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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

The “Grand Dames”: Ottawa’s historic apartment buildings

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The Bytown Museum explores the stories of an evolving city and its residents from its early days as Bytown to present day Ottawa. “Backspacing” is a new monthly feature produced by Museum director Mike Steinhauer and Museum development director Francesco Corsaro.

Ottawa’s downtown isn’t necessarily known for its grand apartment buildings. In fact, many of the structures originate from the 1960’s and 1970’s and often have a less than desirable effect on the city’s landscape.

Dotted throughout the central core, however, one finds several apartment buildings that could be described as grand: The Shefford (300 Cooper Street), Windsor Arms (150 Argyle Road) and The Strathcona (404 Laurier Avenue East). The names of the earlier residents of these buildings would often appear in the Social and Personal Activities section – the precursor to the Ottawa Citizen’s Around Town.

The Shefford, built in 1912 to create apartments for the growing middle class, quickly became a respectable address and boasted spacious rooms, large windows, oak floors, a beautiful marble staircase and ‘continuous attendant elevator service’.

The monumental scale of this five-storey, H-plan, red brick Edwardian structure reflects a building boom in Ottawa – having been built the same year Château Laurier hotel, Union Station (originally named Grand Trunk Central Station; now Government Conference Centre) and Victoria Memorial Museum (now Canadian Museum of Nature) opened.

In more recent times, The Shefford became a victim of neglect due to continual turnover of landlords. The Shefford Heritage Housing Co-operative Inc. purchased the property in 1991 to preserve the heritage character of the building and to provide suitable housing in downtown Ottawa. Today, the apartment building is once again one of the most desirable addresses. Prospective tenants are placed on a long list and wait years before getting a unit – in the early 1980’s suites would have been available immediately.

The thirty-six-unit building has been the home of a number of notable residents including Joe Clark, Timothy Findley, Arthur Lismer and the perhaps lesser-known Marjorie Gray who lived in apartment 21 for nearly 60 years.

Windsor Arms, tucked in between the Queensway and the Canadian Museum of Nature, was another formidable address. Designed by architect Cecil Burges, Windsor Arms is today perhaps one of Ottawa’s most overlooked buildings. Built in the Art Nouveau style, the building features stained and leaded glass windows, wood burning fireplaces and a stunning entrance bay.

The 1930 building shared a block with the no longer extant Ottawa Auditorium and Beaver Barracks. The Auditorium was the home of the original NHL Senators from 1923 to 1934. It also became the venue for Elvis Presley’s two Ottawa concerts in 1957. The Auditorium was torn down in 1967 and replaced by the YMCA-YWCA building.

The nearby Beaver Barracks were demolished in 1991, and much of the site remained undeveloped and empty for nearly two decades. However, the grand Windsor Arms will soon be flanked by three new buildings, and a relocated Bytown Urban Garden, that make up the revitalized Beaver Barracks site developed by CCOC (Centretown Citizens Ottawa Corporation).

With the CCOC housing development, the multi-million dollar makeover at the YMCA-YWCA and the newly restored Museum of Nature, Windsor Arms is once again located in the heart of an exciting neighbourhood.

The Strathcona, positioned in between Marlborough and Goulburn Avenue, along Laurier Avenue East, is an impressive structure. The 1927 building sits on a ridge overlooking Sandy Hill, Strathcona Park and the Rideau River. Numerous embassies and high commissions, housed in revivalist style homes, surround the apartment building and suggest that Sandy Hill was once the city’s most affluent residential neighbourhood.

The style of The Strathcona is more restrained than that of The Shefford and Windsor Arms. However the entrance courtyard and the monumental (perhaps oversized?) fluted Doric columns, supporting the balconies, create an impressive focal point.

Amongst its former residents were E. P. Taylor, John Diefenbaker (residing in the right wing), Tommy Douglas (residing appropriately in the left wing), and Shirley Thomson.

Other notable apartment buildings in the downtown core are The Duncannon (1931), also designed by Cecil Burgess and located next to The Shefford. The Mayfair (1938), a seven-storey mansion block originally built as an apartment-hotel, is now the home of Paul Kariouk’s moveable architectural feast. Both The Duncannon and The Mayfair are located on Metcalfe Street. Wallis House (1875), a prominent Ottawa landmark on Rideau Street, was originally built to house the Carleton County Protestant General Hospital. The building served as a seminary, veteran’s housing and barracks before it was declared surplus in 1990. Wallis House was boarded up and stood empty until it was converted into 47 high-end condominiums in 1995.

