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Streetscape Memory Bank: The lost neighbourhood of Uppertown, Pt. 3

By Andrew Elliott on December 18, 2015

Read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, or check out all of our Streetscape Memory Bank posts.

Last time, we looked at the mix of housing and individuals who lived on the north side of Vittoria Street between Lyon and Kent. Now we continue our journey by looking at a remarkable set of houses and their notable inhabitants on Cliff Street and on Vittoria east of Kent.

We’ll start with 25 Cliff Street, located in the middle of the street. As you can see from the photographs, there was a beautiful Victorian mansion here.

Holbrook's house



Photo of Holbrook from the Ottawa Journal.

In the early 20th century, the place was owned by a J.A. Drysdale Holbrook. Born in Quebec City. Holbrook was a well-known Ottawa businessman who continued to run a men’s haberdashery that his father had established on Sparks Street in the late 1860s. Holbrook was an owner of many properties around Ottawa, but his main claim to fame was as a sportsman. He was an avid football player, fisherman, canoeist, golfer, and downhill and cross country skier. In fact, he was one of the founders of the Ottawa Ski Club in 1910.  Holbrooke was a considered to be an excellent ski jumper. According to his obituary (he died in 1949 at the age of 87) he was married Maude Wright, the great-granddaughter of Philemon Wright, one of the founders of Bytown.

Just next door to Holbrook was another important Ottawa businessman, Robert J. Devlin. At 41 Cliff Devlin arguably had the choicest piece of property in Uppertown, with a spectacular view of the Ottawa River. Devlin also had one of the largest, and one of the most elaborately designed houses in Uppertown:

Devlin was born in Londonderry, Ireland in 1842, and was a journalist before he became a businessman. His department store was located at 76 Sparks Street, and he used his journalistic skills to good use by printing outrageous advertising for the store in Ottawa’s late 19th century newspapers. He was responsible for the construction of the Carleton Chambers, and two of his hobbies, according to the Ottawa Journal, were fishing and golf (he was member of the Royal Ottawa Golf Club). His business colleagues had nothing but good words to say of him when he died at age 76 in 1918: L.N.Poulin said he “was the most stirring business man I was ever acquainted with”; W.H. Bingham recalled that “as a competitor, I also always had the greatest admiration for the late Mr. Devlin”; and C.A. MacDonald stated “He was a business gentleman and there is nothing too nice that cannot be said about him.”

A neighbour of Devlin and Holbrook, just to the east at 21 Cliff Street, was Dr. Simon J. Maclean. He was for thirty years (from 1908 onwards) one of the chief commissioners of the Dominion Board of Railway Commissioners. Born in Brooklyn, New York, he was originally a professor of economics at the University of Arkansa, Stanford University, and of railway economics at the University of Toronto. In fact, he was known in Canada Britain and the U.S. as th leading technical expert on railway matters. He died on November 5, 1946 and his funeral, held on November 7, 1946 was attended by various dignitaries including long time friend Prime Minister Mackenzie King. The following are images of Maclean’s house:

On the north side of the street, C.J. Brennan was the owner of a long stone building (see images) that housed various tenants, including at #8 Cliff, Charles Frederick Hamilton, reporter  for the Toronto News on House of Commons issues; # 12 was J.G. Aylwin Creighton, Law Clerk and Master in Chancery for the Senate (and, apparently, a hockey pioneer, according to the Society for International Hockey Research [PDF link] and the Dictionary of Canadian Biography). In #16 lived B. Yeilding (marriage licences), Anna B. Yeilding (stenographer in the records branch of the Department of the Interior), and Fanny Yeilding (clerk in the records branch of the Department of Indian Affairs).

Image of John Manuel from Ottawa Journal

Image of John Manuel from Ottawa Journal

Moving east back onto Vittoria Street, there was an ornate house at #36 that was likely built in the 1860s, and is in the Italianate architectural style. It was built by Allan Gilmour, lumber baron, art collector, and president of the Ottawa Curling Club. He died in 1895, leaving one of the largest wills ever seen in Ottawa, at $1.4 million. His heir was his live-in friend John Manuel. Manuel lived here until his own death in 1914. Manuel was regarded as a noteworthy local and national philanthropist, contributing to various institutions devoted to the less fortunate. Manuel was a member of the Ottawa Curling Club and the Metropolitan Rifle Association, and was the founder of St. Luke’s Hospital and the largest shareholder of the Canadian Bank of Commerce and also the director of the bank of Ottawa. As you can see, the house was on a very large lot, was very elaborate in its detailing, and included an attached greenhouse. It too had a grand view of the Ottawa River.


The grounds just west of the house were donated by Gilmour in the 1870s to be used by the Ottawa Lawn Bowling Club:

Next door neighbour to Manuel was John Gemmill, lawyer working at Gemmill and May, Barristers and Solicitors, Supreme Court and Parliamentary Agents on Sparks Street. Gemmill appears to have purchased the house from Alexander Mackenzie, Canada’s second Prime Minister, who lived here in the 1870s and early 1880s. For Prime Minister Mackenzie, it was conveniently located a stone’s throw from Parliament Hill. 22 Vittoria is a distinctive stone house built in an interesting classical architectural style. Although situated on the south side of Vittoria, near the corner with Bank Street, it would have still had a great view of both Ottawa River and the Parliament Buildings.


Fire insurance plan of Cliff St.

Fire insurance plan of Cliff St.

Some of these homes were used by various federal government departments from the time of expropriation into the 1930s. For example, in 1923, Mclean’s old home had become the offices of the fruit branch of the Department of Agriculture, Holbrook’s former home was being used by the topographical surveys branch of the Department of the Interior, and Devlin’s old mansion was being used by the Department of Agriculture’s Health of Animals Branch. The stone row house on the south side of Cliff street had been taken over by the Explosives Branch of the Department of Mines. Meanwhile, 22 Vittoria housed offices of the bureau of Statistics. Only the Italianate mansion, #36, was still occupied by an individual, and this was the honourable Edgar N. Rhodes. A Conservative politician, Rhodes served as Speaker of the House of Commons from 1917 to 1922.  You can see photos and documents pertaining to Rhodes at Library and Archives Canada. All these homes were demolished in the 1930s. The ones at the eastern end of Vittoria Street were demolished first in the early to mid 1930s to make way for the Confederation and Justice Buildings. The ones on Cliff Street were demolished in 1938 to make way for the Supreme Court.

Next time: a look at the commercial buildings on Wellington Street and the tightly-knit back coutryards shared by these businesses.

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