Friday, June 24, 2016

A cornerstone Wellington Village building and restaurant: Won Ton House


Wellington Street West is known for its eclectic mix of stores and restaurants, and also for its impressive collection of old and new buildings. Luckily many of the original structures on Wellington Street still exist, most having gone through a series of modifications and re-purposing. Which I think makes the strip all the more interesting. You can find banks converted to upscale restaurants, houses converted to small shops, restaurants converted to bike shops, a beer store that's now a fresh produce store, and even a funeral home converted to a bagel shop. Each building on Wellington has a unique story to tell.

One of the most interesting is the Won Ton House building at the corner of Warren. This building has been transformed multiple times, and has seen a lot of excitement, a lot of history, come through its doors. So I am excited to share the history of 1300 Wellington Street West today!

The Burke era

The lot on which Won Ton House now stands was purchased by William Burke at the big Wellington Village lots auction held by the Ottawa Land Association in May of 1919. Burke attended the sale led by a professional auctioneer from Chicago, in a big tent erected at the corner of Holland and Wellington. When the bidding ended for lot 2845 at the corner of Wellington and Warren, Burke held the winning bid at $750. He paid $243.50 down, and mortgaged the rest from the Land Association. He also picked up two other lots on Harmer Avenue near Byron, but sold them within a few years without building on them.

William Burke had come to Ottawa at the age of 19 from Chelsea. He entered the lumber business and eventually rose to the position of superintendent with the Shepherd and Morse Lumber Company of Ottawa, where he also at one point in time lost an arm on the job. He knew he was close to retirement from the mill, and may have had a longer-term plan to open a store on developing Wellington Street, in the new neighbourhood that would soon be known as Elmdale.

Aerial photo from mid-1920. That's Wellington running left to
right, a thin dirt lane for Clarendon on the left, and a paved
sidewalk on the right for Julian. Warren is also at best a dirt
lane. The Smirle property is on the north side of Wellington
in the center. The future Won Ton House property has a well-
used path running through it, to access the site where #7
Warren is under construction.

Burke waited a few years to build, and it appears he retired around this time, taking out a mortgage in May of 1922 for $4,000 towards construction of his new building. The building permit had been taken out in late 1921, and some construction had commenced that winter. Evidence of this early work was captured in the early 1922 fire insurance plan made by the Goad Fire Insurance Company, who included a little yellow square on their map, representing the 2-storey building "under construction".

1922 Goad's Fire Insurance Plan of Ottawa, showing the
intersection of Wellington at Warren, with the future
Won Ton House building as "Under Construction". The
yellow colour indicates it is wood-frame only (the brick
would come at the end of construction, of course). Notably,
the house has an address on Warren (#4) indicating that initial
plans may have been for the building to front onto Warren.

By mid-1922, the building was complete. It included two storefronts on the main floor, and a large apartment upstairs. Over time, the upstairs would be modified a few times, alternating between residential, office space, and mixed. For the first 57 years, the upstairs apartment was numbered 1300 Wellington, while the two stores had numbers 1298 (for the store on the east corner) and 1302 (for the storefront at the west corner). 1298 consisted of about 1/3 of the main floor, while 1302 was 2/3 (probably equivalent to the split that exists today between dining rooms of the Won Ton House).

Initially Burke occupied the full main floor with his grocery store. Though he stayed in business here until 1935 or 1936, very little can be found on the store. Burke did not advertise, and I could not track down any descendants. Perhaps the most exciting thing to occur during this period was in July of 1927, when police from Ottawa and New York State joined forces to arrest Burke's daughter Cecilia's new husband Andrew Bolland, who was staying in the house while the couple were on their honeymoon. A warrant for Bolland's arrest had been put out on a charge of bigamy - turns out his other wife was quite interested in seeing him brought back to New York! He claimed that his first wife, who had been a secret from his new wife and her family, was supposed to have obtained the divorce, but evidently had not. He returned to New York to stand trial, but his marriage to Cecilia would work itself out one way or another, as the nurse and her husband remained together.

Part of front page Ottawa
Journal article, July 22, 1927.

