Seventeen years and counting for abandoned Ogilvy’s

Getting off the bus on Rideau Street located in front of the Rideau Centre you are confronted with the former Ogilvy’s department store. The five story buff brick building sits as it has been for the past 17 years, empty, deteriorating, while still distinctly marking the corner at Rideau and Nicholas. How did it reach this point, and what is possible in the future?

Ogilvy’s is important both from a historic perspective and an urbanistic perspective. The building in its current incarnation started life in 1907 when Charles Ogilvy constructed a modest three story story structure on the site extending halfway through the block with architect W.E. Noffke. As business improved the building more than doubled in size filling out the remainder of the block now occupying the site from Rideau to Besserer; again designed by Noffke in 1917. The building was further expanded, receiving the fourth story in 1931 and the fifth and final story in 1934. With the fifth story it became one of Ottawa’s largest department stores; the square footage was a clear indication of the success that Ogilvy’s enjoyed during the first half of the twentieth century.

Architecturally, the building is well suited to adapt to different uses and configurations. The way in which the building developed over time illustrates the straightforward versatility of its modular steel structure and large windows. The more interesting features of the building come through in how the the fourth and fifth stories relate to the original three. The upper stories display subtle Art Deco motifs, but the difference in style is sympathetic to the lower parts of the structure. Beyond these references, the windows, brick colour and massing are consistent throughout, allowing the entire building to read as a cohesive whole. In fact, the verticality of the upper portion relieves the somewhat squat nature of the lower three stories.

Ogilvy’s closed its doors in 1992 and in 2000 the City designated the building’s three street fronting facades as heritage, but omitted the interiors. The Rideau Centre now owns the structure and has proposed various expansion plans that included the retention of the lower portion of the Ogilvy’s facade, while filling in the gap in the Rideau Street frontage that currently exists. All the uses proposed to date seem to treat the facade as a cloak to hide infill that does little to alter the status quo. Reducing the building down to its earlier three stories would serve to obscure the historical significance of Ogilvy’s, removing the marker at the corner and creating a flat, homogeneous block. A well-considered solution is called for, rather than a simplistic one that relies on facade to claim a tenuous visual continuity.

The versatility and size of the building can serve as a departure point for any future development. First, the City should expand the heritage designation to include the entirety of the structure, acknowledging the usefulness of the existing building and all five of its floor levels. With multiple street frontages, Ogilvy’s is well suited to housing a number of different uses. For instance, the lower three stories could house commercial space linked to an expanded Rideau Centre. From an urbanistic perspective the ground floor would need to be active, with a number of separate entries to both street front retail and the interior of the mall. Solutions to the issue of the building sections not lining up is easily solved with a solution used both in the Rideau Centre and at the Bay with transitions provided to link the various portions of the buildings. The upper two stories could serve as office space, handsome residential lofts, or even studio and classroom space for the University of Ottawa. Any new use would largely be informed by what is constructed between the building and the Rideau Centre. Mixed-use designations and more variation in height need to be explored. There are very strong elements to the site, but their potential remains untapped. Heritage buildings can be real assets, and the old Ogilvy’s could be a significant piece in a new approach to this portion of Rideau Street.

Chris Warden is a local intern architect, with interests in the intersection between heritage and contemporary architecture and urban issues.

9 comments

  1. I guess the best thing that can be said about this building is that it’s not a TRAGIC story. Yet. I guess it’s a sign of my cynicism that my mind’s eye sees a faceless tower on the site.

    I love that “beltline” between the third and fourth story. And I would love to know exactly why the building has remained vacant nearly 20 years. The city? The owner? Etc. etc.?

  2. Great post! I’ve been wondering about this building for quite a while, wishing I could buy it and make something useful and pretty out of it 🙂 I think the historical architectural features of the facade should be restored the to pay homage to the past but in a modern and respectful way.

