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Dalhousie St. looking north from Rideau, ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

Capital History Ottawa #colourized: Downtown Intersections, 1938

By Ashley Newall on November 21, 2022

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Dalhousie St. looking north from Rideau, ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

Somebody’s already written about this mysterious photo set for Apartment613 (namely Andrew Elliott) but wait—this time around the pics have been colourized! As a certain yellow, pointy-haired cartoon character might exclaim: “Cowabunga!”

To summarize my (local history beat) predecessor’s work, the 1937-39 photo series featuring Ottawa intersections was shot by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau (CGMPB) on behalf of the Department of Public Works, the latter of which was assembling the compilation for Jacques Gréber, author of the infamous Gréber Plan that reshaped Ottawa. (In 1940, the CGMPB merged with the newly formed National Film Board.) Ostensibly for a mundane purpose, the photos display remarkable substance and artistry, as well as capture scintillating and flattering snapshots-in-time of our city.

The bulk of the photos appear to have been taken in 1938. They depict a more innocent time, which I would argue wasn’t innocent in many respects; however, it was indeed right on the precipice of WWII.

As for the photographers themselves, Andrew has named two prime suspects: Eugene M. Finn and Frank C. Tyrell. My analysis of the series is that it appears to have been shot by at least two photographers, as I perceive at least two distinct styles, plus two camera types and/or film types.

While I wasn’t around in 1938, this story is about to turn into a bit of a trip down memory lane for me. Without further ado, as a green-masked, rubber-faced Scarborough comedian once proclaimed, “It’s showtime!”

Bank St.:

Bank St. looking north from Somerset, ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

A small, select group of my Twitter followers always point out any streetcar tracks that appear in my colourized pics, yearning for a return of that rattle-tattle to our streets. The streetcars themselves wouldn’t be quite so romantic, looking more like spaceships nowadays than old-timey San Francisco-style trolley cars, but regardless, I get it. They’d have been a huge improvement on gas-guzzling, smoke-choking buses over the years. The rail enthusiast in me is all in favour of the proposed Ottawa-Gatineau streetcar link (which would run along Wellington St. in front of Parliament), but City Hall probably wouldn’t—and probably shouldn’t—take infrastructure advice from me. Had they, mind you, we would have had a light rail link to the Corel Centre 20 years ago! (Zuuuuuuuub!)

Bank St. looking south from Laurier, ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

Wait, does that drugstore sign (on the right) mean there were also UNethical drugstores around?

Slater St. looking east from Bank, ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

O’Connor St.:

Looking south on O’Connor from just south of Sparks; Hunter building on right, 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

O’Connor St. looking north from Slater, 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

The white Bell Canada building on the corner of Albert St. is still there, only now it’s three stories taller. Also, the sunny side of the Bytown Inn.

Looking southeast from O’Connor at Albert, 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

The shady side of the Bytown Inn. (I’m just kidding—I don’t know anything about the inn, except that its bar was enjoyed by students and liquid-lunching Bell employees alike.)

O’Connor St. looking north from the top of Hunter Building, ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

Queen St.:

Queen St. looking east from the roof of Hunter Building (at O’Connor), ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

In this pic, I spy the building that would later house Oscar’s Restaurant, a joint where I once cooked pizzas in a wood-burning oven, a job that absolutely sucked at the height of summer. A preferred hangout for the local nudist club, it was. Their events were contained on the second floor, and while the bartenders generally remained clothed, certain Naturalist sympathizers on the wait staff did not.

Queen St. looking west from Hunter Building (at O’Connor), ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

Here we spy the Capitol Theatre (red-bricked with three upper windows, on the southwest corner of Bank and Queen), originally called the “Capitol Cinema.” At 2,530 seats, it was the largest single-screen cinema ever built in Ottawa, according to Wikipedia. Built in 1920, it hosted a who’s who of 1960s music icons in its latter years, including The Who. A retired journalist pal of mine saw them, plus Cream, Ravi Shankar, and Jimi Hendrix, and further reports that Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash also played at the venue.

The grandiose and ornate theatre sadly closed in 1970 and was subsequently demolished, the arrival of the National Arts Centre in 1969 apparently having made it redundant. Its demolition pre-dated Ontario heritage protection legislation, which arrived five years too late for The Capitol. (Meanwhile, City Hall is currently scrambling for a mid-sized concert venue, and obviously, the Capitol would’ve fit that bill.)

Looking east on Queen St. from Bank St., 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

The Trafalgar Building on the left (NE corner) still stands. Built in 1905-06 and designed in the Chicago architectural style (i.e. concrete and steel framework with masonry cladding), it originally housed various government offices. Boring!

On the right we have the leading edge of the Capitol with embedded retail—‘get your cut rate drugs here!’ … I think that answers my earlier question.

Rideau St.:

Rideau Street at Dalhousie, looking west, ca. 1939. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

Visible in this pic is the future head shop I headed straight for as a 14-year-old on my first visit (a school trip) to O-town. Music posters, Doc Martens, and rock tees were the name of the game. Also, giggling at the pot paraphernalia. Sadly, what time couldn’t defeat, COVID seemingly did, and said head shop—Rock Junction—closed for good in 2021.

Years later, I worked at what I called an “open air head shop” on William St. in the ByWard Market selling much the same kinds of merchandise, and the exact same kinds of prep school 14-year-olds were rolling up to my stand (and giggling). “What’s that?” they’d enquire. “Why, it’s a grinder for your mother’s herbs and spices in the kitchen,” I’d respond, straight-faced.

Sussex Dr. looking north from Rideau St., ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

Dalhousie St. looking north from Rideau, ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

William St. looking north from Rideau, ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

Here we see the former home of the now-closed/COVID-shuttered Highlander Pub (on the near left), a room where my former Top-40 covers duo, Sven @ Würk, really landed our punches. Musically speaking.

The ByWard Market Mall and the continuation of William St. are also visible in the background. And behind the Market Mall is a second farmer’s market building (fronting on York St.)—indeed, we used to have two such. That second location is now home to some street-level retail and a glorious parking garage!

Rideau St. at King Edward Ave., looking west, ca. 1938. Original photo via Library & Archives Canada, colourized by Ashley Newall.

The drinks they sell on that northwest corner nowadays are a tad bit stronger than Coca-Cola.

And here we are, right back where we started, with streetcar tracks. Ding ding!


Check out the Capital History Ottawa (#colourized) vernissage at Irene’s Pub, Dec. 5-31 (launch party Dec. 5 from 5-9pm)! You can follow Ashley Newall’s Capital History Ottawa on Twitter and Instagram.

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