exists today.

The new BMIA, which received an annual grant from the provincial government, did better than its antecedent. It too provided lectures, classes, a reading room and a small circulating library for its members initially out of the basement of the Congregational Church located near Sappers’ Bridge. By 1856, BMIA had a library of roughly 1,000 volumes, mostly academic works though there were a few novels as well. It also subscribed to British, French and American newspapers, journals and periodicals. In 1869, the BMIA merged with the Ottawa Natural History Society to form the Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society (OLSS). While the new organization continued to offer classes, held lectures, and maintained a growing library, its membership was drawn largely from the ranks of civil servants and industrialists rather than mill workers and labourers. Although a fine Parliamentary Library also existed in Ottawa, its use was also largely confined to the town’s elite rather than the working poor.

In 1882, the Ontario Government passed the Free Libraries Act, allowing municipalities to establish public libraries funded out of local taxes with the assent of the ratepayers. A number of cities across the province, including Toronto, took advantage of this new legislation and established public libraries for their citizens. In these cases, the libraries of local mechanics’ institutions were transferred to the new municipally-run libraries. In Ottawa, however, the new legislation had little impact.

During the early 1890s, the Ottawa Council of Women began to lobby for the establishment of a free library in the Capital. In February 1895, the Council, chaired by Lady Aberdeen, the wife of the Governor General, issued the following statement:

“Whereas the Local Council of Women of Ottawa feel that the establishment of a Free Library would be a benefit to the city, resolved: That this Council recommend that the subject be brought prominently before the public through the medium of the press and that a petition to the city council in accordance with the terms of the Free Libraries Act, be prepared for circulation by the Women’s Council.”

perley-building-topley-studio-fondslibrary-and-archives-canadapa-027381

The Perley mansion at 415 Wellington St was offered to the City as a home for a public library in 1896. Topley Studio Fonds/Library & Archives Canada, PA-027381.

In March 1885, the Council of Women submitted its petition to the city with 280 signatures (almost triple the number required by law). The city then prepared a draft by-law establishing a free library to be voted on by Ottawa ratepayers at the upcoming municipal elections. Ratepayers consisted of men over 21 years of age who owned property in excess of $400. Single women and widows who met the property requirement could also vote.  The Council of Women then launched an advertising campaign in support of a free library. With the support of Philip Ross, the editor of The Evening Journal, the Council of Woman published the “Woman’s Edition” of the newspaper in April 1895, with all profits of the edition going to a fund for the free library. In this edition, all the articles, stories and letters were written and edited by women. Front and centre were articles in support of a free library. The movement got a further boost when the heirs of William Perley, a lumber baron, offered the Perely mansion on Wellington Street as home for the new library.

However, the efforts of the women came up short. In the vote held in January 1896, the city’s eight wards all decisively turned down the idea of a public library, with the popular vote 1,958 for and 3,429 against. It seemed that cost of running a library, estimated at about $10,000 per year, was too steep for ratepayers. Instead of becoming a library, the Perley mansion became “The Perley Home for Incurables” until the land was expropriated by the Dominion government in 1912. (In the long run, the location did become a library; the site is now the home of Library and Archives Canada.)

The Council of Women did not give up, and continued to press the issue at city council. But councilmen, while supporting the idea of a free library, collectively continued to reject the idea as being too costly. In 1899, a draft by-law was defeated on second reading on a vote of 13-11. By the early 1900s, with over 400 public libraries in Ontario, Ottawa was looking decidedly backward.

carnegie-theodore-c-marceaulibraryofcongress

Andrew Carnegie, 1835-1919, Theodore C. Moreau, Library of Congress

Salvation came from the United States. In 1901, Otto Klotz, past president of the OLSS and husband of Marie Klotz who was a leading light in the Ottawa Council of Women’s fight for a public library, wrote Andrew Carnegie, the prominent, Scottish-born, American philanthropist for funds to build a free, public library in Ottawa. The day after Klotz sent his letter, Ottawa mayor W. D. Morris also petitioned Carnegie for funds. By this point, Carnegie had funded hundreds of libraries throughout the United States, Canada, and Britain. Within weeks of receiving the letters, Carnegie pledged $100,000 to pay for an Ottawa Public Library, if Ottawa found a site and if it would agree to spend not less than $7,500 per year in upkeep.

It took several years, however, to bring this about. First, the city hoped that the Dominion government would supply land for the library. When that didn’t happen, city council purchased a site at the corner of Laurier Avenue (then called Maria Street) and Metcalfe Street. Second, it took time to select the design by architect E. L. Horwood out of eleven plans submitted. Third, the project was almost derailed following publication of Carnegie’s views that the United States should annex Canada. But work proceeded. In 1905, council approved $15,000 for the purchase of books, of which $3,500 was spent on French books. Lawrence Burpee, former clerk at the Department of Justice, was selected as Librarian. In turn, Burpee hired an assistant librarian, a cataloguer, three assistants for the circulation desk, and a caretaker. To help expedite the huge task of cataloguing books, Burpee purchased ready-made index cards at a penny a card from the U.S. Library of Congress.

carnegie-library-canada-dept-of-mines-and-technical-surveyslibrary-and-archives-canadapa-023297

The Carnegie Library. Notice the stained glass window above the entrance, and the words “Ottawa Public Library” in raised letters on the lintel. Department of Mines and Technical Surveys/Library and Archives Canada, PA-023297.

Opening day was Monday, 30 April 1906. Carnegie himself was there for the big event. It was the great industrialist and philanthropist’s first visit to Canada. He came the day before via Toronto, where he had given a speech at the Canadian Club. He was met at the train station by Sir Sandford Fleming and the U.S. Consul General who conveyed him to Government House where he stayed on his short trip to Ottawa. The evening before the official opening, Carnegie was the guest of honour at a formal dinner at the Russell House Hotel. With the prime minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, at his side, Carnegie spoke extemporaneously about the union of English-speaking countries, especially the United States and Canada—his favourite hobby horse. Calling himself as a “race imperialist,” he dubbed Canada “the Scotland of America,” and disingenuously envisaged Canada annexing her southern neighbour, just as Scotland had “annexed” England, and “afterwards boss it for its own good, as Scotland did also.” [James VI of Scotland became James I of England at the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.] He also praised Laurier for maintaining Canada’s fiscal independence [from Britain] and for not being swept into the vortex of militarism [a dig at the British who were engaged in an arms’ race with Germany]. Despite Carnegie’s annexationist and racial views, Laurier replied graciously saying that he too was a “race imperialist,” and opined that the separation of England from her American colonies had been a “crime,” and hoped for re-union. He added that had he “not been born of French parentage, there was nothing he would have rather been than a Scot.”

For the official opening the next afternoon, the classical, four-storey library building was clad in Union Jacks, the Stars and Stripes and colourful bunting. Constructed at a cost of slightly less than $100,000, the building was made of Indiana sandstone. The central main entrance was bracketed by four Corinthian columns, two on either side. Above the entrance was a large stained glass window that featured famous authors—William Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, Lord Tennyson, and the Canadian Confederation poet Archibald Lampman. Overhead, on the lintel of the building, was inscribed the words “Ottawa Public Library” in raised letters. For the official opening, these words were hidden by bunting to avoid embarrassment as the official name of the building was “The Carnegie Library,” a name used by the Ottawa Public Library into the 1950s.

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Interior of The Carnegie Library looking towards the main entrance, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-009086.

