36. The Woolworth and Kresge Buildings

Construction: 1929 | 1941

Demolished: 1997

Architect: Garnet Andrew McElroy (1897-1986)

Location: 180 Sparks Street | 172 Sparks Street, Ottawa

 

In December 1928, the S.S. Kresge Co. of New York purchased the buildings from 172 to 182 Sparks Street from Famous Players Canadian Corporation, after its plans to build a movie theatre there failed. The existing buildings at numbers 178-182, dating to 1875, were demolished to make way for a new discount department store.  Garnet Andrew McElroy of Windsor, Ontario, the S.S. Kresge Company staff architect, designed the new two-storey building.

The S.S. Kresge store opened on October 10, 1929. Spacious display windows were complemented by an exterior facing of local limestone and a granite base. The flatness of the corner piers, pilasters, and the reduced entablature and cornice on the second floor were all characteristic of the Modern Classical style. The store featured the characteristic red-coloured S.S. Kresge signage advertising articles “from 5¢ to 25¢”.

In 1940 and 1941, the F.W. Woolworth Company purchased the buildings at 168, 170 and 172-176 Sparks Street along with vacant land fronting on Queen Street. for construction of a new two-storey department store extending from Sparks Street through to Queen Street. The store opened on October 16, 1941.

The second storey of Woolworth's front elevation on Sparks Street included finely worked limestone cladding ornamented with stylized, low relief sculptural motifs, fluted pilasters, stepped cornice and steel casement windows, all characteristic of the Art Deco style. The 180-foot-long lunch counter was, at the time, believed to be the longest straight-line counter of its kind in Canada.

In February 1957 Reitman’s (Canada) Limited, a chain of women’s clothing stores, purchased the S.S. Kresge building on Sparks Street and reopened it as Reitman’s.

The first threat to the Kresge/Reitman’s and Woolworth buildings came in 1987 when both retail operations closed, possibly due to anticipated business disruptions relating to construction of a major upgrade to the Sparks Street Mall scheduled for that year. Faced with two boarded-up buildings on a newly refurbished mall, Mayor Jim Durrell and a pro-development City Council called upon international real estate developer Seltzer Organization of Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, to submit a proposal for the site.

In 1988, Seltzer proposed a $75 million, 14-storey office complex designed in a Postmodern style.

Concerned about the potential negative impact on one of Ottawa’s most historic commercial streetscapes, Heritage Ottawa and three other organizations made presentations to City Council, opposing the development on grounds that it violated a 1981 bylaw restricting construction on the south side of the Sparks Street Mall to a 13.7-metre height limit and a 26-degree sun angle.

The development proposal, as well as further iterations of the scheme, were rejected by Ottawa’s Planning Committee.

With support from Heritage Ottawa, the designations of the F.W. Woolworth and Reitman’s buildings under the Ontario Heritage Act was approved by Ottawa City Council on October 4, 1996. The following year, in complete disregard of the heritage designations, the Bank of Nova Scotia, the owners of the site, requested and received a demolition permit for both buildings in order to “put up a parking lot.”

Carolyn Quinn, then President of Heritage Ottawa, wrote of the loss in Ottawa: A Guide to Heritage Structures:

“… these buildings reflected the long-standing significance of Sparks Street as a diversified retail and commercial focus of Ottawa...”.

In 1998, an application for Site Plan Control for an 11-storey office/retail complex with a 38-degree sun angle was made. Although the building envelope conformed to a 1983 amendment to the bylaw, the City deferred its decision until a "Central Area West" Heritage Conservation District Study was completed in 1999.

The resulting designation of the Sparks Street Heritage Conservation District (HCD) in 2000 required that a new development proposal be submitted. The new application met the requirements of the new HCD and the bylaw governing the sun angle — but also included the demolition of 184-186 and 190 Sparks Street. The application was approved in June 2001.

The site of the former Kresge/Reitman’s and Woolworth stores is now owned by Morguard Investments, and is occupied by the CBC Ottawa Broadcast Centre. The new building, designed by DCYSA Architects of Montreal, was completed in March 2004.