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The Russell Theatre

 

15 October 1897

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

Alberti, Louis-Gèrard, 2015. “The Russell Theatre,” The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

THE LORD ELGIN HOTEL 19 July 1941

~ James Powell


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

Boswell, Randy, 2016, The Lord Elgin Hotel, Mackenzie King’s capital vision and birth of a landmark, Lord Elgin Hotel.

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

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

Lord Elgin Hotel, 2016. A historic landmark in downtown Ottawa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images:

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

Lord Elgin, 2016, by James Powell

Lady Elgin, 2016 by James Powell

 

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Temples of Commerce


12 May 1955

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

Azrielli, David, 1997, The Architect As Creator Of Environments: Victor Gruen, Visionary Pioneer Of Urban Revitalization, Carleton University, April.

Badger, Emily, 2012. “The Shopping Mall Turns 60 (and Prepares to Retire),” CityLab, 12 July.

Gladwell, Malcolm, 2004. “The Terrazzo Jungle,” The New Yorker, 15 March.

Merrick, Amy, 2014. “Are Malls Over?” 11 March, The New Yorker.

Ortega, Lauren, 2012. The Rise of the Mall, Columbia University, New York.

Parlette, Vanessa & Cowen, Deborah, 2011. “Dead Mall: Suburban Activism, Local Spaces, Global Logistics,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 35, Issue 4, July.

Queen’s Film and Media, CBC Television Series, 1952-1982.

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

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

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

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

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

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Fort Culture


31 May 1969

The National Arts Centre (NAC) was born out of a dream of establishing a performance hall in the nation’s capital. For decades, Ottawa made do with the Capitol Theatre, located at the intersection of Queen and Bank Streets. Although the Capitol was an architecturally impressive building and could seat more than 2,000 people in its cavernous auditorium, it had been designed for cinema and vaudeville shows. Constructed in 1920 for the Loew’s theatre chain of movie palaces, the Capitol lacked the facilities of a modern theatre.

In 1962, G. Hamilton Southam, a member of a wealthy Ottawa family that owned the eponymous Southam publishing empire, which included the Ottawa Citizen in its stable of newspapers, was approached by prominent Ottawa residents to spearhead efforts to turn the dream of a proper theatre in Ottawa into reality. The well-connected Southam, a diplomat in the Department of External Affairs, was ideal for the job. Within a year, the National Capital Arts Alliance, with Southam at its head, had put together a feasibility study, and was ready to approach the government for funding. The price tag for the building was $9 million (equivalent to $70 million in today’s money.) Their timing was perfect. The 1960s were years of plenty in Canada. The federal government, with money in its pockets, was seeking worthy projects to celebrate 1967, Canada’s centennial year. A performing arts centre for Ottawa fitted the bill perfectly. Southam presented the proposal to Prime Minister Lester Pearson in November 1963, and by Christmas the project had received the government’s formal approval.

Southam was appointed the co-ordinator of the project; he later becoming the NAC’s first director general. He immediately set up advisory committees composed of the country’s leading arts professionals to establish the requirements for an arts centre which would not only have a national mandate to promote and development Canadian performing arts and artists, but would also be bilingual, the first in the world. A number of sites were considered for the new performing arts centre. Nepean Point overlooking the Ottawa River, was an early favourite. But Charlotte Whitton, Ottawa’s mayor at the time, dissuaded the group, offering instead a parcel of city-owned land on Elgin Street.

The architectural contract for the Centre was given to ARCOP Associates of Montreal. Polish-born Fred David Lebensold, a founding member of the firm, was assigned the task of designing the complex structure. Lebensold was a good choice. He had been a professor of architecture at McGill University, and was a member of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. He had designed the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, and the Place Des Arts in Montreal. Lebensold’s hexagonal design for the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, which was based on the shape of the building site, was in the Brutalist style. Poured, reinforced concrete covered with precast panels of Laurentian-granite aggregate in a variety of textures were used for both exterior and interior walls. “Brutalism” which comes from the French words, béton bru, meaning raw concrete, was a popular architectural style during the 1950s and 1960s for governmental and institutional buildings. The design attracted considerable controversy not least of which for the decision to turn the back of the building towards Elgin Street, with its front door facing the Rideau Canal. Charlotte Whitton called the Centre “Fort Culture.” The building was to house a salon, three performance halls of different sizes—the opera, theatre, and studio—in addition to workshops, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, restaurants, and an underground garage.

The approved plan was much larger than the Arts Alliance’s original proposal that Southam presented to Pearson, with the floor area increasing from 175,000 square feet to 474,000 square feet. Substantial funds, $500,000, were also allocated for sculptures, tapestries, and other art works to decorate the building. The budget was accordingly increased from $9 million to $16 million.