The building’s interior walls were clad in Italian marble with beautiful red oak wooden flooring and wainscoting. In front of the entrance hung a portrait of Carnegie painted by Miss V. Fréchette, the daughter of Achille Fréchette the translator of the House of Commons, and Annie Howells Fréchette who edited the “Woman’s Edition” of The Evening Journal in 1895. The basement held classrooms, a newspaper room, a furnace room and the caretaker’s quarters. The ground floor was devoted to reading rooms to the right and left of the large lobby, the librarian’s offices, the stack room as well as the circulation desks. A marble and bronze staircase led upstairs to boardrooms, a reference department, a lecture room for 125 persons, staff offices, and a cloakroom.

After the customary welcoming speeches, Carnegie thanked the city and praised it for constructing such a fine building. He then reprised his speech on “race imperialism.” On a tour of the facilities, Carnegie was “waylaid” by a delegation of the St Andrew’s Society who gave the philanthropist an honorary membership to the Sons of Scotland of Canada. After the ceremonies, Carnegie left by train for Montreal, where he was granted an honorary degree at McGill University, and gave yet another speech on race imperialism before returning to New York.

The Carnegie Library was a great success. By the end of 1907, almost 20,000 library cards had been handed out, with an annual circulation of 129,000 books. So successful was it that the old Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society closed for good, its members flocking to the free services provided by the city. Before long, strong demand for the Library led to the establishment of branch operations. In 1916, Carnegie donated an additional $15,000 to build a western branch on Rosemount Avenue. It opened in 1919. This donation was the last Carnegie gave to Canada. He died in 1919 at the age of 83.

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Columns salvaged from The Carnegie Library, Rockcliffe Rockeries, 2016, by Nicolle Melanson-Powell

By the 1960s, the downtown Carnegie library was showing signs of age. Serious cracks had opened up in its walls and ceilings under the weight of the books it contained. In a time when little thought was given to heritage considerations, the beautiful, classic structure was demolished in 1971, a year after the gracious Capitol Theatre also succumbed to the wrecking ball. It was replaced by the current, Brutalist style, concrete building that was completed in 1974. The only thing retained from the old building was the stained glass window. The Library’s Corinthian columns were also saved and were reused as a “folly” in the Rockcliffe Rockeries.

Today, things have gone full circle. Plans are afoot to replace the current central library at 140 Metcalfe Street. Also, the aging Rosemount Branch, built a century ago using a Carnegie donation, is too small for current needs. Its future is now in doubt.

Sources:

Bytown Gazette & Ottawa Advertiser (The), 1841, “Circulating Library,” 9 December.

Carnegie Library (The), 1908. 3rd Report, Ottawa: The Ottawa Printing Co. (Limited).

Evening Journal (The), 1895, “Women In Council,” 4 February.

—————————, 1895. “Woman’s Edition,” 13 April.

—————————, 1895, “Free Library Law,”19 December.

—————————, 1896. “Just the Place,” 4 January.

—————————, 1896. “All Jumped On,” 7 January.

—————————, 1899. Free Library By-Law Killed, 5 December.

—————————, 1901. “Free Public Library for City of Ottawa, Carnegie to donate $100,000,” 11 March.

—————————, 1906. “The Program In Ottawa,” 28 April.

—————————, 1906. “The Carnegie Library,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Carnegie Library Formally Opened,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Reception of Library King,” 30 April.

—————————, 1906. “Ceremonies at the Opening,” 1 May.

—————————, 1967. “Old Library to Come Down,” 21 November.

—————————, 1969. “Funds, Weather, Moon Shot Blames for Library Woes,” 12

September.

————————–, 1970. “Library Cracks Up,” 8 August.

—————————, 1971. “Old Building Wrecked by Cohen’s, 24 September.

—————————, 1974. “Salute to the New Central Ottawa Public Library,” 8 May.

Gaizauskas, Barbara, 1990. Feed The Flame: A Natural History of The Ottawa Literary and Scientific Society, Carleton University, M.A. Thesis, https://curve.carleton.ca/b81c434b-04c8-4886-9c97-cfc1a560ff51.

Jenkins, Phil, 2002. The Library Book: An Overdue History of the Ottawa Public Library, 1906-2001, Ottawa: Ottawa Public Library.

Rush, Anita, 1981. The Establishment of Ottawa’s Public Library, Carleton University.

Urbsite, 2012. Unforgotten Ottawa, The Carnegie Library, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2012/09/unforgotten-ottawa-carnegie-library.html?q=Carnegie+library.

 

 

 

The Rideau Club Fire

23 October 1979

Ottawa’s history has been marked by major fires that have reshaped its contours. Most devastating were the massive conflagrations of 1870 and 1900 that twice destroyed much of the western suburbs of the capital, as well as large chunks of Hull on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. The mysterious and deadly fire of 1916 that gutted the Centre Block on Parliament Hill is also worthy of a “dishonourable” mention. Other historic buildings lost to flames include the Russell Hotel, destroyed in 1928 and the old City Hall, gone in 1931. The former stood at the corner of Elgin and Sparks Street, roughly where the War Memorial is located today, while the site of the latter is now Confederation Park on Elgin Street. A more recent calamity was the fire that consumed the Rideau Club building during the evening of Tuesday, 23 October 1979. The landmark building had one of the most prestigious addresses in the Capital, being located at 84 Wellington Street on the corner of Metcalfe Street, immediately across from the front gates of Parliament and right beside the then American embassy.

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Early photograph of the Rideau Club, corner of Wellington and Metcalfe Streets, Ottawa, Date unknown, likely circa 1910, William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-009225.

For those unfamiliar with the Rideau Club, it is unquestionably the senior, and most exclusive, private club in Ottawa. It was founded in 1865, two years prior to Confederation, by an act of the Province of Canada. The Bill, titled an Act to Incorporate the Rideau Club of the City of Ottawa, sailed quickly through both the Provincial legislature and the Legislative Council (the upper house of Parliament), spurred no doubt by the fact that more than two-thirds of the Bill’s sixty-three petitioners were parliamentarians. The Club was modelled after the British gentlemen’s club that had become very popular in Victorian London. Such clubs provided a haven for gentlemen, or aspiring gentlemen, seeking a quiet respite from home life and a place to entertain guests. The clubs were also useful for business meetings and networking. Although Ottawa in 1865 had lots of taverns and bars catering to its many loggers, there was little in the way of refined amenities. The capital was still a small, rough-hewed, shanty town that had been cut out of the wilderness only thirty years earlier. At a stretch, its population may have been about 18,000. But having been named the capital of Canada in 1857, and with the construction of the parliamentary and government buildings nearing completion, the town was welcoming an influx of parliamentarians and senior civil servants used to the creature comforts of Toronto, Quebec or Montreal. The Rideau Club was their way of bringing some of the finer things of life to the nation’s capital.

