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Streetscape Memory Bank: The demolition of the British Bank of North America and the re-shaping of Wellington Street, 1935 – 1939

By Andrew Elliott on August 28, 2013

At Kingsmere, Mackenzie King’s former estate in the Gatineau Hills, stand some picturesque “ruins”.  One set is called the L’arc de Triomphe, and we are told that this is all that is left of the Ottawa headquarters of the British Bank of North America. Most of King’s ideas about capital beautification came from his time spent here; led, he thought, by some higher power. He notes in his diary upon his decision to retrieve portions of the old Bank of North America building: “I am now experiencing…a marvelous evidence of a great divine evidence and purpose…and I will be able to put them up a Kingsmere – a sign – a symbol as though the ruin was all evidence of the truth of what is being revealed to us.”

The British Bank of North America had been a landmark on the north side of Wellington Street just west of the intersection with Bank Street since the late 1860s. Yet it was one of the many buildings to succumb to Mackenzie King’s vision of a grander parliamentary precinct.  It lasted long enough to celebrate its longevity in the capital, and its bank note company advertised itself in this ad in the Ottawa Citizen in May 1935.

You can see how it fit into the neighbourhood, as seen from this ca. 1906 view from the top of the Canadian Bank Note Company building located on the south side of Wellington.

Photo from Library and Archives, Canada.

 

What you see is an area filled with upper class residences, which were lived by notable Ottawa politicians and businessmen; they lived in houses that were situated along Vittoria Street and Cliff Street, and they overlooked the Ottawa River with a view towards the industrial Chaudiere and Hull districts.

Notably, department store owner R.K. Devlin had one of the nicest houses on the edge of the cliff.

Photo from Library and Archives, Canada.

 The area, however, had been earmarked as early as 1912 as a site of government building expansion, and many properties were expropriated that year.  You’ll see some of the specific buildings located here, as seen here and here.

The First World War and other matters interfered with plans for re-shaping the area, so many homes survived until the late 1920s. Not until 1929 did the first major construction project begin, and this was for the monumental Confederation Building followed shortly after by the Justice Building

And then when Mackenzie King returned to power in 1935, his plans for capital beautification and a chance meeting at the Paris Exposition in Oct. 1936 with architect and planner Jacques Greber set things in motion: “It is something I have wanted for a long time past.” King invited Greber to Ottawa to study the city and create a master plan. 

As part of his first report, which came out in early 1938, Greber recommended major changes to Wellington Street. Among a number of recommendations: “The South Side of Wellington Street should be dignified and treated as a continuous monumental background to the north side.”

King’s government obliged.  On July 29 and August 17, 1938, expropriation notices – as noted in the Ottawa Citizen – went out for most of the properties on the north and south side of Wellington west of Bank Street, with a further set of expropriations taking place in May 1940.

The Department of Public Works and the Federal District Commission took photographs of the affected areas. You can see some of the south side of the street looking east from mid-block between Lyon and Kent, looking towards Bank Street here and here:

Photo from Library and Archives, Canada.

And the north side of the street here:

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And the intersection of Kent and Wellington, showing the British North American Bank Note Building and the new Bank of Canada next door.

Here is what the street looked like before demolition:

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and during demolition:

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As you can see, this was a very consistent, compact, low-rise and inviting 19th century commercial streetscape. Simultaneous to the demolition of the streetscape, the houses overlooking the river were also being demolished, as seen here.

Most were gone by November 1938, as seen here in the ominously entitled “Last House Standing on Vittoria Street” (which just happens to be R.K. Devlin’s old house).

Following this, the construction of the new Supreme Court began in 1939, various temporary wartime buildings then went up between 1940-45, and, after the war, the East and West Memorial Buildings, followed in the last by the National Library and Public Archives Building in 1967. The ceremonial nature of this part of Wellington Street was cemented in Greber’s 1950 Plan for the National Capital. The history of the area was further re-shaped in the late 1960s when the National Capital Commission named Wellington Street as part of “The Mile of History”, but in a series of pamphlets published into the 1970s, there was almost no reference made to the thriving residential and commercial district that had recently disappeared.

I recently visited the Mackenzie King Estate. The place is well worth a visit.The NCC has done a wonderful job of restoring the numerous historic cottages, and has put great effort into installing interpretive signs at every spot on the estate, but they don’t tell the whole story. So now, when you look at the ruin called the L’Arc de Triomphe, you will know why it stands here.