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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.