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Russell House Hotel, Ottawa 1927.

Capital History: Premier Hat Shops, 1912 to 1970

By Ashley Newall on April 12, 2021


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. 

What I would do for an old-timey men’s hat store in town – not that I could afford any of the hats.

Premier Hat Shops occupied the prime retail space within the Russell House hotel, their storefront situated as it was right on the southeast corner of Sparks and Elgin streets.

Premier Hat Shops’ Russell House hotel location, southeast corner of Sparks and Elgin streets, 1927. (Original image via Library and Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

As the pluralized name suggests, they were indeed a chain, with a second location at 209 Bank Street, right on the northeast corner of Nepean Street. Premier Hats was founded in 1912 by the delightfully named Samuel Gluck, his first store opening on an opposite corner of Bank and Nepean.

As Samuel’s son Elliot explained in 1959, they took great pride in their “low-pressure service that generations of customers have come to know.” He added, “We don’t try to change a man’s choice. The customer is always right.” (Ottawa Citizen – May 29, 1959).

Interior shot (below) of Premier Hat Shops’ 40½ Sparks Street location on the leading edge of Russell House.

Interior of Premier Hat Shop, 40½ Sparks St. at Elgin, 1928. (Original image via Library and Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

Some notable notes regarding the Russell House Hotel, as a matter of course – Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier lived there for 10 years (before moving into what later became known as Laurier House, on what later became known as Laurier Avenue), and it was there that Governor-General Lord Stanley announced his donation of the Stanley Cup towards the establishment of a challenge series to denote hockey supremacy.

Opened in the 1840s under the name Campbell’s Hotel (named for the original proprietor), it was renamed the Russell House in 1863 with a change in ownership.

The hotel was the local predecessor to the Chateau Laurier in grandeur and prestige. Russell House closed in 1925, put out of business by said Chateau, and was demolished following a fire in 1928.

Here’s a 1928 photo of the bygone hotel (below), abandoned save for the street-level retail shops that still remained.

Russell House hotel, front façade, 1928. (Original image via Library and Archives Canada – colourized by Ashley Newall)

On the night of April 14, 1928, the Russell House hotel, home to Premier Hats’ Sparks Street store, caught fire. “Mr. Samuel Gluck […] stated that he had first been advised of the fire by telephone, about ten minutes to twelve and had gone to the fire. The store, he said, had closed as usual at six o’clock and everything so far as he knew was in order. On reaching the fire, with the assistance of others, he had been successful in removing a considerable part of the stock… Mr. Gluck stated that he estimated the loss to his company at between ten and fifteen thousand dollars [$150-225K in today’s money], and he said there was about 15 percent or around $2,000 insurance on it.” (Ottawa Evening Citizen – May 16, 1928)

They pivoted quickly, however, with Gluck able to announce their new location, in the Booth Building (which still stands) on Sparks near O’Connor Street, within 24 hours of the fire. And there they remained until 1934, when the Sparks outlet moved to the Windsor House hotel block (at 92 Sparks, corner of Metcalfe), where they resided for the following 25 years.

Ottawa Citizen, September 21, 1946.

Upon the 25th anniversary at that location, in 1959, looking all the way back to the chain’s original 1912 opening, Elliot Gluck marked that “[d]uring those historic years, Premier Hat Stores have sold hats to practically every prime minister and opposition leader, scores of senators and members of Parliament. They came in for their fedoras and caps, their Hombergs [sic] and silk toppers, their Persian lamb wedges and their straw hats.”

In 1959 they moved to 111 Sparks Street in the Bate Building (which also still stands). Regrettably, Premier Hats closed their doors for good in 1970, leaving me in the lurch…

Ottawa Citizen – Jan. 13, 1970.

As for general men’s hat shopping in Ottawa in the 21st century, Sears used to have a very fine selection, so I was sad to see them go. As a frequent hat-wearer, I find it extremely difficult to find a wide selection of non-sports-themed baseball caps in town (particularly not in one convenient location) – can somebody get on that?! I’m pretty sure the local trucker-hat market, selling almost exclusively to Gen X musicians, would be a booming one!

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