Ogilvy’s

18 November 1887

Once upon a time, Ottawa was the home of many high-quality, independent department stores. The discriminating shopper had a choice between Devlin’s and Murphy-Gamble on Sparks Street and Freiman’s, Ogilvy’s, Larocque’s, and Caplan’s only a short walk away on Rideau Street. However, one by one, they succumbed to changing tastes and the formidable competitive power of the national chain stores, such as Simpson-Sears, Eaton’s and The Bay. The last to fall was the doyen of the group—Ogilvy’s. The store, which could not compete with the opening of the glitzy Rideau Centre in 1983, was sold in 1984, lost its name in 1989, and was shuttered for good in 1992. 

Advertisement, Ottawa Daily Citizen, 18 November 1887.

Ogilvy’s began operations on 18 November 1887 at 92 Rideau Street near Mosgrove Street, now roughly the location of the Rideau Centre. Its proud owner was Charles Ogilvy, a devout, Scottish-born Presbyterian, who was only 23 years old at the time, but already had twelve years’ experience in the dry-goods business, working for the firm Elliott & Hamilton in Ottawa.  His small shop measured only twenty by thirty feet, and employed two others besides himself—Bob Halkett, a clerk, and John Pittaway, the messenger boy.

From those humble beginnings, the store, originally known as Charles Ogilvy’s, prospered under its “one-price” policy. It quickly became respected for its truth in advertising and the attention it paid to customers. Charles Ogilvy and his two colleagues worked long hours. Pittaway arrived at 7:30 am each day to sweep out the shop, refresh the displays and otherwise get the shop ready for business. The store stayed open late at night, even past midnight, to accommodate shoppers dropping in to pick up items that had been set aside for them earlier in the day. This close attention to customer service paid off. Within a year, the firm had expanded to include 94 Rideau Street next door. And by 1900, it had grown further to encompass 96 and 98 Rideau Street as well.

Charles Ogilvy, circa 1901, Library and Archives Canada.

In 1903, Charles Ogilvy bought the Doran property, then occupied by a number of shacks, at the corner of Rideau and Nicholas Streets for $17,500 in anticipation of future expansion. The site was considered to be one of the best commercial properties in Lower Town. Ogilvy’s dream was realized four years later when he constructed a new store on this site. The modern, three-storey, steel and concrete building was designed by Ottawa architect Werner E. Noffke of the firm Messrs. Northwood & Noffke. Before designing the structure, Noffke visited similar stores across Canada and the United States for the latest ideas. Noffke chose a classical design for the new department store with simple Grecian accents. Its external cladding consisted of buff-coloured brick with trimmings of Indiana limestone. The building’s biggest innovation was the large display windows that lined Rideau and Nicholas Streets. Its interior fittings were of a rich, golden oak.

Charles Ogilvy’s moved to its new premises at 126 Rideau in August 1907. On the ground floor was a large men’s wear department, a special counter for the “justly celebrated Ladies’ Home Journal Patterns,” silks, gloves, hosiery, underwear, ladies’ neckwear, ribbons, laces, and embroidery. Customers had their choice of taking a broad staircase or an elevator up to the second floor where the Ladies’ Ready-to-Wear Department was located. Also on that floor women could purchase corsets and “whitewear.” As well, fashions for infants and children were located on this floor as were home furnishings. The third floor housed dress-making rooms for those people who might have purchased patterns and fabric on the ground floor. Reserve stock was stored in the basement, also the location of lockers and staff toilets.

In 1908, the store was incorporated as a limited liability company, with the new firm known as Charles Ogilvy Ltd. The share capital of the company was $150,000 divided into 7,500 shares with a par value of $20. Ogilvy gave shares to some of his long-time employees, including William McGiffin, and John Pittaway, the company’s former messenger boy twenty-one years earlier. Pittaway later became a director of the firm and the superintendent of the store’s operations.

Drawing of the new Ogilvy building by Werner Noffke, Ottawa Journal, 12 May 1906

Ogilvy’s continued to prosper, with an extension added to the rear of the building to Besserer Street in 1917. This addition effectively doubled the floor space of the firm. Later, Charles Ogilvy bucked the Great Depression, adding a fourth floor to the business in 1931 and a fifth in 1934. A parking lot was also purchased near the store in 1938 to accommodate 100 cars. A cafeteria was set up on Besserer Street for employees in 1947, where lunches could be had at cost or less along with coffee, cold drinks and sandwiches for staff during their morning and afternoon breaks.

The expanding store offered a wide range of additional departments and services, including workshops for upholstery and fur coats, a power tool shop, a “Sportsman’s Lodge, a full-range furniture store, and an electrical department, offering the latest innovations in home appliances, such as electric refrigerators, ranges and vacuum cleaners, with specially trained staff on hand to help guide the customer in the use of her new purchase.

Much of Ogilvy’s success was due to the firm’s treatment of its employees which rose in numbers from three in 1887 to more than 600 by 1953. Staff were treated well, especially through the dark years of the Great Depression when not one person was let go. Service people were also given half pay while in the armed forces, with a job guaranteed for them on demobilization. Moreover, Charles Ogilvy gave shares in the firm to long-time employees. Indeed, the department store became owned by its employees after Ogilvy’s death in 1950. Employees were additionally given a benefit package far superior to that offered by most enterprises at the time, including a group life and health insurance plan, a retirement annuity plan, and a shorter work week to permit better work-life balance. Employees were also members of The Employees’ Club of Charles Ogilvy, or the “ECCO Club” for short, which hosted sporting and social events and even had a recreation centre on the Rideau River. The company had a hockey team for a time called the Ogilvy’s Dry Goods Earthquakes.

Charles Ogilvy died in January 1950, leaving a relatively small estate of less than $300,000. His chief beneficiary was his second wife, Elizabeth Johnstone Kennedy Ogilvy, who he had married in 1947. (His first wife of many years, Elizabeth Roby Addison, had died in 1946.) He also left shares in Ogilvy’s to key employees, including to the faithful John Pittaway who was still attached to the firm. A provision of his will left the family residence at 488 Edison Avenue to his wife for her use until her death after which it would be given to Charles Ogilvy’s Ltd as a rest and convalescence home for employees. Also after the death of his wife, the residue of his estate was to be divided equally among Ottawa charities, including the May Court Club, Union Mission, the Victorian Order of Nurses, the Ottawa Day Nursery, the Salvation Army, the Lady Grey Hospital, the Perley Home, and the Ottawa Association for the Blind.

The department store continued to flourish after Charles Ogilvy’s death through the 1950s and 1960s. The Ogilvy’s Annex, a two-storey addition on the western side of the main building, was added in 1960. Two new outlets were opened at Billings Bridge and at Lincoln Fields, and staff increased to 700-800 persons. However, in 1969, Ogilvy’s main store on Rideau Street suffered a major fire with damages estimated at $1.2 million. The store lost its entire stock and was closed for close to three weeks. Other retail outlets were also affected by the three-hour blaze including Trudel Hardware, Classy Formal Wear and the Guardsman Restaurant.

While Ogilvy’s recovered from this blow, the store then began to feel the competitive pressures from the big nation retail chain stores that entered the Ottawa market in the early 1970s. Profitability declined. But the big blow came in 1983 with the opening of the Rideau Centre just a few steps to the west of Ogilvy’s main store. After posting a profit of $482,000 on sales of $23.2 million in 1982, Ogilvy’s lost $280,000 on sales of $25.4 million in 1983. The firm never returned to profitability.