Perhaps Ottawa’s first grand dame of apartment buildings was The Roxborough located near the corner of Elgin Street and Laurier Avenue. Built in 1910, the elegant eight-storey building became the home of Mackenzie King, Louis St. Laurent and Georges Vanier. When King left The Roxborough to move to Laurier House, he wrote: “[…] I feel as if I were parting with something akin to a very dear friend. I love this quiet and comfortable atmosphere, the notes of beauty and refinement are all a part of what is most dear to me.” (The Diaries of William Lyon Mackenzie King, January 10, 1923, Library and Archives Canada)

The elegant eighty-two-unit building was torn down in 1966 to make way for Confederation Park and a proposed, but never realized, new National Museum of Science.



  1. An excellent post. I love the photos.

    Note, though, that the Mayfair is only six storeys; the lower half-level is a parking garage.

  2. I love the old buildings in Ottawa. I am lucky enough to be renting out an apartment in the Glebe which dates to 1950 (I believe). The area is filled with these old 4 or 5 storey walk-ups. I wasn’t able to find much information about the building I am in online, but I noticed that it shares a lot of the same features asThe Duncannon…
    Anyway, great post as usual!

  3. Agree with you Charles – a great post. Black and White photos excellent way to evoke the period too.

  4. Great post! I love the building on Argyle and what they do to the gardens out front each year. And the genuine mullion windows are so full of character. Loved the black and white photos as well.

  5. Fantastic post. I love old apartment buildings—The Strathcona is probably one of my favourite buildings in the entire city.

    I’m lucky enough to be living in a beautiful old building, myself. It wasn’t originally built as apartments (as near as we can tell), but it does date back to probably the 1890s or so, and is one of the rare buildings in Ottawa that’s made out of stone. We’re pretty lucky to live here, really.

  6. Beautiful! So nice to see these gorgeous buildings given a bit of a spotlight. And so heartwarming to see the response to your website too. Bravo!

  7. I have a long history with The Ambassador Court at 612 Bank Street, beside Central Park. Apartment 2 in that building passed through the tenancy of a sequence of friends until my wife and I rented the place from 2004-2006.

    The building dates to 1928 and was designed by W.E. Noffke, an architect anyone who knows about Ottawa’s built heritage ought to know well. It has lots of cool details like dumb waiters, Muprhy bed closets, fake fireplaces with heavy bronze and stained glass electric fires, beautiful cut glass door knobs, and reputedly Ottawa’s first purpose-built underground parking garage (big enough for maybe 10 Model T Fords).

    It may not have been home to any prime ministers, but it sure is a lovely building.

  8. The noted apartment buildings add character and cityscape interest to their naighbourhoods and to the City. One apartment building that I am curious about is 585 O’Connor Street (corner of Second and O’Conner in the Glebe). My mother and her new husband moved in there in 1927 when it had, she told me, a ballroom as the top floor. In the late 1940’s she moved in again with my brother and me while I went to High School and then Carleton College on Second Ave. I left in 1952 to go to work, but my mother lived there until the 1960s. I would be interested in any history of this building to share with my brother and our families.

  9. A forbear of mine, James Mather,Architect, d. Ottawa, 1927, built a number of private and public buildings in Ottawa – e.g. house that is now Signatures ( his older brother John’s house – John was my great-grandfather) and the First Baptist Church at Laurier and Elgin.I thought he had also designed an ‘elegant’ apartment building nearthe top ( north end ) of Elgin Street – maybe up from the Baptist Church but on the other side, which has since been razed. Cannot remember the name of this apartment block. Can you help?


  10. Re the comment by Andrew Jeanes about underground parking in The Ambassador Court, I think the Strathcona (404 Laurier Ave East) has it beat by a year for being the first to provide purpose-built underground parking. The Strathcona was built in 1927 and has room for some 20-30 cars. There was a large sink and hose in the garage, and Wilfrid Fick, a young boy who later became the superintendent, evidently used to wash the tenants’ cars and taxis that came in for the service. When I moved into the building (1980) some of the apartments still had screen doors in front of their entrance doors. This permitted the tenant to open the entrance door to the apt and the door to the balcony to allow for a cross breeze in the hot summer. (It says a great deal about how unconcerned people were about security in those days.) In the wall beside each large apartment there are also (now sealed up) little boxes for the milkman to leave the milk order.