As you continue south down Elgin, the commercial feel begins to dissipate and the residential character the neighbourhood once had is able to show through: if only a little. With both the east and west sides of the street lined with 3 and 4-storey apartments (common along the city’s former streetcar routes), it would be easy to miss this comparatively small home between the Mackenzie and the Holbrook apartments on the street’s west side.
Although it is now part of the collection of buildings that comprise 388 Elgin (namely the Holbrook, Mac’s/Parkdale Apartments, and the detached home at the rear on Gladstone), this wasn’t always the case. 408 Elgin’s first owner was Humane Society Inspector James Lemoine. A lifelong resident of Ottawa, Lemoine began his working career with the Bronson Lumber Company, making his way up to foreman. A career with Bronson was not enough, however. In 1899, Lemoine partnered up with James Currell and formed the Electric Transfer Company. Lemoine and Currell operated in the city’s highly-competitive baggage transfer market for some years before selling the business to Roy Brownlee.
Lemoine was appointed to the position of Inspector in 1908. He seemed to approach the job with some gusto and was often the face of the Ottawa Humane Society when it came to the enforcement of early animal cruelty laws.
His tenure in that position did not last a long time. On December 17, 1915, Lemoine died of pneumonia at 55 years old and was interred at Beechwood Cemetery. His widow Elmira (“Minnie”) and children Ethel, Florence, Harold, and Isabella then moved to a home at 102 Argyle. Harold, the only son, died from wounds he received during World War 1 in 1917.
In more recent years, Ottawa’s local historians have become more interested in Miss Harmon’s School for Girls. Most materials pertaining to the operation of the school are centred on its final location at the corner of Elgin and MacLaren. By far the best of these I know of is found on URBSite.
The details surrounding the closing of the school tend to be unarticulated for the most part. Additionally, the nature of Miss Harmon’s death, being a suicide, is not generally discussed.
Operating a business – any business – is quite a challenging undertaking. With new competitors emerging with varying regularity, client tastes and demands always changing, and a whole host of other issues that may – at any given time – prove challenging to the regular needed cash flow of your operation, it isn’t easy. Miss Harmon appeared to be poised to handle any and all comers to the field of women’s education in Ottawa.
Miss Abby Maria Harmon, the youngest daughter of Daniel Williams Harmon and Elizabeth [Lizette] Laval [Duval], was born in Vermont around 1838. By the time Abby was born, her father Daniel had been long retired from the fur trade (Northwest Company) and had indeed already published his journals. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, he never did achieve much in the way of success after he left the trade and returned to his home state. He died five years following her birth, in 1843.
At some point between her father’s death and 1861, Abby relocated to Montreal. Perhaps due to some connections her father had with (former) Northwest Company colleagues, she appears to have taken up a position teaching at a ladies’ boarding school in the Golden Square Mile at 31 Beaver Hall.
That arrangement did not last long, however. Abby Harmon soon relocated to the recently-selected capital of the United Canadas. In 1862, she established the Harmon Ladies’ School with the help of Agnes Lloyd, who subsequently married Pembroke hardware dealer W.A. Hunter.
The 1871 Census lists Abby Harmon as a resident of Victoria Ward and working as a Preceptress. Between 1875 and 1892, her school was located at 49 Daly, home to The Union Mission for Men since 1912.
Regardless of its location, Miss Harmon’s school in Ottawa was a resounding success. Aside from remaining in business continually, she did seem to attract a lot of notable clientele, including Hugh John Macdonald’s daughter, John A. Macdonald’s granddaughter. At the end of each school year, the Journal and Citizen would report the successes of the pupils. Unsurprisingly, the young women present on those lists had a number of notable family names – Lyon, Lewis, McKay, and Wright, to name a few examples.
Miss Harmon was also somewhat involved in local politics that concerned her business. In December of 1891 she petitioned the city for tax exempt status. The reason being is that she saw the private religious schools as competition that had the advantage of not paying taxes. The Journal noted that the owner of a ladies’ school in Montreal was not only successful in winning the exemption, but that she also secured the costs. It appears, however, that her own petition fell on deaf ears and she restructured and incorporated her business, moving it to the corner of Elgin and MacLaren the following year (beginning that year, her advertisements claimed that the school was “Incorporated in 1892”).
Finally, Miss Harmon was also exceptionally active in the community, holding a number of positions with a large number of charities attached to the Presbyterian Church in Ottawa.
The trouble, it seems, was in Miss Harmon’s personal life.