    To me, this building is another (of many) diamond in the rough in Ottawa. I too thinks a mixed-used building would be great, but I’m leaning more toward the combination of boutique below and lofts above (real lofts with large open spaces and height ceiling). This building would also be great for a boutique hotel (a real boutique hotel like the W or Le Germain).

    Hopefully there aren’t any major structural issues after being abandoned for so many years! I’m not sure the Rideau Center would be able to properly take care of it based on some of the choices made on the main building (not pretty).

  3. I have always wondered why a developer hasn’t turned this building into lofts.  Especially when there are several developments in the same area that build buildings and advertise the condos as “loft-style”.  Why have something that is built to look like a loft, when you can build the real thing?  I like living in spaces with actual history.  My current apartment is in a turn-of-the-century stone house in the Golden Triangle that was turned into a bunch of apartments.  I have started researching real estate in Ottawa with plans to buy within the next 3 years.  I would be first in line if that building was turned into lofts.

  4. The lack of attention paid to renovating this building into something useful has been bothering me for years now as well, for reasons including those already detailed above. It deserves, like Somerset House on Bank and Somerset, much better than to be left to fall to demolishable pieces.

  5. Great building from the early 20th century. I remember it from my childhood for the malted milk drinks sold at a snack bar and the whoosh of the pneumatic tube payment system with canisters disappearing at high speed to a cashier/office somewhere in the bowels of the building, then returning with a clunk into a basket with one’s change.

    Somehow I don’t think it will become lofts, too close to the centre of action and not enough density for profitable residential development (by developer measurement). Hopefully the Rideau Centre will develop it with sensitivity putting retail and offices into the building and not try to build a tower on top of it.

    But after Lansdowne, who knows what council might approve.

  6. The last things that Rideau Street needs:

    1 – more mall space,
    2 – more luxury housing

    Like the author and those who have posted here, I regularly admire this building and wonder why it’s sat empty for so long (I’ve always assumed that it was a victim of real estate speculation). It’s a shame that the city has only designated the lower facade as heritage, this should be extended. I also agree that ground level retail or other (quasi)public space would add to the charm of the neighbourhood.

    While office space seems like a reasonable use of the upper levels, this building could represent an opportunity to recognize those residents of this neighbourhood who are regularly derided and increasingly criminalized. In the nearly two decades that this building has sat vacant, the rates of homelessness in Ottawa increased steadily. Many of the victims of this trend have been drawn to the market by the availability of services and sense of community that exists for them.

    These people are as much a part of this neighbourhood as any of the folks who have bought into the recent condominium developments. Unfortunately, rather than adequately addressing their needs they are being pushed out of the neighbourhood through draconian safety laws and insulting public relations campaigns (think ‘Kindness’ meters). This is a terrible way to treat people who’s biggest problems are public perception and the fact that they have no homes.

    If this building could be wrangled away from the Rideau Centre (certainly a big if), the space would serve the community much better as a new affordable housing development. This idea is not without precedent. The old Woodwards building in Vancouver (just steps away from posh Water St.) was sold to the city by a private developer so that it could be transformed into a mixed income housing development. A project of this vision is not beyond Ottawa’s reach, but it may be beyond it’s political will.

  7. Matt,

    Just to clarify, the city designated the three street fronting facades, all five stories.

    As for the Woodwards development, it’s nothing short of impressive. It’s much larger than Ogilvy’s and the new use is incredibly mixed with a lot of moving parts. I think the fact they made it work and are building it is nothing short of a miracle. Although, I am not sure how things usually go in Vancouver, maybe it is the usual Ottawa pace of progress that impacts that judgement.

  8. I am amazed how often I have walked by this building or been in its grandeur without really appreciating its significance. It is surprising that a building of this stature could go for so long without use, especially in such a hot area of the city. Thank-you for bringing it to my attention and that of others. Great post.

  9. Good article, Chris.

    A couple of years ago a third year studio – let by Sheryl – proposed re-using this building as a site for a spa. Some very nice proposals!

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