It did not require out-of-the-ordinary foresight to see the the expansion of the welfare state following the war would come to apply significant development pressure to Ottawa’s Centretown neighbourhood. Developers and urban renewal advocates alike (often one in the same) were quick to point out that Ottawa was absolutely full of dilapidated housing that was, in effect, a menace to public health.
Other local historians (for example, the Midcentury Modernist) have published excellent overviews of the situation and I don’t intend to replicate their work. Instead, I am focusing on one developer in particular that appeared to be somewhat quick out of the starting gate relative to a number of his competitors in the postwar development boom – at least in that swath of Centretown between Elgin and Bank.
Between 1952 and 1966, Centretown came to be the home of The Russell (255 Metcalfe), The Beach-Carleton Hotel Apartment (26 Nepean), The Algonquin (225 Lisgar), and The Algonquin Annex (196 Metcalfe). The builder and manager of the properties was James “Jimmy” Russell Beach of, well, the Beach Family. Without going into too much detail, the Beach family had been a major presence in the industrial history of eastern Ontario. Beyond the factories that were operated in Cornwall, Barrie, Smith’s Falls, and Winchester, the family also owned and operated the Beach Foundry in Hintonburg and Beach Motors.
Before getting into the construction of apartment blocks for himself, Jimmy and his father James (until his death in 1940) constructed a number of single homes, duplexes, and triplexes around Ottawa. Furthermore, he operated as a builder for others in the city, constructing the 13-unit walk-up at Bronson and Second in the Glebe and, one of my personal favourites, The Chelsea Apartments at 283 MacLaren in Centretown.
With his family’s industrial background and his own in heating refrigeration, Beach was able to establish himself as something of an innovative builder. The Russell, constructed in 1948, was considered somewhat novel for eschewing the normal steel frame in favour of poured concrete. In an admiring, yet snickering article published in the Citizen on May 14, 1948 staff writer Marshall Yarrow remarked:
The traditional steel girder framework is missing from this new block. Instead, the concrete is poured into forms from the basement to the roof, making a solid wall of foot-thick concrete all the way up.
Trouble was, it was found that the concrete used to ooze through the places where the two planks joined in the forms. And here is was that somebody figured out that, if it’s true as the ads say, that certain types of nail varnish can make a man come forward, it ought to be able to make concrete stay back.
And it did. Where the planks met the crack was covered over with thick paper firmly plastered down with nail polish. When the vibrator packed the soft concrete down into a solid mass, nary a bit sneaked through where the crack had been.
Of course, Beach’s innovations did not end there. His next significant tower project, the Beach-Carleton Hotel Apartment (completed in 1958), proved his innovations did not stop at unconventional uses for beauty products. In general, apartments blocks (like houses), had their heating units in the basement. Perhaps looking to maximize the usable space for parking or units, Beach decided to place the heating unit on the roof. Speaking to people who have lived in the building, it seems like the decision wasn’t a bad one.
So far as the building itself is concerned, it’s a fairly standard modernist block, but with a few smart details. The most attractive of these, in my opinion, is the louver windows. Fortunately, unlike The Algonquin and Algonquin Annex, the windows haven’t been replaced with modern ones (though I’m sure it will come), so the originally-intended style remains.
As time has progressed, a great number of these postwar apartments in Centretown have changed hands. Some of these developers went on to greater things, others, who felt that Ontario’s rent control regime had cut into their revenue-generation goals, divested themselves of their rental properties and entered the owner-occupied market. For their own part, the Beach family has remained in control of these four properties and they continue to house hundreds of Ottawans to this day.