On February 4, 1961, the elder statesman of Ottawa’s United Church community was destroyed by fire. The fire, reputedly the result of an unfortunate meeting between an electric heater and stacks of dry paper, resulted in $500,000 in damage. When it became clear that Ottawa’s developers were not interested in blending the ecclesiastical with the commercial (as they would later be with St. Andrew’s), Dominion United’s congregation and the nearby Chalmers voted to merge. If you’re attending the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, this should ring a bell.
As both the resulting Dominion-Chalmers Church and the Midcentury Modernist have the fire and its aftermath covered better than I would, my intention is only to share some of the imagery from that day.
Huge crowds showed up to witness the burning of Dominion United Church, formerly located at Metcalfe and Queen. Aside from the removal-by-conflagration of a cherished institution, visible are some of the significant changes that had been taking place in the downtown. Most clearly, from left to right, are the Fuller Building (1960-61), the Beacon Arms Hotel (1957), and the Commonwealth Building (1954-55). Source: Ottawa Journal, February 6, 1961.
The former location of the Dominion United Church is squared off in green and the parking lot from which the crowd pictured above watched the flames is cordoned off in orange. Image Source: geoOttawa (1965 Aerial Photos)
As the Journal did not publish on Sundays, the following were published the following Monday (February 6).
Following the destruction of the church services were held in a number of locations around the city. Immediately following, they were held in the Capitol Theatre. Source: Ottawa Journal, February 6, 1961, Page 3.
The Journal’s photographers, Dominion Wide (an apt name), were on hand to witness the Ottawa Fire Department fighting the losing battle. Source: Ottawa Journal, February 6, 1961, Page 21.
From above, the situation did not appear to be any better that winter. Source: Ottawa Journal, February 6, 1961, Page 21.
This aerial shot of the smoking remains of Dominion United also shows the extent to which Ottawa’s Downtown area had been changing. In the immediate foreground was Ottawa’s first parking garage, the Queen Street Carpark. Source: Ottawa Journal, February 4, 1961, Page 21.
The gallons of water made no difference. Once the flames got a hold of the structure, that was it. Source: Ottawa Journal, February 6, 1961, Page 21.
The resulting wreck. Source: Ottawa Journal, February 6, 1961, Page 1.
Occasionally, it will be a single image that really tells the human story. In this case, at least in my own opinion, it was this picture. Shot by Ted Grant, one of the guiding lights of photojournalism and then employee of the Andrews-Newton Agency, this picture of Mayor Charlotte Whitton really does communicate the feeling of loss in the community.
Her expression says what they were all feeling. Within the span of a few hours, this has become one of my favourite images. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Ted Grant Fonds, Item No. 61-1180, Fr. 25-30.
As winter melted into spring and the rubble had been cleared, the property’s status changed. No longer considered to be religious grounds by the City of Ottawa’s standards, the lot was then assessed at the foregoing commercial rate. This was somewhat unpopular among church leadership and the congregation. While this service-protest combo was happening, the Church was fighting the assessment in front of the Court of Revision.
As a protest against their new tax status, a mass was held on the empty lot. Source: Ottawa Citizen, April 28, 1961, Page 3.
In addition to the estimated 200 participants, a number of people were reported to have observed the occasion in silence.
Observers watch the outdoor mass and protest against the city’s application of commercial taxes to the Dominion United’s property. Source: Ottawa Citizen, April 28, 1961, Page 3.
It appears that the protest did not work, nor did the church find a developer to work with as part of some sort of Private-Ecclesiastical Partnership. As noted above, the congregations of both the Dominion and Chalmers congregations voted to merge.