Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Goodbye 26-32 Armstrong Street - A Profile

Everyone knows this big brick rowhouse. A classic Hintonburg structure, it has stood the test of time for 123 years. Its days are numbered, however, as the ML Devco Inc. (Magil Laurentian Realty Investments Company) will inevitably starting construction on their condo building at 979 Wellington Street West anytime now. 

I love this building, and though it seemingly has lived out its life as a tenant and boarding house for so long, it will be sad to see it go. As far as the style of building it is (an early 20th-century multi-unit brick rowhouse), there are fewer and fewer of the originals still standing in Hintonburg. In terms of its shape, it's one-of-a-kind. In terms of its life story, well, just like every house in Hintonburg, it too is one-of-a-kind.

If the walls could talk, it would share stories of Hintonburg going back to its first days as a part of the City of Ottawa. 

Carleton County Judge Christopher Armstrong owned a wide swath of the north-east corner of Hintonburg, and he built Carleton Lodge (aka Armstrong House) in 1845, which has stood directly across from 26-32 Armstrong for this past century and a quarter. 

In 1874, the Judge decided to subdivide part of his land, establishing builder lots (Carleton County Plan 57) on about three-quarters of his property, but keeping a large block for his stone house, and the surrounding lawns in front of it all the way to Wellington Street (then still called Richmond Road) and east to Bayview Road. But mere months after registering the plan, the Judge passed away suddenly.  His widow Mary Ann Armstrong continued to sell lots, and in 1884 amidst a hot real estate market in the west end village, decided to convert the sprawling front and side lawns into another new subdivision (Carleton County Plan 89) which created the lots directly to the north and east of the stone house.

Many of the lots took years to sell, and even though lot 11 was one of the largest (at about 85x100 feet), it took about 25 years to sell, and eventually it was Judge and Mary Ann Armstrong's daughter Caroline (for whom Armstrong Street was originally named - it was renamed to Armstrong in 1908 due to duplication), who finally sold the lot in two halves. Patrick J. Lacey, who had a flower shop at the northwest corner of Hilda and Wellington, bought the vacant east half of lot 11 for $350 sometime between 1905-1909 (giving him the full strip of land back to Armstrong), but I guess changed his mind, and agreed to sell the half-lot on January 10th, 1910, to Trefflé Lavigne for $700. 

Lavigne was a prominent Ottawa resident, having been Foreman of the power house for the Ottawa Electric Railway since the line first opened in 1891. He was a trustee on the separate school board (representing Victoria Ward) from 1907 to 1911, the last two of them as chairman. He had founded the St. Joseph's society in Hull in the 1880s, and was involved in other social organizations. He also owned several pieces of real estate across Ottawa, and must have seen this location in Hintonburg as a good investment opportunity.

Trefflé Lavigne, builder of 26-32 Armstrong
(Source: Ancestry, Suzanne Scharf)

Lavigne began construction on the building soon after he acquired the lot. He did not take out a mortgage, paying for its construction himself. The building appears to have been completed sometime by the fall or early winter of 1910. It was split into four separate units, with assigned civic numbers 26, 28, 30 and 32 Armstrong Street. 

26 Armstrong Street was the ground floor unit, which originally was commercial space. 28 was on the second floor above 26, while 30 and 32 were two-level rowhouses. 26/28 was an exceptionally long building, 19'8" wide by 83' long along Hilda, giving the building its unique L-shape. 

Perhaps one of the most unique features of the building is its exposed foundation, which, due to the downward slopes of both Hilda and especially Armstrong, gets to nearly six feet high at the southeast corner of the building, but only a little over two feet high on the west side. The building also fit the character of the typical builds of the era in Hintonburg with its flat roof, hand-stacked foundation and built right to the property line, with no yard or setback. 

The building looked mostly as it does today when it was first built, except there was a 2-storey cinder block addition at the south end of 26 along Hilda that was added just after construction, and which disappeared by the 1950s. There was also a thin 1-storey attached rear shed behind 30/32. 

When the building was finished, Trefflés brother Joseph Maxime Lavigne and his seven children moved in to the 26-28 half. Joseph and his 22-year old son Adolphe opened a grocery store out of 26 Armstrong, which would have been a handy addition to the neighbourhood. Meanwhile, 49-year old tinsmith Alfred Theriault and his wife and four children moved into 30 Armstrong, while 38-year old CPR brakeman John Lee moved in with his wife and two children into 32 Armstrong.

Sadly, just a few months after the house was completed, Trefflé Lavigne passed away. He died on April 24th, 1911, after a short bought of pneumonia. He was just 53 years old.