Burke found a tenant for the #1298 Wellington portion of the building in druggist Joseph N. Harmer, commencing in 1923 or early 1924.

By 1927, the population of Elmdale had grown significantly, to the point where it was decided that a Post Office was needed for the neighbourhood. Thus, Ottawa Sub No. 19 was opened on April 29th, 1927 in Harmer's drug store at 1298 Wellington Street, the first post office for the community, with Harmer serving as the inaugural Postmaster.

About a year later, Harmer moved his shop (and the post office) to 1307 Wellington, the location where he remained for nearly twenty years, until he died on the job in November of 1945.

After Harmer's departure in 1928, William Burke decided to open a confectionery store, which he ran alongside his grocery store at #1298 until 1935.

Aerial photo from May 5, 1933 showing Burke's building.
Wellington is running left to right, Warren is at left, and
Julian at right.

During his years of ownership, Burke took out a succession of increasing mortgages against the property, reaching a peak of $8,000 by 1935 (double what he had paid to construct the building in 1922). It is evident that the struggling economy and the depression of the early 1930s hurt him tremendously. A last-ditched effort to buy time to outlast the depression came in April of 1935, when he took out an additional $1,500 mortgage from his unmarried daughter Miss Mary Margaret Burke, who was employed as a civil servant.

However, just a few months later, on August 1st, 1935, Burke declared bankruptcy, with debts owing to the Huron and Erie Mortgage Corporation ($8,232), his daughter Mary ($1,500), three distributors (about $1,600), plus liens against the property totaling $397. A meeting of creditors was held on August 14th, with T. Bert Cole appointed as Custodian of the Bankruptcy. Cole helped negotiate a deal whereby Mary Burke paid the creditors a total of $250 against their $1,600 owed, and agreed to take over the $8,000 mortgage from Huron and Erie, in order to take over ownership of the property. Four years later, in November of 1939, Mary would eventually surrender the property to Huron and Erie, unable to keep up with the family debts. It was a sad ending for William Burke, who had a long and proud career in Ottawa, though his lasting legacy may indeed be the great brick building he constructed at the corner Wellington and Warren.

Burke closed his store and got out of business completely. He and his wife Margaret continued to reside upstairs, but he would no longer put effort into the business. Mary Burke hired real estate agent C.W. Ross to promote the stores, which were available for the rental price of $75 per month.

October 19, 1935 ad, advertising the two storefronts of
the building available for lease at $75 per month.

St. George's Church used the storefront briefly to host a "Bazaar-Tombola" from the 16th to the 21st of September of 1935, featuring "games, fancy work, home cooking booths", and the highlight draw being a $50 bond given away each night as a prize.

But otherwise, no tenants were found immediately, and by December, Burke had Ross selling he building as a whole. Asking price was $8,800.

December 16, 1935

However, the economy was still very poor, and the real estate market was practically at a standstill. In 1936, a tenant was found in the smaller shop at 1298, a C. Haikas who ran a confectionery for about two years before he too closed up shop. Meanwhile the larger store at 1302 remained vacant.

On October 5th, 1936, the City of Ottawa approved Bylaw #8294, for the widening of Wellington Street from Huron Avenue to the western city limits (Western Avenue) to 75 feet. This meant that 10 feet of the Burke property fronting Wellington Street was expropriated, basically right up to the front of the building. This can be best seen in the 1933 aerial photo above, where there is a noticeable distance between the building and the sidewalk. This distance would have been eaten up by the 1936 expropriation.

The Carvers era

In late 1937 or early 1938, young Eric James Carver (1913-1997) opened his first drug store business as a tenant at 1302 Wellington Street. He would remain in business here for ten years. Of course the Carver's name still remains in Wellington Village nearly 80 years later.

On November 9th, 1939, Huron and Erie, the mortgage-holders on the lot, were transferred ownership of the property from Mary Burke, due to the large debt owing on the building she couldn't sell. With WWII commencing as well, it was a hopeless scenario for Miss Burke. Huron and Erie maintained ownership of the lot through the war years.