On September 20, 1904 it was reported that Miss Harmon had taken her own life by jumping off the Interprovincial (Alexandra) Bridge. The Journal reported that there were witnesses to the jump, which took place at 11:40PM. When her body was recovered in the morning by an E.B. Eddy employee, a note was recovered from the pocket of her skirt:
“Dr. MacCarthy killed me with his theory of keeping boarders. Send my body to Rogers’ morgue, Rideau street, and from there to Montreal, to Kate.”
For his own part, Dr. MacCarthy was reported in the Journal article as having recommended to Miss Harmon that she stop taking on boarders as she was getting older and was quite tired. Although she was convinced to stop teaching a few years earlier on that basis, she missed it and returned to the classroom. While her financial position was generally stable, she did not see it that way and apparently felt that not accepting boarders would lead to her financial ruin.
“Dr. MacCarthy attributes her rash act to nervous prostration and mental depression which produced insanity.”
The Journal established a narrative whereby nobody noticed anything different about her behaviour with the exception that she had dressed herself alone that day. Something that she had apparently been unable to do in three years. Outside of that abnormality, she seemed exactly as she always was.
At least in Ottawa’s educational circles, Miss Harmon cast a long shadow. Once news of her suicide had spread, the Ottawa Ladies’ College closed for the day as an official act of mourning.
Reprinted in the Journal, the Montreal Star eulogized Miss Harmon thusly:
A teacher who has been the successful educator of two and even three generations of pupils, and to whom the passing years have brought and ever increasing measure of public esteem and confidence cannot fail to occupy a unique position in any community. Such was the case with the late Miss M. A. [sic] Harmon is Ottawa, whose tragic death in a moment of mental derangement was reported in our news columns a few days ago.
The pupils of Miss Harmon are to be found to-day in every part of the Dominion, many occupying social positions of prominence; and wherever her name is mentioned the thought will arise of the kindly, painstaking and judicious teacher and the sincere and sympathetic friend.
Miss Harmon’s school had become almost an historic institution of the Capital of the Dominion, antedating as it did the removal of the seat of government to that city; and, under the influence, grew up to womanhood the daughters of hundreds of the leading citizens of the place.
The children of former pupils replaced their mothers in the course of years, and in a few cases the grandchildren sought their education under the same wise and genial auspices.
Miss Harmon was a firm believer in a thorough English education. Her aim was to develop at once the intelligence and the character, rather than to impart a show of knowledge and transitory accomplishments. Everything in her system of education was solid as far as she could possibly make it so. Her own character was compacted of firmness and kindliness; and the public had learnt to place unlimited reliance on her judgement in all that related to the welfare of her scholars.
In the inexpressibly sad death of this estimable lady there is a lesson for the strong not to overtax their strength; for in the human constitution, as in everything else, there is a breaking point. To approach that point is dangerous; to touch it means collapse, perhaps absolute and fatal.
However that may be, to have been, through a long life, patient in purpose, steadfast in aim, patient in well-doing and indefatigable in the performance of duty; above all to have been a source of strength and moral upbuilding to others; is to leave a record which no clouds gathering round the last stage can ever obscure.
It does appear that, in general, most accepted that her psychiatric issues were precipitated by her penchant for overwork.
Miss Harmon’s will was probated a few weeks later and was valued at approximately $20,000. The will, which was dated July 20, 1904 (eight weeks previous to her suicide), made a large number of bequests to a variety of individuals and charities. Some of these charities included the Widow and Orphans’ fund of the Presbyterian Church, St. Luke’s Hospital, the Protestant Orphans’ Home, the YWCA, and the Home for Friendless Women.
The legacy left by Abby Harmon would be much larger than the number of cash bequests she left in her will, however. In the spring of 1905, a number of prominent Ottawans – including but not limited to J.W. Woods and George Perley – met to develop a new ladies’ college as “the work done by Miss Harmon should be continued and not allowed to die out”.
Although misspelled, Miss Harmon’s name also lives on in the name of an apartment building that was later constructed on the site of what was the playground for her school.
By way of relation, the autumn of 1904 would see another teacher pass on. On October 13, the Journal reported that Miss Annabella MacLeod had passed on. Like Miss Harmon she was an educator and also like Harmon, MacLeod’s father, John MacLeod, was in the fur trade, a chief trader of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Tragically, also like Miss Harmon, her death appears to have come at the end of a depressive episode (although due to a physical medical issue). According to the report in the Journal:
Since the death of her younger sister, Miss Annie, last July, Miss MacLeod has been in a feeble state of health, although she continued at her work of teaching up to Wednesday afternoon. Yesterday pluresy developed, and she was unable to rally.
