Sunday, February 22, 2015

The evolution of Whispers: Westboro's Friendliest Pub - and one of it's oldest buildings!

A pub like Whispers is exactly what makes Westboro so great. While I'm not a big drinker, I can't appreciate enough that a place like Whispers has been able to survive for so long. It's a place where anyone in Westboro can go and enjoy whatever kind of evening they like. You can hear a live musical act, watch a game, or play trivia; you can bring a large group or party in and have a loud evening, or you can have a quiet chat next to a fireplace. The reason it probably has been able to survive all this time is that it is not pretentious in any way. And it appeals to the wide clientele base that now inhibits Westboro. You can be a sweaty sports team after a summer ball game or a late winter evening's hockey match; they'll be glad to have you. You can be a businessperson bringing a client for a working lunch, they'll be glad to have you. You can be in your teens, or in your senior years, and there is a bar chair or table ready for you any time you like it. The patio is great too, if you can find a spot. The staff is always incredibly nice too, and will be as hand-on (or hands-off) to suit whatever you like. The atmosphere is laid back, and they don't try too hard. To me, its a perfect pub, and I'd be devastated if I ever heard it would be closing. A few years ago they even improved the decor by adding a lot of historical artifacts and old photos of a local interest. So really, what more could you ask for?

It was natural then, that I set out to cover the history of the pub. I've been going through those front doors practically my entire life. Through family dinners, hockey team celebrations, hockey pool draft nights, dates, and eveningss where its just somewhere comfortable to go, Whispers is easily one of my favorite spots to be, And again, not that I'm that much of a barfly, but I've been in there enough times to know the layout of the place like the back of my hand - where every photo is and what its of. But as a history-curious guy, I've always wanted to explore the history of the building more. My interest was picqued years ago when I noticed that, hey, wait a minute, if you look at it from the street, it clearly used to be a house. They when you think about the interior, well sure, you can imagine it being a house! When they opened up the second floor a couple of years ago, you almost felt like you were heading up to the bedrooms!

So with this blog, I now have a completely valid excuse to really delve into the the past, and find out the whole back story of the pub. I knew bits and pieces already, but it was really worth digging deep in to records at the land registry office and the city archives.

To start off, Westboro itself started life essentially as a small village supporting the local mill located by where Westboro Beach now exists. The village was even named "Skead's Mill", after its owner. After the mill closed (and later burned) in the 1880s it took a while for the area to grow. Thanks to the arrival of the trains, and in particular the streetcar line to Britannia, Westboro became a desirable location for Ottawans to live and commute. Once the automobile arrived, there was no looking back.

By 1910 the Westboro population was just around the 1,000 mark, and many of the former farmers were finding that they could sell their property for many times what it was worth only twenty years prior. Some took it upon themselves and created subdivisions of their own. Others sold it off in blocks, and real estate prospectors bought up land as investments. F.X. Ladouceur was one such prospector, and I detailed his 1909 "Mansfield Park" plan in the history of Tweedsmuir Avenue article.

Scan of the first page of the original
sale deed for lot 6, Richmond Road.
The southern edge of that plan was Richmond Road, and those naturally were the most sought-after lots when they hit the market. On November 7th, 1910, Laderoute sold lot 6 at the corner of Richmond Road and Xavier Avenue (now Tweedsmuir) to Mary Margaret Larkin for $600. Mary was the wife of carpenter William Larkin (it was common in the era for real estate transactions to be put under the wife's name). The Larkins, who resided downtown at 112 Percy Street, financed the purchase with a mortgage of $650, which likely just covered the purchase and perhaps some immediate foundation work at best.

In February of 1911, a second, larger mortgage was taken out from a Mrs. Marie Davieau for $1,050, for the construction of the house.

The two-storey, wood-frame house was completed quickly. The Nepean Township assessor visited on April 21st and noted that the family was occupying the home. They had also made it just in time for the 1911 Census of Canada, which was taken on June 1st.

