Friday, April 19, 2019

Three stages of history of the Il Negozio Nicastro building and property

The Il Negozio Nicastro building at the corner of Wellington West and Gilchrist Avenue is a little over 60 years old, and blends into the Wellington streetscape seamlessly. An exclusively commercial building since it was built, I wondered how the property evolved, as 1950s-built buildings are rare in the neighbourhood, particularly on a prime corner lot such as this one. I decided to delve into the history of the lot, to find out more about the building itself, but also what was there prior to it. My research uncovered a couple of interesting tidbits, including an NHL-hall of famer.

Il Negozio Nicastro is in its 15th year in the location and its longevity is due to, of course name recognition, as the Nicastro name is well-respected in Ottawa, but it is also established as one of Wellington Village's most popular businesses due to its quality foods and ever-evolving cafe and bar amenities. As a kid who grew up in the 80s and 90s, I remembered it being the home of "Electrolux", which admittedly until I wrote this article, I didn't know what kind of company that even was. So this article looks at the history of the property in three sections: the history of the building itself (including its bet-you-didn't-know-it-was-called-this name); the brief but interesting history of the previous structure on the lot; and the original dream that never was in its earliest beginnings.

What could have been - The Massads and the original land parcel

The history of the property of course dates back to when it was part of the Stewart family farm. The lot would always have been adjacent to the original Richmond Road, used by farmers and travellers on horse. It was likely the Stewarts had an old fence that ran alongside Richmond Road, to protect their groves that were on the north side of the property. Gilchrist Avenue has a notable hill at the top of the street, and one can only imagine that back in the 19th century, it would have been a bit of a drop down from Richmond Road.

Aerial photos from as late as the 1940s show the lot to be thickly covered in trees. Both this lot and the one on the opposite side of Gilchrist (the Lauzon parking lot) both had a lot of large, mature trees covering the lot. And I can only guess that this is why the Nicastro lot was sold at auction for somewhat less than most of the Wellington Street-fronting lots did. For the tidy sum of $700 John McMahon, owner of an Ottawa shipping/cartage company Federal Transfer, picked up both lots 864 (Nicastro's) and 865 (John's Quick Lunch) at the big 1920 auction of Wellington Village lots (recall that there were two auctions: one in 1919 for the lots south of Wellington, and one in 1920 for the lots to the north). For McMahon, the purchase was purely an investment, one which paid off. Eight years later, in July of 1928, McMahon sold the two lots (still vacant) on the exploding Wellington Street strip to Salim and Rosie Massad for $2,150, triple what he had paid.

Salim Massad was 40 years old, and was an immigrant from Mount Lebanon, Syria, who records show had left Syria in 1912, arriving in New Orleans, with a final destination of St. Louis, Missouri. His journey must have taken unexpected twists and turns, as he was in Montreal by 1920 where he married his wise Rose Ieems. The couple were then in Hull by the mid-1920s, where Salim operated a store at the corner of Du Pont (now Eddy Street) and Frontenac. His shop was actually two stores in one. Part of the store (fronting on Frontenac) sold gentleman's furnishings, while the other half, with a door on Du Pont, sold boots and shoes.

Present-day view of what was Salim Massad's shop in the
1920s at the corner of Frontenac and Eddy (then Du Pont)

It seems likely that Salim dreamt of building a commercial building on the growing Wellington strip in Ottawa's west end, and moving his business into the Elmdale neighbourhood. Undoubtedly, his $2,150 purchase was a significant investment, and unfortunately for Salim, his timing could not have been worse. The great depression began mere months later, the commercial and real estate markets collapsed, and the Massads never had the chance to build their store. In fact, within a couple of years, the Massads had closed their store in Hull and moved over to St. Francis Street in Hintonburg. Salim earned a wage by working at the Cartier Tea Room in Hull.

They held onto the double lot on Wellington for 11 years, but by 1938, with no end to the economic depression in sight, and WWII on the horizon, the Massads gave up on their dream. There was no market whatsoever for lots in the west end, and so the Massads had no choice but to surrender their lots to the City of Ottawa giving up on the endless upkeep of expensive property taxes during a difficult time. Over a balance owing of $84.66, the city took over ownership of the lots in 1939.

However, Massad still was able to get back into business. In April of 1938, Louis Ellis, the proprietor of the Hamilton Lunch and confectionery store at the corner of Wellington and Hamilton (now Pizza Pizza) passed away. Louis had also been born in Syria, and perhaps was a friend of Salim Massad. Upon his death, Salim took over the shop, and likely building on what he liked at the Cartier Tea Room in Hull, converted the Hamilton Lunch into the "Elmdale Tea Room". It was open from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., and had a 14-foot lunch counter and 17-foot back bar, with 6 double and 4 single booths.

