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This photo of the RC Douglas, which once stood at the edge of the cliff overlooking the Ottawa River, is from accession 1959-084 NPC at Library and Archives Canada. This photo, taken sometime in early 1912, it is one of the few shots that has someone standing outside their house that has just been expropriated by the federal government.

Streetscape Memory Bank: The lost Ottawa community of Uppertown

By Andrew Elliott on September 21, 2015

Two years into my exploration of Ottawa 1930s streetscapes, I find I keep circling back to the lost Ottawa community of Uppertown. (See “Streetscape Memory Bank: Urban plans from 1938 cast a light on current times” and “Streetscape Memory Bank: The demolition of the British Bank of North America and the re-shaping of Wellington Street, 1935 – 1939“) The demise of this neighbourhood had been established long before Greber came to town; and in fact, when the federal government expropriated the area in 1912, there was already a strong impulse towards urban improvement. Yet unlike later expropriations and mass demolitions, which mostly took place in largely poor working class areas, the Uppertown neighbourhood was an interesting exception. Here there were mansions, as four of the finest homes in the city stood here overlooking the Ottawa River. But there were also breweries here, and homeless shelters, and working class homes. The truth is that this area, which was in fact a short walk from Parliament Hill, and consisting of just a few streets – Kent, Bay, Vittoria, and Cliff – was a once a vibrant, mixed-use community at the turn of the 20th century.

Before 1900, wealthy lumber barons rubbed shoulders with beer barons, bankers, and brewers, as well as lawyers, fur purveyors, and politicians. In fact, not only did three fathers of confederation live here – including George Etienne Cartier – but also Canada’s second Prime Minister, Alexander Mackenzie. But there were others as well, such as hoteliers and boarding house landladies. And by 1912, the area had become also a place for some of Ottawa’s early social welfare experiments, where the sick, homeless, or socially damaged could go to find rooms at two prominent shelters. All who lived here looked out on the industrial Chaudiere District, surveying the lumber businesses that were – next to politics – the lifeblood of Ottawa.

IMG_2290I call this area “lost” for a reason. I grew up in Ottawa never knowing of the existence of Uppertown. For me, the monumental federal buildings located along Wellington Street west of Bank were timeless, always existing in the same way as the Parliament Buildings seemed to exist. It was only a few years ago that I began to hear rumours of this lost neighbourhood from fellow urban historians (Robert Smythe of Urbsite and city planner Alain Miguelez in particular) and from local history books. It is only in the past couple of year so that I have begun to understand the area, and to take measure of its significance. All Canadian cities have had their fair share of the destruction of historic neighbourhoods over the past 50 years, and Ottawa, in the name of capital beautification, has had some major losses. Lebreton Flats and Lowertown East, demolished in the late 1960s, come to the minds of most people. Out of these neighbourhood demolitions came the movements for the preservation of our remaining cultural and architectural heritage. But the destruction of Uppertown occurred much earlier, in a period when no one thought much about heritage preservation.

Following what appears to have been at least a few years of behind the scenes deliberations, in the spring of 1912, the conservative government of Robert Borden expropriated this neighbourhood on the hill, in anticipation of major changes to the area. These changes, as noted in Ottawa Journal newspaper reports, were to be the construction of a “Palace of Justice” and other related prominent federal buildings. During the summer and fall of 1912, the esteemed landscape architects Frederick Todd from Montreal and Mr. Edward White from England were hired to put together reports on how best to design the area.

It appears that the architect C.P. Meredith had persuaded the government to hire Todd, on the grounds that he had produced a successful report in 1903 that led to improvements over the following decade by the Ottawa Improvement Commission.

Sometime in early 1913, the government seems to have expanded its intentions:so there was a design competition (see examples of some of the designs, part of an excellent collection of 12 plans available at LAC, some images of which you can see as follows)

Also, two more planning architects, Edward Bennett and Robert Holt, were hired to come up with a report that would propose planned beautification of Ottawa. Among other things, the Holt Report (published in 1914) suggested that the land on the hill west of Parliament was ripe for the construction of architecturally significant and monumental buildings – as well as public squares – centred haround a new Supreme Court Building. You can the design plans from the report here which even made their way into Construction Magazine.

Looks and sounds very similar to what Greber later envisioned, doesn’t it?!

But we get ahead of ourselves. Thanks to images in a number of photo albums I recently uncovered at Library and Archives Canada, we can take a virtual walking tour of Uppertown. The images are from a Department of Public Works accession (part of accession 1959-084 NPC), and a very few are available as part of LAC’s online collections; many others have not yet been scanned. Many of them have excellent additional documentation as to the building owners and specific streets; all are clear and generally in good shape. This comprehensive photographic survey of all buildings done by Public Works raises a question already asked before: who was the photographer? Certainly, the detailed documentary style sets a precedent, and foreshadows the later photographic Ottawa surveys done by Public Works in 1938 and 1939.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll try to give you a sense of what the Uppertown neighbourhood was like. I’ll start off the tour with the following bird’s eye photo (which I have shown in a previous post), which show us that the neighbourhood of Uppertown was very compact, bounded by Bank Street, the cliffs facing the river, and Wellington Street, and containing portions of Kent and Bay Streets, as well as Vittoria and Cliff Streets.

Here’s what the neighbourhood looked like on 1912 fire insurance maps. The first map shows the eastern part of Uppertown, the second shows roughly the western part of Uppertown. I’ve also circled the buildings that I am profiling today: Perley Home for Incurables, the Capital Brewing Company and Home for Friendless Women.

At ground level, here’s what the buildings looked like on the north side of the street from Wellington curve just west of Bay to Kent Street:

Perley Mansion, side and back details:

Perley Mansion was built by lumber baron William Perley in the 1870s. Perley established the Ottawa City Passenger Railway, was elected as Conservative MP in 1887, helped form the Canada Atlantic Railway, contributed to the Protestant Orphans Home, and was director of Ottawa Ladies College. He died in 1890. In the late 1890s, his family donated the house to the city, and it becomes the Perley Home for Incurables, a place of long term care for people who needed shelter, and who could not care for themselves (ie. people who were mentally ill and/or homeless). From the First World War onwards, the institution became the Perley Veterans Home. In 1916 a new building was constructed in Ottawa South, and the old mansion was used for government offices until it was demolished in the late 1930s.

unnamed (6)Note that this is located on the western part of where 395 Wellington or Library and Archives Canada is located now

Next door was the Home for Friendless Women, as seen in 1912. The fire insurance map indicates that it was a stone building, and the place was a charitable organization devoted to helping out women who considered of questionable nature (poor single mothers, for example). It was located where the front entrance to 395 Wellington is now.

unnamed (8)Next door again, on what is now the eastern portion of 395 Wellington, was the Capital Brewing Company, which as the sign on the front entrance suggests, was built/founded in 1900. It is another lovely stone building. After expropriation, the company was allowed to continue operations until the early 1930s, leasing the land from the government; eventually the business merged with Brading Breweries and moved further west along Wellington Street.

Next Time: A look at the area now subject to controversy surrounding a proposed monument.  This area was once the heart of old Uppertown.


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