After months of dickering, the 240 shareholders of Charles Ogilvy Ltd. sold the business outright to Joseph Segal and his partner John Levy, the owners of Robinson’s, a regional department store chain based in Hamilton, Ontario. The price was $10.9 million, of which $10 million represented the value of the Rideau Street main store. This valued the business along with its inventory at less than $1 million. The shareholders, mostly store employees, did well out of the deal. They received $87 per share, half in cash and half in preferred shares in Robinson’s payable in full by 1989. This compared to $20-25 they had paid for their shares originally.

The closed Ogilvy building on Rideau Street, 2005 by SimonP, Wikipedia Commons

Segal and Levy immediately sold the Rideau Street main building for $10 million to a subsidiary of Comark Inc., the operator of high-fashion ladies’ fashion stores. The Ottawa retail business, now called Robinson-Ogilvy, was consolidated onto the first two floors and the basement of the Rideau Street building, which the firm rented on a long lease from Comark. The upper floors were rented out to other businesses. The Robinson’s chain also invested $2 million in upgrades to attract a more youthful clientele.

The investment failed. In 1986, Segal and Levy sold the Robinson’s chain of stores including the three Robinson-Ogilvy stores in Ottawa to Comark Services Inc, the firm that owned Irene Hill and Brettons. But Comark also struggled to make a go of it. Ogilvy’s, once the largest department store in Ottawa, now had less than one half of the floor space of Eaton’s or The Bay. Moreover, it never found its niche market, and struggled to re-build customer loyalty. The firm also lost the loyalty of its staff owing to layoffs.

Ogilvy’s three-storey façade, 2019, Google Streetview

In 1989, in a last-ditch effort to rebrand itself, the Ogilvy name was dropped, leaving the firm to operate solely as Robinson’s. The chain briefly opened a big branch store in the new Place d’Orléans Mall in the East end, but it was quickly forced to sell that business to The Bay in May 1992. The following month, the firm that Charles Ogilvy had started in 1887 disappeared into history.

The mortal remains of the firm—the old head office building on Rideau Street—remained. Vacant, the building was purchased in 1995 by Viking Rideau Corp. with a view to incorporating the structure into the Rideau Centre. In 2000, the five-story building was designated as having historical and architectural significance under the Ontario Heritage Act. However, Viking Rideau objected to this designation and sought permission from Ottawa City Council to demolish the building. Heritage organizations, especially Heritage Ottawa, strenuously objected. In the end, an agreement was reached to conserve the original three-storey façade along Rideau and Nicholas Streets. This agreement was carried out by Cadillac Fairview as part of a larger renovation of the neighbourhood in 2015 following its purchase of the building from Viking Rideau.

Sources:

Heritage Ottawa, 2022. Charles Ogilvy Ltd. Department Store.

Ottawa Citizen, 1902. “Hockey,” 21 February.

——————, 1903. “Real Estate Deal,” 30 October.

——————, 1906. “To Build A Fine New Store,” 11 May.

——————, 1907. “Charles Ogilvy’s New Store Opened Tuesday,” 7 August.

——————, 1908. “Is Now A Company,” 13 April.

——————, 1908. “New Company Gazetted,” 20 April.

——————, 1931. “Ogilvy’s,” 8 May.

——————, 1933. “Chas. Ogilvy Shows Confidence By Store Addition,” 26 June.

——————, 1950. “Charles Ogilvy, Noted Ottawa Merchant, Is Dead,” 27 March.

——————, 1956. “Charles Ogilvy Ltd. Completes 66 Years’ Service to Area,” 31 October.

——————, 1960. “Expansion By Ogilvy’s to Start This Summer,” 13 June.

——————, 1984. “Talks resume in bid to buy Ogilvy chain,” 29 November.

——————, 1984. “New-Look image follows Ogilvy’s $10 million merger,” 28 December.

——————, 1986. “Ogilvy’s two-pronged challenge,” 11 March.

——————, 1986, “Ogilvy’s workers bitter after a week of layoffs,” 12 April.

——————, 1986. “Comark wrapping up purchase pf Ogilvy stores,” 1986.

——————-, 1988. “An institution struggles to recover its dignity,|” 18 December.

——————-, 1989. “Ogilvy’s name Robinson’s in name-dropping move,” 11 August.

——————-, 1992. “No Case for Robinsons,” 23 June.

——————, 1992. On the eve of demolition, the history of Ogilvy’s shines,” 15 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1912. “Charles Ogilvy, Ltd. To Enlarge Present Store,” 25 July 1914.

——————-, 1931. “Charles Ogilvy, Ltd. Opens New Section,” 5 March 1931.

——————-, 1950. “Pioneering Merchant Charles Ogilvy Dead,” 27 March.

——————-, 1950. “Charles Ogilvy Leaves Estate of $299,404,” 14 June.

——————-, 1969. “Fire Damage Estimate: Nearly $1,200,000,” 30 December.

Larocque’s

11 September 1971

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bankruptcy Sale, Le Droit, 23 September, 1926.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Le Droit, various issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poulin’s: Ottawa’s Store of Satisfaction

2 February 1929

L. N. Poulin, Ltd, known to all as simply Poulin’s, ranked among the finest retail stores in Ottawa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was known for excellent service, fair dealing, innovative advertising methods, and low prices. During its early years it billed itself as “Ottawa’s most progressive store.” Later, it styled itself as “Ottawa’s store of satisfaction.”

For forty years, the store stood at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets in the heart of the capital’s business district. Then, out of the blue, L. N. Poulin, its founder, announced in late 1928 that he was retiring and that the store would close. Within two months, the grand retailer was gone, shutting its doors for the last time on 2 February 1929 after a month-long “Retiring from Business Sale.” Other than his retirement—L. N. Poulin was 70 years of age at the time—no other reason was cited for the closure. Poulin rented his building on a long-term lease to Schulte-United Corporation of 485 Fifth Avenue New York, a thrusting, new firm that was opening “five and dime” stores across North America.

L. N. Poulin Department Store, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 3318392.

Poulin’s was started in 1889 by Louis Napoleon Poulin and his wife Mary Poulin (née McEvoy). Mme Poulin is given little credit for starting the firm in contemporaneous accounts (not surprisingly given the times) but her obituary noted that she was a considerable businessperson in her own right. L. N. Poulin was born in 1858 in a log home in Addison, Ontario, near Brockville. At age thirteen, he got a taste of retail selling by doing chores and odd jobs at Messrs. Nichols and Parker in the nearby town of Toledo. At sixteen, he took a train to Ottawa to make his fortune. Apparently, he had a return ticket to Brockville in his pocket should things go wrong. He didn’t need it.

In Ottawa, he found employment with Russell, Gardiner & Legatt, one of the largest merchant firms in the capital. He worked there, and at another firm, Stitt & Company, for eleven years before he and his wife struck out on their own in 1889; the couple had married in 1884. Most accounts of Poulin’s early years place his store in a small frame building at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets, a location that he occupied in bigger and bigger establishments for the next 40 years.  However, there are newspaper references to a L.N. Poulin dry goods store at 99 Bank Street through the 1889-90 period. The company ran an advertisement for a “removals sale” in the Ottawa Evening Journal in early April 1890. This suggests that it was about then that the Poulins made the move to their permanent home at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets.

Mr. L. N. Poulin, Ottawa Citizen, 18 June 1923.

Poulin, aided by two assistants, rented 600 square feet on the ground floor of the building from John A. Brouse for $50 per month. The budding dry goods firm only had $4,000 worth of stock. One of his first customers was reportedly Lady Macdonald, the wife of Sir John A. Macdonald.

The firm was a success. In 1892, Poulin bought the Brouse property which also housed the Dymond shirt factory and the YMCA. Two years later, he took over two buildings to the west on Spark Street (the Bush-Bonbright store and National Manufacturing Company) and purchased a milk factory at the rear on O’Connor Street.  In 1902, Poulin bought more property on Spark Street giving him 132 feet of frontage. In 1906, he expanded further, buying the Mills Hotel from the Misses Piggott to the rear of his property which gave him a uniform depth of almost 100 feet. Two years later he acquired the J.M. Garland property on O’Connor Street with a view to future expansion. In 1915, this became the store’s house furnishings annex.