The Club’s constitution and rules drew heavily from those of Montreal’s St-James Club established in 1858, with its membership transcending language, religion and political barriers. Its initial membership list reads like a roll call of Canada’s notables of the time. First on the list of petitioners was none other than the Conservative John A. Macdonald, who at that time was the Premier of Canada West, and, along with Sir Naricisse-Fortunat Belleau, who was the Premier of Canada East, headed the last government of the Province of Canada before Confederation. Macdonald subsequently became the first Premier of the new Dominion of Canada following Confederation in 1867, receiving a knighthood for his work in uniting the British colonies of North America. Macdonald was to become the Rideau Club’s first president. Second on the list was George-Étienne Cartier, who had shared the premiership with Macdonald in an earlier Provincial government. Like Macdonald, Cartier was a “father of Confederation,” and was made a baronet by Queen Victoria for his role in founding the Dominion of Canada. Eight other “fathers of Confederation” were on that first membership list, including D’Arcy McGee, who was assassinated in 1868, George Brown, the fiery Reform leader who founded The Globe newspaper, the above-mentioned Sir Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau, and Hector-Louis Langevin who was later embroiled in the Pacific Scandal of 1873 involving bribes in the bidding for a national railway. Another founding member of the Rideau Club was John Sandfield Macdonald who also had been a former Premier of the Province of Canada. After Confederation, he became the first Premier of Ontario. Ottawa’s entrepreneurial elite were also represented on the initial Club subscription list. Robert Bell, the editor and owner of The Ottawa Citizen newspaper and Alonzo Wright, a lumber baron, were founding members.

The club’s first home was at 200 Wellington Street, the location of Doran’s Hotel, Ottawa’s leading inn at the time. In 1869, the Club moved to the Queen’s Restaurant, located at the eastern corner of Wellington and Metcalfe Streets, the site of the Langevin Building today named in honour of Hector-Louis Langevin. In 1876, the Club moved to the other side of Metcalfe Street when the Rideau Club Building Association acquired land for $4,000 from the famed Ottawa photographer, James Topley, and built a modest clubhouse. With the subsequent purchase of an adjoining lot, the building was enlarged on three occasions, the last in 1911, to meet the needs of the Club’s expanding membership. This building, with its front doors facing Parliament Hill, would be the Club’s home for 103 years.

Although the Club welcomed members from all political stripes, francophones, anglophones, Catholics and Protestants, it was strictly men only. Also like most private gentlemen’s clubs of the time, Jews were not welcome; anti-Semitism, though often subtly expressed, was widespread in Canada. Although the Club’s membership rules did not explicitly reject Jewish membership, the selection process for members effectively did so. Should a member propose a Jew for membership, it only required a small, anti-Semitic minority to anonymously block the application. Two rejections meant that an applicant was “blackballed” (i.e. barred) for life. It took almost one hundred years before the Club admitted its first Jewish members in 1964, a reform made possible be changing in the selection mechanism so that members were required to give reasons for vetoing an application.  Among the first Jewish members were Louis Rasminsky, the Governor of the Bank of Canada, and Lawrence Frieman, the owner of a major Ottawa department store and a prominent philanthropist. It took another fifteen years before women broke down similar discriminatory barriers. Jean Pigott, a former Member of Parliament and an adviser to Prime Minister Joe Clark became the first female member in the summer of 1979, just months before the Rideau Club was gutted by fire.

The fire, which destroyed the four-story edifice, began at about 5pm on the evening of 23 October 1979, a timing to which I can personally attest as I was outside the Rideau Club shortly after the fire was detected. I had been walking along Sparks Street after work on the way to W.H. Smith bookstore when I smelt an acrid odour as I approached the corner of Sparks and Metcalfe Streets. Seeing a curl of smoke coming off of the Rideau Club roof, I rushed to a gift shop on Metcalfe Street to use its telephone to raise the alarm. I was in the process of dialling when I heard the arrival of fire engines. Over the next several hours, I stayed to watch the unfolding drama from the safety of the Parliament Hill lawn, along with several thousand passersby, civil servants, and parliamentarians, including Prime Minister Joe Clark.

With the Club’s telephone lines dead, the fire was called in by a Club staff member who had gone to a Sparks Street clothing store to use their telephone. He had initially tried the neighbouring U.S. embassy, but got no response at the front door. At the time, there was only one member inside the Club, former Governor General Roland Michener who was eating toast and drinking tea while reading a newspaper in an upstairs sitting room. With considerable understatement, the Club’s bartender, Philip Sylvain, informed Michener that “there may be a slight fire,” and advised him to leave the building. After the hall porter help him to don his overcoat, the 80-year old former governor general made his way to the National Press Club for dinner where he created pandemonium when he informed journalists that the Rideau Club was on fire.

Apparently starting in the basement, near the elevator shaft, the blaze quickly spread through the building, its path facilitated by the building’s dry wooden interior coated by many layers of paint. Although the Club had recently been renovated, there were no sprinkler system. The cause of the fire was never clearly ascertained. Initial suspicions focused on the furnace boiler or faulty wiring, but Ontario’s Fire Marshall’s Office later rejected both possibilities. In the event, sixty fire fighters responded to the alarm with seven pumper trucks, three aerial trucks and two ladder trucks, as well as a squad truck and other emergency vehicles. Fifty policemen secured the scene and directed traffic, while an estimated 6,000 people looked on from Parliament Hill.

As night fell, the flames lit up the sky. At 6.20pm, the flag on the roof the Club caught fire. Shortly afterwards, the heavily-painted balcony burst into flame, spectacularly illuminating the structure. At the fire consumed the historic building, Rideau Club members, and indeed all of Ottawa, grieved. One member described the event as “going to the funeral of an old friend.” The building was completely gutted. Along with its meeting place, the Club lost priceless records, and many works of art, including two paintings by the famed Group of Seven artist, A.Y. Jackson. Surviving were some cutlery, plates, and seven 19th century Ottawa prints salvaged from the Ladies’ dining room. An Inuit soapstone carving used as a Billiard Trophy was also recovered from the wreckage. Amazingly, more than $10,000 worth of wine and liquor was additionally retrieved, having been stored in a cellar protected by thick, stone walls.

Also gone in the blaze were priceless artifacts housed in the National Capital Commission’s tourist centre located in a corner of the Rideau Club building. Lost treasures included 150-year old model of an 18th century fighting ship, tools used in the construction of the Rideau Canal during the 1820s, and a hand-woven tapestry. As well, tourist brochures worth $100,000 were destroyed.

With the wind blowing from the west, the Rideau Club’s immediate neighbour, the Beaux-Arts U. S. Embassy building constructed in 1931, avoided damage. A firewall and timely action by fire fighters also spared the adjoining Blackburn building at the rear. However, sparks and burning embers from the Rideau Club fire threatened the Langevin Building, home of the Prime Minister’s Office, on the eastern side of Metcalfe Street. Although the fire jumped the road, firemen were able to contain the blaze to the eastern roof of the Langevin Building, using a turret gun and two hand lines that pumped 750 gallons of water per minute onto the roof. As a precautionary measure, staff were evacuated and furniture and files were moved into the interior hallways. Even though the building was saved, the damage, estimated at $500,000, was extensive.

The next morning, Ottawa citizens awoke to the sight of a smoldering, burnt-out shell in the heart of their city. The cost of the fire was placed in the millions. Although Club members hoped that the exterior walls might be saved and the structure rebuilt, the government, which had expropriated the building in 1973, quickly concluded that the edifice was unsafe and beyond repair. With a pending visit by U.S. President Carter, the remains of the Rideau Club were demolished with almost unseemly haste three weeks after the fire.

Neither the Langevin Building nor the Rideau Club building were insured. When the government decided to expropriate the Rideau Club building to make way for a possible future Parliamentary building—an idea that was subsequently quashed owing to high costs—it had originally offered Club members a meagre $1.3 million in compensation. Taking the matter to Federal Court, Club members in 1980 were finally awarded $10.5 million, including interest, in compensation by Mr Justice James Jerome, one of the few Federal judges who was not a member of the Club.