At a later date, I will continue the tale of how influential citizens of Ottawa were able to continue Miss Harmon’s work in the city. In a subsequent piece, I will continue to track the physical development of the building that once housed the school.
This one will just be a quick hit for you this gloomy Sunday afternoon.
It really doesn’t take a powerful suggestion for me to engage in some research on something. Sometimes it’s just a question that pops into my head when walking by, sometimes it comes from a question that someone asks me, and other times, it could be as innocuous as being followed on Twitter or Instagram. In this case, it was a 70-30 split between the last and the first. The Gilmour Inn followed me on Twitter, I wondered, and I searched. Although I am aware it was not the same for many people, when I was young, one of the most important lessons that I was taught was that an unanswered question is one of the saddest things in the world (*cue violins*). This boundless curiosity has caused me untold amounts of joy, has helped to satisfy the curiosities of others, and has put others to sleep. Of course, if you’re represented in the latter group, you’d probably not be reading this.
The house at 431 Gilmour was constructed around 1895 for Zaccheus J. Fowler, the Chief Engineer for Grand Trunk subsidiary, Midland Railway Company of Canada (and previously of the Indiantown Branch of the Intercolonial Railway in New Brunswick). Though it was originally addressed as 389 Gilmour, the growing city necessitated the renumbering of many blocks throughout the city, this one being no exception.
At some point after 1909, the property was sold by Fowler to fellow New Brunswicker, the prolific and Honourable George. E. Foster, who remained resident there for some time. By 1923, the property had been picked up by William Charles Mitchell, the former publisher of the Ottawa Free Press and local property owner (who, at his death, owned the Ottawa Free Press building at Elgin and Queen and the nearby Shorncliffe Apartments, among others). Following his death in 1927, his son Fred and his family took up residence in the home. The couple remained there until the death of his wife Florida in 1941. After than, he sold the home and moved into a hotel on Bank, where he died in 1945.
While I’m unsure of the specific course of events following the sale of the house in 1941, the home was, by 1942 or 1943, converted into to the Canadian headquarters for the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union (Russian: Телеграфное агентство Советского Союза), shortened to “TASS” in English. TASS wasn’t itself an intelligence agency. It was just the newswire service agency responsible for the collection of national and international news for Soviet newspapers. Unlike the Canadian Press, Associated Press, or Reuters, it enjoyed a monopoly in that position. It nevertheless was frequently used by the NKVD/KGB and GRU for intelligence-gathering purposes.
On July 24, 1942, the Montreal Gazette reported that, much like its New York office, TASS official Nicholas Zhivaynov was poised to open a Canadian headquarters in Ottawa. As this was during World War 2 and the Soviets were allied (albeit with trepidation given the official public ideology), so an office for their wire service probably wasn’t considered much of a threat.
That, of course, all changed with the defection of Soviet cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko. Without recounting the entire event, Gouzenko was working for the Russian foreign service at 14 Range Road. He became concerned when it became clear that the Soviet government was spying on the Canadian, hoping to acquire nuclear secrets from the United States. When Gouzenko first attempted to inform the RCMP and the national media he wasn’t believed. When some “officials” (the NKVD) attempted to pay him an unfriendly visit at his apartment (511 Somerset, Apartment 4) it became clear that his story may have had some merit. It was this event that served as sort of the official kickoff to the Cold War.
The resulting Royal Commission to Investigate the Facts Relating to and the Circumstances Surrounding the Communication, by Public Officials and Other Persons in Positions of Trust of Secret and Confidential Information to Agents of a Foreign Power (quite a mouthful, hence it being better known as the Kellock-Taschereau Commission) uncovered what was then very startling information. Leaving most of the specifics of the event to the Cold War historians, the Commission’s findings, which were tabled later in the year, uncovered that Zhivaynov, working out of the TASS office was a central figure in the whole intrigue.
In spite of the Commission’s findings, the agency remained active in Canada (as it does today), though after it became clear in 1949 that another one of their agents was at least questionable. Subsequently their reporters had to prove clean in order to receive their Press Gallery credentials.