The value of the property, including the new house, was assessed at just $500 in April of 1911. Click below to see a scan from the original assessor's rollbook, listing the newly built home on lot 6:

1911 Nepean Township Assessment Roll showing the Larkins at the newly
completed home on Richmond Road. William listed as 42 years old, F (freeholder),
lot "6 N Richmond Rd in E 1/2 lot 31", Concession "1", $200 value of the land,
$500 value for the building, total $700, school section 2, "P" (public school),
"2" (children 5-21), "2" (children 5-16), "6" members of the family, "1" male
21-60 years old, and "Apr 21" being the date of the assessor's visit.

Mary & William Larkin
Photo at left of Mary and William Larkin, the builders and first occupants of the future Whispers pub. William Larkin was also responsible for the construction of several brick homes in the Westboro area as well, according to his grandchildren.

Signalling that work was progressing on the house, the value had increased to $600 in 1912, and then once it was bricked in 1914, had increased all the way up to $1,800.
1915 Fire Insurance Plan showing the
structure of the Larkin house.
Construction costs had added up, and so by 1915 the Larkins took out a new mortgage for $2,500 from a David McCaffrey (it was very common in these era to acquire a mortgage from an individual lenders, not necessarily  the bank). Within a year the mortgage was re-assigned by McCaffrey to John F. and Bessie Dowling. This would later be an important detail.

The house appears to have been initially designed as a duplex, the dotted line in the 1915 fire insurance plan (at right) indicates a partition wall. As well, prior to housing a business, the building had two civic addresses (at the time, #514 and 516 Richmond Road).

It was about 1919 that William Larkin added on a small addition to one half of the front of the house, with the intention of opening a small shop (the change is visible when contrasting the 1915 and 1922 fire insurance plans, see below).

By mid-1919, the first evidence of a business in the building shows up, and that the Larkins had begun operating a small grocery store out of their home. Home construction had slowed due to the first world war, and the Larkins perhaps saw running a grocery shop as a way to manage during the difficult financial times. This new business endeavour was first noted in the pages of the Ottawa City Directory of 1919, in the listing of residents of the Ottawa suburb of Westboro:

1919 Might's Ottawa City Directory
By the early 1920s, Westboro was prospering, the area was growing quickly, and the Larkins had a successful grocery shop business underway. William and Mary Margaret (formerly Rooney) had five boys: Earl, Roy, Matthew, James and Daniel all between the ages of 8 and 18 in 1921. In fact the youngest son Daniel, actually was born in the upstairs rear bedroom in 1913, according to his son Patrick Larkin, who very kindly aided me in putting some of the details of the early days together.

Goad's Fire Insurance Plan of Ottawa, 1922. Showing the north side
of Richmond Road between Athlone (Magee) at left and Tweedsmuir
(Strathcona) at right. The Larkin home is shown as #514/516
Richmond Road, wood frame (yellow colour), with brick veneer (pink).
The dotted line again appears, indicating a partition within the house,
perhaps originally constructed to be 2 semi-detached residences.
On the 1921 Census, William continued to be listed with the profession of "carpenter" (with an annual income of $700). The house was described on the Census as a 7-room brick-veneer single home.

The 1922 fire insurance plan shows the vastness of the area at the time, and the future Whisper's building was the only structure at the intersection of Tweedsmuir (by then known as Strathcona) and Richmond Road.

The civic number of the building changed in the mid-20's as well, and was given the number 9 Richmond Road for the business, and 11 Richmond Road for the residence portion (the numbering was based on Richmond Road starting at Tweedsmuir, which was the eastern border of Westboro. Prior to Canada Post stepping in and enforcing addressing rules in the early 40's, villages could basically number their own buildings as they wished. So Westboro ignored the portion of Richmond Road to the east, which also had a 9 & 11 Richmond Road just east of Island Park Drive, in the village of what was known as "Ottawa West". Confusing to say the least).

Matt Larkin, manager of
"Matt's Place" (1929-1940)
By 1929, the address ceased to be listed as a grocery store, and instead was listed with the more panoptic term of "confectionery". Within a few years it also had a formal name, "Matt's Place". William and Mary's son Matthew took over operations of the store, while father William was likely back working in the contracting business. 

1937 Ottawa City Directory listing
for Richmond Road in Westboro,
showing Matt's Place at 9 Richmond.
However, the momentum of west Ottawa's growth shifted around this time, as the depression settled in, and finances became strained for all. Due to the stone cold real estate market in Ottawa, with new home construction stagnant, records indicate that the Larkins had to make a deal with the Dowlings, the mortgage-holders from back in 1916, and the house was sold to the Dowlings for the price of the mortgage balances, taxes and insurance owing (a total of $3,700). However, the Larkins continued to reside in the home, and operate Matt's Place for several more years.