The Burkes moved out of the upstairs apartment late in 1939, and were replaced by W. Kingsley and Frances Moreland. It was convenient for the Morelands, as they also opened a flower shop in the small store downstairs at 1298 (Moreland's Flower Shop). They would last less than two years however, as the business failed and the couple moved out by 1941. The store was briefly replaced by Brown's Better Flowers in 1941, but it too was short-lived.

Carver married Dorothy Helen Rosser on April 21st, 1940, and within a year the couple moved in to the empty residence upstairs. In 1942 they expanded business by opening Carver's Beauty Salon in the 1298 portion, which remained open until August of 1947. The Carvers now occupied the entire building.

The earliest newspaper ad I could find for Carver's drug
store, from the Journal, February 11, 1946

In September of 1946, the Carvers purchased the building from Huron & Erie. At the same time, construction was also underway just a block away at 1314 Wellington (now Parma Ravioli), a building which Carver was constructing to house his drug store for the long haul. Indeed his store would remain at #1314 until the 1990s. He moved his store into the new building in December of 1946, so it is odd he would have purchased the old building while all this was going on.

After moving operations to the next block, Carver filled his old spot with a tenant, a small, but fast-growing company, Hardy Electric.

The Hardy Electric era

Shortly before 7 a.m. the morning of Saturday December 14th, 1946, a large fire struck the three garages located behind the store (built side by side), which faced onto Warren. The southernmost was destroyed, which had contained a large amount of display material.

Incidentally, on that very same day as the fire, an advertisement appeared in the newspaper promoting the opening of a new shop at 1302 Wellington Street, Hardy Electric.

Ottawa Journal, December 14, 1946

Hardy Electric was established by Gavin Hardy a few years earlier. He had spent years working with his electrician father, and worked as a small contractor doing house wiring, and later got into selling fixtures. Gavin and his wife Muriel owned the house at 37 Western Avenue, from which Gavin ran his business from between 1940 and 1946. They even converted the large garage at the back as a display room for fixtures. Looking to expand operations, Gavin found the former Carver's drug store available close-by.

Ad from the Ottawa Journal - December 21, 1946.
The first of many ads placed by Hardy Electric (they
advertised twice weekly in the Ottawa papers over the
next 8-9 years)

February 21, 1947

On February 1st, 1947, Gavin A. Hardy was granted a 10-year lease at $100 per month rent for the space at 1302 Wellington, by Carver. Meanwhile, Carver's Beauty Salon continued to operate at #1298 until mid-1947, when it was taken over by Claire's Beauty Salon.

December 6, 1947

On June 18th, 1947, Hardy was surprised to discover that Carver was interested in selling the building, and so he gathered up all the money he could access in order to purchase it, which he did. He allowed Claire's to remain in the building for another year or so, but by late 1948 or early 1949 had increased the Hardy Electric storefront to the entirety of the main floor by creating what was called the "Annex" at 1298.

Fire Insurance Plan of 1948, showing the area now
well built up. (Pink represents brick, yellow wood,
and blue is concrete block or stone foundation)

Hardy Electric obtained the General Electric oil burner franchise in 1947, which Gavin Hardy considered his big break. They began installing one oil burner per day, 100 in the first 100 days, at a time when obtaining oil burners and even oil was difficult. They moved on to large appliances, while still offering house and business wiring services. Some of the ads that follow below also show the development of technology through the exciting period of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Hardy Electric began the place to purchase these items for the Wellington Village area.

December 8, 1948

December 14, 1951

An amazing ad from January 31, 1953, which explains 
how a buyer could pay at home into a box installed
 on the fridge, which they would then bring to the
store to empty! Kind of a funny concept!

The introduction of the television set to the general public was a significant milestone in the development of technology. The earliest ad I could find with Hardy offering TVs is shown below. Keep in mind, $369 in 1953, when converted through the Bank of Canada's inflation calculator, is the equivalent of $3,419 today. Amazing!

November 9, 1953

These incredible photographs below are all thanks to Mrs. Anne Gillissie, daughter of Gavin Hardy, who so kindly shared some of the contents of her family albums. These photos I would estimate to be from 1955, and show the building from various angles an impressive 61 years ago!


