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Streetscape Memory Bank: Urban plans from 1938 cast a light on current times

By Andrew Elliott on February 2, 2015


Ottawans were witness to a major announcement on February 8, 1938.  On this date, the Ottawa Journal reported that the Government of Canada had unveiled and approved Jacques Greber’s plan for the beautification of Ottawa. “Greber Plans to Convert Ottawa into a Picturesque World Capital”‘ trumpeted the headline.  As front page news, this was indeed a splash…and Ottawa would never be quite the same again.  Imagine: you wake up in 1938 and see this news, you read the proposed details…what would you think?

The more I look at Ottawa’s watershed year in urban planning history, the more I see parallels with the current state of our city. Indeed, the urban planning of the late 1930s casts a strange light on the urban planning of our current times   Then, as now, Ottawans were being introduced to the prospect of massive urban change almost beyond their control and were, just as now, on the cusp of seeing a whole old way of living wiped out. Yet the way of living was different from now.  How different? Can we even recreate what the city sounded like, what it felt like?

Life was certainly slower, more traditionally fixed to local landmarks.  Ottawans had radios but no televisions, they had fixed telephone lines as opposed to hand-held smart phones.  Citizens commuted to work on quieter but more democratic streets. These streets accommodated street cars, cars, horse drawn carriages, pedestrians, and bicyclists; these streets were generally lined with more trees and overshadowed with buildings no more than 6-8 storeys in height.  Our passenger rail station was still downtown and rail lines were still the main means of long distance commercial and public transportation in and out of the city.

Out of the initial Greber Plan of 1938 came wide-scale changes to Elgin Street, and these changes were granted most of the real attention in 1938 and 1939 (and perhaps also in subsequent decades, due to the new focus of the War Memorial).  Later, the wide-scale expropriation and massive demolition of Lebreton Flats industrial neighbourhood in the late 1960s, followed by subsequent planning delays, would be another Greber legacy that has generated ongoing acrimonious debate.

A less well-known, perhaps less publicized aspect of the Greber plan was the vision for changes to the west side of downtown on the edge of Lebreton Flats.  In particular, the thriving Uppertown neighborhood and the grand triangular commercial intersection of Wellington and Sparks Streets were to be thoroughly obliterated and replaced with a park-like atmosphere (that is, monumental government buildings surrounded by parks).

Anson Gard, author of the 1904 whimsical travelogue of Ottawa, The Hub and the Spokes, notes that Wellington west of Bank was “a business street”.

Gard said that he could take the Chaudiere streetcar line from Sparks and Bank, then along Wellington to Pooley’s Bridge and then over to Booth Street and end at the Chaudiere Falls.

Less than ten years later, the federal government expropriated most of the residential area near this stretch of Wellington for an anticipated redevelopment, which like most such schemes in the capital, became stalled for many years. (See below and click here for more images.)



Some demolition work of the residences overlooking the cliff between the mid-1920s and 1930s had only just begun:



Until the summer of 1938, the commercial portion of Wellington street remained intact.  Then on July 29, 1938, the Ottawa Journal announced that the government was expropriating 37 properties to the tune of $587,000.  The businesses affected included, on the South side, the Federal Paper Company, the National Drug and Chemical Company, J. Skinner Drug Store, Thomas Lawson and Sons foundry, Vails Laundry Ltd, Alexander Fleck Ltd foundry, and Wilson and Keith Coffee Warehouse.  On the north side (including Lyon Street to Sparks), the businesses included Loveday Garage,  Plaunt Hardware Company, Valley Cooperative Creameries, Pinks Automobiles, the Belmont Hotel, and Murphy-Gamble Ltd.

A little later, Brading Breweries was expropriated and relocated further west along Wellington Street. Here and here are the fire insurance maps, ca. 1901, showing the street layout. In fact, the location of current Library and Archives Canada was still occupied by the former Perley family Mansion (by the 1930s the Perley Home for Veterans), as seen behind the trees in this 1937 shot:

Perley Mansion


In anticipation of this expropriation, on July 14-15, 1938, one or more government photographers went out and recorded this streetscape, which you can see in the following series of spectacular images, entitled in the LAC collection as “Expropriated Properties”. So, moving from West to East on the South side of the street:

1. Lyon and Wellington:



2. Sparks and Lyon:



3. Looking east side of Bay and Wellington. Click here and see below:



4. Bay and Wellington:



5. Looking at west side of Bay and Wellington:



6. Showing the southwesterly curve: See featured image above.

Moving from East to West, on the North side of the street:

7. Broadview apartments:



8. Brading Breweries. Click here and see below:



9. Showing Sparks and Wellington from different perspectives, looking east. Click here, here and see below:



10. View from Pooley’s Bridge:



As you can see, these images show how the street actually curved in an ingenious fashion southwestward around the side of a steep hill to link up with Pooley’s Bridge. Here’s a “bird’s eye” view of the area from upper Sparks Street (Cathedral Hill), as seen a year previously (below), as well as an aerial view of the area in the early 1940s:

birds eye


Greber called for this area to be completely made over, with a park where the triangular curve was located, and a major thoroughfare splitting in two like a Y, with one portion moving southwest to the western portion of Wellington/Albert Street, while the other portion moving northwest towards a bridge over Chaudiere Falls.  You can see Greber’s interpretation of what he thought the streetscape should eventually look like here and here.

While not quite what the model anticipated (only one portion of Wellington Street split off as a grand thoroughfare to the northwest), the actual results were quite similar: the Garden of the Provinces was completed in 1962, the National Library building (395 Wellington) was completed in 1967, and the change in the street pattern were completed in the late 1960s. Click here for an aerial view.

Most of the demolition work occurred in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Urbsite has two great posts relating to the work and reconstruction which you can check out here. and here.

Whatever you may feel about the Greber Plan and its resulting changes, you will at least note that one of Greber’s goals was to take a long term view to urban planning.  This long term view – while it unfortunately encouraged the large scale short term obliteration of entire neighbourhoods and streetscapes and ignored the ensuring social consequences – was always looking for and striving towards, a form of beauty.  This was certainly sanitized beautification.

Compare this to our current era when we have all kinds of zoning rules in place to control urban development, yet somehow our urban development seems like the Wild West: it lacks any proper long term vision and seems to be based on the short-term greed of some developers. We’re promised new buildings that break bold new ground, but get ones that look cheap and lack any traditional aesthetic architectural qualities.  There seems to be little consideration – by some architects, some developers, some urban planners, and some politicians – for the overall long term aesthetic beauty of the city and its streetscapes, or to existing historical patterns, and ultimately to the well-being of residents. Which begs the following questions: what kind of planning do we need for this city? What kind of change do we want, and what kind of change do we want to avoid?

Perhaps the means and the ends of the Greber Plan could help instruct us as we plan for a future city.