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

Ottawa Citizen - - HOMES RESALE & RENTAL - GIL­LIAM MAG­NAN

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.’

CATHER­INE LA­BOSSIERE

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.

PHO­TOS BY PAT MCGRATH, THE OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN

This Ge­or­gian brick is one of the old­est build­ings on Rideau Street and now is home to ur­ban con­dos, in­clud­ing an Euro­pean flat.

PAT MCGRATH, THE OT­TAWA CIT­I­ZEN

The liv­ing room has fine mould­ings and a mar­ble fire­place.

Cather­ine and De­nis La­bossiere have thought­fully re­built their Rideau Street condo, cre­at­ing an out­door seat­ing area, us­ing found ma­te­ri­als, in­clud­ing an iron grate in the hall, re­fur­bish­ing hard­wood floors and cre­at­ing a sleep­ing nook that comes with...

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