The Daly Building Revisited

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No other Ottawa building, before or after its demolition, has generated as much discussion as the Daly Building. Its history is contentious and some might argue that its survival was doomed from the start. Located in the downtown core, where the local city meets a federal one, the building was hailed as an architectural masterpiece by some and described as the city’s ugly duckling by others.

2011 marks the 20th anniversary of its demolition — therefore it is fitting to once again look at the history of this famous structure and revisit some of the debate. An extensive slide show, depicting the site between 1870 and 2011, accompanies this piece. (Editor’s note: click here for the non-Flash view.)

Occupants

The Daly Building began as the Lindsay Department Store, Ottawa’s first department store. The retailer opened with great fanfare in June of 1905 and the space was marketed as “palatial.” The steel frame construction and the large rectangular windows provided a spacious and brightly lit commercial space unlike any other building in the city. In 1909, management was taken over by A. E. Rea & Company. The building was enlarged by two floors and a north wing was added in 1913.

H. J. Daly acquired the property in 1915 after A. E. Rea & Company went into receivership. The department store remained open until 1919 when the entire property was first leased, and eventually purchased by the federal government in 1921. Several government offices occupied the building including the Wartime Information Board and the Office of Censorship during the Second World War. The last federal tenants moved out in 1978.

The Daly Building stood empty for over a decade and few people were permitted inside. Michael Schreier, a local photographer, was granted access in 1980. His images are haunting as they reveal an empty shell, oddly divided spaces, and white-washed walls. Perhaps the most surprising photographs are those that show the Château Laurier on the other side of the building’s window panes: the contrast in appearance and style could not be greater.

Plans for the empty structure were numerous. However, due to financial problems, structural concerns, and political will, all of them fell through. CN Hotels was interested in using the space as its own conference and meeting facilities. A Montreal developer had hoped to turn the building into a department store once more, and planned to build underground movie theatres and new office space on the roof. The Ottawa-Carleton Provincial Court and the National Gallery of Canada were invited to consider the building. However, both rejected the idea deciding that the building was not suitable for their needs. It had even been rumoured that the Church of Scientology was eyeing the building in their quest to find a new downtown location.

By the early 1990s, with the onslaught of structural concerns, options seemed to dwindle. Perhaps Herb Stovel, a conservation architect and member of the International Council of Monuments and Sites in Paris, summed it up best by stating that the building was “beyond our era’s ability and resources to maintain.” Demolition of the 200,000 square feet building began in October of 1991.

Style

The building was the only example in Ottawa of the influence of the Chicago School of Architecture. Moses C. Edey, the architect of the structure, apprenticed in Toronto and Moravia, N.Y., and studied industrial design at the Ottawa Art School. At the age of 40, Edey opened an architectural practice on Sparks Street and designed the McLeod Street Church (now Centretown United Church), the Garland Building (now demolished), and perhaps his most famous commission, the Aberdeen Pavilion. The lists of buildings suggest the style in which Edey worked: Gothic, Romanesque, and Beaux Arts. The Daly Building certainly stood out as it moved away from the picturesque and employed not only the latest technologies but also the modern style.

The Daly Building was simple, even austere. The design reflected the strong skeleton, the piers and beams of the steel grid, which provided support for the building. A dramatic projected cornice and the large horizontal windows, with fixed glass panes in the centre, were all characteristics of the Chicago School — the style that led to the dawn of the modern skyscraper. “The expanse of glass filling its facades is phenomenal,” wrote Stan White, architect with Public Works, in April of 1987 in the Ottawa Citizen. “It is unquestionably the finest example of a Chicago Style department store to be built in Canada.”

The scale of the building changed significantly with the addition of two floors and the expansion of the window bays, from five to nine, along Sussex Drive and MacKenzie Avenue. However, with the use of a similar locally quarried limestone, Lowville instead of Cobourg, and by duplicating the ornamental cornice originally used in 1905, the building style remained surprisingly consistent. Future alterations were less kind.

The slim and elegant windows were removed in the 1920s and replaced by thick and heavier ones. The graceful cornice that crowned the building was replaced by simple gray bands of stone in the 1960s. At the same time, in an attempt to freshen up the tired look of the building façade, narrow red and blue window panes were installed on the upper floor.

