Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Petit Bill's Bistro's 10th Anniversary & their vintage West Wellington building!

I read last week that Petit Bill's Bistro recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of their opening on Wellington Street west, at the corner of Smirle. An impressive anniversary for any restaurant for sure, and for me it was a realization of how fast 10 years has gone by. It still seems like not that long ago that Juniper's was in there, or before that even, John's Quick Lunch when I was a kid. I've always liked the little 2-storey building which has housed a variety of different establishments during even my lifetime, let alone it's 90 total years of existence. This building has popped up in my research a few times over the years, and with Petit Bill's anniversary, I felt the timing was right for a profile of this venerable Wellington Village structure. I also recently tracked down an exciting, rare old photo of the building, which sealed the deal!

Early days of the property

The history of the property dates all the way back to the Smirle family, believe it or not. In 1885, Archibald Smirle was in the midst of a major life change. He had fairly recently received a significant appointment as Public School Inspector for Carleton County, but had also just lost his young wife, the former Harriet Holmes Cowley, during childbirth in December 1884 at age 39. A long-time resident in the City of Ottawa, Smirle was perhaps looking for a fresh start, and the proximity to his in-laws (the Cowleys) on Richmond Road was likely appealing. He purchased a block of land in the "McLeansville" subdivision of the former Stewart farm, and build a pretty stone house fronting Richmond Road. (Much more on Smirles and that stone house can be found in a previous article I wrote at: http://kitchissippimuseum.blogspot.ca/2016/01/the-story-of-archibald-smirle-family.html)

In 1893, just prior to the Stewarts selling their entire farm to the land syndicate Ottawa Land Association, Smirle acquired "lot 7" on Richmond Road (which would of course later be renamed Wellington to as far as Western Avenue), as well as two more lots in behind fronting Grange and Smirle, for $300, giving him a parcel of land 200 feet wide and 216 feet deep off Richmond.

Archibald died in 1897, and his young daughters sold the property in 1904 to a 44-year old British Spinster, Miss Mary French for $2,300. French remained in the home until her death in September of 1920. After she died, her executors sold the whole property (so the eastern 3/4 of the block of Wellington between Grange and Smirle, all the way back to what is now 118 Smirle) to Mrs. Isabelle S. Wallace (wife of Alfred Wallace), in July of 1922 for $5,500.

At some point in time in the mid-1920s, Isabelle Wallace made a family deal to sell the property to her brother, James Henry Russell. I say family deal because the sale was never registered in the land registry records. All transactions remained under Isabelle until she sold in 1944. However, the owner in civic records by the late 1920s was J.H. Russell, and it was he who would make this block of land come alive.

James Henry Russell in 1927 was a 57-year old recently retired tailor. He was born in 1869 in Kars, and had moved to Ottawa in his twenties. He worked for many years for the Ottawa tailoring firm Burwash and MacDonald. He was married, with one child, a teen-aged daughter. He lived on First Avenue in the Glebe, and in his retirement had become actively involved in real estate.

Around 1926, he constructed the brick duplex at 118-120 Smirle Avenue, and in August of 1927, took out a building permit to build another duplex next door, which is now 122 Smirle Avenue. It seems unlikely Russell himself was involved in the physical house building work, but he certainly was responsible for overseeing the construction.

It was his action on Halloween day in 1927 that is most notable, at least for the purposes of this story. On that date, the last building permit in the city of Ottawa for the month of October of 1927 was issued to J.H. Russell, in the amount of $6,000 for the construction of a "brick veneer store and apartment." This was the future Petit Bill's building.

Ottawa Journal - November 7, 1927

The construction of the Petit Bill's building

Here is the first tidbit which may surprise you: to the naked eye, the building which now houses Petit Bill's and Kulu Trading looks like just one big building. But it's an illusion! The building was actually constructed at two separate times! The eastern portion of the building siding on Smirle Avenue was built by Russell using the building permit issued in October 1927, but the western half of the building came later. Minor changes to the exterior features make the building appear to be one building, but interestingly, that is not the case. More on this below.

Russell (through his sister) took out a mortgage for $4,000 on November 7, 1927 towards the construction of the building, and construction would have occurred throughout the winter of 1927-28.

Aerial view of Wellington Street, May 5, 1928.
East is at the left. Visible are Smirle and Grange running
towards the bottom, and Julian and Warren running towards
the top. The new store at the northwest corner of Smirle can
be seen, as well as the old stone house, with a sizable gap
between them. Quite a few trees west of the stone house.