Ad for the Elmdale Tea Room - 1948

Sadly, Salim Massad passed away in May of 1940, at the age of 52. His widow and kids would continue to operate the Elmdale Tea Room well into the 1960s, and expanded into the other half of the building in 1949, operating Massad Sports and Cycle until the mid-1980s. Members of the Massad family still live and do business in the neighbourhood today.

Had the depression not hit so suddenly and so drastically in 1929, who knows what Salim Massad may have built at the corner of Wellington and Gilchrist on his double-lot. Either way, he and his family certainly maintained a legacy of admirable business in the community for many years.

The short-lived house - and NHL hall-of-famer Syd Howe

The city collected so many vacant properties during the 1930s due to unpaid taxes, that by the time WWII was ending, they (as well as neighbouring Nepean Township) had a major glut of them. The good news was that many soldiers were beginning to return home, and many needed a place to live. The economy rebounded incredibly quickly following the end of the war, and times were good. The City was happy to practically give away lots to individuals who were committed to building on them, and thereby creating much-needed property taxes for the city. Lots sold for $50 or $100 regularly, primarily to small-time contractors, who could not keep up with the demand in the late 1940s.

One such builder was Donald Lloyd Campbell whose name comes up frequently when researching this area, as he built many of the unique homes in the Wellington Village area in the 1920s (including the Smirle Avenue murder house that I wrote about a couple years ago). Campbell acquired lot 864 at the corner of Gilchrist Avenue in the fall of 1947, and immediately built a small one-and-a-half storey wood-frame house that fronted Gilchrist, and sided along Wellington Street. In retrospect it was an extremely odd choice to build a small house on a prime lot like this, made odder when a few months later, in the Spring of 1948, the John's Family Diner (aka John's Quick Lunch) building was constructed, with three apartments upstairs, and initially Bruce's Gift Shop (selling "toys, chinaware, cards, novelties") on the main floor. The back door of the Campbell house at 108 Gilchrist Avenue would have opened directly onto the side wall of the John's Quick Lunch building.

Campbell built the house quickly, and it sold immediately, to Percy Wood Halloway and Beatrice Gertude Wood. The couple clearly had plans to also use their home for a business, opening the "Gilchrist Avenue Beauty Salon" in it on November 24th, 1947.

November 22, 1947

I would love to have tracked down the Woods or a descendant as they might be my best shot to find a photo of the old house, but no luck. The Woods lasted less than a year in the home, selling in November 1948, and apparently leaving the city.  The new owners Lorenzo and Jeanne Lavigne stayed only 9 months, and they sold in July 1949 to Major Charles M. and Margaret Bygate, who would go on to own the house for the next 7 years. The Bygates resided there until 1953, but rented it out in late 1953.

The tenants of the house provide one of the most interesting tidbits in the history of the property. From 1953 until mid-1956, Sydney and Frances Howe resided at 108 Gilchrist Avenue. Sydney, better known as Syd, was a former NHL hockey star. He broke into the NHL as an 18-year old in 1929 with the original Ottawa Senators, but it was his 12 seasons with the Detroit Red Wings from 1934 to 1946 that made him a star. His best season was in 1943-44 (the second year of original six hockey) when he scored 32 goals and 60 points in 46 games. In a February 3, 1944 game against the New York Rangers, Howe scored six goals (a feat which has only been accomplished twice in the 75 years since). He was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1965. (You can read more about his career by clicking here).

Syd Howe with the Red Wings

Syd was playing in various leagues and "old-timer" games in the early 1950s, and opened a sporting goods store on Bank Street in 1950. He was also coaching the Hawkesbury Richports in the semi-pro Quebec-Ontario Hockey League at the time. The cliché that old-time hockey players made no money during their careers seems to fit Syd Howe's story, as it is almost a shame that one of the best hockey players of his era was renting a small house just a few years after retirement.

The Bygates sold the house in April of 1956, and the Howes had to move out.

In spite of some modest effort, I was unable to track down a photo of this house. As it was in place for less than ten years, the odds of catching it in a photo are slim. The best I can do is show it on the 1948 fire insurance plan, and on an aerial photograph below.

1948 fire insurance plan (partially updated to April 1951),
showing the north side of Wellington Street, between
Western and Gilchrist. The Campbell-built house is shown
in yellow at 108 Gilchrist.

