Demolished Ottawa: Wrens Fly Away With St. Michael

Beechwood House or St. Michael's Nursing Home, 37 Beechwood, in 1991. Image: City of Ottawa Archives CA024423.
Beechwood House, Cosby House, the Wren’s Nest, St. Michael’s Nursing Home or St. Michael’s Residence. Whatever it was knowns as, here is 37 Beechwood as it appeared in 1991, not long before it was due for demolition. Image: City of Ottawa Archives CA024423.

Between 1943 and 1991, the pentagonal lot bounded by Beechwood, Springfield, Bertrand, Vaughan, and MacKay street in New Edinburgh was home to this smart stucco clad concrete building. A project of F.X. Barrette, it was intended to serve as a residence for women and mothers involved in war work and was leased by the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (Wrens) between 1943 and 1946. Today the site is occupied by the New Edinburgh Square seniors’ complex.

First on the board: Robert A. Sproule opened his office furnishings factors on the lot beside [SCHOOL]. Source: Charles E. Goad. Fire Insurance Atlas, Ottawa. 1902 (1912 Revision).
First on the board: Robert A. Sproule opened his office furnishings factors on the lot beside St. Charles School. Source: Charles E. Goad. Fire Insurance Atlas, Ottawa. 1902 (1912 Revision).
In 1911, Robert A. Sproule joined the newly-constructed St. Charles Separate School (École St-Charles1See Stéphane Hoffman. “St. Charles School – Trusting the Trustees?” Heritage Ottawa Newsletter 23, no. 1 (Winter 1996): 1-2.) on the lot with his furniture factory. From his offices on Sparks Street, he sold all manner of woodwork, including mouldings, cabinetry, furniture, and even boats. Most notably, the company produced some of the furniture that may be found in Parliament today.

A celebrated local, Sproule died in 1939 at 80 years old. After having retired from active business in 1935, his son Robert E died suddenly in 1938, leaving the factory shuttered and subsequently demolished.2”R.A. Sproule Dies Here In 80th Year,” Ottawa Journal, October 10, 1939, p. 4. In February 1942, Mary M. Sproule sold the lot to François X. Barrette for $3,000.3”244 Property Deals in Ottawa in February,” Ottawa Journal, March 7, 1942, p. 4. For his own part, Barrette had his own plans for the property, and quickly had it subdivided into multiple lots.4Ottawa Land Registry Office, Plan 237700. And same, Reel 4AR142.

On January 22, 1943, the Journal reported that excavation had begun on “a three storey residence for girls and mothers employed in war work here on Beechwood avenue.” The cinderblock, stucco-clad residence was being constructed by William D’Aoust for F.X. Barrette and it was expected to be operated by L’Institut Jeanne d’Arc and come in at a cost of $23,500.5”Begins Excavation For Girls’ Residence,” Ottawa Journal, January 22, 1943, p. 13. Later that spring, the Navy signed a lease with Barrette to house 50 officers and ratings of the recently-established Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), better known as Wrens.6LAC RG 24-D-1-c Volume 35531 File 9650-40-14. Officially named Beechwood House and the fifth in Ottawa for the Wrens, the women began moving in at the end of October.7”Beechwood House Wrens’ Residence Opens This Week-End,” Ottawa Journal, October 30, 1943, p. 3. Women’s residences were, of course not uncommon in the city. Laurentian Terrace was constructed in 1942 to house the women who relocated to Ottawa for positions in the bureaucracy during the time.

After all had moved into the residence, a housewarming was held at the end of November. It was reported in the Journal that there were more than sixty Wrens present, including Commander Adelaide Sinclair and Lieutenant Commander Evelyn Mills.8”Longworth-Kerr,” Ottawa Journal, November 30, 1943, p. 10. Beechwood House was, of course, a welcome neighbour, and the local Councillor wasted no time using its presence to argue for much-wanted local improvements.9Ottawa Journal, October 29, 1943, p. 12. Princess Alice, who was made honorary commandant of the Wrens, arrived in January 1944 to inspect the operation in Ottawa, stopping to have tea at Beechwood House.10Of course, she did not have to travel far for the inspection, being the Vicereine and wife of Governor General Athlone, she lived up the street at Rideau Hall in those years. See “Princess Alice Inspects Wrens,” Ottawa Journal, January 20, 1944, p. 11.

