Nearly 60 years ago, in late 1954, the Nicholas Sparks house was demolished. Although there had been some serious discussion about preserving the place, the federal government – under the auspices of the Department of Public Works and the Federal District Commission – decided that restoration and preservation would cost too much. Moreover, the house was in the way of a new construction project: the West Memorial Building. Already more than a century old by this stage, the Sparks home had been recognized by historians as a place of national importance. So where was this house and why should we care what happened to it?
It is said that when Nicholas Sparks first saw the property he had purchased in the early 1820s, he wept in exasperation. During this era, the area just south of the Ottawa River was a deserted, windswept scrubby forest with thin soil unsuitable for farming. The Sparks property extended from what is now Bronson Avenue to Nicholas Street and from Wellington to Slater, roughly where downtown Ottawa is now.
But Sparks still built a log cabin, which would have been located near the intersection of Bay and Sparks. When Colonel By arrived in the area to build the Rideau Canal, Sparks the landowner found an opportunity to become a real estate magnate. He sold off property lots to canal workers as well as to religious institutions, such as Christ Church Cathedral and St. Andrews Church. You can learn more about the early history of Bytown here.
Sparks also worked in the lumbering business, establishing a grist and saw mill in the Chaudiere district, and reared well-bred horses, winning first prize for one at a local fair in 1837. When Bytown council was established in 1848, he was one of the seven people elected to oversee how Bytown operated, and remained in this position until 1860. The following map and painting demonstrates what Upper Bytown looked like in the 1840s.
When Sparks died in February 1862, the Citizen reported: “He was a warm and firm friend, and his word was as good as his bond. He loved honesty and highly valued those in whom it was found. “
Sparks was able to build a beautiful Georgian style stone house in 1829 or 1830. This home was located near the northwest corner of what is now Sparks and Lyon, and the front entrance faced Wellington Street and the Ottawa River. Here’s what the old front entrance looked like in 1939:
As Roy F. Fleming of the Ottawa Citizen noted in 1954, the original house was two and half storeys, had two large chimneys, and was 40 feet long and 36 feet deep. Its main entrance was “one of the finest features of architecture…opening into the courtyard with a wall of large flat stones…originally there was a short driveway with trees on either side leading in from Wellington Street. Moreover, there was also a pillared porch and balcony. It had a “many-panelled door, side lights and arched top of leaded glass”; the interior’s main hall had a “beautiful fluted cornice…and the original stair-rail of the main stairway” was mahogany. Fleming notes that when he visited the basement where the cooking was done and supplies were kept, he discovered a “well in the cast room: it was of masonry with its two rusty pulley wheels about 14 inches in diameter lying on top.”
After Sparks` death, the property was sold in 1877 for $6,250, and the following succession of people lived here until 1944: James Hartney, Edward Hartney, James Wilson, Leo Petergorsky, Robert Taylor, and James Larkey. From 1912 until 1920, Andrew Holland, a well-respected Hansard reporter, lived here, and another family member, Edward, had earned a Victory Cross in the Boer War. The Holland family also did a number of renovations and additions, with four stores added to the Sparks Street frontage and three apartments in the second storey. The architect Allen Keefer kept his architectural offices here as well. In the following 1939 photo, you can not only see how the additions fit in with the streetscape, but also the businesses themselves, which included a barber shop and convenience store, a business that sold insulation, and the Alfred Thompson Stationary Company:
By the late 1930s, Sparks Street was really two streets in one. East of Bank Street was the part that had developed into a grand, bustling business district, defined by the monumental Sun Life Financial building at Sparks and Bank, see 1902 image:
West of Bank Street, the high-end business district diminished quickly into a mix of low rise commercial and residential buildings. There were some hotels, a theatre or two, offices for the Ottawa Free Press, a piano factory, and a couple of churches, and other lesser businesses, all in buildings between two and four storeys in height.As the following images show, the street was quite well defined. Here is the section between Bank and Kent; and here the section between Kent and Lyon and the northwest part of the intersection of Sparks and Lyon:
All this area was demolished to make way for government buildings in the 1945-1975 time period. In the 1940s, the Women’s Canadian Historical Society took up the call to preserve the Sparks House, requesting to have their headquarters moved here. This request was denied, and they subsequently moved into the old Central Registry Office on Nicholas Street, and then later, the building that now houses the Bytown Museum. Nowadays, the western part of Sparks Street is defined by the high rise towers of the CD Howe Building, the expanded Bank of Canada building, as well as the memorial buildings and the towers of the Place De Ville complex. This section has become almost devoid of human life after the civil servants go home, with few street level businesses to attract the pedestrian. Even the recent Sparks Street festivals do not venture this far west, and so the process of barrenness feeds on itself.
I look at the old images of the Sparks home, and I wonder why it could not have been saved? Another thought arises: does it matter what happened to a house that has been gone for so long it has almost faded out of our collective memory? I look at the old images of Sparks Street in this vicinity, and I wonder if the revised alternative is better? Cities are in a constant flux of a change, but the wholesale obliteration of several blocks of a culturally and historically important section of a city is never a good thing. I am standing near the corner of Sparks and Lyon on a cold November day, buffeted by the wind. This is now thought to be one of the windiest parts of Ottawa. Would Nicholas Sparks weep if he could see the current streetscape? It is once again a windswept wasteland, devoid of the fertilizer that helps make a street vibrant and welcoming.