Construction began in late 1964. Excavation for the underground parking lot proved challenging owing to the risk of flooding due to the building’s proximity to the Rideau Canal. Costs quickly blew through the Centre’s $16 million budget, and were in excess of $26 million by the middle of 1965. When the building was finally finished in 1969, two years after Canada’s centennial, costs had reached $46.4 million (in excess of $300 million in today’s dollars). Needless to say, there were screams of outrage in Parliament. At a 1968 hearing into the matter, a senior Public Works official admitted that the government had placed more emphasis on quality than economy. A shortage of construction workers owing to building Expo 67 also contributed to cost pressures. But the millions bought a world-class performance centre which put Ottawa on the cultural map of not only Canada but the world.

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The decision was made to separate the official opening of the Centre from its first performance. On Saturday, 31 May, 1969, all of Ottawa was invited to an open house and the opening festivities. Nearly 40,000 people toured the facility, giving the new National Arts Centre generally favourable reviews. At the official ceremonies that afternoon, Prime Minister Trudeau presented Lawrence Freiman, the chairman of the Centre’s board of trustees, with the contract between the federal government and the Centre. Embarrassingly, however, the Centre’s state-of-the art sound system misbehaved. After a series of weird sounds and feedback screeches, the system failed, leaving the official speeches inaudible except to those closest to the dais. More successful were the day’s free jazz, folk, and band concerts, as well as the night’s fireworks, and the four searchlights that plied the dark sky.

Two days later, the curtain finally rose at the Centre for the first time. All of Ottawa’s movers, shakers, and arts glitterati attended a gala event in the Opera House. Sending gossip columnists atwitter, Prime Minister Trudeau, then single, was accompanied by Madeleine Gobeil, who had just been appointed to the Arts Centre’s board. Governor General Roland Michener and his wife sat in the royal box.

The evening’s first attraction was the silken, multi-coloured curtain woven by Micheline Beauchemin. Costing $75,000, the curtain was fabricated in Japan since no loom in Canada was large enough. The curtain rose on a specially commissioned, once-only performance of a ballet called “The Queen.” The music was by composer Louis Applebaum, choreography was by Grant Strate, and costumes were by Jean-Claude Rinfret. Eighteen dancers in white baroque outfits danced in front of a large Canadian coat of arms. After the dance, the backdrop was raised to reveal the provincial coats of arms surrounding a Canadian flag which turned gradually into a Union Jack and a blue and white fleur de lys while the orchestra played O Canada.

The pièce de résistance was the world premiere of Kraanerg, a contemporary ballet commissioned for the Centre’s opening, with music composed by Greek-born Iannis Xanakis, dance choreographed by Roland Petit, and sets by the op-artist Victor Vasarely. According to Sarah Jennings, author of the definitive history of the National Arts Centre, the “avant-garde ballet with the discordant electronic-sounding orchestral music” was “hailed by the critics.” Perhaps. For most of the audience, the ballet was impossible to understand, a view seemingly shared by Xanakis and Petit themselves who said that it could not be taken in either a literal or symbolic way. This didn’t leave a lot of room for comprehension. The dancing was highly acrobatic. The Chicago Tribune’s theatre critic wrote that the “company was put through a series of puerile calisthenics which started with Indian wrestling and stopped with push-ups.” Claude Gingras of La Presse, called the first act “tiresome,” and the second “the effect produced by taking hallucinogenic drugs.”

A few days later, the first play was performed in the theatre. It was Lysistrata, a comedy by the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes about women trying to end the Peloponnesian war by withholding sex from their husbands. The play was adapted by Michel Tremblay, and performed by Montreal’s Theâtre du Nouveau Monde, directed by André Brassard. The first English-language play was George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, about a young Aboriginal girl living in a big Canadian city, directed by David Gardener, and performed by the Vancouver Playhouse. The first production in the Studio was Party Day by Jack Winter, performed by The Toronto Workshop Productions. The play was an odd choice for the government-funded NAC. Set against the backdrop of the Nuremburg rallies in Nazi Germany, Party Day spoke of the dangers of government sponsorship of the arts.

After several successful years, the NAC ran afoul of changing social and economic conditions in Canada. With nationalism rising in Quebec, especially within the artistic community, it became difficult to attract French-language players to Ottawa, deemed an Anglo backwater. Growing regionalism in the rest of the country led to calls for government arts subsidies to be distributed equitably across the country rather than centred in Ottawa at the NAC. Canada’s economic woes also cast a long shadow. Caught between rising inflation and successive budget cuts owing to the federal government’s yawning fiscal deficits, the NAC was forced to drastically scale back its activities though the 1980s and 1990s. First to go was the Centre’s English and French, cross-country, touring theatre. The opera then found itself on management’s little list of things it could do without. Next on the cutting-room floor was the “Le Restaurant,” the NAC’s haute cuisine restaurant, and the NAC’s in-house repertory theatre companies. Even the acclaimed NAC orchestra was threatened with conversion into a community-based organization. As a final indignity, there was talk of privatizing the NAC, and turning the building over to the National Capital Commission for use as a rental hall.