May 1950 aerial photo showing Wellington Street running
top to bottom through the centre, with Western at the very
top, and Gilchrist going right towards the bottom. The house
at 108 Gilchrist is in the center of the photo, surrounded by
a lawn, with a path to Gilchrist. Notable in this photo are
the amount of trees surrounding 108 Gilchrist, and also
in the lot across the street (the future Lauzon parking lot)

The commercial building (aka Cole Building, aka Sun Life Building, aka Nicastro's)

In April of 1956, 36-year old Lorne P. Cole purchased the property, and he immediately set about plans to construct a commercial building. He took out an $82,000 mortgage, and had the wood-frame house at 108 Gilchrist (which was not even nine years old) either demolished or moved. I'd have to imagine it must have been moved, but no records exist as to where it may have gone.

Lorne Cole's background was a family business known as Ringrose-Coles, and the Polly Ann Hat Shoppe. His parents George R. Cole and the former Bertha Ringrose had spent years in the millinery business, and opened their first store on Bank Street in 1933, and by 1937 had three stores open in Ottawa. Lorne worked in these shops as a teenager, and by the 1950s was managing the Polly Ann store himself. Lorne was also a veteran of WWII serving with the Canadian Armoured Corps.

The construction of 1355 Wellington Street West was likely an investment opportunity for him. In December of 1956, before construction was completed, Cole had signed an agreement with the Sun Life Assurance Company of Canada on a 10-year lease to begin May 1st, 1957 (at roughly $9,700 per year).

The building opened in May, though it was later that summer when a large nearly full-page ad appeared in the newspaper in August 1957 announced the grand opening of the building, called "The Cole Building - Another Fine Addition to Ottawa's West End Business District".

Ottawa Citizen, August 24, 1957

Close-up of the new Cole Building - August 24, 1957

There must be some symbolic meaning to the puzzle
piece men walking along Wellington Street?
August 24, 1957

At initial opening, the Sun Life company occupied the entire main floor. The basement was occupied by Nash & Harrison Ltd. (an electronic engineering firm).  The 2nd floor was split into four units, with the Canadian Automotive Wholesalers occupying unit 201, while the rest of the floor was initially vacant. Within a few months, the Wawanesa Mutual Insurance Company, Bepco Canada Ltd. (electric appliances) and B P Canada Ltd. oil company opened an Ottawa office (under the management of D.C. Van Alstine) on the 2nd floor as well.

Nash & Harrison (originally known as Computing Devices of Canada) primarily supplied equipment to the pulp and paper industry. They stayed in the building until 1969, when their company was growing substantially, and their 30-man team had outgrown the basement office. A 2003 Citizen article notes that Nash & Harrison became Kanata's first high-tech firm when they relocated there in 1969.

Sun Life stayed until 1971, as did Canadian Automotive Wholesalers (who had been renamed the Automotive Industries Association). From 1960-1966 Kevin Mullin real estate had an office here, and other firms over time included Artistic Creations, 'Nationwide Computer Match' (offering matchmaking services through the mail), and Ecodomus, who promoted solar energy-run homes.

The next big company to arrive was Electrolux, a Canadian vacuum cleaner company who set up an offices and a sales branch in the building around 1973, and remained until the late 1990s.

Sherwood Studios was also a longtime tenant, operating from 1979 until about 1990. I had forgotten about this company, but recognized their logo instantly after seeing it for the first time in thirty years when I found this ad (I walked by the building twice a day for years on my way to school, so the logo had found a place in the depths of my brain!).

February 13, 1986 ad

Back to Lorne Cole... He lost his young wife Jean suddenly in 1960 at the young age of 36. The couple had two young children at the time. Ringrose-Coles closed around this time as well.  In 1963, Lorne advertised that Ringrose-Coles was coming back to life, and re-opening at 109 Sparks Street. However the project was short-lived, as I suppose the hat business was on the decline, and by 1965, Lorne had found work in a new career as a salesman for Turpin Pontiac Buick at 424 Richmond Road in Westboro.

Cole kept the building until May of 1968, when he sold to well-known Ottawa pawn shop owner Bertram Bronsther and his wife Sylvia, who owned the building until 1978. It would change hands a few times before ending up with its more long-term owner, Viceroy Holdings in 1984.

The building at 1355 Wellington retained Cole's name, at least in some reference books, into the 1980s, but seemingly there is no trace of it now.

Lorne Cole, namesake of the Cole Building
at 1355 Wellington Street. From the Ottawa
Citizen, February 27, 1965.

Il Negozio opened in November 2004 and remains today, along with Desjardins Insurance upstairs (after a corporate renaming from State Farm Insurance).

So there it is, the detailed history of this building and property. As with every address on Wellington Street West, always an interesting story to tell...