Daniel and Fleur-Ange Larkin in front
of the store, circa late-1930s. This photo
gives the best view of the full front
window of the store.
Fleur-Ange (and Mary Larkin at the left
edge), late 1930s. Visible in this photo is
the name "Matt's Place" behind Fleur-Ange
in the window, as well as the small porch
that existed next to the 1919 front addition.
Sometime in December 1940 or very early 1941, the Larkins moved out of the house. As many of the kids had married and moved out, William and Mary moved to a smaller home in Ottawa. George and Mary Monsour, who had just married in 1939, moved in as the new tenants of the building. The Monsours continued operating the business, but gave it a new name: the Westboro Confectionery.

The Monsour's daughter Carolyn was born soon after, and so many years later recalled for me the details of the layout of the house. The ground floor was divided in two halves. The west half was the living and dining room for the residence (this would be the bar area of Whisper's today). The east half was entered through a door on the side of the small front addition. The Monsours operated a long lunch counter along the east wall of the store (where the huge TV screen now hangs), where they served burgers, hot dogs and fries to hungry customers. On the left side of the store portion was a long wall where they sold grocery items. The front window was filled with fruit, vegetables and penny candies. Carolyn recalled that her Dad was very generous with the neighbourhood children, giving the children free treats when they came to the shop with their parents, under the adage that "if you are good to the children, it will make the parents come back to the store".

The staircase to upstairs was in the same location it is now, and upstairs were the four bedrooms, which Carolyn lamented not having taken the opportunity to have a nostalgic look at when lunching at Whispers a few years ago (renovations within the last few years has now opened up the upstairs as additional restaurant space - very cozily done too, I might add).

In 1942, with the new post office requirements, the store was given the number it still has today, #249 Richmond Road (the residence portion was given #251). The Monsours lived upstairs, and for a while had Mrs Monsour's parents living with them as well.

After a couple of years, George Monsour purchased the property outright from the estate of Bessie Dowling, who had died in 1939. The Monsours paid $2,700 on January 19th, 1943.

Ottawa Citizen, December 30, 1944
At left is one of the few published advetisements taken out by the Monsours.

1948 Fire Insurance Plan, again showing the north side of Richmond
between Athlone (at left) and Tweedsmuir. 
Below are some great photos that Carolyn Monsour so generously shared with me. Each photo shows the front of the Westboro Confectionery, and a couple even have Mr. George Monsour as well.

George Monsour and daughter Carolyn
outside their store, mid-late 1940s.

The front window of the Westboro
Confectionery, mid-1940s

George Monsour inside the front window
of the Westboro Confectionery

George Monsour inside the window at a different date

The Pure Spring billboard which was located on the side
of the Westboro Confectionery - April 8 1946 (source: E00176
Sproul collection, City of Ottawa Archives) (this photo is just a
placeholder - I am waiting for the colour original from the Archives)

The Monsours continued to operate the Westboro Confectionery until the late 1950's. George Monsour began to feel unwell, and so in 1958 the family decided to lease out the business and residence. Sadly, George passed away a short time later in August of 1961.

On October 1st, 1958, the Monsours leased the property to Rizk (Ray) and Joseph Naufal. It was a 10-year lease, with rent at $250/month for the first year and $275/month for years two through nine. The rent was split $150/month for the shop (which increased to $175/month after the first year), plus $100/month for the residence portion of the house. The Naufals moved in upstairs, and kept the name Westboro Confectionery.

In July of 1968, Mary Monsour was listed as having sold the business to Helen Mains for $34,000. Mains immediately leased out the building to a Muriel Morrison, commencing December 1st on a 5-year lease at $450 per month to operate a "restaurant and coffee bar", but with the curious restriction: "...and the premises known as 251 Richmond will not during the term be at any time used for any other purpose than that of five rental units". This indicates that the residential living space upstairs and on the west side of the main floor was (or at least was intended to be) rented out in rooming-house style.

