The following article by Spacing Ottawa contributor Mike Steinhauer is cross-posted from VanierNow.ca, a new blog about the one square-mile neighbourhood called Vanier.
By the mid 1950s Canada boasted over 3000 motels. The family-run establishments, located on the outskirts of cities along the main entry points, offered free parking and homemade meals at an adjacent restaurant. Ottawa, being a tourist town, had its fair share with almost all located along the Prescott Highway, Montreal Road and the Pembroke Highway.
Many of the city’s motels have disappeared but the ghost of Vanier’s Butler Motor Hotel, complete with a stylish 1960s façade, is still visible today.
The business was established in 1930 and predates the modern motel – a building of connected rooms with direct access to an open parking area. The Reliance Motor Service and Tourist Camp, as it was first called, opened on Montreal Road on what was the family farm. As cars became more affordable and roads improved, motor courts, offering campsites and cabins, became a dominant element along the edges of larger centres.
In ‘Retire and Run a Motel? Growth Boom Still Going,’ an article published by the Financial Post in 1958, Vincent Lunny provides an account on how Fred Butler got the idea of opening a motel (by then called the Reliance Motor Court):
Butler owned a farm on the outskirts of Ottawa. One night a party of gypsies camped on his land and gave him the idea. He put up tents and rented cot spaces, later progressing to roadside cabins […] No one could duplicate Butler’s performance today any more than they could Henry Ford’s.
“As the business matured” writes Ken Elder in ‘Ottawa Camps and Motor Courts’, “double and triple cabins were added and a courtyard planted with elaborate flower beds and lawns. By 1947, 44 cabins had been built.” A decade later, the Butler family operated a modern motel of 70 units. The Butler Motor Hotel, as it was called by 1960, boasted a heated outdoor pool, air conditioned rooms (92 in total), a cocktail lounge and a very cool logo.
The hotel’s Coachman lounge became a popular spot for live music during the 1960s. Beverly Anne Medford, “a dynamic musician with a variety of wigs and stylish outfits became a legend as the lounge’s organist, able to play and sing any request.” By the 1970’s the lounge was called Bogey’s and Dick Maloney, a local jazz vocalist, frequently played the intimate basement venue that seated 150 people. In the late 1970s, Robin Averill and Joe Turner played the lounge. “The two musicians filled the club with Irish-music fans every weekend,” writes Claire McLaughlin, “huge lines regularly formed outside the door.”
The following decades were less kind as travelers became more discerning and regulars were lured by newer, more centrally located, establishments. The family business was dissolved at the end of 1984 but their name graced the façade until the Holiday Inn Express took over the premises in 1997.The following year the hotel became the Ottawa Inn and by 1999 it changed its name, yet again, to Howard Johnson Express Inn.
Today, The establishment is known as the Comfort Inn Downtown. The neutral coloured façade, corporate logo and large entrance overhang look like any other highway hotel. Yet, the large inner courtyard, surrounded by the various motel structures built during the 1950s and 1960s give us a glimpse of what the Butler was like.
The heated pool has long been removed and many of the large trees were cut. All that remains is a large parking lot that holds about 100 cars. The spots are rented at $70/month to public servants working at Place Vanier – three large office towers occupied by the federal government.
I only wonder where the hotel guests park their cars?
Ashford, Keith, The Ottawa Citizen. ‘Night life, Jazz at the Butler, rock across town.’ 4 Nov 1975: Page 61.
Barr, Greg. The Ottawa Citizen. ‘The Lounge Live.’ 27 Jan 1989: B1.
Elder, Ken. Heritage Ottawa Newsletter. ‘Ottawa Cabin Camps and Motor Courts.’ Volume 37, No. 2. Summer 2010.
Lunny, Vince, The Financial Post. ‘Retire and Run a Motel? Growth Boom Still Going.’ 26 Apr 1958: Page 26.
McLaughlin, Claire. The Ottawa Citizen. `Canadians can drown the shamrock’: Celtic season: On St. Patrick’s Day Ottawans go out to hear Irish favourites by singers like Robin Averill.’ 13 Mar 1997: D.2.
Ottawa Citizen, The. ‘Grant Two New Area Licences.’ 2 Aug 1960: Page 4.
Ottawa Citizen, The. ‘Legal Notices: Reliance Motor Court Limited.’ 26 Nov 1984: C14.
Ottawa Citizen, The. ‘Going out Guide.’ 1997 to 1998.
Whitney-Brown, Carolyn. The Globe and Mail. ‘Lives Lived: Beverly Anne Medford.’ 30 Dec 2009.