A renaissance began in the late 1990s, under the leadership of Elaine Calder, and then Peter Herrndorf, aided by a strong artistic team, including world renowned Pinchas Zukerman as music director. As the federal fiscal situation improved, government funding stabilized. In 2000, the NAC Foundation was established to raise funds from the private sector, helping to reduce the Centre’s reliance on the government. There was also a renewed emphasis on in-house theatre with the establishment of the NAC English Theatre Acting Company in 2006.

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In February 2014, the NAC unveiled its “Road to 2019,” which detailed upcoming artistic events and festivals in the lead-up to the Centre 50th anniversary. It also launched a new logo and motto, “Canada is our stage, Le Canada en Scène,” to underscore its national identity. In December 2014, the federal government announced that the NAC would be undergoing a $110 million refurbishment that would reorient the front of the Centre towards the Parliament Hill, the National War Memorial, and Elgin Street rather than the Rideau Canal. No longer would the NAC have its back to the city.

Sources:

Grace, Garry, 2010. “Resident Theatre Companies at the NAC,” ArtsAlive.ca.

Jennings, Sarah, 2009. Art And Politics: The History of the National Arts Centre, Dundurn Press: Toronto.

National Arts Centre, 2014. About the National Arts Centre.

————————-, 2014, Annual Report 2013-2014.

Taylor, John, 1986. Ottawa: An Illustrated History, Toronto: J. Lorimer and Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The Gazette, 1989. “National Arts Centre facing death sentence,” 3 April.

The Globe and Mail, 1968. “$9 million Arts Centre rises to estimated $46.4 million,” 8 November.

————————-, 1968. “Arts Centre bargain at $46.4 million, architect says,” 13 November.

————————-, 1968. “Arts Centre target for PC complaint of ‘squandermania,’” 27 November.

————————, 2014. “Feds unveil $110-million reno job for National Arts Centre,” 10 December.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1969. “Love at first sight—for most of 40,000,” 2 June.

———————-, 1969. “40,000 agog but centre’s debut shaky,” 2 June.

———————-, 1969. “Curtain Up,” 3 June.

———————, 1969, “One gets tired of acrobatics,” 3 June.

———————, 1969. “The critics have their say,” 3 June.

The Windsor Star, 1989. “National Arts Centre Orchestra Saved,” 4 May.

Image: National Arts Centre, 2015, by Nicolle Powell

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Monetary Matters


11 March 1935

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

——————-, 2010. Light and Space: The Architecture of the Bank of Canada,

——————-, 2016. The Bank’s Head Office,

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

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

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

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

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

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Building Parliament

20 December 1859

 

~ James Powell

 

In early May 1859, roughly a year after the Canadian Parliament had ratified Queen Victoria’s selection of Ottawa as the permanent capital of the United Province of Canada, steps were taken to turn the regal decision into reality. John Rose, the provincial Commissioner of Public Works, announced an architectural competition for four government buildings to be constructed in Ottawa, still a rough-and-tumble lumber town that lacked the facilities and amenities of a capital city. Three were slated to be built on Barrack Hill, a spectacular 25-acre plot of land overlooking the Ottawa River. These comprised a new Provincial Legislature, and two Departmental buildings to house civil servants. A fourth, called Government House, was planned for nearby Major’s Hill, and was to be the official residence of the Governor General. Submissions were anonymous, with entries identified solely by a motto; the name(s) of the entrants were submitted in sealed envelopes that were opened only after the winning designs had been selected. The first and second-placed entries received prize money: £250 and £100 for the Parliament building, £250 and £100 for the two departmental buildings, and £100 and £50 for Government House.

The scale of the project was monumental, far larger than anything previously commissioned in British North America. Arguably, the buildings and their expected grandeur were out of keeping with both the size of Ottawa, and the population of the Province of Canada, which totalled only 2.5 million in 1860. But as was the case with the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, people were planning for the future.

The government specified that the Legislature building was to contain a Council Chamber and a Hall of Assembly for the upper and lower houses of Parliament, a lobby, a semi-detached library, a picture gallery, and 85 reading rooms, wardrobes, Speakers’ apartments, committee rooms, and clerk rooms, totalling 55,000 square feet. The two Departmental buildings, which together amounted to roughly the same square footage as the Legislature building, required 170 offices to house the entire Canadian public service, including space for the Governor General, the Executive Council, the Indian Department, Provincial Secretary, Crown Law Offices, the Adjutant General for the Militia, Agriculture, Public Works, Crown Lands, Finance, Customs, Audit, the Receiver General, and the Postmaster General. Specifications for the Governor General’s residence called for a 27,000 square foot mansion with 75 rooms, of which 40 would consist of staterooms, a ball room, dining room, private apartments, and a library, with the remainder taken up with domestic offices. In keeping with Victorian sensibilities, there was no direct reference to washrooms in any of the buildings. Presumably, they came under “&c., &c.” in the specifications. The most detailed requirements were stipulated for the Parliamentary Library for which the Parliamentary Librarian, Alpheus Todd, had insisted on state-of-the-art facilities, and rigorous fire precautions. These latter measures spared the Library the centre block’s fate when the main building was gutted by fire in 1916.