Commander Adelaide Sinclair, WRCNS Director, was a guest at Beechwood House housewarming party in November 1943. Image: Lt Gerald M. Moses / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-191176.
Commander Adelaide Sinclair, WRCNS Director, was a guest at Beechwood House housewarming party in November 1943. Image: Lt Gerald M. Moses / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-191176.

The Wrens were demobilized in August 1946,11Emilie Anne Plows. “Serving Their Country: The Story of the Wrens, 1942-1946,” Canadian Military Journal 9, no. 2 (2008): 90. and as part of the general transition back into peacetime, they began to vacate their various Ottawa quarters, including Beechwood House.12”Wrens Vacating Ottawa Quarters,” Ottawa Journal, May 1, 1946, p. 21.

Although the Wrens departed, 37 Beechwood avenue would remain a space for women. On July 9, 1946, Barrette transferred the property to L’Institut Jeanne d’Arc.13Ottawa Land Registry Office, Plan 237700, Lot 7, Reel 4AR142. The organization had come to outgrow its quarters on Sussex Drive and had planned to use the property to for one of its core services: a home for young women with children. Following renovations, Beechwood House would provide shelter for 30 women and kindergarten classes would be offered on site. Space had become so limited on Sussex that the organization had turned many women away.14”Will Establish Hostel, Kindergarten on Beechwood Avenue,” Ottawa Journal, August 9, 1946, p. 10.

In 1962, the space was repurposed as a nursing home for seniors. Source: Ottawa Journal, June 26, 1962, p. 24.
In 1962, the space was repurposed as a nursing home for seniors. Source: Ottawa Journal, June 26, 1962, p. 24.

In 1962, having closed the Beechwood location of its residence for young women, l’Institut Jeanne d’Arc sold the property for $125,000 to Euclide Brunet. Brunet was a nurse by trade whose goal for the property was to open a nursing home for seniors, which he named St. Michael’s.15Ottawa Land Registry Office, Plan 237700, Lot 7, Reel 4AR142; Ottawa Journal, June 26, 1962, p. 24. It seems that, at least in Brunet’s vision, the location would be a temporary one. In 1965, Charles Lynch reported that he was contemplating constructing a new home just off Perrier Avenue in neighbouring Eastview.16I am not sure what became of the plan specifically. It may have been the case that it just did not happen, or it may have been that his vision was eventually rolled into the project that became Centre d’Accueil Champlain on Perrier, completed in 1969. See Charles Lynch. “Real Estate: New Hotel Planned in Vicinity of Old Station,” Ottawa Journal, April 3, 1965, p. 33. As far as privately-run nursing homes are concerned, it appears to have been the case that Brunet operated his with the best of intentions and highest of purposes.

Beechwood was in flux during those days. Source: Ottawa Journal, April 29, 1967, p. 43.
Beechwood was in flux during those days. Nobody should use the term “eyesore” unironically. Source: Ottawa Journal, April 29, 1967, p. 43.

As it would turn out, the provision of “extended care” (part-time nursing for seniors in between completely independent living and needing full-time hospital care) was an expensive venture that, as Ontario’s nursing home system struggled to find its legs, meant that a number of the private homes were unsustainable. In the case of St. Michael’s, the struggle had become all too real by the early 1970s. Brunet was quoted in the Journal, suggesting that money was in habitually short supply and that the province would need to provide funding to operators, both public and private to keep them going.17”See Great Frustrations In Seeking Care for Aged,” Ottawa Journal, June 2, 1971, p. 39. Even with the new funding under OHIP that began in 1972, the cost of part-time medical care was just too great and St. Michael’s Nursing Home was reformed as St. Michael’s Seniors’ Residence, dropping the extended care service.18Doris Shackleton. Ottawa Journal, September 19, 1973, p. 7.

Although the nursing home function ceased, St. Michael's continued as a seniors' residence. Source: Ottawa Journal, June 6, 1980, p. 28.
Although the nursing home function ceased, St. Michael’s continued as a seniors’ residence. Source: Ottawa Journal, June 6, 1980, p. 28.