Rideau Club site 2016

Site of the Rideau Club taken from the same angle as the earlier c.1910 Topley photograph, May 2016, Google Streetview.

After using the Chateau Laurier as an interim home after the fire, Club members applied their compensation money to purchase the fifteenth floor of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company building at 99 Bank Street, paying more than $5 million for the floor. An additional $3 million was spent on furnishings. From this penthouse floor, members have a fine view of the Parliament buildings and the surrounding Ottawa skyline.

Today, the site of the old Rideau Club building is an open square, featuring a stature honouring Terry Fox, the one-legged marathon runner who died from cancer in 1981 while attempting to run across Canada.

 

Sources:

Lynch, Charles, 1990. Up from the Ashes: The Rideau Club Story, Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

McCreery, Christopher, 2015. Savoir-Faire, Savoir Vivre: Rideau Club 1865-2015, Dundurn: Toronto.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1979. “Historic Rideau Club In Ruins,” 24 October.

————————-, 1979. “Priceless exhibits lost from NCC’s Collection,” 24 October.

————————-, 1979. “Flames Posed Security Worry,” 24 October.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1979. “Members could only watch and grieve,” 24 October.

————————–, 1979. “Fire cause puzzles investigators,” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Entire city block lay at wind’s mercy.” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club death marks changing face of Ottawa.” 25 October.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club blaze began near elevator.” 1 November.

————————–, 1979. “Rideau Club will crumble,” 7 November.

Province of Canada, 1865. Statutes, 4th Session of the 8th Parliament of Canada, “An Act to incorporate the Rideau Club in the City of Ottawa,” 29 Victoria, Cap XCVIII.

Monetary Matters

11 March 1935

At 10am on Monday, 11 March 1935, Canada entered a new monetary age. That day, the Bank of Canada, located at its temporary offices in the Victoria Building at 140 Wellington Street across the street from Parliament Hill, opened for business. It was supposed to have begun operations at the beginning of the month, but its opening was delayed owing to the late arrival of new Bank of Canada dollar bills from the British American Bank Note Company. The first governor of the new central bank was 37-year-old Graham Towers who previously had been a senior officer of the Royal Bank of Canada.

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Note1935

Dominion of Canada note, 1923 (upper), Bank of Canada note 1935 (lower). Initially, the Bank of Canada issued unilingual English and French notes. From 1937, notes became bilingual. Bank of Canada notes were smaller than Dominion notes.

As stated in the preamble of the Bank of Canada Act, which received royal assent the previous July, the job of the new financial institution was “to regulate credit and currency in the best interest of the economic life of the nation, to control and protect the external value of the national monetary unit and to mitigate by its influence fluctuations in the general level of production, trade, prices and employment, so far as may be possible within the scope of monetary action, and generally to promote the economic and financial welfare of the Dominion.”

More specifically, the Bank became the issuer of Canadian bank notes. It also assumed responsibility for the government’s foreign exchange and debt management operations, and the conduct of monetary policy. It additionally began to act as adviser to the government on economic matters. Consistent with these new responsibilities, the same day the Bank opened for business, the Dominion Notes Act, under which Dominion notes had previously been issued, and the Finance Act, hitherto used by the Department of Finance to conduct monetary actions, were repealed. Offices of the Receiver General of Canada across the country were also converted to agencies of the new Bank of Canada.

Under the Bank of Canada Act, the new central bank was given a monopoly on issuing Canadian paper currency. Previously, the Dominion government issued small-value notes ($1 and $2 bills) as well as very large notes used as reserves by the chartered banks. As well, each chartered bank issued its own bank notes in distinctive colours and designs. These private bank notes were widely accepted by the general public though they were not “legal tender,” an attribute reserved for Dominion notes. Chartered bank notes were convertible on demand into Dominion notes or gold. If a bank could not deliver on this promise, it failed. But Canadian chartered bank notes were very secure. In the event of a bank failure, the notes represented the first charge against the failing bank’s assets, ranking ahead of other liabilities, including deposits. Further protection was provided by a note protection fund akin to today’s deposit insurance fund. Notes of failed banks also earned interest from the day of the failure to the day the bank’s liquidator called in the notes for redemption. Following the establishment of the Bank of Canada, chartered bank notes were phased out over a ten-year period, ending a banking privilege that dated back to 1817 when the Bank of Montreal issued the first Canadian bank notes. The last private bank notes were issued in 1944, and were removed from circulation by 1950.

Prior to the establishment of the Bank of Canada, Canada had little in the way of an active monetary policy. The government didn’t adjust interest rates up or down in response to economic activity and price pressures. Indeed, for most of the previous century, excluding during World War I and the immediate post-war years, most countries, including Canada, were on the gold standard. Consequently, monetary policy was essentially on autopilot with the domestic money supply moving in tandem with flows of gold in and out of the country and the mining of gold. However, this strict monetary system proved unable to cope with the Great Depression. Starting with Great Britain in 1931, country after country abandoned the gold standard and floated their currencies. Canada, which had reintroduced the gold standard in 1926, followed suit by banning the export of gold in late 1931. Two years later, it officially left the gold standard; Canadian paper money was no longer convertible into gold at a fixed rate.

In theory, the move to a freely floating currency gave scope to the government to use monetary policy to fight the Great Depression. However, it lacked the knowledge and the tools to adequately do so. While the Finance Act introduced in 1914 at the outset of World War I allowed the Dominion government to lend to the chartered banks, in essence to act as a lender of last resort, advances under the Act were made solely at the request of the banks. The government had no means of forcing banks to borrow reserves, which would have expanded the money supply, other than through “arm-twisting.” The government could increase the so-called “fiduciary” issue of Dominion notes, that is to say the small issue of notes that was not backed by gold, but this would take an act of Parliament, a process that would take a long time to implement.

Although the Canadian banking system, unlike that of the United States, weathered the Depression without failures, slumping domestic economic activity and a great distrust of private banks fuelled importantly by farm foreclosures led to strong political pressures on the government to do something—its answer, the creation of a central bank. Additional impetus came from the British government that favoured the establishment of central banks in its overseas dominions and colonies.

In July 1933, the Conservative government of R.B. Bennett formed the Macmillan Commission to study the issue. Chaired by Lord Macmillan, a pro-central banking British jurist, the Commission comprised another five members: Sir Charles Addis, a former Bank of England director, John Brownlee, the premier of Alberta, and two Canadian bankers, Sir William White and Beaudry Leman. Its conclusion was never in much doubt. After only seven weeks of testimony in hearings across the country, the Commission came out 3-2 in favour of establishing a central bank, with the two Canadian bankers, concerned about losing their bank-note issuing privileges, dissenting.

Debate then moved to the House of Commons. Although the creation of a central bank was supported by most MPs, excluding certain members of the ruling Conservative Party with links to the banking industry, the focus of debate was on whether the Bank of Canada would be privately or publicly owned. During the 1930s, most central banks, including the Bank of England, were privately owned. The government favoured a privately-owned, widely-held central bank with limits placed on profits.  It contended that private ownership would distance the central bank from political interference, enabling the bank to “avoid pressure from particular interests.” Opposition parties rejected this view and called for a government-owned institution. In the event, the government got its way. When the Bank of Canada started operations in March 1935 it was a widely-held, private institution. Its directors were appointed by shareholders from diverse occupations. The only link to government was through the Deputy Minister of Finance who was appointed as an ex officio member of the Board. However, when Mackenzie King’s Liberals were voted back into office in 1936, the Dominion government took control of the Bank of Canada in two stages, fully nationalizing it in 1938.

