One place that evokes fond memories of Ottawa’s past shopping fortunes is the old Charles Ogilvy Ltd. store (or Ogilvys) on Rideau Street. I am just old enough to remember how the Ogilvys was in its last days in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Even then, it was a place of old world grandeur and charm. I still remember the immaculately dressed elevator operators who wore white gloves, who would open the old grilled elevator doors and then take you clanking up or down to the various floor departments : I, of course, loved spending time in the children’s department on the third floor. I also remember the famous “tartan boxes” that were decorated with the Ogilvy hunting tartan.
I also remember that Ogilvys was a place where the staff knew my parents and grandparents by name, and it was a place where patrons came to visit with other patrons, sometimes in the basement cafeteria. In fact, for decades, this was one of Ottawa’s downtown de facto community centres. Both building and business were distinctive, and were a key retail anchor for the Rideau streetscape. One of the tallest buildings on the generally low-rise and heavily commercial Rideau, it was an icon of Ottawa shopping. It also worth noting that while Ogilvy’s was the anchor, it helped contribute to a rich commercial streetscape, as seen here in this 1910 shot looking east, and these late 1930s shots showing Rideau at the key intersection with Dalhousie.
The building evolved over time, adapting to the needs of owner Charles Ogilvy and his patrons. Mr. Ogilvy was an enterprising businessman who had set up his business in 1887 in a small commercial building in a spot now occupied by the Rideau Centre. In 1906, when he was long established in the Ottawa community, he decided to commission the rising architectural star W.E. Noffke and his partner George William Northwood to design a new commercial abuilding, which would be built at the key corner location of Rideau and Nicholas Streets. Noffke and Northwood designed a flat-roofed building that, while only 3 storeys, intended to stun any passerby with its streamlined beauty.
It was one of the first steel and concrete structures in Ottawa, and this allowed for a significant increase in floor space. It also allowed for an unbroken front and side show window, supported by steel framework, and occupied half a block on a corner, with five bays facing Rideau and 7 bays facing Nicholas. As architectural historian Ken Elder has written: “The style of the building was Classic, with simple Grecian effects, harmonizing with the principal design and imparting a solid yet pleasing appearance.” Other architectural features of interest included buff-coloured (or terra-cotta) brick with sandstone trimmings, the use of the Greek key motif on the spandrel panels and secondary cornice, the metal cornice, the wood-framed windows, the “Tree of Life” panels and the distinctive rounded northeast corner.
Yet Ogilvy’s evolved as a building over the years, and was designed initially to take on new changes gracefully. So the initial structure was built with the intent to carry the weight of future additional floors. So in 1917, it was extended back eight more bays to Besserer Street, also following plans by architect Noffke. The fourth and fifth floors, designed by Ottawa architect A.J. Hazelgrove, were added in 1931 and 1933 respectively. The addition of the top two storeys and the resulting removal of the original third floor cornice transformed Ogilvy’s from a conservative design to a modern design more typical of 1930s commercial architecture.
At the height of the Depression, the place continued to prosper, and by the late 1930s featured an impressive workforce of nearly 300 employees. You can learn what each floor looked like from the 1930s onwards at the Department Store Musuem.
Charles Ogilvy was known as an innovative and ethical businessman. His 1950 obituary in the Ottawa Journal notes that “business was his hobby as well as his life work”; he also had “a broad humanity and constant willingness to aid the less fortunate” which was reflected by his many years on the board of the Union Mission for Men. While “he entered the mercantile trade on Rideau Street as an office boy at the age of 14” and worked long hours, from 8 am to 8 pm, he was one of the first Ottawa businessmen to reduce the working hours of his employees to a schedule of 9 to 530. Employees were granted shares in the company, and the motto he chose was “Good Merchandise, at a fair price, with service”. A interesting detail from the obituary is that he was a big walker in his youth, and once walked all the way from his home in Sandy Hill to Kingsmere in the Gatineau, had a swim in Kingsmere lake, then walked back to Sandy Hill later in the afternoon!
Ogilvy wanted his store to be a meeting place where all would feel welcome: the interior of the store was a place filled with high ceilings, suspended lamps, checkered floors, and glass shop fittings. The store sold everything, and while it might have been the “Ikea of the day” (as the Ottawa Citizen’s Maria Cook has said), it certainly was far more elegant. A store procedure guide stated of customers: “a customer is the most important person ever to enter our store. We are not doing him a favour by serving him – he is doing us a favour by giving us the opportunity to do so.” A former vice president recently recalled that all staff were like family and treated with respect. It is a credit to Ogilvy’s ethical and philanthropical interests that many business owners who were in direct competition with Ogilvy placed large ads of respectful condolence in Ottawa newspapers upon his death in 1950.
It is worth noting that the success of Ogilvy’s allowed for other local department stores to thrive: places such as Freimans, Devlins, Murphy-Gamble and Caplan’s. As such, the expansion of national chains (including Eaton’s, Simpson’s, Simpsons-Sears and The Bay) was kept at bay until well into the 1950s.
Fast forward from the 1930s to the 1950s (see 1943 advertisement and 1950s Rideau Street) to the 1980s and on to the current era, through decades when Ottawa’s independent department stores prospered, then declined, and then almost disappeared, we find that the spirit of the old Ogilvy’s building is still alive.
Much has been written about the building over the past few years. In fact, now long after the business closed, and now that the original building has been demolished, it even has its own commemorative Facebook page For the past 25 years, the building stood sadly empty, an awful case of demolition by neglect. It waited for Rideau Centre expansion plans to come to fruition. Then— although it was a designated heritage building– city council voted to allow it to be demolished in 2013; but with the caveat that a rebuilt new structure – which will incorporate a new Simon’s department store – should use the original bricks and follow the design of the earliest architectural rendition of the structure. When other cities have given up on the practice of saving historic facades, why do we cling to it as a practice? Is this historical re-creationism? Is the rebuilt “new-old” facade really heritage anymore? On the other hand, maybe the introduction of a new well-established department store will lead to a shopping renaissance.
Is this renaissance enough to recapture the spirit of the old Rideau Street? I’m uncertain. Much of the low-rise pedestrian friendly stores have been replaced by faceless multi storey condo towers, especially in the stretch from Nicholas to King Edward. City planners could have thought more about tapping into Rideau Street’s old commercial pulse and should have encouraged developers to build a more lower-rise mixture of residential and commercial, and should have done more to plant more trees and flowers. What they needed was more of the human touch, and in that they could have looked no further than the past successes of Charles Ogilvy Ltd.