At the end of 1978, Brunet decided that it was not possible to continue to go it alone in the seniors’ residence game, so on December 14, he sold the property to Lionel Kirby’s 403513 Ontario Inc. for $460,000.19Ottawa Land Registry Office, Plan 237700, Reel 4AR142. This brought St. Michael’s Residence under the same umbrella with Kirby’s other properties, the Steff-Kim Lodge on Glebe Avenue and the Bellevue Residences in Orleans. The umbrella would eventually come to be known as Dignicare.20Shane Harper and Jane Taber. “Nursing home: Chief fears fire,” Ottawa Citizen, September 24, 1980, p. 2. Kirby’s experience with the Steff-Kim Lodges in the Glebe was quite something. See Richard Lee. “The Glebe debates a moral dilemma,” Ottawa Journal, May 24, 1974, p. 3; “Glebe Lodge decision reserved,” Ottawa Journal, June 7, 1974, p. 3; “Glebe senior citizen home gets city okay for expansion,” Ottawa Journal, June 17, 1974, p. 3; “House merger appeal decision stalled by OMB,” Ottawa Journal, September 26, 1974, p. 3; “Joining 2 houses in Glebe okayed,” Ottawa Journal, November 13, 1974, p. 33; “City gambles in OMB test,” Ottawa Journal, September 18, 1975, p. 24; “Correction: Glebe group not involved,” Ottawa Journal, September 20, 1975, p. 2; Kitt Irving. “The Steff-Kim controversy,” Ottawa Journal, November 18, 1975, p. 53. The financial issues appear to have remained the same, but Kirby’s Dignicare demonstrated that there was strength in having multiple properties.21Sheila Brady. “Boarding ‘hostels’ go short: owners,” Ottawa Journal, June 1, 1978, p. 3; Shirley Won. “Regional rest home report gets support from operators,” Ottawa Journal, June 11, 1980, p. 5.

St. Michael's in 1991: not long for this world. Image: geoOttawa.
St. Michael’s in 1991: not long for this world. Image: geoOttawa.

That Canada was at the precipice of a demographic shift was no surprise in the 1990s. The population was going to take on a distinctly grey shade in ways that it had not before and unless things were going to change considerably, a whole variety of living arrangements for seniors would be needed. Beechwood House, designed in what must have seemed like the stone age, was neither large enough, nor was it accessible. Moreover, as the economic profile of the senior citizen had begun to change, there were as well profits to be had.

New Edinburgh Square, 2015. Image: Google Maps.
New Edinburgh Square, 2015. Image: Google Maps.

During the Winter of 1990, the Citizen reported that Dignicare had filed for a zoning change for the property at Beechwood and MacKay. The reason? The site did allow for the 9-storey tower desired, but the required setback was too great to allow for the building’s desired amenities to be constructed. Much to the chagrin of the New Edinburgh Community Association, the city’s planning committee voted 5-2 in favour of the request.22Jack Aubry. “Zoning change puts seniors’ complex closer to construction,” Ottawa Citizen, February 28, 1990, p. C3. That New Edinburgh and Vanier North in general (and Beechwood Avenue specifically) were changing was a source of considerable chafing and New Edinburgh Square served as a very present reminder that it was.23John Ibbitson. “The Erosion of New Edinburgh,” Ottawa Citizen, October 6, 1992, p. E3.

New Edinburgh Square, bird's eye, 2015. Image: Google Maps.
New Edinburgh Square, bird’s eye, 2015. Image: Google Maps.

Dignicare’s Charles Strelka-designed New Edinburgh Square was completed in 1993 and has, contrary to earlier fears, generally been accepted as part of the neighbourhood. The building’s massing and mixed-use podium were even well enough appreciated by the Citizen’s Rhys Phillips, though he found the overall result “neither striking nor innovative.”24If nothing else, it’s a common enough refrain when discussing architecture in the city. The unspoken element being, of course, that it’s a common outcome of the local development process. See Rhys Phillips. “Commercial urban form: Almost is not good enough,” Ottawa Citizen, December 18, 1993, p. I7. In spite of that, when placed in a context with the remainder of 1993’s completions, Phillips’ overall assessment was even less charitable.25Strelka couldn’t have felt too bad: Phillips only placed the mixed-used seniors’ development at third worst. Second was the Canada Post headquarters on Heron and the first? Safdie’s addition to Ottawa City Hall at 111 Sussex.[ref]Rhys Phillips. “Architecture ’93: Best and Worst,” Ottawa Citizen, December 31, 1993, p. F1.

The Minto Beechwood continues the change. Image: Google Maps, June 2016.
The Minto Beechwood continues the change. Image: Google Maps, June 2016.