Despite its creation to help address the effects of the Great Depression, the Bank of Canada did relatively little to counter the high level of unemployment and low prices in Canada during the pre-war years. The Bank Rate, (i.e. the interest rate that the Bank of Canada charged on loans to chartered banks) remained unchanged from the similar Advance Rate that the Government charged under the Finance Act. Initially, the Bank focused its energy in acquiring the staff necessary to operate a modern central bank. Its research abilities were also called upon by the government to provide advice on provincial finances and later on Dominion-provincial relations (the Rowell-Sirois Commission). Subsequently, with political events taking an ominous turn in Europe, the Bank began to prepare for war, laying the groundwork for the imposition of exchange controls that were introduced in September 1939.

$bankofCanadafinished

Bank of Canada, circa 1938. Note the stoppers in the urns on either side of the entrance patio. Associated Screen News Ltd. Bank of Canada Archives, PC300.5.78

Work also got underway in designing and building a new head office that met the specialized requirements of the new central bank, including secure vaults for storing securities and Canada’s gold reserves. In 1936, the Bank acquired property on Wellington Street across the street from the newly constructed Justice and Confederation Buildings. The design of the new Bank of Canada building, drawn by architect Sumner Davenport in co-operation with the Toronto architectural firm Marani, Lawson & Morris, was inspired by classical architecture then favoured by banks that provided a sense of stability and strength. Called “stripped classical” owing to its austere façade, the plain, grey cube of granite complemented the château-style government buildings across the street. Costing roughly $1 million ($17.5 million in today’s money), it was also comparatively cheap to build.

Between the plain pilasters that decorate the Wellington Street front of the building are panels of Vermont Verde antique marble decorated with bronze allegorical figures by Canadian sculptor Jacobine Jones. The figures symbolize the seven major industries of Canada in the 1930s: agriculture, construction, electricity, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, and mining. The front door, made of cast bronze, was designed by Ulysses Ricci, and features images of Greek coins. Amphorae stand on either side of the entrance terrace. These urns were very controversial. Deputy Governor J.A.C. Osborne, who had been seconded from the Bank of England, likened them to “very large bombs” that “suggest the next war.” Originally, the urns came with stoppers. But shortly after the building was completed, the stoppers were removed, apparently owning to complaints that they were too phallic for public viewing.

Bank staff moved into their new quarters in late April 1938. By the time World War II began the following year, the new head office was already inadequate to accommodate the growing number of Bank employees, owing to the Bank of Canada’s being given additional responsibilities for managing and enforcing Canada’s foreign exchange controls through the Foreign Exchange Control Board. To accomodate the central bank’s burgeoning staff needs,  wooden, temporary office buildings were constructed on the Sparks Street and Kent Street sides of the granite Bank headquarters.

BofCbyWladyslaw2009

Bank of Canada headquaters, 234 Wellington Street, circa 2009. The orignal granite building nestles within the glass towers and atrium designed by Arthur Erickson, by Wladyslaw, Wikipedia.

During the 1970s, these “temporary” buildings were finally demolished to make way for the Bank of Canada building that we know today. Vancouver architect, Arthur Erickson, in collaboration with the firm Marani, Rounthwaite & Dick, the successor firm to the original Bank architects, designed two twelve-story, glass towers on either side of the original granite building. The towers were linked to the centre block by four pedestrian bridges, and a glass atrium. The original building was also extensively renovated at that time though care was taken to preserve the original Art Deco front lobby, executive offices and board room.

In 2014, work began on extensive renovations to the Bank’s head office complex. At an estimated cost of $460 million, the renovations will upgrade the building’s heating, plumbing, ventilation and electrical systems, strengthen the structure to meet today’s seismic standards, enable the building to meet current health and safety requirements, update its security systems, and improve energy efficiency and environmental sustainability. The most prominent new feature of the renewed Bank complex will be a glass pyramid located at the corner of Bank and Wellington Streets that will house the public entrance to the Bank of Canada Museum. The construction and renovations are expected to be finished by 2017.

 

Sources:

Bank of Canada, 2005. The Bank of Canada: An Illustrated History, Ottawa.

——————-, 2007. More Than Money: Architecture and Art At The Bank Of Canada, Ottawa.

——————-, 2010. Light and Space: The Architecture of the Bank of Canada, http://www.bankofcanada.ca/multimedia/light-space-architecture-bank-canada/.

——————-, 2016. The Bank’s Head Office, http://www.bankofcanada.ca/about/bank-head-office/.

Bordo, M. and Redish, A., 1986. “Why Did the Bank of Canada Emerge in 1935?” NBER Working Paper No. 2079.

Fullerton, Douglas, 1986. Graham Towers And His Times, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Powell, James, 2005. A History of the Canadian Dollar, Ottawa: Bank of Canada.

—————–, 2009. The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges Confrontation and Change, Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Powell, James and Moxley, Jill, 2013. Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, Renfrew, Ontario: General Store Publishing House.

 

 

 

 

The Lord Elgin Hotel

19 July 1941

Across from Confederation Park on Elgin Street stands The Lord Elgin Hotel. Built in the French Chatêau style with a copper roof, and clad in the famous Queenston limestone from Niagara, the hotel has been an Ottawa landmark for 75 years. While conceived prior to the outbreak of World War II, the hotel was erected during the first half of 1941, helping to alleviate the shortage of affordable accommodation in the nation’s capital, made worse by an influx of thousands of service men and women. So urgent was the housing crisis, 1,000 tons of steel and 30,000 tons of other construction materials were appropriated for the hotel’s construction despite pressing war-related needs. The municipal government also provided considerable financial inducements to the owner of the building.

Lord Elgin Hotel, Phixed

The Lord Elgin Hotel by Phixed

According to John Udd, the President of the Ford Hotels Company that built and managed The Lord Elgin, the construction of a hotel in Ottawa had been his dream since 1930. However, it was the City of Ottawa that made the first overture in February 1939 when a delegation of city officials canvassed hotel chains in the United States and Canada with a view to finding a hotel company willing to build a modern, fireproof hotel in Ottawa. The delegation eventually chose the Ford Hotels group based in Rochester, N.Y. that operated major hotels in Toronto and Montreal as well as Buffalo, Rochester, and Erie in the United States. Serious negotiations were subsequently held between Udd and the federal and municipal governments in the spring of 1940 with a final agreement reached in July of that year. Udd is reported to have said that the “entire undertaking was conceived and determined at Laurier House [Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s residence] in the relatively short course of an informal interview.” King indicated Dominion support for the venture as long as the building was consistent with government plans aimed at beautifying the capital.

The City of Ottawa and Udd agreed that Ford Hotels would erect a hotel of at least 350 rooms, each equipped with a private bath or shower, at a cost of at least $900,000 in downtown Ottawa. Design upgrades to win the Prime Minister’s support plus other improvements brought the bill to $1.5 million (equivalent to roughly $23.5 million today). The hotel’s Elgin Street site was made possible when the Dominion government agreed to let a portion of the land to the Ford group for $5,000 per year with a 99-year lease. The contract also called for the edifice to have a “pleasing stone exterior,” and would be constructed using local labour and materials as far as possible. The room rates would start at a modest $2.50 per day for single occupancy and $3.50 for double occupancy.