It appears that the TASS office quickly relocated from 431 Gilmour as my searches tend to result in regular classified ads (ie. goods for sale, rooms for rent) and local information (obituaries) at that address for several decades. In 1979, Annice Kronick relocated her “decorators studio” business, Accents Incorporated, to that address from 323 Somerset W. By the mid-1980s, it was the Raven Café (specializing in live folk and blues), and after that the Savana Café.
Note: I know that I was supposed to write a piece about the former Soviet TASS office at 431 Gilmour (now the Gilmour Inn), I have decided that my own apartment deserves a bit of a spotlight. Outside of a brief year living in an architecturally-similar walk-up in Vanier on Deschamps St. in 2006, I’ve not lived in a building that has seen so much action. Of course, it goes without saying that it’s much nicer when you’re not part of that “action”. It is therefore fortunate and wonderful that the building, as it exists today, it silent, clean and the landlord is attentive, professional, and a source great conversation to boot.
In urban life, it is quite often the most nondescript buildings that have the greatest number of stories to tell. To be certain, they’re not normally the most profound, important, or grand of tales, but they certainly make for some interesting narratives all the same. As the histori-dork that I am, I tend to research every apartment that I have moved into, searching for interesting events, well-known people, and the most run-of-the-mill information such as how much it cost, when it was constructed, for whom it was constructed, and – if available – the architect. In nearly all cases (9 of 11 places), I have come across at least something of interest.
When I moved into this apartment at 161 Somerset West in September, however, I did not think that I would find so much that wouldn’t be out of place in an action movie or at least a network crime drama.
Much like the Mackenzie Apartments at McLeod and Elgin or the Harmon Apartments on Elgin, the White House Apartments were named after the owners of the home which previously occupied the lot. In this case, it was well-known local, Walter Russell White (1883-1961). Russell (as he was better known) spent most of his career working in the surveys division of the Department of Indian Affairs. Adding to his profile in social circles, he was a member of the Doric Lodge, the first president of the Ottawa Property Owners’ Association, active in the Ottawa Hunt and Curling clubs, and an upstanding and popular member of the Chalmers (now Dominion-Chalmers) Church.
His wife (Eva Alma, but always in print, “Mrs. W. Russell White”. Thanks patriarchy) certainly made a name for herself. She was featured hundreds of times on the local social pages, was exceptionally active in the city as the president of the Local Council of Women, and in 1940 was appointed at the official consumers’ representative on the Milk Board of Ontario. Probably a function of the anonymity of the Civil Service, a search of the Journal’s database for “W. Russell White” yields 289 hits, the vast majority are in reference to her. While her name and good standing may have been anchored to him, it is her public profile that looms larger today.
On the whole, the family enjoyed a high profile locally and their son David even featured in the papers for thwarting a young purse thief in the summer of 1940. David would later be sent overseas with the Algonquin Regiment to fight in the Netherlands.
By the late 1940s, it appears that the family had moved on (to a home on MacLaren) and the home was subdivided into apartments. It was even used as a vaccination clinic at one point. Beginning around this time, mentions of the White family being resident at this address came to disappear, with the sons growing older and moving on, Walter and Eva relocated to the stately home at 584 MacLaren, near DundonaldPark. Doubtlessly a sought-after and well-regarded address befitting a couple as prominent in the city as they were. Although I have not located any relevant information to suggest it, it seems most likely that the family held on to the property themselves. Nevertheless, by the early 1950s, it is easy to find advertisements like the following:
CENTRAL., ground floor, available July 1. Suite 3 adults, each will have a private bedroom and share large living room, kitchen, bath and verandah. At $45 each, including electricity. Apply on premises, 161 Somerset St West.
In the Spring of 1957, the advertisements changed. The subdivided family home was demolished that year (it remains visible on the 1956 Goad’s Fire Insurance Map) and a new walk-up building consisting entirely of bachelor units was constructed (twenty-eight in total, as it remains today). In an environment of high demand for rental units, much like the building at 92 MacLaren, this one also rented out quickly. As with the MacKenzie Apartments on McLeod and the Harman Apartments on Elgin, this one was named for the most recent (and likely then current) owner of the property whose home (or business, in the case of Miss Harmon) it replaced. One point of interest is that using the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator, it is clear that the current rents charged in the building are generally in line with inflation. This is somewhat unlike 1 or 2 bedroom units which have tended to run at least somewhat ahead. As the rental apartment field became more competitive, later advertisements for the building tended to highlight other amenities, such as the parquet flooring (still present), tiled four-piece bathrooms (still present and awesome – mine’s pistachio tiles with black trim), and a shared television antenna (not present, but in this time of digital OTA, would be very much welcome).
