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Streetscape Memory Bank: Downtown bird’s eye view, 1938

By Andrew Elliott on July 31, 2013

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Andrew Elliott is an archivist who by day works with the federal government and by night is a freelance historian who is interested in architectural heritage issues. Elliott has written for Blacklocks Reporter, the Glebe Report, and the Peterborough Examiner. He can be reached at ajg.elliott@utoronto.ca.

This occasional column will take a look at Ottawa’s streetscapes, ca. 1938, and take note of a city at the crossroads of change.

His motto was: “It can be done”. And invariably, when James B. Hunter said this, things were done. Hunter was one of the most important figures in the development of Ottawa’s 20th century streetscape. Born in Waterdown, Ontario in 1876, Hunter came to Ottawa in 1900, and for many years lived at 552 Maclaren Street before moving to 7 Linden Terrace where he lived until his death in 1942. His first job was private secretary to James Sutherland, Minister of Marine and Fisheries. In 1902, Hunter joined the highly influential Department of Public Works, and by 1908 had risen through the ranks to become Deputy Minister of the department.

Called “Jimmie” by his friends, he is described in a 1938 Ottawa Citizen article as a kindly man with few hobbies except for motoring in his car. Hunter was responsible for numerous public works building projects across the country, including the construction of numerous iconic postal buildings.

One of the more substantial projects he oversaw was the 1917-18 construction of the Hunter Building, which replaced the ca. 1880s Dominion Fisheries Building (see image above). When it went up, it not only changed the look of downtown Ottawa but was for several decades the largest and tallest office complex in the city.  The building was seven storeys, and it covered a city block, bounded roughly by Bank, Queen, O’Connor, and Albert. Hunter’s office was on the 7th floor from 1919-41.

No less than five architects worked for Hunter: David Ewart, Edgar Horwood, Richard C. Wright (the architect responsible for the “modern” design of the Hunter Building), Thomas W. Fuller, and Charles D. Sutherland. Some of the more important buildings in Ottawa constructed during his tenure include the Cereal Building at the Experimental Farm, a major addition to the Dominion Archives Building, the reconstruction of the Parliament Buildings, the Confederation Building, the Ore Building on Booth Street, and the Dept. of Justice building on Wellington.

So as he helped re-shape the look of the city, what did Hunter see from his top floor office? The following images are a striking visual documentary of what downtown looked like in 1938.

Queen Street Looking East.

The first image looks east along Queen Street.  You will note the streetcar tracks, the very low-rise streetscape, and the ads for Birks and Murphy Gamble. Most of the structures seen here are now gone, replaced by larger towers. In the lower right is the roof of the Garland Building, with a great view of its magnificent corner tower. The Blackburn Building – seen in the upper left of the image – is still standing.

O'Connor Street Looking North

Next image swings around to look north along O’Connor Street. Here we can see a number of recognizable buildings, including the old Bryson-Graham department store (now housing Yesterday’s Restaurant) on the right and the Bank of Montreal on the left.

Queen Street Looking West

Looking west along Queen Street now, you’ll note that most of the structures seen here, especially on the northwest and southwest side of the intersection are gone, including the Capitol Theatre. Still standing is the Trafalgar Building at northeast corner of Bank and Queen (middle right side of the image) that currently houses, among other things, the Laura Secord store; the Bank of Canada (the white building on the far right of the image); and the spire of St. Andrew’s Church just behind it.

No rooftop view appears to be available looking south, but here is what the streetscape would have looked like at ground level.

Looking South East from O'Connor

This is from just north of the O’Connor/Albert intersection. The Bell Telephone Company Building is the only building still with us, and that is the white art-deco building on the right side of the image.

The Hunter Building was demolished in 1982, and replaced by an even more substantial structure now known as the Sun Life Financial Centre.

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The images seen here are part of a much larger Department of Public Works photo collection of Ottawa streetscapes found within Library and Archives Canada’s online digital collections.  Most of these photos appear to have been taken ca. 1937-1939, in conjunction with planner Jacques Greber’s initial surveys of Ottawa. These surveys, completed after the Second World War, would have major consequences: the city’s landscape would be dramatically altered even further from James Hunter’s days, and entire streetscapes would be demolished in the name of beautification on a monumental scale.

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