Upon completion of the building by the spring of 1928, tenants were found to occupy the space, which was originally given the civic address 1307 Wellington Street (the addresses on Wellington would later all be renumbered in 1946). The upstairs apartment (1309 Wellington) was rented to Edward J. Burroughs and his wife Hawthorne (so says the record books), while the store was rented to Mr. Joseph Nathaniel Harmer. Harmer was a druggist, who had been operating his shop across the street in what is now the Won Ton House building, since 1923. In fact, Harmer was the Postmaster for what was known as the Elmdale neighbourhood, with the first post office for Wellington Village opening in his original store on April 29th, 1927.

Joseph Harmer was born in Thamesville, Ontario in 1885, and had married Emma Nita Bounsall in 1908. The couple had three children within the next 10 years, two sons and a daughter. During WWI, the family moved to Toronto, where Joseph found work as a manager of one of the Louis K. Liggett Co. chain drug stores. However, while in Toronto, 2-year old daughter Eleanor passed away, and a year later the family moved back to Ottawa. It was then that Harmer opened his own shop at Wellington and Warren. I can't say why Harmer moved into the new building across the street in early 1928, but he did. (Note, Harmer was of no relation to Frederick W. Harmer, Clerk for Nepean Township for nearly 40 years (1866-1905), and for whom Harmer Avenue is named. It is only a coincidence that Joseph Harmer opened his store close by).

Joseph and Nita Harmer, circa 1930
(Photo courtesy of Mrs. Joanne Bocking)

Below are two incredible photos which I tracked down through the Harmer family. I cannot thank Mrs. Joanne Bocking enough for digging through the family archive and coming up with the photos below. You may not recognize it at first, but it indeed is the Petit Bill's building, within the first few months, if not the first few weeks after its construction (as always, click on any photo to enlarge it):

Harmer's Drug Store - Spring 1928
(Photo courtesy of Mrs. Joanne Bocking)

The old stone Smirle house which was demolished in the 1960s is seen at left in the photo, and the view down Smirle Avenue at right is really interesting as well - not too much growth there yet. But remember that Smirle Avenue was only about 7-8 years old at the time, and had only a handful of houses built on it. The visible house in the background is what is now 131 Smirle Avenue, then the home of spinster Mrs. Margaret McAdoo. For comparison's sake, here is the building in 2016 below:

May 2016 Google Streetview photo

This view is looking at the corner of the building, taken the same day. I've included a present-day shot from roughly this angle as well. I believe that is an old fire alarm box on the hydro pole.

Harmer's Drug Store - Spring 1928, looking west
(Photo courtesy of Mrs. Joanne Bocking)

May 2016 Google Streetview shot

In August of 1928, Russell took out a new building permit to complete the last of his construction on his block of land, to build a "brick veneer and cinder block, stores (and) apartments, Wellington Street" in the amount of $5,000. This was in essence, the second phase of the Petit Bill's building. Construction began right away, if not even a little before the permit was issued, as the Ottawa City Directory of 1928 includes a listing for the unfinished building, as "Vacant". This fact makes the above photographs all the rarer, as it shows the building during the brief 4-6 month period that it stood alone without its addition. I do not understand why Russell chose to build in two halves, it is odd for sure.

The difference between the first and second 'phase' of the construction can be seen when looking at the building up close. There is a slight coloring difference in the bricks between the two phases, creating a slightly-noticeable line.

Certainly by the fall of 1928, the new building was complete. The final aerial photos of 1928 show the building in a final state:

November 4, 1928 aerial
Same view as the May 1928 photo above, but now the
full building is complete adjacent to the stone house.

The new portion of the building featured two stores on the main floor, and a residence upstairs. The first occupants of the new commercial space were Mrs. Flora Drysdale, who operated a hairdressing establishment in the eastern half (now part of the extension of Petit Bill's), while the western half (now Kulu Trading) was occupied by a butcher shop, William J. Linttell & Sons Ltd. Linttell's held their grand opening on Friday November 9th, 1928.

Ottawa Journal - November 8, 1928

In 1934, Linttell moved to the opposite side of Smirle Avenue, and became the first occupants of what is now the Fresh Air Experience store.

December 19, 1929

For a few years in the early 1930s, it appears part of Harmer's shop was dedicated to the sale of radios, by the Rev Radio Company. Of course televisions were still twenty years away, and radios were beginning to enter their golden period of popularity.

Joseph N. Harmer's Drug Store

Back to Joseph Harmer, he continued to operate his popular and successful drug store at 1307 Wellington Street into the 1940s. His store featured the local post office for Wellington Village (called "Ottawa Sub #19") until April 4th, 1936, when it was moved to George Nichol's drug store closer to Holland Avenue. Harmer later took over the "Ottawa West" post office on March 22nd, 1944, when it moved from 1 Gould Street at the corner of Western (the "Ottawa West" subdivision was the little segment of streets between Western and Island Park Drive, north of Wellington and south of Scott; the post office for Ottawa West had always been located there, and I'm not sure why it was moved out to Wellington and Smirle in 1944. Both Nichol's and Harmer's post office locations would have been operating simultaneously just a few blocks apart.)