The government call for submissions did not specify any particular architectural style for the buildings beyond saying that it should be “plain” and “substantial,” with “hammer-dressed masonry, with neatly-pointed joints, and cut stone quoits, window dressings, cornices and entablatures,” and that the materials for construction should be found locally. The budget for the buildings was set at $300,000 for Parliament House, $240,000 for the two Departmental buildings which were to flank the Legislature building, and $100,000 for Government House.

Despite the size and complexity of the government’s requirements, architects were given little time to design and draw detailed architectural drawings; completed plans had to be submitted by the following 1 August. The competition had two judges, Samuel Keefer, Deputy Commissioner of Public Works, and Frederick Rubridge. Both were engineers. Rubridge was also a trained surveyor and architect.

Thirty-two designs and 298 drawings for the four buildings were submitted in a variety of styles, including Civil Gothic, Classical, Norman, Tudor, and Italian. They were judged on the basis of ten criteria: fitness of the plan and interior arrangement, economy of construction, beauty of design, adaptation to site, climate, and materials available locally, economy of heating and ventilation, conformity with required conditions, and safety against fire. Of the sixteen proposals submitted for the Parliament building and library, a Civic Gothic design by “Semper Paratus,” the nom de plume of Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones of Toronto, emerged victorious. Of the seven designs submitted for the departmental buildings that were to flank the Legislature building, the Civic Gothic proposal of “Stat nomen in umbra,” (Ottawa architects Thomas Stent and Augustus Lever), took first place. Frederic Cumberland and W. George Storm’s Venetian-style design, submitted under the name “Odahwah,” won the contest for Government House.

It was perhaps no surprise that the two judges, Keefer and Rubridge, selected the Gothic style for the three most important buildings. This was the architectural style chosen for the British Houses of Parliament built during the 1830s. In contrast, the classical style, chosen for the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C., was associated with U.S. republicanism. The Gothic style, symbolic of ties with Britain, was enthusiastically embraced by Canadians who used it extensively over the next fifty years.

photo

Site preparation on Barrack Hill for the Legislature building and the Departmental buildings began promptly, with the official ground-breaking ceremony taking place on Tuesday, 20 December 1859. It was a low-key affair, and little advertised. Nonetheless, thousands of Ottawa citizens walked to the construction site at noon to be part of the historic event. Mr Rose, the Commissioner of Public Works, the government department responsible for the buildings’ construction, turned the first sod for the Legislature building. In a short speech, he reflected on how laws would be enacted on this spot for the benefit of future generations. He also referred to the acrimonious debate surrounding the selection of Ottawa as the capital of Canada. While ostensibly expressing no opinion on the subject, he contended that the very continuance of the Canadian Union depended on Parliament being in Ottawa. Foreshadowing future constitutional debates, he expressed a “sincere hope that the cries of disunion, which is as yet but faintly heard, may never find an echo in the breasts of any considerable number of Canadian people.” He added that in light of the “moral and material progress made since the Union of Upper and Lower Canada, he could not reconcile himself to the idea that a desire for separation is prompted by…any sentiment of true patriotism.” At the conclusion of his speech, a cannon salute was fired.

Mr Keefer, the Deputy Commissioner and one of the two judges in the architectural competition for the Parliament buildings, was supposed to turn the first sod for the flanking departmental buildings. However, given the cold, and with people already drifting away after Rose’s speech, that part of the ceremony was dropped. Instead the official party, which include Ottawa’s mayor, Edward McGillivray, members of city council, the architects, and contractors, retired to Doran’s Hotel for refreshments.

Within weeks, Barrack Hill, later known as Parliament Hill, was a beehive of activity, employing thousands of labourers, representing a huge portion of Ottawa’s workforce—the city’s entire population numbered less than 15,000. Construction almost immediately ran into trouble leading to cost overruns and delays, though the foundations were sufficiently advanced for the Prince of Wales to lay the cornerstone of the Legislative building at the beginning of September 1860. But by October 1861, despite more than $1.4 million having been spent, the project was far from complete. Work was halted, and some 3,000 men lost their jobs, at least temporarily. To save money, the government also dropped the idea of building Government House.

photo

In June 1862, the government appointed a commission to look into charges of financial mismanagement. Reporting back in January 1863, the commission concluded that the excessive costs were due to a number of factors including: a failure of Public Works to assess the depth of the bedrock on the site prior to signing contracts, the improper awarding of the construction contract to Thomas McGreevy, the principal building contractor, who received the job on the basis of patronage rather than price, and a failure to adequately factor in the cost of heating and ventilating the buildings. The architects were also taken to task for inadequately monitoring the progress of the construction. Samuel Keefer, the Deputy Commissioner, took the blame for the fiasco, and was fired.

