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Streetscape Memory Bank: The old Post Office and Customs Building

By Andrew Elliott on July 29, 2014

In looking at the major revisioning of Ottawa that took place from the late 1930s, there is one early casualty that has intrigued me more that others. I am thinking of the old Post Office and Customs Building, which was located roughly in the same spot as the War Memorial is now. Demolished in the spring of 1938, by 1939 the new War Memorial and Confederation Square had taken shape.

Screen shot 2014-07-28 at 10.08.06 PMOn January 25, 1938, the Ottawa Journal ran a news story titled, “Mr Greber is Back.” Jacques Greber, urban planner and adviser to the Government announced plans for the early future:

“The tentative understanding contemplates removal of the old post office, enlargement of Connaught Place, the setting up of the National War Memorial, construction of a bridge across the Canal at or near the end of Albert street, and removal of the group of city buildings in Confederation Park.” (Full article at right.)

Little did Ottawans realize how momentous these statements were, and how much of an impact on the city the plans would come to be. The first of the many casualties listed therein was the “the old post office”, demolished a mere six months later. On June 23, 1938, as noted in the Gazette, the old post office was gone.

The story of the old post office and customs building has intrigued me for a while. Designed by the supervising public works architect Walter Chesterton, it was built over a period of three years between 1874-1877. Chesterton was only in Ottawa for a decade before moving to Manitoba where he distinguished himself with many notable Winnipeg buildings.

The Journal for the House Commons noted in 1876 that the cost of construction in the previous two years was $7000. It was meant to be an iconic and inspiring piece of architecture. Although it was meant to be a statement of federal importance, rivaling the parliament buildings in stature, there were local objections the view of the Parliament Buildings would be blocked. Yet public works Architect T.S. Scott felt “that the façade of the Post Office could be so made as to accord with, and be erected in the same style as ‘public buildings’.” A description of the structure in the Sessional Papers for the House of Commons of 1873.

Here are some views of it in the 1870s and 1880s. The first is from the canal locks (left). The view on the right is near the intersection of Sparks and Wellington.

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And here it is showing up in this interesting shot taken from Major’s Hill Park:

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As you can see, one of the highlights of the structure was the central clock capped with a lovely tower and mansarded cupola. Other interesting features were the mansard roof, iron cresting along the roofline, the numerous tall curved windows, and elaborate ornamentation on the rest of the facade.

As noted by Parks Canada architectural historians Christina Cameron and Janet Wright, “while Chesterton’s design obviously did not borrow any of the Gothic detailing of the Parliament Buildings, the use of pavilions, towers, mansard roof and iron cresting is common to both designs, creating a unified skyline of a lively and picturesque nature. The unusual tower-like feature over the central pavilion of the Post Office is unique to the Department of Public Works’ Second Empire designs and was probably intended to give a stronger vertical emphasis to further harmonize with the nearby Parliament Buildings.”

The building dominated a key part of Ottawa, providing definition to the north end of Elgin Street as well as the east end of Sparks and also Wellington, sitting next to the Russell Hotel and a number of other important commercial structures that included Ottawa City Hall. Apart from the Parliament buildings, it may have been one of the most photographed places in the city, and was just there as part of the landscape.

In 1904, the Post office and Customs house suffered a fire that damaged much of the roof. Here’s what the building looked like during (left) and after the fire:

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After the fire, a fourth storey was added and a new, more modest looking clock face. You can see these changes in this post World War One shot, which also shows a circus parade winding its way through Ottawa:

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When the nearby Russell Hotel burned in the late 1920s, Prime Minister Mackenzie King thought that expropriation and demolition was a good first step in implementing his dream of beautifying Ottawa. A 1915 planning report called the Holt Commission initiated the the idea of creating a monumental hexagonal square called Confederation Place near where the post office stood. The Ottawa Town Planning Commission of the 1920s was also a major proponent of this, and when the Russell Hotel and other commercial structures were demolished, for about seven years Connaught Place became a combined parking area and grassy park.

While Mackenzie King was out of office during the early 1930s, the Post Office was spared, but it became marooned, as you can see in this aerial view dating back to 1928.

In 1936-37, when King was back as Prime Minister, he hired Jacques Greber to help push forward the beautification plans, with Confederation Square and a National War Memorial at the top of Elgin Street as the priority. While Greber actually felt placing the War Memorial in Confederation Square was a bad idea as it would add to traffic congestion, King overruled him. And so the Post Office was in the way and had to be demolished.

Here is how it looked in March 1938:

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Library and Archives has great photographic documentation of the demolition process, as seen here on April 27, on May 18, on June 8 and on June 27.

Of course, a new post office had to be constructed, and so a second building – formerly the Royal Bank of Canada – next to the Langevin Block was also demolished to make way for it. Noted architect W.E. Noffke was commissioned to come up with the new design. This construction process was also documented, as seen Oct. 20th, Nov. 30 and in April 1939.

The construction of Confederation Square and the War Memorial is also well-documented, as seen here in the following image set: Aug. 31,1938, Nov 3,1938, Nov 19, 1938, Dec 7, 1938, Jan. 10, 1939, and April 25, 1939.

The end result can be seen in these amazing panoramas:

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Was this an improvement? It surely added a wow factor for the crowds out to see the Royal Couple on May 19, 1939:

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While certainly the square and memorial is now a new focal point and gathering place, and is recognized as such, at what cost to the original architectural greatness and streetscape definition? Ottawa also did get W.E Noffke’s replacement Postal building B, which in its own right is a great work of architectural distinction: it tries to replicate the majestic authority of the remaining public buildings in this area.

However, did the new plan unintentionally lead to traffic problems? For decades, this has operated as a giant traffic circle that doesn’t quite work, creating constant headaches for planners and ordinary citizens. In the end, though, the old post office still lives on in the imagination, a reminder of what we might have had if grand scale urban planning of Ottawa’s centre hadn’t occurred.