Like a large number or urban areas in Canada during the late 1960s, Centretown came to experience some turbulence. The sorts of activities we tend to associated with certain other parts of the city were present in the area. For example, on a cold October evening in 1968, Constable Thomas McKay of the Ottawa Police was walking his beat when he noticed a man wearing a white trench coat lurking in the alley between the apartment and the IGA. When he approached him, the man (Eugene Tanguay, of no fixed address) fired on him with a 12-gauge shotgun. The Crown filed charges of attempted murder, but Tanguay’s defence Counsel, Arthur Cogan (who is still practicing today) successfully had him acquitted. The jury found McKay’s testimony to be inconsistent. The Journal reported that he still had most of the pellets were still in McKay’s leg a year following the incident.
Things appeared to calm down following the incident. The building’s residents went on with their lives, winning small charitable raffles and students winning awards for academic achievements. In 1975 that all changed due to the actions of two of the building’s tenants: one for a string of armed robberies and one for his role in alleged international drug smuggling and gold heist plots. I’ll deal with these in order.
Demonstrating that perhaps no matter how well set our tables in life are, we’ll sometimes find ourselves sobbing underneath them is Richard Soper. Unlike Eugene Tanguay above, Soper was born into privilege. His grandfather was none other than Ottawa Electric Railway Company co-founder Warren Y. Soper. With the family money and his own reasonably successful photography business, it’s not likely that troubles were expected. However, in 1975 at age 50, his considerable inheritance had been spent, his marriage failed, and he began to drink excessively. To get money he began to rob local banks, beginning shortly after the New Year. In an eight week span, he robbed four local banks – all on a Friday afternoon when things were calm, earning the moniker of the “Friday Afternoon Bandit”. He was busted in March when Ottawa Police Constable Ted Kacsynski found him asleep in a stolen car parked in the Unity Bank parking lot at Elgin and Gloucester with a gun, a holdup note, and a fake beard in his possession.
Although it is probably somewhat inappropriate to suggest, Soper was therefore somewhat lucky that his mother passed while he was in jail awaiting trial. She left him an inheritance of $600,000 (about $2.5 million today), but $500,000 of that was in an irrevocable trust. She was obviously quite aware of his expenditure management issues. With this inheritance, he was able to easily make restitution (the four robberies netted him only about $5500 in total).
For their own part, both the Citizen and the Journal didn’t seem to take his armed robberies particularly seriously: the Journal identified him as the “Benevolent bandit” and both papers stressed that he was depressed when he committed the armed robberies. During his trial, it was revealed that he suffered from a disease that has been known to afflict the upper classes short on lucre: he needed to repay “loans from ‘substantial’ people in town.” It has, after all, normally been the case that one does not descend the socioeconomic ladder willingly or easily. Provincial Judge Patrick White (no immediate relation to the White family described above that I could locate) sentenced him to two years less a day in light of his mental state and his lack of previous criminal record.
The White House didn’t only appear in the news during 1975 for Soper’s indiscretions, however. Another of the building’s tenants was one Charles Gaul. Without inventing some sort of biography, Gaul’s upbringing was considerably less privileged, but was no means anonymous. Gaul’s name was a common feature in the the local papers, but unlike Soper, whose portraiture business made his name common in the papers, Gaul’s was published frequently for his rap sheet, which grew rapidly through the 1960s and 1970s. For example, at the tender age of 19 in 1961 he plead guilty to driving without a permit and fleeing the scene of an accident, for which he was chased into Hull by “three Hull motorists and Hull Constable Gilles Froment.” Later that year, he was picked up for possession of stolen goods and of housebreaking tools. The following year he was sentenced to 75 days for theft. In nearly all of the reporting on his crimes, reporters had a different address and more often than not, it was no fixed address. And so it went.
By 1975, however, it was clear that Gaul was on to more substantial crimes and involved with some fairly unsavoury characters in their own right. As Soper was nearing the end of his tenure as a criminal, Gaul appeared to be ramping up his efforts. In the March 5, 1975 edition of the Journal, it was reported that Gaul was a co-conspirator with one Patrick Mitchell in the importation of hashish. Mitchell, for his own part, was arrested in the same investigation for an armed robbery of $168,000 in gold from the Air Canada Cargo warehouse at the airport (it was destined for the Mint). Other co-conspirators were also charged with importing cocaine. This seems to have been the beginning of the end for Gaul, however.
