The abuse and neglect of Somerset House

[flickr mikeygottawa 72157625047890029]

Editor’s note: The above photoset is by Mike Gerike, who tells the story of how it came together here.

Somerset House goes back a long way.
Somerset House goes back a long way.

Located at the southeast corner of Bank and Somerset, this three-story heritage landmark dates back over a century, to 1897. Sir Wilfrid Laurier was beginning his first term as Prime Minister and Ottawa’s mayors were still elected on an annual basis. With that miniature turret marking the northwest corner of the roof facing the intersection, you can’t mistake it for anything else in the neighbourhood. In 1935, the place was renamed _- briefly, as far as we can tell — the Ritz Hotel.

My personal relationship to the building was fleeting, though friendly: on two or three occasions, either co-workers at one of my day jobs of the moment or friendly acquaintances would invite me to join them for one social gathering or another at the ground-floor tavern, the Lockmaster. The food, standard pub grub as it was, was okay and competition at the pool tables provided its own entertainment as well. From the early 90s its cellar bar was known as the Duke of Somerset pub, and it was the home of boisterous and well-remembered “Celtic Sunday” music sessions. After the 1998 World Cup “The Duke” became the unofficial headquarters of the UK expat community who gathered to watch satellite broadcasts of English soccer matches; for a big qualifying match it was standing room only. Billy Bragg famously watched England vs. Macedonia there in 2002 and worked the experience into a song intro at Barrymore’s that same night.

Surviving the rowdy attentions of English soccer fans and Irish music fans was no problem for the venerable old landmark; instead, the troubles that led to its demise began about three or four years ago, in 2007. A new owner by the name of Tony Shahrasebi –he’s the man in a brown suit talking to a CTV reporter in the slideshow — had plans for the place, renovating with an eye towards turning it into a commercial hub of sorts. Then, one of the support columns collapsed due to an accident involving a forklift and the arguments began. Shahresebi and City Hall disputed whether or not the structure was still viable in any way. Shahresabi was adamant that it was, the City’s engineers were equally certain it wasn’t. The upshot was an order to partially demolish the building’s rear section.

An injunction prevented further demolition, and Shahresebi followed that up by filing suit against city hall for $2 million. His holding company was fined $55,000 to cover the demolition and police costs for the two months they spent providing security at the intersection, and the case has been in mediation since then. One man was injured as a consequence of leaning against a window back in 2008.

Since then, the property has settled into a holding pattern. Along its “temporary” hoarding boards, bill-posters slap up notices for upcoming shows and exhibitions at more salubrious locations like the NAC and the Museum of Civilization. The sidewalk along Somerset has been narrowed by the plywood barrier for so long that passers-by scarcely notice the inconvenience anymore, and most foot traffic now instinctively keeps to the north side of the street.

The Bank Street Business Improvement Association has become impatient, with some cause.
The location is an anchor point in the Centretown streetscape. But once all the legal tangles are finally sorted out, an assessment will be made of what can be salvaged, and we’ll know if the old Duke will still have his day at the corner of Bank and Somerset.

6 comments

  1. I only ever went to the Lockmaster, on the ground floor, once, and it wasn’t particularly enjoyable. But the Duke… boy, I went there a lot back in the days of Jimmy George. Something needs to be done there, and sooner, not later.

  2. Very interesting! My connection with the property in question goes back to the days of The Ritz. In the late 60s, we ( me and colleagues at UIC – the Unemployment Insurance Commission on Nepean, just west of Bank) would quite often go to The Ritz for lunch. That was back in the days of a beer or two for lunch, not just on pay days, and we consumed it with something called a ‘chuckwagon’, a bun filled with salami and cheese, heated until steaming, inside its plastic wrap. This brings back all sorts of memories!

  3. I don’t know when it started, but I left the area in 1970 and I think it was still called The Ritz at that time. If the current owner doesn’t have the history, maybe the LCBO could help.

  4. It was The Ritz Hotel for many years. I used to frequent the Ritz from time to time in the late 70s, when I was a regular at The Alex Hotel, just down the street at Bank and Gilmour.

  5. Something has to be done to save this heritage building. It is such a beautiful building and has so much history. I think the city has to step in and save it. They can’t just bring in a wrecking ball for a beautiful Victorian building like that.

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