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.