By 1923, the store had more than 73,000 square feet of floor space, with stock valued at close to $500,000. It employed 245 people. That year, the enterprise expanded for the last time, demolishing the old annex and erecting a four-storey extension which added an additional 18,000 square feet of floor space. This new structure was integrated with the original main building. Looking to the future, it was constructed in a fashion that allowed for six more storeys to be added at a later date.

The store was noted for its innovative approach to advertising. One spectacular example of this occurred during the summer of 1904. Poulin’s announced its “Lucky Money Back Sale.” A date during a six-week period was selected at random by Mayor Ellis and place in a sealed envelope in the vault of the Bank of Ottawa. Neither the Mayor, the bank manager, or Mr. Poulin knew the selected date. All sales on that date would be refunded in full. Poulin advised customers to shop at his store every day of the sale to ensure being a winner. At the end of the sale, the sealed enveloped was open and the lucky date revealed—23 August, 1904. All customers on that date were given three days to return to the store with their sales receipts to “receive “the full amount of your checks in NEW, CRISP MONEY.”

Poulin’s Sale, Ottawa Citizen, 9 July 1924.

It was innovations like this, along with every-day good value and courteous service, that made the store an Ottawa landmark. So, imagine the feelings when Poulin announced that he was retiring and the store would close. The Ottawa Citizen described it as the passing of an institution. “It did not seem right nor did it seem natural.” It was not as if the store was unprofitable, or there were no heirs to carry on the family name. Indeed, the Poulins’ four sons, Edmond, Gidias, Fabien and Clement, all worked in the family firm. The closure also meant that almost three hundred employees lost their jobs. At a farewell dinner dance held for his workers a few days after the store’s shut its doors for good, Poulin said that his employees would be able to find new careers if they did their best.

If the rationale for the closure appears somewhat mystifying, Poulin’s timing was impeccable. Less than nine months after the store went out of business, the Great Depression began. The Schulte-United Corporation, which had moved into the former premises of Poulin’s department store, failed two years later, a casualty of the economic catastrophe.

Closing out sale, Ottawa Citizen, 30 January 1929.

Another person who had impeccable timing was Walter P. Zeller of Kitchener, Ontario. In 1928, he had sold his small chain of Zeller’s department stores located mostly in southern Ontario to the Schulte-United Corporation which wanted to expand into Canada. When Schulte-United failed three years later, Walter Zeller bought the Canadian wing of the operations. These comprised his original Zeller’s stores and ten other outlets that Schulte-United had established in the interim, including the former Poulin’s department store location on Sparks Street.

Zeller’s became a fixture on Spark Street for more than seventy years. The very profitable chain of bargain stores was bought by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1978. Growing to roughly 350 stores by the year 2000, the Zeller’s chain began to lose ground to competitors. Profitability declined. In 2011, the U.S. department store chain Target bought the leases of most Zellers stores for $1.825 billion in its ill-fated effort to break into the Canadian retail market. It promised to run them under the Zeller’s brand for a “period of time.” The larger Zeller’s branches were eventually remodelled and converted into Target outlets. Smaller ones, like the elderly store on Spark Street, did not fit the Target style. It closed its doors in 2013. Two years later, Target closed all of its 133 Canadian stores after a disastrous foray into Canada.

The distinctive building once owned by L. N. Poulin was almost demolished in the early 1980s as part of a high-rise development plan. Notwithstanding a demolition permit granted by Ottawa’s City Council, the building was saved at the last minute, in part by a campaign orchestrated by Heritage Ottawa. It was sympathetically renovated by its then owners, the Hudson Bay Company.  Consistent with its long heritage as a discount retail store, the edifice that was once Poulin’s Department Store, and later Zeller’s, now houses a Winners outlet.

As for the Poulins, after their retirement, the couple moved to a home at cottage community of Britannia. Louis Napoleon Poulin stayed active in Ottawa’s commercial life as a director of the electric and gas companies. He died at the age of 85 in 1941. His wife, Mary Poulin, died in 1949.

Sources:

Heritage Ottawa, 2017. Poulin’s Dry Good Store| Zellers Department Store, https://heritageottawa.org/50years/poulins-dry-goods-zellers-department-store.

Ottawa Citizen, 1904. “Thousands of Dollars in Cash Refunded to Our Customers,” 11 July.

——————, 1904. “Your Money Back,” 2 September.

——————-, 1923. “Rebuilding of L.N. Poulin, Limited, Store To Add Another Chapter To Fascinating Story of Expansion Of An Ottawa Firm,” 19 June.

——————, 1928. “L.N. Poulin Is Retiring After Splendid Career,” 29 December.

——————, 1929. “Schulte-United Will Have a Fine Store in Capital,” 2 March.

——————, 1931. “Walter P. Zeller Heads Zellers Ltd, Formerly Schulte-United,” 7 November.

—————–, 1941. “Late L. N. Poulin, Noted Figure In Commercial Life,” 9 July.

Ottawa Journal, 1890. “No Bankrupt Stock,” 3 April.

——————-, 1924. “Mr. L.N. Poulin Host to His Employes (sic),” 10 January.

——————-, 1928. “Retiring after Forty Years of Business Here,” 29 December.

——————-, 1939. “7,000 Members of Poulin Families Join in Unique Celebration,” 19 August.

——————-, 1949. ‘Mrs. L.N. Poulin Dies,” 4 June.

Reuters, 2011. Target to enter Canada with Zellers deal, own plans, 13 January, https://www.reuters.com/article/target-canada/update-2-target-to-enter-canada-with-zellers-deal-own-plans-idUSN1326316220110113.

Caplan’s

31 July 1984

On Tuesday, 31 July 1984, Caplan’s department store, a Rideau Street landmark for almost seventy years, closed its doors for the last time. Many were confused regarding its date of closure. The Ottawa Citizen had erroneously reported that the store had shut the previous Saturday. It subsequently issued a correction apologizing for its error.

The department store had been the life work of Caspar and Dora Caplan. Caspar had arrived in Ottawa from Lithuania in 1892 with only 63 cents in his pocket. On his first day in business as a door-to-door salesman, he reportedly sold some pens to a lady. It was a propitious sale. The lady in question remained a customer for the rest of her long life.

Caplan travelled around the city and outlying communities selling “small wares” from the back of his horse and buggy. With money scarce, he did a lot of his business through barter, exchanging his goods for dairy and farm produce.

From that small acorn did the mighty oak that was to become Caplan’s Department Store grow.

In 1897, Caspar Caplan married Dora Roston of Montreal. As a newly-married man, the life of an itinerant salesman no longer suited. In 1899, the couple opened a bricks-and-mortar shop in LeBreton Flats on Queen Street West. Sadly, their building burnt down in the Great Fire of 1900, forcing Caplan back onto the road.

In 1904, he and his wife opened another store, grandly called the Ottawa and Hull House Furnishing Company, at 491 Sussex Street in the building which later became the Jeanne d’Arc Institute. (The institute, which was operated by an order of nuns established by Mère Marie Thomas d’Aquin, became a boarding house for young, working women from 1917 to 1980. Today, the edifice is a registered Canadian heritage building.) The Caplans’ small store, with floor space amounting to only 750 square feet, sold men’s and ladies’ fashions on the main floor, and linoleum in the basement. The couple had an apartment above their shop. Rent, amounting to $35 per month, included a stable for their horse.

