An urban rose
Georgian beauty used to house a respected florist, now there are six city condos, including an European flat, with one gorgeous kitchen
Ahandsome two-storey Georgian style building set off by a wrought iron fence, overflowing window boxes and a row of elegant cone cedars is a welcome respite from two unremarkable neighbours on Rideau Street.
Five years ago, this wasn’t the case — but along came Denis and Catherine Labossiere who were looking for a new address and thought the brick house might have an interesting past. After spending an evening with the couple, I thought so too. In fact, I think we have uncovered Ottawa’s first grow-op.
Catherine, this house is actually a condominium. It’s rather unusual to find a building of this size and vintage converted to a condo. How did it all happen?
CL: We were looking for a house or apartment in 2005 and were nearly at the end of our rope. When I saw this place I was tempted, but it was in such poor shape. We had promised each other never to buy another fixer-upper, but somehow it called. It had potential and a beautiful marble fireplace.
It took only five minutes to work out a very satisfactory deal and that was that. The house was built in 1871, and it appeared to have been divided into two separate units from the beginning. After 60-odd years it was partitioned off into apartments and a com- mercial property. It really was left in a sorry state and in 1999 it was slated for demolition. Somehow it was rescued and converted into six condos.
Five years ago, it still had the original knob and tube wiring and old, rotted wood windows and no insulation — unless you count horse hair. It really could have been condemned, but the six owners pulled up their sleeves and got to work. We have completely overhauled the building. There’s still a lot of work to do, but we’re proud of what we’ve done so far.
I know you did quite a lot of research into the history of the house, Catherine. What can you tell me about the early days?
CL: The house was built in 1871, that probably makes us the oldest residential property on Rideau Street.
William Whillans bought the land in 1870 for $600, with construction starting in the spring of ’71. The house appears in a spectacular book, Bird’s Eye View of Ottawa, which was published in 1876.
I looked closely at the structural features and the trim when we removed walls and I believe there were two interior stairwells, but only one main front door. I believe when you came in the front door two interior entry doors would have been on the immediate left and right.
It was built as a duplex, one side, according to some records, occupied by Whillans’ widowed sister and her son. The house still has the original drain pipes that are in amazingly good shape, a testament to the quality of workmanship 140 years ago.
Whillans was a book keeper and worked most of his life for the firm of Workman & Griffin and later Wm. Charleson, both companies dealing in hardware and paints. He probably walked to work because they were located down around where the Rideau Centre is now.
He became quite a well known citizen, “a man of sterling character with a very large circle of friends,” according to the notice of his death in the Ottawa Citizen of Sept. 25, 1911. He was a member of city council from 1881 to 1887 and, for a time, served as chairman of the board of health. It is said that he played an important role in preventing a smallpox epidemic from reaching Ottawa in 1892. The city hall flag was lowered to half mast in his honour.
This unit was owned and operated by Rideau Flowers for about 50 years, starting in the early 1930s to 1987. I think that’s the source of some interesting things you’ve found in the basement.
C.L I love telling this story. It was quite a sight to see. Access to the basement was, and still is, through an old-fashioned exterior cellar door at the back of the house. We pulled open the heavy doors, fought our way through curtains of spider webs, down the stairs and found ourselves in rather unusual surroundings.
The basement walls were lined with reflective tin, an impressive overhead lighting system had been installed, rows and rows of shelving, an old fashioned dirt floor and thousands of musty old tin cans. There were tomato cans from Italy, baked bean tins and cans of J.T.L refugee beans from Quebec.
It was all quite mysterious until we realized that this must have been the place where the first Rideau Flowers seedlings were started. That’s what we imagine, anyway. The shop was well known for their roses and we found many identifying labels for roses. My only question, since I’m not a gardener, is, “what was the shop doing with the starter plants?” Were they selling them or [did] people [buy them to] to take home to plant? We started to call the basement Ottawa’s oldest grow-op.
You told me about finding a wonderful little item in the wall and we shared a pleasant and spine tingling moment.
C.L. When the wiring was being replaced, we found a perfectly preserved empty pack of cigarettes between the walls. They must have been left there in the early 1930s when they were reconfiguring the layout to accommodate the commercial space. It is a very thin package, a pack of eight McDonald’s British Consols. We hadn’t opened it until you were here the other night. The tin foil is still intact and we sniffed the inside, catching the faintest sweet tobacco smell. It was such an odd sensation. To think that smell had been captured for 80 years. It is an amazing connection with the past.
‘Old houses present so many challenges, you have to be creative.’
Your condo has a charming European feel. The kitchen is marvellous, a real working kitchen.
C.L. My kitchen is the most important thing to me. I have my Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu, Pastry and Cuisine and while we have been clever with some of the other reconstruction materials, we didn’t spare a cent on our Bertazzoni stove. It’s my pride and joy, delivered directly from the factory in Italy. I have a pot filler faucet installed on the stove — an important part of any professional kitchen.
I think that continental flavour you detect comes from the colours we have chosen all through the house. The ground level access off the kitchen to the enclosed patio also helps to create a European atmosphere. Actually it has been used as a backdrop for some magazine photos, we had models draped all over our wrought iron stairs last week.
Denis, the two of you have some absolutely ingenious decorating ideas, and you’ve found some spectacular bargains.
D.L. We’ve collected many odd things on our travels and we love bargain hunting. The ceiling is covered with radiator grate panels and automotive trim. Sounds odd, but it works. We had trivets welded onto the iron railings at the back, a touch of whimsy to break up the vertical lines and a sort of a playful nod to Catherine’s cooking background.
We brought the crystal chandelier and sconce back f rom France in pieces, quite a trick to reassemble I can tell you. The light fixture in the hall is from Buenos Aires.
The wall of cupboards in the main room, that actually enclose a queen size
Murphy bed, are designed to disguise a wall that is not quite vertical. We built a three quarter wall i n the master bedroom which will be topped with wrought iron panels so that the air conditioning can circulate properly.
Old houses present so many challenges, you have to be creative. We have had a lot of help from two very good contractors, Hint of Heritage Reno to oversee the project as a whole, and Roll Her Sleeves Paint Company — real lifesavers.
This building is now home to a group of fine, interesting people. It’s wonderful to know that we collectively have given new life to this venerable old building.
We are all very proud of the work that has been done and realize that we are part of a continuing saga.