Builder: Thomas McKay
Location: 62 - 64 John Street, Ottawa
The Fraser School House was originally constructed in 1837 by industrialist and founder of New Edinburgh Thomas McKay (1792-1855) as a semi-detached residence to house the workmen building his elegant family villa. Known locally at the time as “McKay’s Castle,” the villa, which he named Rideau Hall, later became the official residence of the Governor-General of Canada.
A stonemason by trade, Thomas McKay had built Montreal’s Lachine Canal when he and his partner John Redpath were recruited by Colonel John By in 1826 to construct the first eight locks of the Rideau Canal. Using his profits, McKay purchased 1,100 acres near Rideau Falls that he named New Edinburgh in honour of his native Scotland. By 1833 he had two sawmills, a gristmill and a cloth factory underway, along with housing for workers and their families.
With his villa complete in 1838, McKay repurposed the John Street building into a local school. On June 19, 1838, the Bytown Gazette advertised its opening for the teaching of “Reading and Elocution, French, Writing and Arithmetic, English Grammar and Geography.” The name Fraser School House is associated with its first teacher, James Fraser, who lived in one half of the semi-detached building, while the other half served as the classroom. After its closure in 1844, the school reverted to a double residence.
A modest 1 ½ storey structure with a medium pitched gable roof, dormers and end chimneys, the Fraser School House is reminiscent of early 19th-century rural houses in northern Scotland. The walls are of uncoursed rubble stone with thick over spread pointing of the joints. The principal elevation has centrally placed twin entrances reached by three steps and flanked by windows.
The Fraser School House was acquired by the National Capital Commission (NCC) in 1959 as part of a much larger land acquisition on the east side of Sussex Drive between MacKay Street and Stanley Avenue. The plan included the demolition of structures “considered to be inconsistent with the prominent buildings in the vicinity” and the creation of park space to complement Sussex Drive.
By 1966, the entire block of buildings bounded by John, Thomas and Alexander streets had been demolished, with the single exception of the Fraser School House. It had been identified by a 12-person committee of local historians established by the NCC in 1959 as a building that “should be preserved for future generations.”
Although still standing, it was in a state of disrepair, having been left vacant and boarded up since 1960. In March 1967, the NCC invested $9,000 in a much-needed facelift, demolishing a dilapidated rear annex, repointing the stone walls, installing period-correct doors, and applying a new roof of cedar shingles. (The attic dormers were removed at that time.) The interior was renovated and used as the district office for NCC landscaping crews.
In the 1970s, New Edinburgh was threatened when an elevated expressway connecting the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge and the Queensway was approved by the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton (RMOC). The proposed “Vanier Arterial” would follow an old CPR right-of-way along the bank of the Rideau River, running parallel to Crichton Street and Stanley Avenue before cutting through New Edinburgh Park (now called Stanley Park).
A 1971 letter written by R.A.J. (Bob) Phillips, Chair of the Heritage Committee (predecessor to Heritage Ottawa), to the RMOC, the Mayor, and Chair of the NCC, captured the issue best:
“We would urge, that in your consideration of the proposed Vanier Arterial you give weight to the serious effects such a roadway would have upon the character of New Edinburgh ... one of the few areas of the National Capital where our heritage is represented, not in one or two isolated buildings but in the atmosphere of a community.”
Although not directly impacted by the proposed arterial, the Fraser School House would have been severed from its original context as part of the Village of New Edinburgh.
The divisive plan was never fully realized. Negotiations with the NCC in 1973-74 resulted in the road being reclassified as a ground level parkway with no commercial traffic. Thanks to community pressure, the Vanier Parkway, as it is known today, ends at Beechwood Avenue.
The Fraser School House became Heritage Ottawa’s first official home in 1975. The ground floor was re-created as a schoolroom for exhibits, while the upper floor was retained as office space. The building’s dormer windows were restored in 1982.
In 1988, the the building was designated a Recognized Federal Heritage Building for its strong historical associations with the founding and early development of the Village of New Edinburgh.
The Fraser School House was leased by Sussex Capital Inc. in 1989 and continues to function as the company’s office. A rehabilitation and addition designed by Ottawa architect Richard Limmert in 1997 was awarded a City of Ottawa Certificate of Merit for Adaptive Reuse.
It remains a beloved landmark in New Edinburgh, and a reminder of the community’s earliest days.