A view of the building front, facing Wellington Street

A side view, looking east from the middle of Warren.

The rear of the store, with the Hardy Electric oil truck
parked in behind.

The interior of Hardy Electric, showing the many fixtures
available for sale. Gavin Hardy is at left in the photo.

Another shot of the rear of the building. The rear addition
that exists today would not come until 1979, by the way.

A photo of the upstairs office of Hardy Electric.

An article on Hardy Electric published in the May 1955 issue of Electrical Contractor of Canada noted that the company had done a million dollar's worth of business over the last three years. He attributed his success to his great amount of promotion the company did. Along with the regular newspaper ads, Hardy also was the sponsor of "the Singing Thermometer" program on CFRA radio, "brought to you by Hardy Electric, the West Ottawa electrical firm that services the famous name appliances it sells.", four mornings a week. Hardy would not advertise his electrical contracting business (which comprised 80% of his work), but instead focused on promoting oil burners, TVs and appliances. He also regularly set up a 40-foot stand at the Ottawa Ex each summer, which displayed full kitchen set-ups, and demonstrated how the appliances worked. He kept the store front modest intentionally, arguing "if you put on an expensive front, the customer gets the idea that you don't need the business and goes elsewhere. We like to remain humble but neat."

One of the great Hardy Electric displays at the Central
Canada Exhibition in Ottawa, August 21st, 1955
(Source: City of Ottawa Archives - CA-33863)

By mid-1955, Hardy Electric had a fleet of 11 vehicles, and had designed plans for a 50-by-35 foot addition that was to be built soon at the rear of the building, to provide additional working area and storage space. He had also moved into the home construction and land development business, and had built 30 houses over the previous 30 months. The firm was about to become incorporated, to offer shares to employees.

However, tragedy struck on Sunday December 4th, 1955, when Gavin Hardy died suddenly from carbon monoxide poisoning inside his garage at home. Gavin had been attempting to charge the battery on the family's little-used second car by running the motor, something he apparently did fairly regularly. Hardy was only 42 years old, and aside from being president of Hardy Electric, was also a prominent member of Kingsway United Church, and was a charter member and former vice-president of the Ottawa Lions Club.

Hardy's devastated widow and two young children had little choice but to make the difficult decision to close the business.

The Albert's Flowers era

On April 27th, 1956, Gavin Hardy's widow Muriel sold the building to florist Albert Romeo Legault. The Legault family operated Albert's Flowers a little east at 1218 Wellington, at the corner of Hinton (the building is now Anthony's Pizza), and they continued to do so at that time.

The upstairs apartment was put up for lease as office space, along with the smaller offices.

May 5, 1956 Ottawa Citizen

The upstairs was rented in late 1956 by Federal Electronics Regd, a TV dealer, who would remain in the large office space upstairs until 1962.

April 19, 1960

The large storefront on the main floor was rented out to the Sun Life Assurance Company, who opened their "Parkway Branch" at 1302 Wellington Street. The smaller storefront on the main floor (1298) appears to have remained predominantly vacant until 1962.

July 12, 1956

Albert's Flowers relocated in to 1302 Wellington Street in November of 1957, proudly announcing in their regular advertisement on November 26th that they had "moved to our own premises".

November 26, 1957 ad for multiple Ottawa florists, advertising
new location at 1302 Wellington (ad 2 weeks earlier still
had them at 1218 Wellington)

On March 19th, 1963, Dennie Legault, son of Albert Legault, 9 years old, was hit by a car at the corner of Wellington and Clarendon, suffering severe head injuries and internal injuries.

On November 30th, 1965, Albert Legault passed away at age 53.

December 1, 1965

Ownership of the building was transferred into the names of his widow Rita and son Robert. The Legault family announced within a few weeks that the flower shop would continue operations, and that her other son Ross Murdie would take over management of the store. A large ad in the newspaper was taken out to let residents know that the store would live on.

December 18, 1965

During the 1960s and 1970s, Albert's Flowers remained in business at 1302 Wellington Street. The Legaults had moved upstairs into what was turned back into a residential apartment in 1963, and here Mrs. Legault remained until the mid-70s.