Business boomed for the young, enterprising couple. Sussex Street was a thriving commercial area during the early 1900s, close to the Bytown market, hotels and boarding houses. On payday, people converged on the Caplans’ store to spend their hard-earned money. They were always warmly greeted, often by name. The store also appealed to those short of ready cash as the firm was an early adopter of the “weekly payment” business, a form of installment credit. This was a risky venture as there were no credit agencies back in those days. Credit was extended on the basis of personal knowledge of their customers and trust.

Caplan's old store on Rideau OJ 24-4-65

The original Caplan’s store at 135 Rideau Street before it expanded, circa 1916, Ottawa Journal, 24 April 1965.

The prospering company moved to larger quarters down the road at 557 Sussex Street in 1908. The new premises had 2,250 square feet of floor space. An arc electric light lit the street outside of the store. At that time, the expanding firm added a furniture department to its list of retail offerings.

Eight years later, the Caplans moved again. This time to their 135 Rideau Street location which was to be their address for the next sixty-eight years. The store was incorporated at the beginning of 1916 with a capitalization of $50,000.

The department store was dealt a serious setback in 1917 when a fire of unknown origin, swept through its furniture department. While the blaze was quickly extinguished, more than $15,000 damage was caused which was only partially covered by insurance. Undeterred, the Caplans persevered.

Caplan’s department store flourished through the Roaring Twenties, and even through the Great Depression. In 1928, two new departments were added—shoes and children’s clothing. An elevator was also installed. Two years later, more land was purchased, with a big modernization program launched, both internally and externally. In 1937, a mezzanine floor was added for office space. The store also began to sell furs and electrical appliances. A toy department was added in 1938.

Plans to incorporate the adjoining building into the department store were put on hold owing to the beginning of World War II, and the illness of Caspar Caplan who retired from the business, leaving the operation of the department store in the hands of his wife Dora and their two sons, Samuel and Gordon. When Caspar died in 1943, Dora Caplan took over as president of the company.

After the war and through the 1950s, Caplan’s continued to expand. In 1948, the company acquired the next-door premises. The first phase of a massive expansion plan was completed in 1951. New departments were added—cosmetics, costume jewellery, draperies, kitchenware, woollens, linen and chinaware in 1953, unpainted furniture, outdoor garden supplies, televisions and “wheeled” goods in 1954. The external look of the building was also modernized with the addition of a marble veneer. By the time of its 50th anniversary in 1955, the store had about 45,000 square feet of floor space.

caplan-building-in-1911-lac-pa-005899

The first Caplan store was located in the white building with awnings on the right. The department store later purchased the central brick building with the arched windows. When this photo was taken in 1911, the building housed a dentist and a branch of the Bank of Ottawa, Library and Archives Canada, PA-005899.

caplans-undated-ottawa-jewish-archives

Undated photograph of the modernized Caplan’s façade decorated for Christmas, Ottawa Jewish Archives.

caplans-oc-27-02-2003-by-brigitte-bouvier

Caplan’s department store ready for demolition, 2003, Ottawa Citizen, photo by Brigitte Bouvier

caplans-google-streetview-current

Replica Rideau Street façade of the old Caplan’s Department Store at 135 Rideau Street, Google Streetview.

The store built its reputation of three things: reliable merchandise; a money-back guarantee for unsatisfactory goods; and excellent customer service. Caplan’s was one of the first Ottawa stores to provide parking facilities for its customers—a major plus in an era of growing automobile ownership.

Caplan’s was also known for its good management-employee relations. The firm was reportedly one of the first in Ottawa to move to a five-day work week. Staff had their own recreation association as well as a bowling league. The company also sponsored social events. In the years before provincial health care, Caplan’s provided employees with a low-cost hospital plan as well as life insurance.

The Caplans were also active in the community. Caspar Caplan was a founder of both the Jewish Community Council and of the Adath Jeshuran Synagogue, of which he was president from 1930 to 1935. Samuel Caplan followed in his father’s footsteps, and was the synagogue’s president during the 1950s. Gordon Caplan was active in the Kiwanis Club, the Ottawa Better Business Bureau, and was a founding member of the Rideau Street Merchants’ Association.

Despite ongoing efforts to keep pace with changing times, Caplan’s, like all of Ottawa’s big downtown department stores, began to lose ground during the 1960s and 1970s due to growing competition from suburban shopping centres. In 1972, Caplan’s tried to fight back, launching a “million-dollar expansion.” It held back the tide for a time but it was not enough. The final blow to Caplan’s fortunes was the building of the Rideau Centre in the early 1980s. Not only did foot traffic to the store plummet during the course of construction which closed Rideau Street for a time, but Caplan’s had a glossy, new competitor right across the street when the shopping complex opened for business in March 1983.

After trying to boost business by converting Caplan’s into a discount store, offering reductions of as much as 60 per cent on name-brand goods, George Caplan, the last head of the family-run business, called it quits in January 1984. He announced that most of the department store’s forty departments would be closed, and its staff of one hundred reduced. Only the fashion and accessories departments would be retained. Instead, the first two floors of the Caplan building would be converted into a “mini-mall” of independent retailers, while the upper two floors would be leased as commercial office space. George Caplan also asked the company’s creditors to wait until the end of April 1984 to be paid in order to allow the firm time to re-organize itself. The business owed roughly $1.6 million to secured creditors and $1.4 million to 470 unsecured creditors. Staff were also owed $30,000 in vacation pay.  He stressed, however, that the firm was neither bankrupt nor in receivership.

Caplan’s creditors gave the firm more time. Indeed, the end-April deadline was extended by another 60 days. But sales continued to decline and losses rose. In mid-June, George Caplan confirmed what everybody knew was coming, that the family-owned firm would sell of its remaining stock and close for good. The family would retire from the retail business and would henceforth concentrate on its real estate interests which included ownership of the Caplan building.

The Caplan family’s real estate firm, which was called the Ottawa House Furnishing Company, renovated the old department store building in 1984, and rented parts out to a variety of enterprises, including a Biway discount outlet and a Moores menswear clothing store. A Canada Employment Centre also opened in the building. CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) had offices there as well. Gordon Caplan, the son of founders Caspar and Dora Caplan, kept an office in the building until his death in 1990 at the age of 89.

In 1997, the building was purchased by the Canril Corporation, whose aim was to redevelop the site. Various proposals for the property came and went, including the construction of a casino, a cinema, and a sports museum. With the old building becoming increasingly dilapidated, Canril sought permission to demolish it. This set in motion a battle between heritage supporters, City Council and the developers. To make the situation more complex, any changes to the George Street side of the building was subject to city approval owing to its location in the Byward Market Heritage Conservation District. The same was not true, however, for the Rideau Street side, despite parts of it dating back to the 1870s and the façade being more architecturally and historically significant.

After several minor fires, and a “repair or demolish” order from the Ottawa Fire Marshal, agreement was finally reached with the City to demolish the old building in 2003 as long as any future development of the site included the construction of a replica façade of the old Caplan building.

In 2005, Canril reached an agreement with the City of Ottawa to build a nineteen-storey condominium building on the site of the Caplan building which would extend from 90 George Street to Rideau Street. As per the previous agreement with the city, the developer duly constructed a replica of the Rideau Street façade based on a precise imaging of the building that was made in 2000.

The new condominium tower opened for residents in 2009.

Sources:

City of Ottawa, 2005. Application for new construction in the Byward Market Heritage Conservation District at 90 George/135 Rideau Street—Amendment to previous proposal, 27 January.

Heritage Ottawa, 2017. Caplan’s Department Store, https://heritageottawa.org/50years/caplans-department-store.

Ottawa Citizen, 1917. “$15,000 Damage To Furniture Stock,” 25 June.

——————, 1984. “Faced with bid debts, Caplan’s becomes mall,” 17 January.

——————, 1984. “Caplan’s $3 million in the red,” 17 January.