On September 29, the Citizen reported that Gaul had been found dead in his unit at 161 Somerset:
Charles Gaul, 33, was found in his apartment at 161 Somerset St. West at 5:30 p.m.
His girlfriend became concerned when she didn’t hear from him for several days and went to his apartment with the building superintendent.
They found his fully-clothed body lying on the floor near the entrance to the apartment. He had been dead for several days.
Mr. Gaul was one of the eight men named in indictments signed earlier this month by Justice Minister Otto Lang alleging three conspiracies to import narcotics into Canada.
It was on the following day that Ottawa police reported that it was most likely that he died of an overdose and had been dead for around a day before he was found. The Crown proceeded with the trial that was due to begin on October 6. The media circus surrounding the case caused the Ontario Supreme Court to change the trial’s venue to London.
When I described Gaul on my #didyouknowseries entry on Instagram as “small potatoes”, it was clear that he really was. He may have even just been useful to the real mastermind behind the heist: Patrick “Paddy” Mitchell. Even Mitchell’s lawyer suggested that Gaul and the others caught up in the drug trafficking scheme were duped.
If Mitchell’s name sounds familiar, it should. He was the leading member of the infamous Stopwatch Gang. At around $15,000,000 in a total haul, they were arguably the most successful North American bank robbers in recent memory. For his gold heist and cocaine importation scheme, Mitchell was sentenced to twenty years (he quickly escaped from prison by feigning a heart attack). It is, of course, way beyond the scope of this piece to recount their deeds and misdeeds. Given that both Mitchell and Gaul were of a similar age, were of a similar class, grew up in the same area (Preston-Lebreton), they were likely at least somewhat acquainted before that first big score in 1974. The gold from it (actually valued at more than $375,000) was never recovered.
If you’re interested in the activities of the Stopwatch Gang and its members, including Paddy Mitchell, he was not only a regular blogger, but the National Film Board produced a short film about his accomplice , Stephen Reid entitled Inside Time. Following Mitchell’s death (from Lung Cancer) in 2007, a large amount of material was produced on his exploits and is easily located online as well.
As someone who has generally studied Ottawa’s urban history through the lens of residential development more so than its commercial or industrial development, the construction of office space in the city appears to be related, but different. That is, there is no question that we’re all dominated by the ebbs and flows of federal government growth and activity, but office space seems to (in my own casual observation) to lag relative to residential construction. Having been here for 13 years (and seeking answers to my questions for as long), it always seems that the city either has a surplus or a deficit of office space, with the opposite impending in all projections.
In any event, the Imperial Building was constructed in 1957 for Brouse Holdings (an organization which continues to operate today) in the midst of an acute shortage of office space. The building’s architect was J. Morris Wolfson (who, among other things designed the Tiffany Apartments in the Deep Cut and would go on to design McArthur Plaza) and the contractor was James More and Sons. It was to cost $325,000. Much like the Wesley Building at Holland and Wellington, the Imperial Building was also designed such that floors could be added at a later date as demand increased.
The federal government, significantly larger than it was prior to the war, had snapped up much of what was available in the city and was hungry for more: much more. It didn’t help that Ottawa’s private sector had the same heightened demands.
Brouse Holdings was created following the death of Mr. Harry Brouse on August 8, 1924. As he did not leave a final will and testament, the courts divided his estate – chiefly real estate valued at over $500,000 (approximately $6.8 million today) – between his widow and two children. Rather than quickly liquidate the assets, the tradition of investment and development continued long after his sudden, surprise passing. An article in the April 23, 1925 edition of the Journal listed am impressive number of assets.**
The new Imperial Building opened in the Spring of 1957 and was announced in the same way that new office blocks and apartments were at the time: with a full-page newspaper spread complete with picture and advertisements of the contractors who worked on it.
As can be seen from the above, the building was first completed at four stories and was later extended to the seven that it is today. Like many of the offices on Bank constructed during 50s and 60s, the tradition of ground floor, street-facing retail was continued. No inward-facing, maze-like mall space.
At opening, the two main retail tenants were Chuck Delfino Men’s Wear (whose plaques still grace the building’s exterior), and Sol Kronick Furniture (who had relocated from across the street into the modern new store). Among the longer-lasting office tenants of the upper floors were law firms, real estate firms, and perhaps most interestingly, an insurance firm that specialized in the coverage of hockey players and other athletes.