Morrison got out of the lease after six months (for unknown reasons) and starting June 1st, 1969, the premises were rented to Hal B. Ellis, who opened the "Ellis Coffee Bar". The four-and-a-half year lease was for $350 per month.

In May of 1972 Helen Mains, who by this time had moved to St. Catharines, sold the building to Rui De Lima and Emircio Garcia for $55,000. The pair had recently acquired the building next door at 255 Richmond and opened the Lusitania Auto Body Shop in 1970. The Ellis Coffee Bar continued to operate through most of the 1970s. I could track down nothing on Ellis or the Coffee Bar.

The front table at Sagres (from "The Key Ottawa/Hull 1979") 
1975 was the last year that occupants were listed as residing in the house. By 1977, the main floor was vacant as well. It was in early 1978 that De Lima and Garcia opened Sagres Restaurant, apparently Ottawa's first restaurant to specialize in Portugese food.

Ottawa Journal - June 7, 1979
Ottawa Journal - December 13, 1979

Sagres continued to operate until closing sometime in either late 1980 or early 1981. The business (under the name Sagres Restaurant Inc.) was purchased by Mike Kelly in July of 1981 for $75,000 and the restaurant re-opened as "Whispers".

Ottawa Citizen, October 2, 1981

In 1987, the business was sold to Don Cogan. I brought my camera in to Whispers last week and took a few photos of some photos from the late 1980's (pre-renovation) which hang on the walls of Whispers currently. They appear below:

In September of 1992, a site plan control was passed by the City of Ottawa, allowing for the expansion of the Whispers restaurant. The renovation allowed for the front expansion of the building, creating more seating area along the west side and front of the restaurant. The new footprint of the building is best shown in this aerial photo below from 2007:

Aerial photo (from 2007) showing the new Whispers
additions in 1992.
This photo below (also grabbed from the wall of Whispers) is of the staff soon after the renovations were complete:

Don Cogan brought in a co-owner in November of 2008 when long-time staff member Stacy Rennick bought in to Whispers.

On June 24th, 2011, fans of Whispers got a scare when fire crews were called to the restaurant around 8 in the morning. I came down Tweedsmuir that morning, and saw that Richmond Road was closed off due to a fire - at Whispers! Luckily it was caught early enough, and was contained to the roof and an upper floor wall. The cause of the fire was attributed to some neon lights that had recently been repaired.

June 24, 2011 - my cell phone snapped this photo through the misty
morning air, soon after the fire trucks had arrived on scene.

A current view of the front facade (from Whispers' website)

Whispers is entrenched as hub of the community - a place not only where people meet, but where events like book launches and concerts are held; where a hockey team can find a sponsor; a place, as one reviewer on Yelp said "as close as you're probably going to get to Cheers, the notorious Boston bar, in Ottawa". Even though over time the usage of the building has changed, the common thread through the years has been its tie-in to the neighbourhood. I love the fact that Carolyn Monsour shared a story about being recognized from the Westboro Confectionery last year by a former Tweedsmuir Avenue resident - impressive as the Monsours had left the store 57 years ago in 1958. I love the fact that the Larkin family still gets together on most St. Patrick's Days, and has a drink inside the home that their family patriarch William Larkin built over 100 years ago. And I love the fact that Whispers is still going strong, despite the changing neighbourhood, increased costs, higher taxes, increased competition, and all the other stuff that in many urban centres has killed off the good old fashioned neighbourhood pub.

Special thanks to Dan Larkin, Pat Larkin and Carolyn Monsour for all their help in sharing photographs,  stories and memories of 249 Richmond Road.


  1. Hi Dave, I am an old 'neighbourhood' friend of your late father. Lived at 50 Gould for may years and played lots of sports with Bruce down at the park. We also worked at STC together for many years. I'll be sure to let Stacy and Don know about your detailed history of their business premises tomorrow after our regular hockey game at Tom Brown. Many of us have been rehashing our game at Whisper's for many, many years. I join Bob Grainger for coffee on occasion and will be sharing news of your Blog with him. Keep up this most interesting work and best of luck with it.

    1. hi Scott. Thanks so much for your message. Really neat to hear you were childhood friends with my Dad, and even worked with him. We miss him a lot, he was way too young. Thanks for reading the blog and the kind words. Glad to have you as a reader. :) Cheers!