Construction resumed in 1863 under the general supervision of Frederick Rubridge, the other judge in the architectural contest. By the fall of 1865, the East and West Blocks were sufficiently ready for civil servants to move from Quebec City into their new quarters. The Legislature building (Centre Block) was officially opened on 6 June 1866, roughly a year before Confederation. Construction on the Victoria Tower in the Centre block continued until 1873, while work on the Library lasted until 1877. The final cost of the three buildings was $2.9 million, four times the original budget.

Sources:

City of Ottawa, 2001-15. A Virtual Exhibit: Ottawa Becomes the Capital.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1859. “Breaking Ground for the Commencement of the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa,” 23 December.

Gowans, Alan, 2012, “Parliament Buildings,” The Canadian Encyclopedia .

Young, Carolyn A., 1995. The Glory of Ottawa: Canada’s First Parliament Buildings, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal and Kingston.

Images: West Block under construction, 1861, Samuel McLaughlin, Library and Archives Canada, C-018354 .

Centre Block under construction, 1865, Samuel McLaughlin, Library and Archives Canada, C-003039.

 

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

OLD BUILDINGS
- Clifford Scott

A while back I told you about the Old Registry Office that was built in 1873. There are even older buildings around Ottawa and many of them can be seen in a quick trip around Lower Town and in Sandy Hill.. A cluster of them is viewable near the Basilica at Sussex and St. Patrick. The Basilica itself is one of the oldest surviving structures in Ottawa.

The oldest of all Ottawa buildings is the Bytown Museum beside the canal, built in 1826 as Colonel By's storehouse for the construction of the Rideau Canal. The Canal was officially opened 175 years ago, in 1832. Houses were built in Lower Town as the community grew and, as Canada became a nation, many upscale houses were built in Sandy Hill. This article will focus on a few of these house, but a good walking tour will show off even more.

label ... to tell the stories of some of the people who have lived here over the last 175 years. label

There is a particularly well preserved house at 138 St. Patrick St. that belonged to Flavien Rochon. Built circa 1832, it is typical of a workingman's home of the era Before it became the property of Mr. Rochon, four sisters of the Grey Nuns of the Cross (now the Sisters of Charity of Ottawa) lived there from 1845-1851 Mr. Rochon was a carpenter by trade who also sculpted wood and who was involved in the construction of both Notre Dame Basilica as well as the Parliamentary library. The house was acqired by the NCC in 1965. His next door neighbour at 142 St. Patrick was Dr. Francois-Xavier Valade whose imposing house was built circa 1864. The Valade house is typical of of ancestral homes in Normandy Dr Valade lived there from 1866 to 1918, was one of Ottawa's first doctors and was also one of the doctors responsible for examining Louis Riel before Riel's 1885 trial in Regina.. The house was known as Le Balcon Blanc because of the white veranda overhanging the entrance. The original balcony was replaced at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Before leaving Lower Town for Sandy Hill, we should mention Notre Dame Basilica, the oldest church in the capital, built between 1841 and 1865 on the site of an earlier church built in 1832. It contains beautiful statues and woodwork carved by Louis Philippe Hebert, Phillipe Pariseau and Flavien Rochon whose house was described above. The tower of the Basilica stands nearly 55 metres high and the organ has more than 4000 pipes!. This just a small sample of buildings constructed before Canada became a nation in 1867.

Louis Besserer, a lawyer from Quebec, bought a large parcel of land that became the area known as Sandy Hill, one of the first “elite” neighborhoods in Ottawa. Besserer's land purchase took place in 1828, but the area did not really develop before Ottawa was picked as the site of Canada's capital by Queen Victoria in 1857. Growth accelerated after Confederation and the area became home to many politicians and senior government officials.

One of the oldest houses in Sandy Hill is the Besserer House built c. 1844 where L. J. Besserer lived from 1844 to 1866. It was later occupied by W. T. McDougal, one of the fathers of Confederation. The house is at 149 Daly Ave and is really the center of Sandy Hill development. Some changes to the verandas and the western face have taken place since 1844, but the house is still largely the same as when it was originally built.

Another older house is the Lyon house, built c. 1850. It's first occupant was a son of the original builder Colonel George Lyon Fellowes. Robert Fellowes, the son, was a member of Parliament and in 1876, the Mayor of Ottawa. The pamphlet put together by the Regroupment des Organismes du Patrimoine Franco-Ontarienne states as follows “The bay window, the magnificent wooden portico and the decorative flourishes on the facade make it one of the most charming residences. ” The Toller House, built c. 1875. Its first occupant, T. Fournier, was a creator of the Supreme Court of Canada and one of the first Justices. The next occupant, for whom the house is named, was Frederik Toller, Auditor General of Canada The next occupant was Louis-Phillipe Brodeur who was simultaneously Minister of Finance and Oceans, a Justice of the Supreme Court and Lieutenant Governor of Quebec. How he managed to handle all four jobs, we'll have to guess! The City of Ottawa designated the house an historic property in 1982.