Although I am uncertain as to the specific date that the Imperial was renovated to add the new floors (it does not seem to be in place on geoOttawa’s 1965 aerial map, but most certainly is apparent by the 1976 aerial photos), it does seem that they were added rather quickly. The Journal’s Gord Lomer reported at the end of 1964 that Art MacDonald, a member of the Centennial Commission had his office on the building’s sixth floor.
** For the purposes of retaining focus in this short piece, I’ll mention here that Harry Brouse was an exceptionally interesting figure in the development of Ottawa during the early part of the 20th century. As the developer of numerous office blocks, the Imperial (Barrymore’s) and Family theatres, as well as the inventor of a gum vending machine (Peerless Vending Co.), the Brouse name both loomed – and continues to loom – large in the Ottawa area. I will be assembling a piece on him as well.
The Mackenzie Apartments are a familiar sight at the corner of Elgin and McLeod, In the years leading up to the First World War, the properties just north of Appin Place (the current site of the Museum of Nature) became ripe for new development. If you’re the same sort of nerd that I am, it’s likely that you’ve downloaded and indexed the fire insurance maps available at LAC. Between the 1901 edition and the 1912, we can see that within the two surrounding blocks, the St. Cado, Virginia, Elgin, Kenniston, the Warrington, and Mackenzie Apartments had been constructed.
In my own experience, the name given to apartment buildings can either be chosen for obvious reasons, like the name of a monarch, leader, or after an exotic or luxurious locale, or other times, the chosen name is less obvious to anyone by the builder or perhaps contemporaries. In the case of The Mackenzie, it may be a little more of the latter than the former. This is in spite of “Mackenzie” being a common enough name in the Canadian experience.
As it would turn out, The Mackenzie, like the Harmon Apartments or the White House Apartments (161 Somerset, where I live) was most likely named for the previous owner of the property. On October 26, 1899, the Journal reported the death of Constable John B. McKenzie (note the different spelling: accuracy wasn’t always considered, something that was the case with the Harmon Apartments on Elgin).
A familiar figure will be missed from the By ward market. John B. McKenzie is dead. He passed away yesterday afternoon and his market constableship will know him no more.
For nine years, Constable McKenzie has been the city’s faithful servant, the guardian of the law and order on the market, and in any little disputes which arose between sellers and purchasers he was generally appealed to, and his decisions were mostly always considered fair.
I have not been able to locate any relevant information about who constructed the apartment, the architect, builder, or the cost.
When looking through back issues of Journal and the Citizen for evidence about the construction of apartment buildings, it feels like more buildings were opened to greater fanfare than they were during the 1950s later. Of course, when you’re in an era where 12+ storey buildings were erected regularly, a small three-floor walk-up is unlikely to warrant much more than a larger-than-normal ad in the Classified section. As a result, these smaller modernist walk-ups tend to be lent a certain unassuming or anonymous character that the towers were not. My own casual (untested) observation is that they were as likely to be unnamed as named and the ads name no landlord or company. In an era when towers were popping up, they often escaped mention in the weekly real estate section.
As the federal bureaucracy continued to grow into the 1960s and 1970s and, more importantly, further professionalize, a new class of civil servant came to need accommodation in Centretown. No matter which way you slice it, bachelor apartments have not normally been popular for raising a family. Builders of apartments in Centretown, however, identified the trend of the unmarried young professional. During the late 1950s, builders began to construct buildings that consisted entirely of bachelor units. The building that I currently live in is an example (I’ll be writing about that one soon) and 92 MacLaren is another one.
Unfortunately, I have been unable locate the designer or the owner of the building. When it was constructed, the owner hired Kevin Mullins, a local real estate agent to fill it. The units were rented out for what appears to be the going rate for a bachelor unit at $89 – $92.50 a month. Although there were indeed a number of landlords who advertised that their bachelors were suitable for two people, others were certain to advertise them as Single Occupancy.
The concept of the Pink Collar Ghetto has been used in a number of ways. In Ottawa, it may be used to describe women’s in-office experience, but also outside the office. When searching through city directories, unmarried women (and men, of course) are commonly present. When I was looking for information about this building, I located in the Journal some interesting evidence of the idea. In the Spring of 1960, a resident of the building, Miss Diane Chevrette won the civil service beauty competition and was crowned the “RA Queen.” Below is an excerpt from the Journal’s article on the event:
Miss Diane Chevrette, a vivacious receptionist with the Department of National Defence’s administration branch, was crowned RA Queen of the Year at last night’s annual RA Revue.