Notes   [ + ]

1. See Stéphane Hoffman. “St. Charles School – Trusting the Trustees?” Heritage Ottawa Newsletter 23, no. 1 (Winter 1996): 1-2.
2. ”R.A. Sproule Dies Here In 80th Year,” Ottawa Journal, October 10, 1939, p. 4.
3. ”244 Property Deals in Ottawa in February,” Ottawa Journal, March 7, 1942, p. 4.
4. Ottawa Land Registry Office, Plan 237700. And same, Reel 4AR142.
5. ”Begins Excavation For Girls’ Residence,” Ottawa Journal, January 22, 1943, p. 13.
6. LAC RG 24-D-1-c Volume 35531 File 9650-40-14.
7. ”Beechwood House Wrens’ Residence Opens This Week-End,” Ottawa Journal, October 30, 1943, p. 3.
8. ”Longworth-Kerr,” Ottawa Journal, November 30, 1943, p. 10.
9. Ottawa Journal, October 29, 1943, p. 12.
10. Of course, she did not have to travel far for the inspection, being the Vicereine and wife of Governor General Athlone, she lived up the street at Rideau Hall in those years. See “Princess Alice Inspects Wrens,” Ottawa Journal, January 20, 1944, p. 11.
11. Emilie Anne Plows. “Serving Their Country: The Story of the Wrens, 1942-1946,” Canadian Military Journal 9, no. 2 (2008): 90.
12. ”Wrens Vacating Ottawa Quarters,” Ottawa Journal, May 1, 1946, p. 21.
13. Ottawa Land Registry Office, Plan 237700, Lot 7, Reel 4AR142.
14. ”Will Establish Hostel, Kindergarten on Beechwood Avenue,” Ottawa Journal, August 9, 1946, p. 10.
15. Ottawa Land Registry Office, Plan 237700, Lot 7, Reel 4AR142; Ottawa Journal, June 26, 1962, p. 24.
16. I am not sure what became of the plan specifically. It may have been the case that it just did not happen, or it may have been that his vision was eventually rolled into the project that became Centre d’Accueil Champlain on Perrier, completed in 1969. See Charles Lynch. “Real Estate: New Hotel Planned in Vicinity of Old Station,” Ottawa Journal, April 3, 1965, p. 33.
17. ”See Great Frustrations In Seeking Care for Aged,” Ottawa Journal, June 2, 1971, p. 39.
18. Doris Shackleton. Ottawa Journal, September 19, 1973, p. 7.
19. Ottawa Land Registry Office, Plan 237700, Reel 4AR142.
20. Shane Harper and Jane Taber. “Nursing home: Chief fears fire,” Ottawa Citizen, September 24, 1980, p. 2. Kirby’s experience with the Steff-Kim Lodges in the Glebe was quite something. See Richard Lee. “The Glebe debates a moral dilemma,” Ottawa Journal, May 24, 1974, p. 3; “Glebe Lodge decision reserved,” Ottawa Journal, June 7, 1974, p. 3; “Glebe senior citizen home gets city okay for expansion,” Ottawa Journal, June 17, 1974, p. 3; “House merger appeal decision stalled by OMB,” Ottawa Journal, September 26, 1974, p. 3; “Joining 2 houses in Glebe okayed,” Ottawa Journal, November 13, 1974, p. 33; “City gambles in OMB test,” Ottawa Journal, September 18, 1975, p. 24; “Correction: Glebe group not involved,” Ottawa Journal, September 20, 1975, p. 2; Kitt Irving. “The Steff-Kim controversy,” Ottawa Journal, November 18, 1975, p. 53.
21. Sheila Brady. “Boarding ‘hostels’ go short: owners,” Ottawa Journal, June 1, 1978, p. 3; Shirley Won. “Regional rest home report gets support from operators,” Ottawa Journal, June 11, 1980, p. 5.
22. Jack Aubry. “Zoning change puts seniors’ complex closer to construction,” Ottawa Citizen, February 28, 1990, p. C3.
23. John Ibbitson. “The Erosion of New Edinburgh,” Ottawa Citizen, October 6, 1992, p. E3.
24. If nothing else, it’s a common enough refrain when discussing architecture in the city. The unspoken element being, of course, that it’s a common outcome of the local development process. See Rhys Phillips. “Commercial urban form: Almost is not good enough,” Ottawa Citizen, December 18, 1993, p. I7.
25. Strelka couldn’t have felt too bad: Phillips only placed the mixed-used seniors’ development at third worst. Second was the Canada Post headquarters on Heron and the first? Safdie’s addition to Ottawa City Hall at 111 Sussex.[ref]Rhys Phillips. “Architecture ’93: Best and Worst,” Ottawa Citizen, December 31, 1993, p. F1.

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