These are only a few of the historic buildings in downtown Ottawa. Take a tour under the auspices of ROPFO or Heritage Ottawa and discover much, much more!

 

Cliff Scott, an Ottawa resident since 1954 and a former history lecturer at the University of Ottawa (UOttawa), he also served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Public Service of Canada.

Since 1992, he has been active in the volunteer sector and has held executive positions with The Historical Society of Ottawa, the Friends of the Farm and the Council of Heritage Organizations in Ottawa. He also inaugurated the Historica Heritage Fair in Ottawa and still serves on its organizing committee.

The Russell House Hotel

- James Powell

8 June 1863

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adieu, adieu old rendezvous

With saddened hearts we’re leaving you;

‘Twas here friends were wont to meet;

Here argued we affairs of state,

How oft’ we talked long and late,

To make the other fellow know.

Ah! Life is but a passing show.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

 

Ottawa's Castle

- James Powell


June 1, 1912

The Château Laurier Hotel with its fairyland turrets and copper roof is one of Ottawa’s iconic buildings. Majestically located beside the Rideau Canal locks on Wellington Street and backing onto Major Hill’s Park, it has breathtaking views of Parliament Hill, the Ottawa River, and the Gatineau Hills. Given its aristocratic bearing and central location, one can almost forgive tourists for confusing it with Canada’s Parliament buildings but a short walk away. Indeed, its architecture was deliberately chosen to complement the Gothic Revival style of Canada’s legislative buildings.

The hotel and the Union Train Station (now the Conference Centre), located across the street and connected via a pedestrian subway, were constructed by the Grand Trunk Railway Company (GTR) during the early twentieth century. They were lynchpins in a new trans-continental rail and hotel network being developed by the GTR to compete head on with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in the travel and hospitality industry. The Château Laurier was the first in a series of grand railway hotels that the GTR was to build, including the Macdonald Hotel in Edmonton and the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg. For the federal government, which had an almost symbiotic relationship with the GTR, the hotel and train station were part of a broader plan to beautify Ottawa. They provided a striking entrance to the city, helping to realize Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s dream of turning it into the “Washington of the North.”

The preliminary design for the hotel was drafted by U.S. architect Bradford Lee Gilbert who had been hired in 1907 by fellow American, Charles Melville Hays, then General Manager and later President of the Grand Trunk Railway. Gilbert was famous for designing the “Tower Building” in New York City, that city’s first skyscraper. The French château architecture he proposed for Ottawa’s new hotel was a style popularized by the CPR which had previously built several grand baronial hotels, including the Château Frontenac in Quebec City, and the Banff Springs Hotel in Banff, Alberta. After submitting drawings of the proposed hotel to Hays, the railway tycoon fired Gilbert, replacing him with George Ross and David McFarlane of Montreal. However, the new Ross-McFarlane design was remarkably similar to that originally submitted by Gilbert, leading to charges of architectural plagiarism. Gilbert sued in 1908, and received $20,000 (close to $500,000 in today’s money) in an out-of-court settlement with the Grand Trunk Railway. Although their ethics were debatable, the controversy did not dent Ross and McFarlane’s careers. Their success with the Château Laurier demonstrated that Canadians were competent to tackle large architectural projects, hitherto typically given to Americans. Their company subsequently gained national prominence, winning major contracts across the country.

With a budget of $1.5 million, construction on the new hotel began in 1909 and was competed in 1912. It was named after Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the sitting prime minister of Canada. If this sounds a bit odd, it was. But it was an astute political move. Laurier had used his influence to carve out a piece of Major’s Hill Park for the site of the new hotel; an action that had provoked considerable controversy in Ottawa. Also, the railway owed its survival to the federal government that had provided it with millions in subsidies and loan guarantees. Even as the Château was being readied for its opening day in the spring of 1912, the GTR’s finances were on shaky grounds, with President Hays in London trying to find fresh funds for the railway. Indeed, the Grand Trunk was destined to be nationalized roughly a decade later to form, along with other bankrupt lines, the Canadian National Railway (CNR).

The grand opening of the hotel, with guests coming from across Canada and the United States, was scheduled for late April 1912. But catastrophe struck. Charles Hays and his family, which had accompanied him to England, elected to return to North America for the hotel’s opening on the RMS Titanic. They were the special guests of J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line that owned the “unsinkable” liner. As we all know, the ship struck an iceberg four hundred miles south of Newfoundland and sank. More than 1,500 people perished in the cold North Atlantic waters. Although Hays’s wife and daughter survived the ship’s sinking, as did Ismay, Hays, his son-in-law, and his secretary drowned. Hays’s body was subsequently recovered, and was buried in the Mount Royal Cemetery in Montreal. Also lost in the sinking of the Titanic were dining room furniture and other decorations purchased in London by Hays for his new hotel.