——————, 1984. “Caplan creditors give it more time,” 2 May.

——————, 1984. “Caplan’s closing its doors,” 14 June.

——————, 1984. “Ottawa bids adieu to Caplan’s after 80 years,” 28 July.

——————, 1984. “Corrections,” 30 July.

——————, 1990. “‘Earthy, friendly’ department store owner Gordon Caplan dies at 89,” 26 November.

——————, 1997. “Vibrancy slowly returns to Rideau Street,” 21 October.

——————, 2002. “Preserving Caplan’s history,” 6 July.

——————, 2003. “Another Ottawa Landmark Is Lost,” 5 July.

Ottawa Jewish Archives, 2020. https://jewishottawa.com/ottawa-jewish-archives.

Ottawa Journal, 1955. “Caplan’s Celebrating 50th Anniversary, 20 April.

——————-, 1965. “Ottawa Firm Observes Its 60th Anniversary,” 24 April.

The Rise and Fall of the Daly Building

14 June 1905

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daly building 3411920

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

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

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

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

Daly building extension 1913 LAC3410293 Topley

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

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

Daly OJ 28-2-1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daly 700 Sussex Google

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Devlin’s-Morgan’s

23 March 1973

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

Devlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Devlins asphalt 30-6-1893 OJ

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

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

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

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

Devlin's snow prediction OJ 12-11-1889

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Meet Me At Murphy’s

29 January 1983

One of the greatest of the shopping emporiums that used to line Sparks Street, once the commercial heart of Ottawa, was Murphy-Gamble’s. It ranked amongst the finest Canadian department stores, and had a well-earned reputation for quality merchandise. The store attracted the custom of the city’s elite, including governors general and prime ministers. But its particular claim to fame was its restaurant, the Rideau Room, located on the fifth floor of the building at 118-124 Sparks Street. It was the only Ottawa’s department store that featured a dining room. Here, one could enjoy fine food accompanied by a live band, sometimes a trio, sometimes a seven-piece orchestra. It also served high tea each afternoon to weary customers who needed to catch their breath before renewing their assault on the store’s many departments. “Meet Me At Murphy’s” became an oft-heard refrain.

Murphy, John Company August 1892, Topley Studio LAC 138219

John Murphy Company, 66-68 Sparks Street, August 1892, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, 138219

Murphy’s roots actually begin in Montreal where in 1867, John L. Murphy opened a dry-goods store on Catherine Street.  In 1890, Murphy expanded to Ottawa, buying Argyle House, a dry-goods store located at 66-68 Sparks Street from David Gardner who had himself acquire the entire stock of Argyle House for 61 cents on the dollar in a bankruptcy sale. He also leased the premises for a few months to clear the stock. Argyle House had been known for its high-end merchandise and for catering to Ottawa’s elite. The store had originally been opened in the early 1870s by James Russell.

The new John Murphy & Company store prospered under the management of Samuel Gamble, the company’s first vice-president who also happened to be John Murphy’s son-in-law. In 1904, John Murphy, now seventy years of age, sold his Montreal store to Robert Simpson Company of Toronto. The store continued to operate under the well-respected John Murphy & Company name. This left the Ottawa branch, now a stand-alone operation, to find a new name. In recognition of the success achieved under Samuel Gamble’s direction, the Murphy, Gamble Company was born. John Murphy continued to act as an advisor to the firm, his knowledge being invaluable. During his career as a merchant, he had made more than 100 ocean crossings to buy quality goods from European fashion houses. At this time, the three-storey building at 66 Sparks Street was expanded back towards Queen Street, thereby increasing the selling space by one-third.

Murphy-Gamble

Murphy-Gamble Co at 118-124 Sparks Street, circa. 1955. The Centre Cinema next door is showing a double feature of Black Pirates and Thunder Pass which were both released in 1954. Notice the old Ottawa Citizen building on the right. Rankly.com.

In 1910, the company expanded again. A five-storey store was constructed at 118-124 Sparks Street, the former site of the Brunswick Hotel. The new store opened in early January 1910. The last day of trading out of the old premises proved to be memorable. So many shoppers, mostly women, crowded into the store to snap up merchandise on sale that store staff were overwhelmed. Police had to be called in to control the enthusiastic shoppers. For an hour and a half, the doors were locked with “blue coats” on guard to repel would-be bargain hunters from storming inside. The next day, Murphy-Gamble’s new premises were also swamped by shoppers wanting to get a first glimpse at the new department store. That opening day, uniformed boys assisted ladies from their cars and carriages into and out of the emporium.

Reportedly, the new store cost $175,000 to build; no expense was spared in its construction and its fittings.  As far as possible, contracts and subcontracts were awarded to local Ottawa firms. Its architect was Ottawa’s Colborne Powell Meredith, it’s builder, Frederick W. Carling. The building, apparently one of the first of its kind in eastern Ontario, was constructed of reinforced concrete, a new method at that time. It also boasted what has been described as “Chicago-style glazed curtain wall façades” on both its Sparks and Queen Street sides. The pillars holding up the five storeys were also made of concrete, reinforced with steel rods, as were the stairways. There were hardwood floors throughout. The building was deemed fire proof, and was equipped with automatic fire doors and hoses on each floor. It was the first building in the city to carry electricity and lighting through underground conduits. The new edifice was called the Carling Block, presumably in honour of its builder.

On the basement level, which opened onto Queen Street, there was a high-class grocery store. There were windows displays along the entire façade. To one side was an entrance and a passageway for receiving goods. Lockers and toilets for male employees were located on this floor, The Sparks Street entrance, which was covered by a marquee, was to be found on the first, or ground floor. All interior fittings on this floor were made of mahogany. Window displays ran along Sparks Street. Two public telephones were located here for the use of customers. The women’s and men’s clothing departments were on this floor. The millinery and mantles department were found on the second floor. Fittings on this floor were made of oak. To the rear were offices; dressing rooms were located on the sides. A spacious stairway led from the main floor to an overhead gallery, or ladies’ waiting room, called “The Mezzanine.” On the third floor was the carpet, curtains and draperies department, along with customers’ washrooms. The fourth floor was devoted to manufacturing purposes, while the fifth floor was initially used for storage and bathroom facilities for female staff. Later, the fifth floor became the site of the “Tea Rooms” and later the much-loved “Rideau Room” dining room.

Murphy-Gamble window, William Topley, 1920 LAC 3382921

Murphy-Gamble Window Display of Hoover Vacuum Cleaners, Christmas 1920, Topley, LAC 3382921.

Samuel Gamble died in 1913 and the management of Murphy-Gamble’s passed first to Mr. J.T. Hammill and then to Mr. S.L.T. Morrell. In 1925, James L. Murray, and his two sons, Walter L. Murray and G. Scott Murray, purchased Murph-Gamble’s. The Murrays operated a similar business in Hamilton, Ontario called Murray Sons, Ltd. The two Murray sons moved to Ottawa to manage the Ottawa firm which continued to trade under the Murphy-Gamble marque. The firm thrived under the new management. Two more floors at the back of the store and an elevator were added in 1948. The firm also established buying offices in all the major cities of Europe, as well as in Mexico and the Far East.

On staff at Murphy-Gamble’s was a master tailor and dress designer, Ernest Gordon. A Gordon gown was a much sought-after attire for gala events. Reportedly, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands bought a Gordon gown.  Gordon died in 1948, having worked at Murphy’s for thirty-three years.

Murphy-Gamble tea 23 Sept 1927 OC

Advertisement for Tea and a Modelling Show, Ottawa Citizen, 26 September 1927.