Part of a Rexall- Harmer's Drug Store ad from October 1940

Tragedy struck on the morning of November 14th, 1945, when Joseph Nathaniel Harmer took a heart attack while in his store, and died at age 60.

Ottawa Journal
November 15, 1945

Sadly, very little biographical information on Harmer remains today. News accounts on him are sparse, his granddaughter who I spoke with never met him; he died a few years before she was born. His granddaughter Johanne did state that her Mom stated that Joseph was "the sweetest kindest man in the world", and that her Mom adored him. He was a devout Anglican, and was heavily involved in St. Matthias Church. When he passed away, a memorial cross was erected in his memory in the Church, which stood until the closure of the Church.

The base of the memorial cross for Joseph N. Harmer, which
stood inside St. Matthias Church on Parkdale Avenue
since 1945 until all Church artifacts were removed during
the closure of the church last year. Mrs. Joanne Bocking
now displays the cross in the living room of her home,
in honour of her grandfather.

Joseph and Nita Harmer and their two sons, Donald (at left)
and Joseph Jr. (at right), with their wives. Circa early-1940s.
(Photo courtesy of Mrs. Joanne Bocking)

Joseph's family continued to operate the drug store for a few months, before the business was soon sold to Norman D. McMillan. McMillan kept the drug store open until 1963, and over time also purchased the store property and the old stone house next door, which had become a mixed commercial and apartment house. During that same year of 1963, McMillan was ordered by the Housing Standards Board to demolish the stone house. It was deemed to be in poor condition, and likely dangerously so. The Housing Standards Board, via the Urban Renewal Project, had set out to enforce owners of decrepit buildings to either repair them to a certain standard, or force their demolition. Thus sadly, the historic Smirle home was torn down within a few years.

May 23, 1953 ad for McMillan's store

The list of businesses and usages over the building's history

This building has housed a number of businesses over the years. Here is as complete a list as my records show, with dates/years approximate depending on sources available:

1293 Wellington (current Petit Bill's Bistro, next to Smirle)
1928-1946: Harmer's Drug Store
1947-1963: McMillan's Drug Store
1966-1969: Parkway Beauty Salon
1970-1973: Golden Beauty Salon
1974-1975: Karam's Quick Lunch
1976-1989: John's Quick Lunch
1990: The Wellington Station (125-seat jazz nightclub)
1991-1992: Touch of India Restaurant
1993-1994: Taj Palace
1996: La Cucina Ristorante
1996-2006: Juniper Kitchen & Wine Bar
2007-Present: Petit Bill's Bistro

1295 Wellington (the apartments above Petit Bill's Bistro)
Two apartment units until at least 1963. Records do not seem to indicate anyone living there from 1963 to 1987, but they could be incomplete. By 1988 was listed as a single apartment, as I believe it continues to be. The tenants residing here the longest were Mrs. Flora McClelland her family (1941-1955) and Oswald and Annie Hughes (1939-1951).

1297 Wellington (current Petit Bill's Bistro - the 'extension' part next to Kulu's)
1929: Mrs. Flora Drysdale (hairdresser)
1930-1937: Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company Ltd. (A&P)
1940: Emile J. Spencer (novelties)
1941: Ellis Lunch Bar (confectionery)
1943-1946: residential apartment
1948-1950: Mayfair Grill (restaurant)
1951-1957: Eddie's Wonder Bar (restaurant)
1958-1960: Jimmy's Lunch (restaurant)
1961-1990s: combined with 1299 next door to west
1990s-present: time frame is uncertain but at some point, it was renovated, and added as extension to 1307 Wellington next door to the east, as it is now

1299 Wellington (current Kulu's Trading)
1929-1933: William J. Linttell & Sons (butchers)
1939-1942: Frederick Simmonds (baker)
1943-1948: residential apartment
1949-1957: Meyers-Dale & Co (floor sanding) & Dale Construction Co. Ltd (building contractors)
1959: Thomas Shipman Ltd. (real estate)
1960: West End Appliances Repair Depot
1961-1962: King Koin Laundrette (coin-operated laundry)
1962: Parker's Cleaners & Dyers
1966-1972: Kelly-Moore Ltd. (real estate and general insurance)
1973-1979: Titley Inc. (real estate)
1981-1991: combined with 1301 next door to west (St. Vincent de Paul). (I can't 100% confirm this, but the addressing and city directory info seem to indicate this. I vaguely remember St. Vincent de Paul extending to the east from it's old location at 1301 - where Blueprint Home is now located)
1992-2011: Rideau Tailors & Cleaners
2011-present: Kulu Trading

Other tidbits and photos from the history of the building

On January 17th, 1940, two-year-old Jean Lecuyer, who was residing in the upstairs apartment, died at home when one of the beans she had been playing with became caught in her windpipe.