The 23-year-old blue-eyed blonde smiled, posed and walked her way to the top honours during a competition that had the judges chewing their pencils for three and one-half hours.
She is the daughter of Judge Armand Chevrette and Mrs. Chevrette of Montreal and has been in the Civil Service since January. She lives at 92 MacLaren street.
A tie among the three finalists delayed the final decision 15 minutes and caused one revue official to remark that it was the “closest contest on record”.
Runners-up were Miss Myrna Hunter, 21, of Victoria, British Columbia (Miss Defence Research Board), and Miss Margaret Brant, 18, of the Mohawk Indian Reservation near Belleville (Miss Department of Indian Affairs).
Miss Chevrette, who tips the scales at a dainty 125 pounds, stands five feet, seven inches in her stocking feet. Vital Statistics? “I’m not sure.”
She was named queen after treading the boards with 31 other civil service hopefuls.
– Ottawa Journal, May 10, 1960, Page 21.
Aside from the crown and the sash, her victory was topped off with $200 and “a custom made dress by Dupont”. Having just finished some time working for the Public Service, I don’t think that a beauty competition was part of the yearly social calendar…
Another young woman resident at 92 MacLaren made the news for a different reason a few years later, in 1966. That winter, the “Traffic Fixing Case” was followed by the Journal whereby a Mrs. Helene Harrison was accused of being paid to remove “traffic offence reports from police files.” One of the star witnesses was a Miss Elaine Joss, resident of 92 MacLaren, and personal friend to Mrs. Harrison. Not only did the accused officer, Leo Provost, resign as things got hot, but Miss Joss was also later fired from the police department for failing to uphold her statement against him as the investigation continued. In the end, Harrison was acquitted.
Kevin Mullins, Assessment Fighter
Kevin Mullins, the real estate agent who was hired in 1959 to fill the units at 92 MacLaren enjoyed what seems to have been something of a successful career in real estate. His name showed up frequently in advertisements and he seems to have been mostly involved in the sale of detached and semi detached housing from Manor Park to the west end. He did, however, seem to develop a certain sympathy for – and rapport with – the owners of apartment buildings.
During the early 1970s, however, be began to split his time between sales and also operated as a real estate consultant, specializing in appealing the property tax assessments of apartments on behalf of landlords. In the Citizen, a profile piece was published in the August 25, 1972 issue:
Kevin Mullins isn’t a household name.
But in the small world of land developers and municipal taxmen the 43-year-old real estate consultant cuts a wide swath.
His one-man campaign to get justice for hard-pressed apartment owners and tenants culminated Thursday in the Ontario Municipal Board decision ordering Nepean Township to repay $1.25 million in taxes to Minto Construction Company Limited.
Befitting a rugged individualist who isn’t afraid to fight bureaucracies, Mr. Mullins is paid wel[sic] to take the risks. Hiss[sic] fee is 50 per cent of the first-year tax savings of his clients.
A specialist in representing property owners facing expropriation, Mr. Mullins likes to operate independently of governments and prefers to negotiate rather than fight.
In the mid-1960s he appealed several property assessments on behalf of Ottawa apartment owners and won. “I didn’t know why but I was getting what I wanted.”
But on once case he felt he was brushed off by the assessment department. He became angry and took the city to court.
– Ottawa Citizen, August 25, 1972, Page 4.
So the legend was born. During the late 1970s, when the property tax system was in flux, Mullins was retained by a number of landlords to fight the changes. During this time, it appears that there was a switch to the full property value system (that I believe we are under now) and the rate charged to high rise apartments was, in some cases, more than twice the rate paid by small apartments, owner-occupied dwellings, commercial, and industrial rates. It had long been Mullins’ mission to see that a unit-was-a-unit-was-a-unit and that all properties were assessed at an equal rate. In addition to that, it had been only three years since Ontario had introduced its rent control regime and large apartment-owners felt additionally hard-done-by.
Although not all major landlords were opposed to the change (perhaps most significantly, the Campeau Corporation was not and Regional Real Estate preferred to tilt against the rent control regime), Mullins acted as the spokesman for other larger owners like Urbandale and Sun Life. In what seems to have been his slightly bombastic style, Mullins was quoted in the Journal on September 1, 1979, assessing the new system as “the worst, most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Unfortunately from there, I am uncertain what the outcome of Mullins’ efforts were as – if I remember correctly – apartment buildings are still assessed at a different rate are detached homes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Beach-Carleton, with its buff brick and louver windows.
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.