Ugly Duckling

The Daly Building broke from past styles and was one of Ottawa’s first modern buildings. In an Ottawa Citizen article, printed in November of 1985, the architectural historian Gregory P. Utas writes that the building “is a 20th-century building. All of its immediate neighbors, even though they were built more recently than the Daly Building, are in their basic concepts buildings of the 19th century.” Utas argued that the architect succeeded admirably in employing the new building style. Unlike the Château Laurier hotel, and many of the grand federal buildings in Ottawa, the Daly Building did not employ decorative distractions like turrets, ornamental balconies, and thin limestone cladding made to look like heavy building blocks. The Daly Building did not conceal its structure. In fact, Barry Padolsky, an Ottawa architect and heritage consultant, was quoted in an Ottawa Citizen article in 1982, noting that the building “reflected the new morality in architecture where structure was not considered an embarrassment.”

It should have been irrelevant whether the Daly Building was pretty or not. However, the building was often described as the “ugly cousin to the Château Laurier,” and voted Ottawa’s worst eyesore in the 1980s. Not everyone agreed. Rhys Phillips wrote in 1991 that each building style is a social record, a unique expression on how the architect viewed the world and Ottawa’s place in it.

Talks of expropriating the parcel of land began before the building was even completed. A 1908 view of Ottawa excluded the Daly Building, replacing it with an edifice with quaint turrets. The Daly Building was also carefully cropped out of the official rendering that presented the plans for Union Station and the Château Laurier. In addition, the drawings of the Château’s proposed new wing along MacKenzie Avenue depicted a lush park instead of the existing Daly Building.

The first mention of turning the area in front of the Daily Building into a “monumental circle” and a “dignified approach to the Parliament Buildings” was listed in the 1903 Todd report. Jacques Gréber, in both his 1936 and 1950 reports, proposed to tear down the structure to improve traffic congestion and to create a two or three-deck garage with direct access to the Château Laurier. His 1950 general report, Plan for the National Capital, called on the immediate “elimination of the Daly Building” along with the “removal of the Union Station.”

Post Demolition

Union Station survived but after years of neglect and failed proposals the Daly Building was demolished in 1991/92. The proposals for the site were as numerous as the building’s past tenants. Ideas included a parking garage, a piazza, a first nations arts and performance centre, a “Canada Pavilion,” and a high-tech movie house. It was perhaps the decorative fence that surrounded the vacant lot for many years that irked people the most. The idea of a park had much local support but given the proximity to Majors Hill Park, and the high land value, the plans were never developed. By 1999, the federal government approved a $75M project to include a hotel, condos, and an aquarium. The project was to include an eight-storey building that would house a 200-room hotel, 25 condos, shops covering two floors, a restaurant, a two-storey underground parking lot, and a 60,000 square-foot underground aquarium. The project fell through as the developers failed to secure financing.

Claridge Homes, a well-known Ottawa housing developer, was eventually permitted to develop the site and constructed an upscale condo building with retail on the first two floors. The handsome building, clad in natural stone, is recessed from Rideau Street to create a small court. Today, the building is known as 700 Sussex Drive and has been described as Ottawa’s power address.

In Conclusion

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the history of the site is that the Daly Building survived as long as it did. The commercial building, located on one of Ottawa’s most important intersections along the ceremonial route, did not fit the official plan for the capital nor did its austere façade ever win the hearts of the residents of Ottawa.

Ironically, Dan S. Hanganu, the Montreal based architect of 700 Sussex Drive, sought inspiration from the Daly Building and kept a picture of the “fallen comrade” when designing its replacement. His design, like that of Moses C. Edey, has also been described (by some) as an “ugly box.”

A portrait of Moses C. Edey, attributed to Samuel J. Jarvis, and a watercolour depicting the Union Station, Château Laurier and the Daly Building, by Goodridge Roberts, are currently on view at the Bytown Museum as part of the “Hidden Treasures” exhibition. The photomechanical print, “Ottawa 1908,” by J. L. Wiseman, is also on view as part of the Museum’s permanent exhibition.

2 comments

  1. The Daly Building may have been an innovation in its time — but to most of us who remember it as part of our daily view of downtown it was a black hulking mass that seemed to be in permanent shadow. The contrast between its form-follows-function Chicago School utility and the all-artifice railway gothic/fairy-tale castle of the Chateau was just too ridiculous.

    One of them had to go, and since no one in their right mind would ever suggest pulling down the Chateau, it had to be the Daly. Daly would have been perfect further east on Rideau though where it would have fit in with form of Ogilvy’s etc; how much better the Daly there than the new architectural style sweeping Rideau — Drugstore Post-Modern.

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