Shenkman’s Block on the Park

Note: This piece is a revised and expanded version of the comments that are attached to this picture shared on my Instagram account. In the interest of ensuring that I have more materials up on this site (which I have been sorely lacking in), each image with a #didyouknowseries hashtag on Instagram will have an expanded version here on this site. That way, I can add more context and information and avoid the temptation to shoehorn 100+ word stories into the Instagram comment facility. 

Park Square Apartments (425 Elgin)
Park Square Apartments (425 Elgin)

It comes as no surprise that the growth and development of Ottawa the city tracks with the growth of the government. Any tensions that existed between Town and Crown were largely resolved in the period following the First World War insofar that the Crown was clearly dominant and the Town was largely along for the ride. Given its central location, each of these successive waves of government expansion may be readily seen in Centretown’s built environment.

For a variety of reasons that I will not rehash here, the federal government became increasingly involved in social welfare programming during the Great Depression. The facilitation of these new programs and public works requires, of course, a larger bureaucracy to manage them, which attracted a large number of people to the city. Indeed, between 1921 and 1941, the population increased from about 107,000 to 154,000.

As a result of this population growth, a large number of apartment buildings were constructed in Centretown during the 1930s. There are dozens of 3-4 storey walk-up apartments of that vintage in the neightbourhood between Bank and the Canal. A number of builders took part in this Depression-era development including such builders as Snear Miller and the Shenkman family.

Page 1 of the Journal
Page 1 of the Journal

In November 1934, The Journal reported that J. Harold Shenkman (son of Wolf Shenkman, patriarch of the Shenkmans, still active in development today) had purchased for $6,000, property on Elgin from Edgar L. Horwood. On September 29, 1936, the Journal reported that Shenkman had taken out a $23,000 building permit at city hall and had planned to construct a three-storey apartment in the near future. As with most such apartments of the time, construction was of cinder block with a brick veneer. Unfortunately, I have yet to find out who the architect or designer was. The name “Park Square” chosen, no doubt, due to the fact of it being along Park Avenue, and to evoke the luxury of London’s (UK) Park Square neighbourhood.

Much like with other apartments constructed during the 1930s, respectability was the name of the game. For those of us looking back, the social section of newspapers are an excellent source of information about the activities and movements of individuals and families whose local stature warranted the attention of paper’s staff. When, for example, the paper would report on a wedding, they would normally be informed where the newlyweds would be living. On September 20, 1937, the Journal reported the wedding of Reita Faith and Wilbert Schroeder:

Rev. F.S. Milliken officiated at the marriage ceremony on Saturday afternoon, of Reita M. Faith, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Charles W. Faith, and Wilbert H. Schroeder, son of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Schroeder, of Ottawa.

The bride was given in marriage by her father, and was attended by Miss M. Merkel, as bridesmaid. Mr. Clifford Bacon was best man.

The bride wore an attractive costume of coral rust velvet, made on long lines, with a jacket of the same. The neckline was in softly draped cowl effect, and the skirt ended in a small train. She wore a coronet of the same velvet, and carried Johanna Hill roses.

The bridesmaid wore a pretty costume of riviere blue satin, with a jacket of the same. She wore a Dutch cap of the same blue crepe, and carried Talisman roses.

Mrs. Faith, mother of the bride, wore a handsome gown of black velvet, with a black velours hat, and Talisman roses.

Mrs. Schroeder, mother of the bridegroom, also wore a beckoning black velvet dress, with black hat, and a shoulder knot of roses.

Following the ceremony, a wedding reception was help at the Summer home of the bride’s parents, in Kingsmere, where Autumn leaves and white asters were used to adorn the rooms. During the reception, Mrs. Walter Faith played several piano selections.

Mr. and Mrs. Schroeder left on a motor trip through the White Mountains to New York City. The bride travelled [sic] in a bottle green tailored suit, a green velours hat and matching accessories, and handsome Japanese sables. They will reside in Park Square, Elgin street.

Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Bunyon, of Montreal, were out-of-town guests.

This was the basic formula for each of these “reports” on the weddings of local middle-class individuals and in hundreds of cases, they were to take up residence in a Centretown apartment. If I had more ready access to relevant city directories, I’d search for evidence of more well-known Ottawans who resided at the address. Nevertheless, a number of respectable couples took up residence at Park Square during the period.

The Journal’s property sales column (which tracked all property sales in the city above $3,000) featured the Shenkman frequently. Always developing, wheeling and dealing, properties were bought and sold at a rapid pace. By 1947, it was reported that Shenkman had sold Park Square to a Mr. M.K. Emerson for $55,000.

As it ages, rental housing tends to hit something of a low in its ability to attract “desired” tenants and therefore maximum income (something that comes easier when it’s new or when it’s old enough to have “charm” or “character”). This is part why so much of the lower-cost housing around was constructed between the 50s and the 70s. This period, of course, does represent an opportunity to either house low income families and individuals, or for a developer to renovate/demolish in an attempt to generate more income.

During the mid-1970s, the fledgling Centretown Citizens (Ottawa) Corporation had identified Park Square as one to purchase to accomplish the former. As the following article published in the Citizen in 1974 illustrates, it was not achieved. Indeed, getting started in non-profit housing was altogether difficult. I am transcribing the entire article below as it contains materials of interest to a number of urban affairs issues.

Frustrated in repeated efforts to win federal funding for non-profit housing, a Centre Town citizens’ group is appealing to Urban Affairs Minister Barney Danson.

The Centre Town Citizens’ (Ottawa) Corporation hasn’t a single project to show after more than a year of trying.

The group hopes Mr. Danson can bring about changes in policy and attitude of Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation, spokesman Brian Bourns said Monday.

“You get sick after a while of just beating your hear against the wall.”

Binding regulations, bureaucratic delays and unfavourable market conditions have blocked attempts to buy or build rooming houses, apartments and family housing, said corporation president Irving Greenberg, former developer and unsuccessful NDP candidate in two federal Ottawa Centre campaigns.

The group’s brief to Mr. Danson states: “We are led to suspect that we are being put through a variety of hoops for some, as yet unspecified period of time and that if successful the (CMHC) branch office will consider us worthy of serious attention.”

Con Leclerc, assistant manager of CMHC branch office, countered Monday that many of the group’s difficulties stem from an effort to use land ownership to stabilize Centre Town for family housing, when the tool should be zoning.

Nevertheless, he said, he’s convinced family housing could be developed there under present CMHC financing formulas. The citizens group says inflation has rendered CMHC limits unrealistic.

The CMHC and the citizens should be on the same side. The stated aims of both corporations include helping to provide housing for people with low incomes.

When it started last year, an offshoot of the Centre Town Community Association, the Citizens’ group had high hopes of making use of the new section of the National Housing Act which allows non-profit and co-operative housing bodies to tap CMHC for 100 per cent financing – a 10 per cent grant plus a 90 per cent preferred-rate mortgage.

But it has struck out so far with proposals to buy and repair a 24-unit rooming house at 183 Waverley St. to erect family apartments on a Gilmour Street lot and to buy and run a 16-unit apartment building at 425 Elgin St.

The brief to Mr. Danson says delays in CMHC consideration of proposals have torpedoed deals and inflated selling prices and CMHC insistence on rent reductions after purchase isn’t realistic in an inflationary market and the emphasis should be on long-term stability.

Also CMHC preference for housing needing little repairs isn’t much help in reversing a trend towards deterioration and the CMHC branch office has little idea what its executive committee will approve and thus uses the Centre Town proposals for “kite flying.”

In fact, many of the people involved in the citizens’ corporation have also been active in producing a neighbourhood plan which would downzone large sections of Centre Town to retain families and low-scale housing.

Mr. Greenberg said the citizens’ corporation has a board of about 15 directors which includes three architects, a lawyer, a retired real estate agent and the YMCA’s director of housing.