Paul Chevré, the Belgain-born sculptor of the bust of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, which can be seen today in the lobby of the Château Laurier, was also aboard the Titanic. He boarded the ship as a first class passenger at Cherbourg, France. Chevré was on his way to Canada for the installation of his statue of former Quebec Premier Honoré Mercier on the grounds of the National Assembly in Quebec City, and for the unveiling of his Laurier bust in Ottawa. Chevré survived the sinking, having been persuaded to board the first life boat to be lowered into the water. Contrary to rumours, the bust, which was also making its way across the Atlantic, neither went down with the Titanic, nor was smuggled onto one of the Titanic’s life boats. Instead, it was safely shipped aboard another ship, La Bretagne, arriving in Ottawa in time for the hotel’s official opening.

On 1 June 1912, the magnificent Château Laurier and Union Station were officially opened to the public. With Hays’s death just six weeks before, the opening was a subdued affair. A silent toast was drunk to his memory. In attendance were senior executives of the Grand Truck Railway who played hosts at an informal banquet for the Parliamentary Press Gallery and a few journalists from Montreal, Boston and New York. That day, two hundred guests registered, with Sir Wilfrid Laurier the first to sign the hotel’s register.

The Château Laurier received rave reviews. The day after the opening, the reporter from Toronto’s Globe newspaper enthused “The latest word in palace hotels on this continent in point of chaste and impressive architecture, in point of beauty of interior decorations, and in point of completeness of arrangements for the comfort and convenience of guests, was spoken last night.” The hotel was indeed a masterpiece. Its walls were built of Indiana limestone, its lobby of Belgian marble, and its windows by Tiffany. Each of its principal public rooms on the main floor was thematically decorated: the lobby in simple Flemish style, the “palm room” in Renaissance style, and the waiting room in wainscoted oak, reminiscent of Tudor England. The dining rooms were fitted out in the manner of Louis XVI, with panels painted with classical subjects. In the basement, was the grill-room, bar, and barber shop, while on the mezzanine were the ladies’ parlours and the corridor writing room; a balcony overlooked the rotunda. As well as being beautiful, the hotel had all the modern comforts of the time, with electricity, and a state-of-the art kitchen and refrigeration plant. Also almost unheard of for the era, 155 of the hotel’s 350 bedrooms had private baths. The rest were equipped with washstands, complete with running hot and cold water. Room rates started as low as $2 per night, (equivalent to roughly $42 today).

The hotel immediately became the premier resting spot for visitors to the capital, eclipsing the old Russell hotel which subsequently fell on hard times. The Château also became the watering hole of choice for MPs and senators; so much so that it became known as the “third chamber of Parliament”—and not necessarily the least important being the location of many smoke-filled, back-room, political deals. In 1929, the hotel underwent a major expansion, adding its east wing and the installation of an art deco swimming pool. Another major refit occurred in 1983 that saw many of its small rooms enlarged to present-day standards.

In recent years, the hotel has changed hands several times. It’s currently owned by Capital Hotel Limited Partnership, a subsidiary of Larco Investments of Vancouver. Larco is a family-run private company co-owned by Amin and Mansour Lalji. The Laljis purchased it in late 2013 from Ivanhoé Cambridge, the real estate subsidiary of Quebec’s Caisse du dépôt et placement, for an undisclosed amount, but believed to have been in the range of $100-150 million.

Over its storied past, the Château has hosted kings, queens, princes and princesses, as well as a host of celebrities and politicians, including Shirley Temple, Marlene Dietrich, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, the Beatles, Roger Moore, and Nelson Mandela. R.B. Bennett called it home from 1930 to 1935 while he was prime minister of Canada. Yousuf Karsh, the famed portrait photographer, had his studio in the Château from 1973 until his retirement in 1992. The sixth floor of the Château was also the home of the Canadian National Railway Radio Station (CNRO) from 1924 until 1937 when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) took it over. CBC continued to broadcast from the same location until it moved to its new headquarters on Sparks Street in 2004. The Château Laurier Hotel was designated a national historic site in 1981.

Sources:

CBC News, 2013. “Ottawa’s Iconic Fairmont Château Laurier hotel sold,” 2 November.

Charles, R., 2012. “Fairmont Château Laurier,’s Unsinkable Titanic Link,” Vacay.ca, .

Encylopedia Titanica, 2014. “Paul Romaine Marie Léonce Chevré,”

Fairmont Chateau Laurier, 2014. Hotel History.

Lachapelle. J., 2001. “Le Fantasme Métropolitaine,” Érudit,

National Post, “Not just any hotel: Ottawa’s Château Laurier celebrates 100 years of celebrity,”

The Citizen, 1929. “Fills a Long Felt Want In The Capital,” 8 June.