Christmas was a special time of the year at Murphy-Gamble’s. A fifty-foot Christmas tree was installed by the stairwell each year until later renovations made this impossible. A store choir sang carols every day during the week leading up to Christmas. Instead of Santa Claus coming to the store’s toy department, a series of parties was held for children in the Rideau Room where Santa gave a gift to every child. Easter was also special, bringing a visit from the Easter Bunny who handed out candy to the kiddies along with a copy of the Easter Bunny story.

Murphy’s was also known for going the extra mile for its customers. Reportedly, a bride-to-be asked Murphy’s to bake her wedding cake, just as the firm had done for her mother and grandmother before her. There was one hitch. The bride lived in the North West Territories. Undeterred, Murphy’s delivered the cake via a military plane and dog sled!

Murphy-Gamble Company stayed in the Murray family for close in fifty years. In 1972, now under the presidency of Russell Boyce, the son-in-law of Scott Murray, the venerable Ottawa landmark was sold to Robert Simpson Company, the same company that purchased the original family store in Montreal in 1904. All 300 of Murphy-Gamble’s staff were re-hired. The Murphy-Gamble sign came down to be replaced by Simpson’s.

Simpsons logo

Robert Simpson Company logo.

Simpson’s operated out of the 118-124 Sparks Street location for eleven years. At the end of 1982, Simpson’s, now owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, announced that the Sparks Street store would close owning to low profit margins. The Ottawa Citizen said that shoppers were like “mourners at an Irish wake.” On 29 January 1983, Simpson’s closed its doors for a last time with the loss of 85 permanent and 150 part-time jobs. The company published a final “Thank You” to its loyal Ottawa customers. The closure of the store after almost seventy-five years of business under various owners marked the end of a retail tradition. It left only the budget conscious Zellers remaining as the last department store on Sparks Street until it too closed in 2013.

Scotiabank ottawa, 2017 Nelia

Bank of Nova Scotia, Sparks Street Branch, the former Murphy-Gamble building, 2017, Photo credit: Nelia.

The former Murphy-Gamble/Simpson’s building was acquired by the Bank of Nova Scotia in January 1983. After extensive renovations, the former department store was converted into a bank branch.

Sources:

Biographical Dictionary of Architects in Canada, 1800-1950, Meredith, Colborne Powell, http://www.dictionaryofarchitectsincanada.org/node/1483.

Daily Citizen, 1890. “$68,000 Bankrupt Stock of Dry Goods,” 17 May.

Heritage Ottawa, 1983. Newsletter, February.

Ottawa Citizen, 1972. “Fond farewell to Murphy’s,” 24 June.

—————-, 1982. “Simpsons’ loyal friends already mourning loss,” 31 December.

Ottawa Evening Citizen, 1910. “Last Day Was Memorable One,” 10 January.

—————————–, 1925, “Murphy-Gamble, Ltd. Store Acquired By Hamilton Firm,” 1 September.

—————————–, 1952. “Walter M. Murray Is New Head of Murphy-Gamble,” 18 November.

Evening Journal, 1890. “Argyle House,” 18 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1904. “Retail Dry Goods Deal,” 21 December.

——————-, 1910. “Magnificent New Addition To Ottawa’s Commercial Buildings,” 26 February.

Urbsite, 2012. Murphy-Gamble, Sparks’ Department Stores III, 14 May.

 

Freiman’s becomes The Bay

24 November 1971

The A. J. Freiman Department Store was an Ottawa retailing institution that dated back to the end of the nineteenth century. Its founder was Archibald (Archie) Jacob Freiman who had immigrated to Canada as a child with his family in the late 19th century from Lithuania. Coming to Ottawa from Hamilton in 1899, the nineteen-year old Freiman and his partner Moses Cramer started the Canadian Home Furnishing Company at 223 Rideau Street close to Cumberland Street. The company sold carpets, oilcloth and other types of household furnishings. The following year, the firm expanded, moving into next door 221 Rideau as well. In 1902, the firm moved into still larger quarters at 73 Rideau Street.

Freiman logo 1911-10-23 TOJ
Freiman’s logo after Archie Freiman bought out his father’s interest in the company, 23 October 1911, The Ottawa Journal

Despite the company’s success, the Freiman-Cramer partnership foundered when Freiman announced his intention of opening a credit department which would permit customers to purchase goods on installment. This was just too risky for the conservative-minded Cramer. Fortunately, Frieman’s father, Hersh, stepped in, becoming young Archie’s partner. In 1911, Archie was ready to go it alone, and he bought out his father’s share of the business. Over time, the name of the store morphed from The Canadian Home Furnishing Company, A.J. Freiman, Proprietor, to A. J. Freiman Ltd. Ottawa residents knew it simply as Frieman’s. In part, the change in name reflected the shift in the nature of the firm’s business. In a 1925 interview, Freiman said that he had always been interested in the possibilities of a general store.

Freiman 1920-11-12 TOJ
Freiman’s logo, 12 November 1920, The Ottawa Journal

Consequently, he added a men’s and women’s clothing to his line of products, thus setting the stage for the development of a department store. He also indicated that beyond hard work, the secret of his success was advertising.

In 1944, Archie died suddenly after he had unveiled a plaque in the Adath Jeshurun Synagogue on King Edward Street in honour of his friend, the synagogue’s cantor. Archie’s son, Lawrence, took over the family business.

Freimans 1939royalvisitMikkan4169781
Freiman’s Department Store, Rideau Street, decorated for the 1939 Royal Visit, Library and Archives Canada, Mikkan 4169781.

Under Lawrence Freiman’s direction, the retail company continued to thrive and expand, always keeping up with the times. Freiman’s was one of the first Ottawa stores to have an escalator, and as markets moved and changed, the company moved and changed with them. When people began settling in the suburbs after World War II, Freiman’s followed, opening a branch store in Ottawa’s first mall, the Westgate Shopping Centre on Carling Avenue in 1955. Freiman’s was also quick to introduce basement discount outlets for the budget conscious and in-house boutiques for the fashion minded. As well, it offered a phone-in service called Freiman’s Buy-Line. With its Charge-a-Plate, customers could also put things “on their account.”

Freimans1946fashionshowOffice National du Film du CanadaLACMikkan4310145
Freiman’s first fashion shop after the War, April 1946, National Film Board of Canada/Library and Archives Canada, Mikkan 4310145.

However, by the late 1960s, it was increasingly difficult for the firm to compete successfully. Lawrence Freiman’s health began to fail. He starting spending several months each year in Palm Springs, California or Palm Beach, Florida; his doctors felt the warm weather would do him good. He also had other interests. He was a two-term President of the Zionist Organization of Canada and was the Chairman of the Board of the new National Arts Centre. Of necessity, the direction of the company passed to the next generation—A. J. Freiman II and son-in-law Gordon Roston. While the two were capable young men, the company lacked depth. Lawrence feared that Freiman’s didn’t have the calibre of senior management necessary for both the present and the future.

Freimans 1946-10-05 TOJ
Freiman’s art deco logo from the 1940s, 5 Ocotber 1946, The Ottawa Journal

Family-owned, quality department stores also found it difficult to attract the talent needed to compete with the larger, nation-wide chain stores that offered better career possibilities. Expansion also required vast sums of money that family-owned business, like Freiman’s, simply didn’t have.

As well, the Ottawa market was becoming increasingly competitive with no less than eight new department stores under construction or under consideration during the summer of 1971 says Lawrence Freiman in his autobiography. Simpson-Sears had gone into Carlingwood Mall when it opened in the late 1950s, and had moved into the St. Laurent Shopping Centre in 1967 and was about to take over the former Murphy-Gamble store on Sparks Street. Eaton’s was also entering the Ottawa market with an anchor store in the new Bayshore Shopping Centre scheduled to open in 1973. The Hudson’s Bay Company of Winnipeg was also eager to have an Ottawa presence. In August 1971, the firm approached Lawrence Freiman about a friendly take-over.