The City furthermore agreed to provide a sizeable property tax break. The hotel’s assessment for tax purposes was fixed at one third of its normal assessed value for fifteen years. There was considerable opposition to this concession at City Council. Opponents noted that such concessions were not granted to the hotel chain for the construction of similar hotels in Toronto and Montreal. They also argued that a tax break would be unfair to competitors. However, the hotel’s supporters won the Council debate. They pointed to the amount of new construction spending that would be brought to the city as well as the hotel’s expected annual payroll. Although the property taxes paid to the city would be temporarily reduced, they would still amount to $15,000 per year. It was also hoped that the hotel would attract U.S. tourists to the capital, bringing with them much needed U.S. dollars—an important consideration during the war years when Canada was desperate for American currency to buy war materiel.

Once the contract was signed, attention turned to the name for the new hotel. Hundreds of names were proposed by the general public. Among the favourites were the “Kingsford,” a catchy combination of the Prime Minister’s name and the name of the hotel chain, the “Empire,” the “Tweedsmuir” after Canada’s much-loved Governor General who died in office in early 1940, the “Churchill,” after Britain’s Prime Minister, and “The Lord Elgin,” after James Bruce, the 8th Earl of Elgin, who was the governor general of the Province of Canada from 1847-54. The street on which the hotel was to be constructed was already named in his honour. The original idea for “The Lord Elgin” came from Ottawa resident C. Sheppard in a letter to the Ottawa Citizen’s editor. It was later championed at City Hall by Alderman H. P. Hill Jr. After two ballots, City Council’s Industry and Publicity Committee unanimously chose it for the new hotel. The name was subsequently approved by John Udd on behalf of the Ford Hotels Company.

The ink was scarcely dry on the contract when construction work began on the new hotel. Mayor Stanley Lewis turned the first sod in late September 1940. Its architects were Messrs Ross & Macdonald of Montreal, the successor firm that designed the Chatêau Laurier Hotel and Union Station a generation earlier. The main contractor was John Wilson of Ottawa. Following the erection of the hotel’s steel girders, which began at the beginning of January 1941, the building was constructed by skilled masons in six months. Each stone of the hotel was cut at the quarry to a pattern, numbered, and shipped to Ottawa for assembly like a big jig-saw puzzle. While most workers came from Ottawa, there was a shortage of masons, scores of whom were needed for the project. The contractor said that they “had to raise a cry to gather the old Scottish masons to a sufficient number for the job.”

By the end of February, work was sufficiently advanced to allow Prime Minister Mackenzie King to lay the cornerstone of the new hotel. At the ceremony, he praised the co-operation of all parties that had made the hotel possible. He also underscored the appropriateness of naming the hotel after Lord Elgin saying “few names in Canadian history were more associated with freedom that Lord Elgin.” It was during Elgin’s tenure as Governor General during the mid-nineteenth century that responsible government came to Canada. Elgin’s successful trip to Bytown, later called Ottawa, in 1853 also marked the first step towards the city being named Canada’s capital by Queen Victoria in 1857. King also thought it appropriate that the new hotel was located on the corner of Elgin Street and Laurier Avenue as it was Sir Wilfred Laurier that initiated plans to beautify the capital. The prime minister likened Elgin Street and its approach to the Parliament Buildings to Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Whitehall Street in London, and the Avenue Champs-Élysées in Paris.

At lunchtime on Thursday the 17 July 1941, the brand-new hotel was officially opened. Mayor Lewis had the honour of cutting a white silk ribbon that was bound around the four pillars of the hotel’s porte cochère that protected arriving guests from the elements. The mayor was handed the shears by the ten year-old daughter of the City’s controller, Chester Pickering, who did much to make the hotel a reality. The Prime Minister’s car then drove up to the hotel’s entrance to be met by civic officials and senior hotel officials, including John Udd, president of the Ford Hotels Company and Richard Ford, the company’s chairman of the board.

Inside, the prime minister unveiled two marble busts of the 8th Earl and Countess of Elgin and Kincardine that were donated to the Dominion by the 10th Earl with the intention that they be put on display in the new hotel that bore the name of his illustrious grandfather. The bust of Lord Elgin was made by William Behnes, while that of the Countess was by Amelia Hill. The busts were brought to Canada from the Bruce family home in Scotland on a Royal Navy warship. Afterwards, the prime minister and Mr Udd sent telegrams of thanks to the 10th Earl.  Mackenzie King then signed the hotel’s register as its first guest, followed by Mayor Lewis. Then came a celebratory lunch for one hundred guests in the dining room and a hotel tour.

Lord-Elgin-web-optimized

Bust of Lord Elgin, Replica in lobby of The Lord Elgin Hotel

 

The Lord Elgin was designed with relatively few of the facilities commonly expected in a hotel of this calibre. Hotel management stressed that there was no ballroom or grill, and that the “beverage rooms” were of modest scale aimed to serve the needs of its transient residents rather than compete with existing bars and restaurants in the city. Room service was provided, however, by Murray’s Lunch, a new, independent restaurant that could be accessed through the hotel’s premises as well as from the street.

Entering the lobby on the ground floor of the twelve-storey hotel, one could find directly ahead, the registration desk, an information desk and a cashier’s wicket. To the right of the entrance was a newsstand and a passageway to Murray’s Lunch and the bank of elevators. To the left was a travel and transportation desk, along with a corridor to a convention room, beverage rooms, and the barber and hair salon. The “men’s” beverage room had a club-like atmosphere, and could accommodate 150 persons. It was furnished with settees and light-coloured furniture. The table tops were blue with a mark-proof veneer. The “ladies’” beverage room was larger, holding 250 persons. Its colours were grey, mauve and orchid. Both beverage rooms were air-conditioned.

Lady-Elgin-web-optimized

Bust of Lady Elgin, Replica in lobby of The Lord Elgin Hotel

The hotel boasted 371 private guest rooms, each with private washrooms, located on the second to twelfth stories. The lower stories each had forty-six guestrooms, while upper level floors had either thirty-one or sixteen larger guestrooms or suites. Rooms were decorated in three colour schemes, with matching drapes and appointments. The lower three guest floors were decorated in blue-grey and dusty rose, the next four floors were in mauve and dusty rose, while the upper floors were in suntan buff and ivory. Drapes had a matching floral design. Instead of antiseptic white, the bathrooms were painted a suntan buff with ivory baked enamel walls. For the comfort of the guests, the bathroom floors were made of rubber rather than tile. Guestrooms were furnished in natural oak, with four armchairs. The hotel noted with pride that beds were five inches longer than usual with a reading lamp mounted onto the headboards. Each room was also equipped with a radio built into the telephone stand. Residents had their choice of two channels. Each room door was equipped with an indicator to alert the maid to whether the room was occupied. Although guestrooms were not air-conditioned, they had casement windows with extension hinges that the hotel claimed induced air currents to enter the room regardless of wind direction. Doors were also equipped with “peek-proof” ventilators.

On opening day, The Lord Elgin had a staff of 225, most of whom were women, with a payroll of roughly $200,000 per annum. Indicative of the close relationship the hotel had with the municipal government, both the hotel’s manager, Redverse F. Pratt, and the night manager, Gerald Cherry, were both previously employed by the Ottawa Tourist Bureau. Chester Pickering, member of the Ottawa’s Board of Control, later joined the hotel’s board of directors.

In 1949, the Ford Hotels Company was acquired by the Sheraton Group of hotels. Shortly thereafter it was reported that Sheraton Hotels had sold The Lord Elgin to a group of Ottawa and Montreal businessmen. President of the new company was Mr P. H. Bruneau of Montreal. Chester Pickering was named vice-president. The hotel subsequently changed hands several times. The Lord Elgin has been owned by Ottawa’s Gillin family since 1987.

