Doors Open Ottawa: a capital idea

Last weekend the City of Ottawa opened its doors to allow the general public to peek inside some of our capital’s most exciting architectural gems.

I enjoyed two days of snooping, where I was able to appreciate a variety of interiors, from an Art Deco apartment (the Blackburn building on Somerset), to Birkett’s Castle (now the Hungarian Embassy) on Metcalfe Street, to the Mother House at the Bruyere Hospital, opposite the National Gallery of Canada.

The only challenge was selecting which of the 88 buildings to visit.

Modeled on the first “Doors Open Glasgow” in Scotland, in 1990, the Ottawa weekend is not likely to be the last.

I started my day at the Lemieux Island Water Purification Plant (built 1932), hoping to get a personalized tour of the facilities. Forget it. A long queue of patient people was waiting for the tour: I knew if I waited, I wouldn’t get to see other buildings on my “must-see” list.

Keeping to my tour of water, I next visited the Fleet Street Pumping Station (built 1874) where I met chatty tour guide George Whissel, who interpreted far more than just the facts about how the station worked.

He gave me an insider’s peek into the LeBreton Flats neighbourhood where the Fleet Street Station is located. If you recall, the Flats was once a thriving community of workers’ homes that was demolished in the late sixties by the National Capital Commission. The land has remained, a pleasant and increasingly green space, until recently, when trees have been felled and a large fence erected, marking the new home of the War Museum.

We stood outside the limestone pumping station, beside the aqueduct channeling water into the station’s turbines. “Every second window you see in the station has an intake channel beneath it. That’s why the water is swirling. We used to have three shift operators employed here, 24-hours. Now computer from Lemieux Island monitors the system. The pumps inside are the original ones from the 1870s in Sheffield, England. They were made to last in those days.”

We watched the water swirling into the chambers, trapped by an overflow dam whose spill race is used to channel water away from the intake chambers, if required. The spillway connected with the outtake channels, which releases water from the pumping station into a river that empties into the Ottawa.

Pointing to the outflow area, Whissel asked, “Do you realize that’s the Pooley Bridge? I remember when it was the main route to Hull. I used to live here in LeBreton Flats. My father and mother were forced away from Lowertown, back in the early sixties when the NCC wanted to build the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge. Where could they go, with thirteen kids? We came here and my house was just about here, where we’re standing. Over there,” he waved his arm, “was the Duke Hotel, the Baker Brothers (the junk dealers) and even Blue Line Taxi.”

It’s these vignettes that I enjoy most. It’s not simply the buildings: it’s their context, their place in our lives that intrigues me.

That’s why I was fascinated while visiting the Protection of the Holy Virgin Russian Orthodox Memorial Church (built 1988). I met thirteen year-old Darya Chrenowski, who worships here with her mother. Darya speaks Russian and is learning to read it, too.

She interpreted the iconography in the church for me, and the iconostasis screen ( an ornately carved oak screen whose surface is covered in many icons, or paintings of Christ and the saints) in the sanctuary. Its purpose is to symbolically separate the spiritual from the temporal world. “The priest stands behind the screen and comes out to make his speech. We (the congregation) all stand for the entire service, which is usually two hours. But sometime it’s longer, like at Easter, when the service is five hours.”

Svetlana Troicki, another member of the church, joined us. She adds, “At Easter the liturgy starts at 11:00 p.m. until 1:00. Then we make a procession inside the church that lasts until 4:00 a.m. Of course, our church welcomes visitors: come some time, won’t you?”

Because I visited Moscow last August, it was fascinating to get a glimpse of the interior, which was far less decorated than its older cousins in Russia. However, this church also displays many icons on the walls as well as a selection that are mounted on four “pedestals” flanking either side of the sanctuary.

Next on my list was the Blackburn apartment. Its U-shaped exterior presents a recessed entryway pleasantly set back from the street. This creates its own feeling of secular sanctuary, as the bustle of the street retreats from earshot.

Once I opened the front doors, I was even more impressed with the sunny interior. Sunlight streamed into the atrium from a series of recessed ceiling windows or sunlights original to the building.. Art Deco wall sconces and an original linoleum, highly decorated floor added much to the interior décor.

Once again, what could have been an “ordinary” visit was enlivened and made immeasureably more interesting by the kind tenant who invited a knot of 9 visitors into his apartment. “They say the Blackburn building used to house many senators and other notables. Here in the kitchen is a dumb waiter and I’m told that if the tenants didn’t want to cook for themselves, all they had to do was use their intercom and order a meal from the kitchen in the basement.”

These days, cooking is left to the tenants: the basement kitchen closed long ago. “But they’re talking of re-installing the fountain in the atrium,” he said, “and also there was a rooftop garden that’s been neglected. It might be reinstated, too.”

From the Blackburn apartment building, I visited Birkett’s Castle, a red-brick, crenellated home known for its intricate, highly decorated interior wood panelling and screenwork. The curved bannister terminates at a newel post adorned by Eau, a bronze sculpture of a fairy cast in the flowing lines of the Art Nouveau style.

Dr. László Deák, consul, cultural and press attaché greeted me warmly. “The woodwork was all commissioned by lumber baron J.R. Booth, who hired skilled craftsmen from Britain and Europe to do all the work.”

It was almost 3:10 when I found a parking space near the Mother House of the Sisters of Charity (built variously 1849-50, 1976, and 1935-37). upon entering, I was greeted by several soft spoken sisters who, almost entirely in French, greeted me warmly. “Puis-je vous aider?” they enquired. “Oui, merci, oú est la chapelle?,” I asked.

I was quickly shown into the chapel designed by well-known architect W.E. Noffke, and I gasped. What a feminine, pretty space! Sunshine streamed in, creating a creamy primrose yellow sanctuary. Also inside the Mother House I discovered a small “oratoire” which houses the sarcophagus of founder Elizabeth Bruyère, with an urn on top of it which contains her heart. Below the entryway, I discovered another treasure of Ottawa: a museum dedicated to the Sisters’ good works.

Doors Open Ottawa was a splendid opportunity not only to explore the capital’s interiors, but also to learn about our living legacy.

I know that the Quyon area has hosted an open house from time to time, whereby the public was welcomed into homes. It would be interesting to expand upon this, and to have a Doors Open Pontiac, to showcase such treasures as Spruceholme, the Bryson Home, Shawville’s Town Hall, among others. Here in the Pontiac, we have many architectural and heritage treasures.

Did you miss this year’s Doors Open Ottawa? Let’s hope organizers plan another one for next year and that admission remains free to all.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer and author currently working on three books for publication spring 2003 from her home north of Quyon, Quebec.