Like in many homes in Ottawa and throughout Canada, the call to war took young men from their families during the 1940s. The residents of 1293-1299 Wellington were no different. G. W. Ellis, a young soldier who lived in the upstairs apartment, appeared in the newspaper upon graduation from the No. 9 Bombing and Gunnery School in Mont Joli, Quebec.

Ottawa Journal, June 19, 1944

Three other soldiers in WWII lived upstairs at a time during the 1940s as well. Pte G. McLelland, son of Flora McClelland (the longest resident of the upstairs apartment), had been overseas for five years, and returned home in April of 1945 after fighting in the Battle of Germany. Meanwhile, Pte. V. J. Lebeau returned home in September of 1945, while his brother Rene returned home a month later. In April of 1946, Rene's war bride and child arrived in Canada. The Lebeaus resided in the upstairs apartment upon their return.

It is interesting to note that during WWII and just after, there was a major housing shortage in Ottawa. All available space was encouraged to be used for housing. As a result two of the storefronts were converted into residences for several years in the mid-late 1940s! (This would encompass the Kulu Trading portion and the western extension of Petit Bill's).

Here is an ad for Meyers-Dale & Co, "floor covering specialists" who occupied the Kulu space in the 1950s:
April 21, 1954

In 1959, the owner of Jimmy's Lunch and a neighbour were attacked by two youths late at night in the restaurant:

November 24, 1959

Here are two photos showing the exterior of the Petit Bill's building in the early 1960s:

Smirle stone house, with the future Kulu Trading
shop in view at right, then a laundromat. 1960.
(Source: Ottawa Archives CA-20755)

The former McMillan's Drug Store and King Koin Laundrette,
both vacant in February, 1965
(Source: Ottawa Archives CA-24761)

This is my attempt to combine the two photos (taken five years apart and in different seasons) to try to show a streetscape view of the block from that era:

Photoshop mashup of the two photos to try to give a good idea
of what the Wellington Street block looked like in the early
1960s, before the stone house was demolished.

Real estate agents occupied the west half of the building from approximately 1966 to 1979.

June 13, 1973

John's Quick Lunch opened on Wellington Street in the future Petit Bill's Bistro in early 1976, taking over for what was "Karam's Quick Lunch". This was one of, if not the first restaurant review for John's:

February 6, 1976

Here are two views of John's Quick Lunch in the 1980s:

John's Quick Lunch, circa mid-1980s
(Source: John's Quick Lunch)

Interior of John's Quick Lunch, mid-1980s
(Source: John's Quick Lunch)

John's moved further west up Wellington to its current home in 1989, and was replaced at 1293 Wellington by a jazz nightclub, and later a series of short-lived restaurants.

Junipers opened just after labour day in 1996, operated by chefs Michael Sobcov (formerly of the Maple Lawn Cafe and Domus Cafe) and Richard Nigro (also of Domus). The restaurant moved to 245 Richmond Road around Christmas 2006, where they remained until closing in November of 2014.

Petit Bill's was opened by Randy Fitzpatrick, Sharon Garvey and Terry Fitzpatrick in April of 2007. The restaurant was named for "Little Bill" Fitzpatrick, father of the three owners. Sadly, "Little Bill" passed away a little over a year later.

April 2009 view of Petit Bill's and Rideau Tailors.
Note the original red sign, and no patio yet!
(Source; Google Streetview)

Petit Bill's has been a great success story for the neighbourhood and is well appreciated not only for it's great food and eclectic menu, but also for its friendly owners and staff, who go out of their way to make this great old building a little extra special. They accomplish this in little ways, such as their annual Christmas window display, water bowls for dogs walking by, small treats for kids, or just a cheerful hello to anyone happening by, perusing the menu, or perhaps looking up at the building and reminiscing about a particular memory they might have from this building's interesting 90 years of history!

Painting by Barbara Ursel

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for more great reporting, Dave. I have a feeling that in 1975-76 the Petit Bill's corner was occupied by some sort of variety store, although it may just have been that the lunch counter sold penny candy, etc. My kids were very small at the time, but they were allowed to go up there to buy stuff. I can't remember the name, but it wasn't John's.