In 2003, the busts of Lord and Lady Elgin were moved to Rideau Hall for an exhibit on the contribution the Earl made to Canadian culture and democracy. They were never returned despite entreaties from the hotel.  Government officials argued that the busts were only “on loan” to the hotel, and could be moved at any time. The hotel replaced the busts with replicas. Possibly to make partial amends, the National Capital Commission loaned a portrait of Lord Elgin to the hotel in 2015 to help celebrate the hotel’s 75th anniversary. Previously, the painting had hung in Rideau Hall. The portrait, which was purchased by Lord Grey, a later governor general, in 1907 is believed to have been painted at the beginning of the 20th century by an unknown artist in the style of Sir Francis Grant. The portrait is currently on display in the hotel’s lobby.

 

Sources:

Boswell, Randy, 2016, The Lord Elgin Hotel, Mackenzie King’s capital vision and birth of a landmark, Lord Elgin Hotel, February, http://lordelginhotel.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/109930_LEH_BookFeb18.pdf.

Gazette (Montreal) The, 1949, “Lord Elgin Hotel Sale Is Announced,” 19 December.

—————————-, 1950. “Lord Elgin Hotel Purchasers Named,” 12 January.

Lord Elgin Hotel, 2016. A historic landmark in downtown Ottawa, http://lordelginhotel.ca/hotel/history/.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1941, “The Lord Elgin Hotel,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Former Director of Ottawa’s Civic Publicity Appointed Hotel Manager,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Co-operation of Municipality Is Eulogized by Premier King,” 19 July.

————————, 1941. “All Available Space Above First Floor Guest Rooms,” 19 July.

————————, 1941. “400 Guest Rooms In The New Lord Elgin Designed For Rest and Comfort,” 19 July.

————————, 1941. “All The Most Modern Features Are To Be Found In The Lord Elgin,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Stones Of New Hotel Fitted Together As If A Huge Jig-saw Puzzle,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Ottawa Aldermen And Civic Officials Opened Negotiations For New Hotel,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Construction Work Completed In Little More Than Six Months,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Murray’s Lunch In The Lord Elgin,” 19 July.

————————-, 1941. “Many Suggestions Put Forward Before Name Selected by Civic Committee,” 19 July.

————————-, 2011. Sculptures of Lord and Lady Elgin Have moved from Hotel to Rideau Hall, 20 February.

————————-, 2016, “Expectations of Grandeur: The Lord Elgin Turns 75,” 3 March.

Petchloff, Tom, 2015. “Lord Elgin to undergo major renovations as it celebrates its 75th anniversary, Ottawa Business Journal, 29 February.

Images:

The Lord Elgin Hotel, by Phixed, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Elgin_Hotel.

Lord Elgin, 2016, by James Powell

Lady Elgin, 2016 by James Powell

 

 

The Heron Road Bridge Disaster

10 August 1966

Heron Road forms part of one of the busiest, east-west arteries in Ottawa. The four to six lane, divided thoroughfare runs from Walkley Road in the east, crosses the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal, where it becomes known as Baseline Road, and ends at Richmond Road in the west. Of the thousands of commuters that use the road each day, few are probably aware that the bridge over the river and canal was the location of the worst industrial accident in Ottawa’s history. On 10 August 1966, a span of the Heron Road Bridge, which was then under construction, collapsed while 60 workmen were pouring concrete on a segment of the southern, eastbound roadway. Seven men were killed on the scene, crushed under tons of falling concrete. Another man died later than day, while a ninth victim succumbed to his injuries a month after the horrendous accident. A further fifty-seven men were injured, many severely. Victims were trapped in a horrifying mess of solidifying concrete, tangled ironwork and splintered wood that made extracting them difficult.

Picnickers who had been listening to a rock n’ roll band in nearby Vincent Massey Park that hot, sultry afternoon, described the collapse of the bridge as sounding like a low-flying, jet airplane. So great was the impact that the seismograph at the Dominion Observatory three kilometres away on Carling Avenue registered the event at 3.27pm. Some eyewitnesses likened it to an exploding bomb. The loud roar of the collapse was accompanied by a large cloud of dust thrown up into the air.

Heron Bridge

Heron Road Bridge After The Collapse, 1966

Immediately, passersby, police, workmen from nearby work sites, and firemen descended on the disaster scene to help rescue the casualties, many digging in the wet concrete using only their bare hands. There was blood everywhere. Aiding the injured was perilous; a slab of semi-hard concrete overhung the disaster site. The Civic Hospital set up a triage station, with the injured ferried to hospital by ambulance, trucks, and police cars. Disaster relief continued after dark; in the early hours of the following morning, a heavy rain made rescue conditions even more treacherous. On the scene throughout the recovery operations was Ottawa’s Mayor Don Reid. Rev. Georges Larose, the Ottawa Fire Department’s chaplain, comforted survivors, and administered the last rights to victims as they were recovered. The Salvation Army distributed sandwiches, coffee, and cold drinks.

One survivor, Jorge Veiga, was stuck in wet concrete up to his neck. Rescuers carefully washed the hardening mess that threatened to suffocate him from his nose and mouth with water, while welders cut through the iron reinforcing rods that trapped his body. A bucket brigade was organized to keep the metalwork cool enough that the heated metal from the blow torches didn’t burn him. Thankfully he was successfully extracted without his rescuers having to resort to amputation as earlier feared. Another worker, Thomas Daly, was impaled, and was transported to hospital with an iron rod protruding from his arm. Fate was capricious. A nineteen-year old man amazingly survived the sixty foot fall from the bridge with only a slightly injured arm; his glasses landed beside him intact.

Work on the Heron Road Bridge had commenced early the privious year. In February 1965, the City of Ottawa signed a contract with Beaver Construction (Ontario) for the construction of footings for the reinforced concrete piers on which the Heron Street Bridge would rest. This work was successfully completed without mishap by June 1965. The contract for building the two three-lane bridges, (the northern bridge for west-bound traffic and the southern bridge for east-bound traffic), each 877.5 feet long made of pre-stressed concrete, was awarded to O.J. Gaffney Ltd in August 1965. The City of Ottawa also hired the firm M.M. Dillon & Company Ltd as consulting engineers to help design and supervise the Heron Bridge Project.

Work began in the fall of 1965 starting at the western end of the twin bridges. Each bridge was divided into four spans—PT1N (meaning post-tensioned, 1st span, north bridge), PT2N, PT3N, PT4N, and PT1S, PT2S, PT3S, PT4S for the south bridge. The concrete used to construct each span of the bridge decks was poured in two layers.  By August 1966, the western half of the twin bridges (PT1N, PT2N and PT1S and PT2S) was essentially complete. The contractor had also constructed the wooden falsework (the temporary supporting structure or scaffolding) to support the eastern spans (PT3N, PT4N, PT3S, and PT4S) as they were built. A month prior to the accident, the first layer of concrete, 217 feet long by 50 feet wide, had been poured over spans PT3N and PT3S. Disaster struck while the second layer of concrete was being poured on span PT3S. According to the Ottawa manager of M.M. Dillion, the consulting engineers, as workers poured the concrete starting from the centre of the span moving east, the single-layer section of the span that overhung the western end of the span flipped into the air, pancaking onto the rest of the bridge, bringing it down.