Freimans logo 1965-04-02 TOJ
Freiman’s logo, early 1960s, 2 April 1965, The Ottawa Journal

It was an opportunity that the ailing Lawrence couldn’t refuse. Although he had hoped to leave Freiman’s to the next generation, neither his son nor his son-in-law were interested in running the company as they would not have a controlling interest. With the family’s shareholding becoming increasingly dispersed over time, they would be at the mercy of people with no direct involvement in the firm’s operations. As Lawrence said in his autobiography, his son and son-in-law wanted to be “their own people.” The clincher of the deal was the Bay’s promise to honour Freiman’s pension commitments to staff. Lawrence himself was to receive an annual pension of $35,000.

Freimans logo 1967-03-22
Freiman’s logo, late 1960s, 22 March 1967, The Ottawa Journal

On 24 November 1971, the news broke in both Ottawa and Winnipeg: The Hudson Bay Company was to buy Freiman’s Department Store on Rideau Street, its two branch stores located in the Westgate Shopping Centre and on St. Laurent Boulevard and its two discount “Freimart” outlets. It was virtually a “done deal.” The Freiman family had already agreed to sell their 70 per cent share of the publicly–traded company for $6 per share, a mark-up of $1.25 over the last trading price on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The deal valued the company at $4.59 million.

That day, staff crowded into Lawrence Freiman’s office on Rideau Street to hear the news. Also present was Don McGiverin, the Managing Director of the Bay’s 200 retail outlets across Canada. Freiman and McGiverin reassured employees that their futures in the company was secure and that their pension rights had been preserved. McGiverin added that Freiman staff could “aspire” to any position in the Canada-wide company.

The investment dealer community was surprised by the comparatively low price put on Freiman’s shares. Even though the company’s profitability had slipped somewhat during the first half of 1971 to $86,626 from $101,274 over the same period the previous year on sales of almost $14 million, the company was in sound financial shape. According to one broker, Freiman’s book value was greater than $9 per share—but still down from the $9.75 per share price the company had been valued at when it had gone public roughly ten years earlier. The company’s shares had traded as high as $13 some months earlier, but their value had fallen in tandem with a broad sell-off in the Canadian stock market. Another dealer thought the $6 price was deceptive. As the Freiman’s pension plan was unfunded, the Bay’s all-included cost of purchasing the company was roughly $8 per share if one included the cost of the Bay assuming the firm’s pension liabilities.

News of the take-over was greeted with sorrow and concern in some quarters. The company had a reputation of being a good employer. A letter to the Editor of the Ottawa Citizen appeared shortly after the announcement. Written by Mansab Ali Khan, the letter read: “The magnanimity and generosity [of Freiman’s] toward colored people is very well known. Any qualified person from Asia or Africa who applied for a job in that company was never refused employment because of color or nationality.” Mr. Ali Khan hoped that the new owners would “follow in the footsteps of A.J. Freiman.” The Citizen opined that it was “not a surprise to see Freiman’s go,” but Ottawa “won’t be quite the same.”

Freimans Bayman26-6-73 TOC
The Arrival of “Bayman,” 26 June 1973, The Ottawa Citizen

The Bay officially took control of Freiman’s shortly before Christmas 1971 and began operating under the name Freiman-Hudson Bay Company. Freiman’s shareholders received one last dividend of 5 cents per share, payable in mid-January 1972. Gordon Roston, Lawrence Freiman’s son-in-law was appointed Vice-President and General Manager. A senior HBC executive was appointed Assistant General Manager. A.J. Freiman II remained on the company’s Board of Directors.

In June 1973, Freiman’s was subsumed completely within the Bay, and the Freiman name disappeared from Ottawa retailing. To mark the event, there was a one-day celebration at the Rideau Street, Westgate and St. Laurent stores. Models showed fashions worn by people over the Bay’s 300-year history. The store also launched “Bayman,” a superhero who fought inflation with Bay Day flyers “full of top quality merchandise at great savings,”

Lawrence Freiman died in 1986. The eponymous Lawrence Freiman Lane that runs behind the National Arts Centre recognizes Lawrence’s contribution to the arts in Ottawa. An arcade enclosed within the Hudson Bay Company between Rideau Street and George Street is officially known as the Freiman Mall. This passage had previously been known as Freiman Street, and before that as Mosgrove Street. When the Rideau Centre was constructed at the beginning of the 1980s, the City of Ottawa closed the street and leased it to the Bay on the proviso that the company enclosed the space and allowed through access to the Byward Market. A plaque in the Mall unveiled by Mayor Marion Dewer in 1983 honours Freiman’s Department Store and the Freiman family. The pedestrian bridge that links the Rideau Centre to the Hudson Bay Company above Rideau Street is also officially known as the Freiman Bridge.

Sources:

Figler, Bernard, 1959. Lillian and Archie Freiman, Biographies, Northern Printing and Lithography Co.: Montreal.

Freiman, Lawrence, 1978. Don’t Fall Off The Rocking Horse: An Autobiography of Lawrence Freiman, McClellan and Stewart: Toronto.

Ottawa Citizen (The), “Bay buying Freiman’s Company offering $6/shr.” 24 November.

————————-, 1971. “A.J. Freiman Sales Higher,” 8 October.

——————, 1971, “Freiman sale surprises financial community,” 25 November.

——————, 1971. “Freiman terms out,” 9 December.

——————, 1971. “Brocker backs Freiman deal, 10 December.

——————, 1971. “New Freiman top brass includes present hands,” 15 December.

——————, 1971. “Open to all,” 17 December.

——————, 1973. “Big store chains learning capital a strong market,” 21 July.

——————, 2015. “Council approves Freiman bridge deal,” 13 May.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1971. “Hudson’s Bay buying Freiman’s,” 24 November

————————–, 1971. “Enter The Giants,” 25 November.

————————–, 1971. “The Bay takes over Freiman’s Dec. 20,” 15 December.

————————–, 1973. “Freiman’s Becomes The Bay,” 25 June.

Bryson, Graham Ltd: “Ottawa’s Greatest Store”

6 September 1870

Sparks Street used to be the beating heart of Ottawa commerce, home to several major local department stores that had their roots in the late nineteenth century. These included L. N. Poulin’s Dry Goods store, R.J. Devlin & Company, Murphy-Gamble, and Bryson, Graham Ltd. One by one they disappeared into history. Most were bought out by larger chain stores before they too succumbed as shoppers flocked to exciting new suburban shopping centres with ample parking facilities that were closer to where people lived. But back during the early twentieth century when Sparks Street was at its zenith, the place to shop was Bryson, Graham Ltd, then known as “Ottawa’s Greatest Store.”

Charles Bryson’s Dry Goods Store, 53 Sparks Street, 1875, William James Topley, Library and Archives Canada, PA-002237.

It opened for business on 6 September 1870 as Patterson & Bryson at 53 Sparks Street (later 110 Sparks Street after the street was renumbered). The firm was named after its two principals, Joseph H. Patterson and Charles B. Bryson. Initially, there wasn’t much going for the modest dry-goods business. With the main commercial streets in Ottawa at that time being Rideau, Sussex and Wellington, the store had an unpromising location. Business was tough during those early years. Indeed, in 1873, the partnership ended, with Patterson decamping to New York City to establish a dry goods business there. Bryson, a country boy from Richmond who had come to Ottawa in 1864 and learnt the dry-good business working at the firm T. Hunt & Sons, soldiered on alone. The split-up appeared to have been relatively amicable, or at least any hard feelings healed over time. On the firm’s silver anniversary in 1895, Patterson sent Bryson from New York a souvenir of their first day in business. Concealed inside twenty-five nested envelopes was the first 5-cent piece the store took in. On one side was engraved “P & B” with “6th Sept., 1870” inscribed on the other.

