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“Street frontage of Nicholas Sparks' house along Sparks St.,” 1939. (Photo: Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Capital History: Nicholas Sparks’s House

By Ashley Newall on March 16, 2022


Ashley Newall’s “Capital History Ottawa” (#colourized) has been chronicling outstanding scenes in the city through his newly colourized photos and accompanying factoids. The project’s home is on Twitter, but once a month, a more in-depth piece delving into the stories behind these pics will be published here on Apartment613. 

If you’re interested in Nicholas Sparks’ house, Apartment613 has you covered: this is the second piece on the topic to appear on the blog, the main differences this time around being colourized photos and a quirkier approach. Enjoy!

Nicholas Sparks’ house was situated on the north side of Sparks St. between Lyon and Bay Streets and was the first stone house built in Ottawa. It was built around 1829-30 and was (regrettably) torn down in 1954.

“The Sparks home as it used to be,” ca. before 1920. (Photo: Ottawa Citizen via Bytown Museum – June 9, 1954)

Nicholas Sparks (1794-1862) bought 200 acres in 1821 from John Burrows Honey (who later shortened his name to John Burrows) covering a swath from Wellington to present-day Laurier Ave., and from Bronson Ave. to Waller St., i.e. much of present-day downtown Ottawa.

Sources differ as to whether Sparks purchased the land in 1821, 1823, 1824 or 1826. The year 1821 is most often cited and is also most noted as the year Burrows acquired the plot of land in the first place. Since Burrows most likely would’ve held onto the land for more than just a few months, chances of a quick flip seem slim. 1826 is out of the question, because the imminent building of the Rideau Canal would have been well-known, and nobody would be that foolish. (However, 1826 is reportedly when Sparks finally got the deed, which likely led to the confusion.) I’m going to put my money on Capital Heritage Connection,who say that ol’ Johnny B. acquired the land in 1818, built a shanty on it, got bored, and then sold to Sparks in ’21.

“View at the West end of Wellington Street, Upper Bytown, looking East, 1845.” (Photo: Wikipedia.)

“View at the West end of Wellington Street, Upper Bytown, looking East, 1845.” (Photo: Wikipedia.)

In 1816, “Nicholas Sparks came over from Ireland. He was not met at the Central Station by the Governor-General’s Foot Guards band, as he should have been,” because of course he wasn’t! (The Governor General’s Foot Guards weren’t formed until 1872, and the Central Railway Depot didn’t open until 1896. The author is using a delightful literary device called anachronism.)

Outline of the side of Sparks’ original stone house with second floor (brick) extension (1939). (Photo: Library & Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Working for Philemon Wright, the founder of Hull, Sparks “saved money and purchased […], ‘Lot C, Concession C, Rideau Front,’ for the sum of £95 sterling. […] His (initial) homestead was a log shanty, […] (and) this humble beginning marked the founding of the City of Ottawa. [..] It is certain that the little log house of Nicholas Sparks should have received the care and veneration which were bestowed on the hut of Romulus, by the citizens of Rome.” (“The Parish of St. Patrick of Ottawa and what led to it” – 1900.) Long live hyperbole!

Alas, the log shanty was built by Burrows, and was included in the deal for “Lot C.” But fret not – we can still bestow our veneration upon Sparks’ original stone house!

Street frontage of Nicholas Sparks’ house along Sparks St., 1939. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Burrows having been the first European to own the crucial plot of land, you’d be excused for wondering just how he was able to acquire it in the first place – what machinations made it possible, because Ottawa is built on unceded Algonquin-Anishinaabe territory? Well, the fine folks at the Bytown Museum have once again come to my rescue and provided us with an answer.

The Crawford Purchase of 1783 and the Oswegatchie Purchase of 1784 saw settlers beginning to encroach on the Ottawa River watershed, but then the Constitutional Act of 1791, dividing Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada with the Ottawa River as the border, opened the floodgates. Subsequently, in 1792, Nepean Township – in which “Lot C” was located – was claimed, named and surveyed. “By 1839, Algonquin land claims were flatly denied by order of the Executive Council of Upper Canada.” (“Fractured Homeland” by Bonita Lawrence, 2012)

While Sparks’ “Lot C” acreage was swampy and mosquito-ridden upon purchase, once Colonel By arrived in town to build his canal, it rapidly became evident that little ol’ Nicky Sparks had hit the jackpot. Within his lifetime, his original plot of land was re-evaluated at $10,000,000 (somewhere in the range of $300 million in today’s money).

Renovations to the Sparks house occurred between 1912–1920, extending the second floor out in either direction at its sides. At some point, undoubtedly during renovations, the house was re-oriented to front on Sparks St. “The original front of the house is in the rear […], facing Wellington. […] [I]t now commands only the view of garages and an old board fence.” Which is to say, the view literally and figuratively went to the dogs. “In yesteryear, the Sparks home had an unobstructed view of a beautiful park along Wellington Street, with its many colourful flower beds.” (Evening Citizen – Nov. 25, 1947)

“Nicholas Sparks’ house, front-facing facade as a flophouse,” 1939. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

“Enterprising and public-spirited, [Sparks] gave of his lands for market place [i.e. the former Uppertown market, at Lyon and Wellington Streets] and town hall, for fire and police buildings and for Christ Church Cathedral, and served on Bytown’s first Council. He lived to see the cornerstone of the Parliament Buildings laid before his death in 1862.” (Ottawa Citizen – Aug. 16, 1955)

Looking northwest at Sparks-Lyon intersection, 1938. Sparks house behind hotel. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada — colourized by Ashley Newall)

“Nicholas Sparks’ House, Sparks St. side,” Oct. 24, 1938. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

When Ottawa’s chances of becoming Canada’s capital became imperilled due to political machinations (after Queen Victoria had already tapped the violent backwater town to be Canada’s capital), a town meeting was called, with Nicholas Sparks among the presiders, and they succeeded in getting the bid back on track. So Sparks was no innocent bystander – he was right in the thick of making this city what it is, through its entire initial growth period from nothingburger to world capital.

Nicholas Sparks’ house, Sparks St., 1938. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Irish-born as he was, Nicholas was President of the St. Patrick’s Society in Ottawa. Maybe raise a glass of green beer to ol’ Sparksy this St. Patty’s Day, if you’re so inclined.

Find more of Ashley Newall’s work on Twitter @CapHistOttawa