In July 2013, I served as a volunteer on a Heritage Ottawa walking tour focusing on Lowertown East. The tour was guided by Nancy Miller-Chenier, Co-chair of the Lowertown Community Association’s Heritage Committee and long-time resident of the neighbourhood. Their work in Lowertown was started to save buildings from demolition by using historical research and community involvement to increase the number of buildings protected through historical designation. This has become important for Lowertown East, since much of what the workers built and lived in has already been demolished in an era of revitalization planning before efforts were made to preserve more of the heritage.
While structured around the buildings of the area, the tour had a social history aspect that highlighted the experiences of the predominately French-Canadian, Irish, and Jewish populations who once lived there. One neighbourhood, now known as “the Wedge,” exemplified this microcosm of working class life.
The oldest remaining home, the Brennan pioneer homestead (constructed ca. 1866), was built by William Brennan, an Irish immigrant labourer, along what was then the Rideau River bank. The “Brennan” house now faces Bordeleau Park, which forms the north edge of the Wedge and was created as part of the revitalization in the 1950s.
The Brennans were soon joined by French tinsmith Francis-Xavier Ouellette, his wife Josephine and their children, who constructed their home in 1875. The
white double-gabled cottage has now been demolished.
In 1910, a six-unit row of family-occupied workers’ houses was constructed at 324-334 Bruyère Street. The “Gauvreau” rowhouse was built by Emery Gauvreau, son of Francois-Xavier and Dorothe Gauvreau, who lived at nearby 321 St. Andrew Street. Occupants of the rowhouse would include members of his family as well as the Blais and Nadeau families.
In 1920, the Gauvreaus sold the family home on St. Andrew to Wolf Bodovsky, a Jewish Russian immigrant who owned a butcher’s shop in the Byward Market. The Stars of David carved into the window frames were his own work.
Many such workers’ houses and cottages in the neighborhood have already been removed as a result of earlier construction projects associated with schools and roadways, particularly that for the major thruway of St. Patrick Street. These four buildings will join them soon; demolition has already begun to make way for Claridge Homes’ “WaterStreet” Condominium, a T-shaped 101-unit project.
This development trend is unfortunately not unique to Lowertown East, to Ottawa, or even to Canada. Too often, heritage designation or preservation comes down to a famous architect, occupant or owner, or the unique architectural designs that can be linked to some wealth. Too little value is given to the places that the working class built and where they lived. This makes the work of groups like Heritage Ottawa, who use historical research to aid in advocacy and designation, so important in preserving workers’ cottages and houses. And it makes our mission in the Workers’ History Museum even more pressing, as we present, promote, and preserve the memories of the people who lived there.
Sources: Lowertown East: Our Disappearing Heritage and Saving Four Early Ottawa Homes.