Things began to pick up in the 1880s after Bryson welcomed Frederick Graham into the business which by this point had moved along the road to 152 Sparks Street. Like his colleague, Graham was a country boy. He had come to Ottawa to sell agricultural equipment for William Arnold on Wellington Street. Dissatisfied with his career choice, he joined Bryson in 1880 and very quickly proved his worth. After only a year, he was offered a piece of the business and became a junior partner. Bryson, Graham & Company was born. It was a partnership that was to last close to fifty years. Bryson took charge of the management of the company while Graham took responsibility for buying. In 1882, Graham became part of the family as well, marrying Miss Margaret Bryson, Charles Bryson’s sister.

Bryson Graham Topley StudioLAC-PA-033935-April 1982
Bryson, Graham & Company, Corner of Sparks Street and O’Connor Street, April 1882, Topley Studios, Library and Archives Canada, PA-03935.

During the early 1880s, the duo introduced a radical innovation to Ottawa—“One Price for All.” Hitherto, Ottawa residents haggled with merchants for all their purchases, a process that wasted valuable time and typically left somebody dissatisfied. At the same time, Bryson and Graham advertised “Maximum Value for the Money.” Initially, this novel approach to selling cost the partners business, but the general public quickly caught on.

In one possibly apocryphal story set sometime in the 1880s, ten lumbermen entered Bryson Graham to purchase their gear for the coming logging season. They picked out goods worth $650, a very large sum back in those days. The foreman offered to pay $600. The salesman refused. The foreman then asked if he would throw in a vest for each of the workers. Again, the salesman refused. A pair of braces? Again, the answer was no. The group left the store in a huff, repairing to “The Brunswick” for a drink. They later came back, their leader indicating that they would pay the $650 if the salesman threw in a collar button for each of the men. Again, the salesman refused. When called over, Bryson backed up his salesman and explained the store’s pricing policy to the lumbermen. Giving up and paying the full amount, the foreman admitted that he had bet $10 that he could beat down the store. He added that “it was worth more than $10 to find there is one honest price store in Ottawa.”

The reputation of Bryson and Graham for integrity and straight dealing was the backbone of their company. Over the next fifty years, the company prospered mightily. In 1883, the company expanded eastward, leasing the adjoining store. In 1887, the firm added home furnishings when it acquired the stock and premises of Shouldbred & Company, followed by the acquisition of the stock of dress-goods and silks from Mr John Garland. In 1890, John Bryson, the brother of Charles opened a grocery store in the Bryson-Graham premises. This business was later formally consolidated into the family enterprise. This was a gutsy step. The grocery business in Ottawa had previously been an albatross for other department stores. In 1892, the firm bought the china and crockery business of Mr Sam Ashfield in the neighbouring store. Two years later, the company expanded yet again and acquired the entire block when it took over the corset business of yet another neighbour, Mrs Scott. On their silver anniversary in 1895, the firm built a factory extension to Queen Street.

To mark twenty-five years of progress and expansion, the store’s staff gave Charles Bryson a gold-mounted ebony cane. They also presented a testimonial to their boss reading “…under your control, we are happy to labour, and hope that our constant efforts and devotion to business will meet with your appreciation. With great pleasure do we take this opportunity to congratulate you on your past success, and to say that we are proud to see your business house classed amongst the most important and successful houses of the Dominion.”

Innovations and expansion continued during the store’s second twenty-five years. In 1898, Bryson, Graham & Company was the first in Ottawa to use the “comptometer,” the first successful, key-driven, calculating machine. It was used for adding and calculating work, sales checks, statements and invoicing. In 1909, the partnership was transformed into a limited liability company. Two years later, the company erected a large warehouse on Queen Street to store its extensive inventory.

Bryson Graham 28-2-1920 TOC
Cover to the Special Supplement in Celebration of Bryson-Graham’s Golden Anniversary, The Ottawa Citizen, 28 February 1920.

In 1917, the long and successful partnership of Charles Bryson and Frederick Graham came to an end with the former’s death. Graham became the company’s president, with Mr James B. Bryson, the son of Charles, as vice-president. In 1920, the Ottawa Citizen newspaper celebrated the golden anniversary of the company with a supplement dedicated exclusively to the department store, its history, and its successes. The newspaper opined that the secret of the retailer’s success was the character of Charles Bryson—“his untiring efforts, his forceful personality and his integrity.” The paper also re-published his obituary that stated that Bryson “was a gentleman in business as in his private life; a kind employer, a devoted friend, a real Christian.” The newspaper stated that the many friends of “Ottawa’s Greatest Store” hoped that “the next fifty years will witness an expansion proportionate to that of those gone by.”

This wish was not granted. Three years later, in 1923, Frederick Graham died, and the venerable company on Sparks Street passed fully into the hands of the next generation of Brysons and Grahams. James Bryson took over as president and W.M. Graham stepped into the vice-president’s position. For a time, Bryson-Graham continued to do well, but its years of expansion were over. It had apparently transitioned into a comfortable middle age. While it continued to provide a wide range of quality goods to Ottawa customers at reasonable prices, the drive and determination of its founders were gone.

Bryson graham sale oj 17ap1953
Bryson-Graham’s Last Advertisement, The Ottawa Journal, 17 April 1953

Business suffered through the lean years of the Depression and World War II. By the late 1940s, the company was dowdy and old fashioned. In May 1950, Ormie A. Awrey, who had been vice-president and general manager of the firm for the previous eleven years acquired control of the business from the children of the late Charles Bryson and Frederick Graham, buying 85 per cent of the company for $1 million. He later bought the remaining shares. Awrey promised to carry on the traditions of the old firm, but the retailer continued to decline. Parts of the old building were rented out to other retailers, including Bata Shoes, Swears and Wells, and Dolcis.  In February 1953, he sold the Bryson-Graham block in February 1953 to J. B. and Archie Dover of Dover’s Ltd for only $310,000. After holding a clearance sale of its stock and fittings, Bryson-Graham, now billed as “Ottawa’s Oldest Department Store,” closed for good on 18 April 1953, ending an 83-year presence on Sparks Street.

Bryson Graham 2017
The Bryson-Graham building today, corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets, July 2017, Nicolle Powell

Today, the Bryson-Graham building at the corner of Sparks and O’Connor Streets still stands. The ground floor is occupied by Nate’s Delicatessen.

Sources:

Elder, Ken, 2009. Bryson, Graham & Co., Ottawa Canada, http://www.eeldersite.com/Bryson-_Graham_-_Co.pdf.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1920. “Bryson-Graham Ltd Celebrates Its Golden Jubilee, 28 February.

————————-, 1920. “Silver Anniversary of Store,” 28 February.

————————-, 1920. “Character of Founder Largely Responsible For Store’s Success,” 28 February.

————————-, 1920. “Battery of Comptometers Used in Bryson-Graham’s Stores,” 28 February.

————————-, 1920. “Hard Work One Secret Of The Success Won By Messrs. Bryson-Graham,” 28 February.

————————-, 1920. “One-Price Policy Was Introduced In Ottawa By Bryson-Graham Co.” 28 February.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1895. “A Five Cents With A History,” 10 September.

————————–, 1935. “The Shops of the Capital, What they Were and Are,” 10 December.

————————–, 1950. “O.A. Awrey Acquires Control of Bryson Graham Ltd,” 5 May.

————————–, 1953. “Dovers Buy Bryson Blok,” 12 February.

————————–, 1953. “$10,000, Bryson-Graham Sale Heads May Property Deals,” 4 July.

Urbsite, 2012, Sparks Street Deartment Stores: Bryson Graham and Company, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2012/10/sparks-department-stores-bryson-graham.html.