The building as it appears on the 1912 fire insurance
plan, just a year or so after it was built

The grocery store did not last long at 26 Armstrong, and in fact that unit was listed as being vacant from 1912 all the way to 1917. Very odd! 

In October of 1917, Trefflé's son Leopold Lavigne purchased the house from the estate (for $4,000) and moved into 26 Armstrong, which he converted to a residential unit. Leopold remained there for another 10 years before selling for a nice profit at $11,250 in 1927, just before the depression hit. It would remain under the ownership of George Hopper (1927-1947), E. Rosetta Leaver (1947-1963), Ivan J. Karlovcec (1963-1978), Karam and Renee Ayoub (1978-1994), and Antonio and Suzanne Bento (1994-?) (I only have access to free property registry info up until 1996). Note the entire building of all four units sold in 1994 for just $230,000.

During this time, the house was always tenanted, and at times apparently operated as a boarding house. It appears to have always had reputable tenants, as a search through old newspapers does not yield stories of drug-dealing, gangs, or other unsavoury issues related to this house. 

Ottawa Citizen, June 21, 1963

It has however, seemingly always looked a little worse for wear. As far back as 1964, the house appeared on the city's property standards list as part of its urban renewal project. It would have been identified as having significant structural or condition concerns to appear on that list. The owner at the time would have been required to perform improvements to the building or demolish it. Obviously, the renovations were done, as the building has survived another 59 years.

Here is a photo of the building from 1964 (and another from above in 1966). You can see the holes where the old cinder block addition had been, and the old chimney for the upstairs unit. I also love the old lines of laundry, Mom sitting on the little back stoop with the kids playing in the yard filled with old wood and garbage, and another little guy on a trike jealously looking in through the side fence. 

26-32 Armstrong - August 25, 1964
(City of Ottawa Archives, CA-24672)

View looking west down Armstrong at Hilda. April 1966.
26-32 Armstrong is visible on the southwest corner.
(City of Ottawa Archives, CA-09136)

Here is a recent view of the house during its final years as an occupied home:

June 2014 (Google Streetview)

Here are a few photos showing how the house the appears today. The condition of the house is poor, several windows are open and broken, as it has been boarded up since late 2020 or early 2021. No one here but a single squirrel hanging out in a quiet spot on the front porch. (All photos taken May 22, 2023 by Dave Allston):

Here is a close-up of that incredible stacked stone foundation that wraps the building. Still solidly in place 123 years later: 

Not only will this building be going, but everything on the block, including the houses at 36 and 40 Armstrong Street, as well as all of the buildings on the Wellington Street West side from 961 to 979 (all of which I profiled a couple of years ago - http://kitchissippimuseum.blogspot.com/2019/02/hidden-history-eastern-end-of.html). I won't get into the histories of 36/40 right now, maybe in a future post.

The development plan has gone through a few iterations. It started life back in 2017 as a 9-storey proposal only on the west side of the block (along Garland), that would not have touched Hilda or the 26-32 Armstrong building. ML Devco then purchased the adjoining lots in 2019-2020, so that they owned the entire block. In September 2020, a monstrous 23-storey, 304 units building was announced, which was roundly hated by all. The developer came back in April 2021 with a 12-storey proposal, with 252 residential units, essentially the plan that stands today. It remained contentious in the eyes of many, and creates a large sense of fear as a precedent-setter for the neighbourhood along Wellington Street West in the future, allowing high-rise buildings along a traditional main street, and this one is particularly disappointing as it is next to Somerset Square Park. 

View looking southwest from Armstrong
(Source: ML Devco website)

According to architect Roderick Lahey in the Cultural Impact Statement for the new build, it is noted that "material section along Armstrong and wrapping around the corner response to the Armstrong House and to the red brick building 26 Armstrong on the corner". Thus the stone and brick look, and grey and red colours of the new building is intentional, taking elements of Carleton Lodge (Armstrong House) and this old brick building that has stood here since 1910 to give some continuity to the site. 

The plan calls for three of the townhouse units to exist on the site of the current 26-32 Armstrong Street ("The ground floor of the building will be comprised of retail units fronting onto Wellington Street West with groundoriented townhouse dwelling units fronting onto Armstrong Street and wrapping around Garland Street. The townhouse units fronting onto Armstrong Street will be setback from the street, providing private front yards and at-grade amenity space in keeping with the residential character of the street.")

Some demolition took place last July and August of the buildings on Wellington. I'm not sure why there is a delay in the demolition of the Armstrong Street houses, but I believe the application to demolish was approved back in February, so it should happen any day. Thus bringing an end to the 123-year history of this unique Hintonburg building.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post and your recent Jane's Walk! More and more I'm grateful that you're documenting the history of our community and it's buildings, it seems to be disappearing so quickly!