Other highlights during this period included when Jack Dustan Ignition Service was opened out of the rear parking lot (and I assume the old garages) in 1958 for a brief time.

Ottawa Journal - June 12, 1959

Meanwhile the smaller storefront at 1298 Wellington saw a revolving door of various businesses: Canadian Paint Sales (1963), Albert's Wool (1964-65), Scheepjers Knitting Centre (1966), Embury Variety Store (1968), Mother Hubbard's Variety Shop (1969-1973), and Albert's Lunch & Variety (operated by Albert Monsour, 1975-1979).

Albert's Flowers moved to Hampton Park Plaza by 1979.

The Won Ton House era

On August 29th, 1979, the Legaults sold the building to restaurateur Nelson Tang.

Nelson Tang, along with his wife Winnie, had opened the Won Ton House in 1974 in a different location - in a strip mall called the 'Parkway Plaza' at 733 Richmond Road near the foot of Rowanwood Avenue (where the big glass-fronted 5ish-storey condo building now stands today). Nelson had come to Canada five years earlier, and had been a chef at La Paloma restaurant prior to opening the first Won Ton House.

The Won Ton House was considered unique for Ottawa in that it served the food of northern China (unlike almost all of the others of the era which served strictly Cantonese dishes). The Won Ton House began life with almost a cult following - it's somewhat isolated location kept it small, they did not have a liquor licence and took no credit. The restaurant was very popular among it's loyal patrons due to its high quality food (an interview with Tang in 1975 noted that he would buy fresh meat and vegetables every day in small quantities, and would not cut them until they were about to be cooked), the uniqueness of the offerings, the pleasant service, and other small touches such as home-made menus featuring Chinese characters (which was apparently uncommon in the early days of Chinese restaurants).

The window of the original Won Ton House on
Richmond Road. From the Ottawa Journal,
September 27, 1975.

However an early-morning fire on the morning of Sunday April 22nd, 1979 destroyed the entire building, including the original Won Ton House restaurant.

The burned strip mall, from the Journal April 23, 1979

Undeterred, the Tang family found a new location through a vacancy that existed at 1300 Wellington Street, and purchased the building in August of 1979. The building was renovated significantly, and the rear addition was added, to create a private party room, and additional seating.

On the afternoon of June 18th, 1980, the Won Ton House had a grand opening party, and that evening opened for business for the first time at their new location, 1300 Wellington Street.

June 16, 1980

An illustration of the Won Ton House published in the
Ottawa Journal July 19, 1980

The Won Ton House reopened to long lines every night. A reviewer in July noted that they waited over half an hour on a Friday evening for a table. They were now licensed, and accepted credit cards. Their hours of operation in 1980 were Monday to Wednesday noon to 12:30 a.m., Thursday through Saturday noon to 1:30 a.m., and then on Sunday from from noon to 10 p.m.

The Won Ton House in April 2009

Nelson Tang passed away in 2004, but his much-loved restaurant continues on today, operated by his family. The Won Ton House is nearing 40 years at their location on Wellington Street, and the building itself nearing 100 years. What an exciting past it has had, and so important to the community through the years - landmark druggist, the first post office, the first place to buy a TV, and now one of the city's longest running restaurants. Such a storied past, so closely linked to the history of Wellington Village - and worth mentioning, the best Chinese food in Ottawa!

3 comments:

  1. I was at the grand opening party, along with many neighbours and fans. Thomas and Vicki, the owners, live behind me. the WonTon is a home away from home, and I'm glad to learn the history of the building.

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  2. Wonderful history of our old building. We had lots of great memories living upstairs from the flower shop. My brother's name is Dennis not Dennie that was hit by a car when he was 9. Albert's Wool was a shop run by my mother Rita later sold to a family friend.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks Jeff, glad you found the article and enjoyed it. Sounds like your family had an interesting 20+ years in the building. If by chance you have a copy of a photo of the building during it's Albert's Flowers years, I would love to add it to this post. Please email me if you do, I'd appreciate it! daveallston AT rogers DOT com. Cheers!

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