The Globe, 1908. “Chateau Laurier Plans,” 10 October.

—————, 1912. “Mr. Chevre Repudiates False ‘Interviews,’” 13 April.

—————, 1912. “Chateau Laurier Opened in Ottawa,” 3 June.

Wikipedia, 2014. “Château Laurier,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_Laurier.

Image: Château Laurier, circa 1912, City of Ottawa Archives

 

Story written by James Powell, the author of the blog Today in Ottawa's History.
Retired from the Bank of Canada, James is the author or co-author of three books dealing with some aspect of Canadian history. These comprise: A History of the Canadian Dollar, 2005, Bank of Canada, The Bank of Canada of James Elliott Coyne: Challenges, Confrontation and Change,” 2009, Queen’s University Press, and with Jill Moxley, Faking It! A History of Counterfeiting in Canada, 2013, General Store Publishing House, Renfrew, Ontario. James is a Director of The Historical Society of Ottawa.

Old Registry Office
- Clifford Scott


Part of this series on Ottawa in the "old days" will be to tell you about buildings that have been around for a long time. There is an active organization called Heritage Ottawa that specializes in commemorating the older buildings in the City. They team up with the City every year in May to make building tours available to anyone interested. The event is called "Doors Open Ottawa" and many interesting facets of both "Old" and modern Ottawa are presented. If Architecture and our relatively ancient buildings( for Canada) are of interest, Heritage Ottawa is a wonderful source of information. Some of us call them the "Building Protective Society" of Ottawa!

Many passers by on the Mackenzie King bridge or driving up Nicholas Street wonder what the old, rectangular building across the street from the old City Jail represents. It has been featured in several of the Doors Open Ottawa events and has a very interesting and chequered history. Owned now by the people who own the Rideau Centre, it began life in 1873 as the City Registry office where all official records of the City were kept. If you needed to know the history of a piece of land or building together with who owned or had owned it, you had to go to the City Registry Office. All official records of Bytown and the City of Ottawa were kept there. Inside the building is a unique set of rails, now covered, that allowed cast iron shelving to be moved back and forth as if on railway tracks.

When you first enter the building, you go into what was the office where clerks would take information or draw files from the storage room which was next through the building. After passing through the file storage area there are a number of small offices, much smaller than today's office space allotment. There is one small bathroom and a storage closet The whole building was heated by a pot bellied stove burning wood and coal that the clerks had to keep going. You can imagine what it was like on a cold winter day! In 1910 the registry office needed to get bigger, so a brand new one was built. This replacement is no longer with us, and the files we spoke of earlier are now at City Hall. The original registry office is still standing, while the replacement is long gone!

This building has had a number of uses over the years, not the least of which was to function as the original Bytown Museum from 1917 until 1951. The Historical Society, founded in 1898 as the Women's Historical Society of Ottawa needed space for its growing collection of artifacts and convinced the City fathers of the time that the old registry office would make an ideal Museum. The "railway tracks" of the file handling shelves were covered over and exhibits of things like Colonel By's furniture replaced them.

After 1951, the Museum moved to its present quarters in the old Commissariat Building beside the locks of the Rideau Canal. Did you know that in 2007, it will be 175 years since the Canal wasopened in 1832? Did you know the Canal is now a world heritage site?

The old registry office, with its very solid 12 foot foundations, to prevent thievery of critical land ownership records by tunneling , has served other purposes over the years. It was also a legal office and home of the Tourist and Convention Bureau of Ottawa, for example. Now it sits, cold deserted and damp until opened for "Doors Open Ottawa" Many people wonder what's going to happen to it next. The Rideau Centre people have talked about expanding the shopping mall and the old building would be in the way of such an expansion. We'll have to wait to see what transpires, but one alternative would be to encase the old building in the expansion and thereby keep alive a piece of the City's heritage Another alternative would be to move the building to another site There are probably others that readers can think of, but the economic issues may predominate and we will lose a familiar landmark. Only the future, not the past, will tell!.

Today's Historical Note: Did you know that on December 13 in 1907 the Women's Canadian Club was inaugurated by Governor General Earl Gray?

Questions:
(1) When did the Old Registry Office become the Bytown Museum? Answer 1917.

(2) How deep are its foundations? Answer 12 feet

(3) What other purposes has the building served? Answer Legal office; HQ, Ottawa Tourist and Convention Bureau

 

Cliff Scott, an Ottawa resident since 1954 and a former history lecturer at the University of Ottawa (UOttawa), he also served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Public Service of Canada.

Since 1992, he has been active in the volunteer sector and has held executive positions with The Historical Society of Ottawa, the Friends of the Farm and the Council of Heritage Organizations in Ottawa. He also inaugurated the Historica Heritage Fair in Ottawa and still serves on its organizing committee.

The Ottawa City Hall Fire

 

31 March 1931

 

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

photo


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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