Immediately, the Ontario Government launched an inquiry into the disaster. Ontario’s supervising coroner Dr H.B. Cotnam hired the engineering firm H.G. Acres Ltd to assist him in his investigation of the causes of the collapse. The focus of the inquest was the factors that led to the death of Clarence Beattie, a foreman who died in the collapse, though the inquiry’s findings were applicable to all nine fatalities. A five-member Coroner’s jury met in late November 1966 to hear the conclusions of the investigating engineers, and to listen to the testimony of witnesses. Jury members quickly focused on the strength and stability of the wooden falsework used to support the bridge while the concrete spans were being poured. Of particular interest was whether the falsework, which lacked diagonal, longitudinal bracing, was able to support the bridge while under construction. The overwhelming consensus of professional opinion was to the contrary. To help demonstrate the weakness of such a design, Prof. Carson Morrison, head of the department of civil engineering at the University of Toronto, demonstrated the relative strength of braced and unbranced falsework using two wooden models.

After seven days of testimony from H.G. Acres Ltd and other witnesses, the jury reached its verdict. It concluded that Clarence Beattie died from being crushed, his injuries due to the failure of the falsework, and his subsequent entanglement in steel bars and cement. The jury also concluded that the failure of the falsework was due to the absence of diagonal, longitudinal bracing. Indeed, the jury contended that the falsework had been technically inadequate to even support the first layer of concrete that had been poured a month prior to the disaster. The jury also pointed to secondary factors, including the use of poor quality lumber in the construction of the falsework, as well as the differential settling of footings, and a temporary overloading of certain posts. However, the jury concluded that these secondary factors would not likely have caused the falsework structure to fail. The jury blamed both O.J. Gaffney, the construction firm, and M.M. Dillion, the firm of consulting engineers, for the bridge’s collapse.

As with all disasters, the Heron Road Bridge failure reflected a number of things that had gone wrong, any one of which if caught earlier might have averted the bridge’s collapse. Most importantly, there was confusion over the design of the falsework. There had been three different sets of plans owing to changes demanded by the consulting engineers. Although the second draft plans of the falsework had contained diagonal longitudinal bracing, the third set did not. Testimony at the inquiry indicated that the consulting engineers viewed the third design plan as supplementary to the second design plan, whereas the construction team viewed the third design plan as complete.

There was also conflicting testimony about the falsework itself. Robert McTavish, the chief engineer of the construction firm, testified that the bracing had been dropped from the third design plan following discussions with Victor J. Bromley, the project engineer from M.M. Dillion, since a different “system” had been included as a substitute. This system was not, however, included in the final plans which McTavish approved, nor was it built.  Bromley, on the other hand, denied that he ever agreed to the removal of the diagonal, longitudinal bracing.

Regardless of who was right, neither McTavish nor Bromley had an adequate explanation for why they both failed to notice that the falsework was inadequately braced. McTavish said “he was interested in something else.” Bromley held himself “guilty” for not noticing the absence of the bracing despite regular visits to the work site. He testified “I didn’t notice it. I can’t explain it. My mind must have been confused at the time.”

Heron Bridge today

Heron Road Bridge, Looking West, cirica 2012

While city and provincial safety inspectors had noted the absence of diagonal longitudinal bracing in the falsework structure when they had been taken on a tour of the worksite by an engineering student who had been recently hired by the construction company, they had been satisfied with the student’s response that the falsework design had been approved by qualified engineers. “If it’s good enough for them (the consulting engineers), it’s good enough for us,” the inspectors were reported to have said. They did not to raise their reservations with their superiors, or with qualified engineers from either the construction firm or the consulting engineering firm. Later, it came out that neither inspector was a trained engineer. Moreover, they had been instructed not to question decisions made by professional engineers.

Despite the jury’s findings of human error, it may not have discovered the root cause of the disaster. Behind most cases of human error lies a design error says Don Norman, Professor of Applied Psychology at the University of California, San Diego. Several issues may not have been sufficiently probed. Why, for example, did the many professional engineers employed by the construction firm and the consulting engineering firm fail to spot the design flaw in the plans for the falsework? Why did they subsequently fail to spot the absence of adequate falsework bracing despite on-site supervision and frequent inspections? With so many engineers involved, was it a problem of “if everybody is responsible, nobody is responsible?” Was it difficult for one professional engineer to question the work of another? Why did the city and provincial safety inspectors fail to report their concerns about the absence of diagonal, longitudinal bracing to their superiors? Did they see themselves as being inferior to professional engineers, and hence unqualified to raise concerns? Were the safety systems put in place to avert disaster themselves flawed?

The jury made a number of recommendations to reduce the possibility of future disasters. It recommended that there be a clear definition of the responsibilities of the building contractor and those of the consulting engineers. In addition, it advised that approved design and construction drawings for falsework be stamped by a qualified civil engineer, and that safety inspectors be better trained, and be required to make written reports regarding any area of the falsework which in their personal opinion was inadequate. The jury also urged that graded lumber be used in building falsework, and that a mandatory building code be developed by the province of Ontario for the construction of bridges and falsework.

The collapse of the Heron Street Bridge led to major improvements to Ontario’s building code. Robert McTavish, the chief engineer of O.J. Gaffney, the building contractor, and Victor J. Bromley, the project manager from M.M. Dillion, the consulting engineering firm, were both suspended from practicing as engineers in Ontario by the Association of Professional Engineers of Ontario for a period of one year. Bernard Houston, the chief estimator for Gaffney, who took responsibility for the majority of the design calculations for the bridge, was reprimanded. O.J. Gaffney was found guilty on two charges levelled under the Construction Safety Act, and was fined $5,000, the maximum penalty under the law at that time. The widows of the nine men who died in the Heron Bridge collapse received lump-sum compensation of $300 each (a little over $2,000 in today’s money), and a widow’s allowance of $75 per month, and an additional $40 per month for each child.

In 1987, the Canadian Labour Congress dedicated a memorial to those who lost their lives in the collapse of the Heron Street Bridge. The memorial, which lists the names of the nine workers who died in the disaster, can be found in Vincent Massey Park, close to where the fatal accident occurred.

 

Sources:

Kardos, G. 1969. Heron Road Bridge, Engineering Case Library, Leland Stanford Junior University, California, https://archive.org/details/ECL-133.

Globe and Mail (The), 1966. $250,000 estimated as compensation cost,” 20 August.

————————–, 1967. “Bridge builder charged in Heron road collapse”14 Janaury.

————————–, 1968. “Two suspended in fatal collapse of new bridge.” 27 January.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1966. “Engineer Takes Blame,” 24 November.

————————–, 1966. “Bridge mock-up is sent crashing at inquest,” 25 November.

————————–, 1966. “Inquest jury pins blame on two firms,” 30 November.

————————–, 2006. “The day the bridge came tumbling down.” 5 August.

Montreal Gazette (The), 1966. “Nine Dead in Ottawa Disaster, 11 August.

Norman Don, 2013. The Design of Everyday Things,” New York: Basic Books.

Winnipeg Free Press, 1966. “Span that collapsed at western end of the eastbound lane between two 60’ abutments that remained intact,” 11 August.

Images:

Heron Road Bridge after the collapse, 1966, Workers’s Heritage Centre, http://whc-cpo.ca/albums/heron.html.

Heron Road Bridge, Looking West, circa 2012, Pomerleau,  http://www.pomerleau.ca/construction-contractor/Projects/555/49/Heron-Road-Bridge-Reconstruction.aspx.