The Capital Builders: How Mackenzie King and Gréber made the modern city

City employees work on a model of central Ottawa for the Federal District Commission ( later to become the National Capital Commission ) circa 1950. Image via Ottawa Citizen.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

OTTAWA CITIZEN, By David Reevely

As rumours of war grew in Europe in 1937, Paris hosted a grand exhibition. In the shadow of the great pavilions of the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life, the partnership that built the Ottawa of the 20th century was born.

The great powers menaced each other across the grounds on either side of the Eiffel Tower, itself a relic of the World’s Fair in 1889. The Nazi pavilion featured a tower capped by an eagle clutching a swastika, ready to battle international communism; the Soviet pavilion facing it was topped by a sculpture of a worker with a hammer and a rural peasant with a sickle, charging together toward the future — and toward the Germans.

For a spot between them, the Canadians built a pavilion that looked like grain silos. It included a 28-ft. sculpture of a bison by artist Joseph-Émile Brunet, who created the statue of Sir Wilfrid Laurier now on Parliament Hill and the one of John By in Major’s Hill Park.

Our prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, was a francophile — a protégé of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s as a young labour expert in the federal bureaucracy, who went on to live in Laurier’s Sandy Hill house — and he loved Paris. He took the opportunity to visit for the exhibition more than once.

“He went before it opened and as prime minister he was given a tour because Canada had a pavilion there,” says David Jeanes, the president of Heritage Ottawa. “The only person on the conference architectural team who could speak English was Jacques Gréber, and so he was assigned to take Mackenzie King around the Paris exhibition.”

Gréber was the expo’s master architect and had an unusual trans-Atlantic perspective. Twenty years before, he’d worked in Philadelphia with franco-American designer Paul Cret, planning the wide angular Benjamin Franklin Parkway between City Hall and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When Rocky Balboa sprints up the street to the museum steps in the classic movie scene where he trains for his big fight, he’s running on Gréber’s boulevard.

In 1920, Gréber had even written a book on North American urban planning for a European audience, including extensive references to Ottawa and a 1915 master plan that was unique in Canada at the time.

Mackenzie King, who’d lived in Ottawa since 1900 and was a diligent student of its architecture — one of his many fixations — was enraptured by Gréber’s ideas for covering rail lines, hiding them under parkland.

“If I can get the Cabinet to agree to the expense, I shall press it forward, but I doubt if they will have the imagination to see (what) it would make of Ottawa as a beautiful Capital,” the prime minister lamented to his diary on the day he and Gréber met in October 1936.

But he saw other possibilities. Mackenzie King had a particular fascination for Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe, which he’d first seen in 1901. Every time he visited the French capital, he’d admire the great archway in Place de l’Étoile, anchoring one end of the Champs Élysées. The expansive Place de la Concorde is at the other.

“Mackenzie King brought (Gréber) back to Ottawa to work on his pet project, which was the war memorial,” Jeanes says.

The memorial already had more than a decade of work behind it and The Response, the sculpture of the infantrymen responding to the call to battle, had been ready for five years. Indecision over where the thing should go was paralyzing progress.

Together, Mackenzie King and Gréber settled on the final location at the north end of Elgin Street. Together, they decided the memorial should face south, rather than east as had been proposed. Together, they decided to open the site up.

“Elgin was a pretty narrow, minor street, but Gréber decided that all the buildings on the east side of Elgin should be torn down,” Jeanes says. That included City Hall, which was where the National Arts Centre is now.

The demolition would widen Elgin into a tree-lined boulevard as far south as Laurier Avenue. A new bridge would cross the Rideau Canal and the tracks along it. Together, all this would create Confederation Square and place the War Memorial sculpture into a great stone arch in the middle of a road circle, like Paris’s.

One morning in August 1937, the prime minister presented the scheme to his close friend, Joan Patteson.“She is the first to know, & of my joy in it all,” Mackenzie King wrote in his diary. “I doubt too if she or anyone can see what I see & feel in my Champs Élysées, Arc de Triomphe & Place de la Concorde.”

Later that day he spent two hours presenting the plan to a group of ministers, mayor Stanley Lewis and Ottawa councillors.

“It seemed to catch the fancy of all, especially as I went on to speak of a bridge over the tracks along Albert St. — the Mayor & Aldermen seemed most concerned with traffic problems. They shied at the thought of car tracks having to go, etc.,” Mackenzie King recorded. Plus ça change.

If the city resisted, Mackenzie King warned, he’d leave the sculpture boxed up and the memorial unbuilt, and focus federal energy on other things.The cenotaph was completed just over a year later. George VI dedicated it in May 1939, months before the Germans and Soviets invaded Poland.

The new war interrupted the Mackenzie King-Gréber collaboration but once Canada was at peace again, Mackenzie King commissioned Gréber for a broader reimagining of the capital.

“He wanted to follow through on some new ideas — and current ideas, then — in urban planning,” says Leslie Maitland, Jeanes’s predecessor (as President of Heritage Ottawa) and a heritage expert herself. “Things like the removal of rail lines and industry from urban cores.”

The train lines that crisscrossed the city had to go, and they did — not only was Union Station closed, but great freight yards and roundhouses disappeared from the shores of Dow’s Lake, the bend of the Rideau Canal in Ottawa East, and LeBreton Flats.

“We’re talking about steam trains, so rail was dirty, it was smelly, it was loud, it was dangerous,” Maitland says. Something like 100 level crossings impeded traffic and pedestrians. Many were happy to see rail run out of the city, and the industries along the tracks mostly went with it. “This freed up vast tracts of land for other purposes.”

Those purposes include not just the ribbons of green along the capital’s waterways but the Rideau Centre and much of the University of Ottawa, Commissioners Park and southern Preston Street. Deindustrializing the banks of the Rideau Canal made the modern skateway possible, Maitland says, something Gréber never foresaw.

Streetcar wires that (in Gréber’s view) throttled the downtown core came down. Rail lines gave way to parkways and highways, including the Grand Trunk Railway across the city that became Highway 417.

Only part of Gréber’s parkway network was built and even that didn’t all go to his specifications.

“Gréber was planning that the Queensway would be a tree-lined boulevard across town,” Jeanes says. “He wasn’t planning a sterile freeway. He didn’t really understand freeways. Gréber never understood that a city could not survive without delivery of goods. So that to some extent, he was enamoured of the automobile, but in the early days of the auto before it had become a scourge.”A vast civil-service complex between the Supreme Court and LeBreton Flats was abandoned. The Greenbelt he imagined would hem in sprawl worked for a long time, but the communities that grew outside it are not the self-contained towns he imagined would eventually form. Widening streets for easy motoring meant cutting down long lines of leafy trees, which Maitland says Gréber regretted.

Neither man got to see the results. Mackenzie King died in 1950, just as the plan was completed. Gréber died at home in France in 1962. The trains still ran along the canal then, the Queensway was half-built, the LeBreton Flats expropriations were just beginning.

Jeanes is personally fascinated with the vast effort involved in building the rail lines outside Ottawa that replaced the ones downtown. Like many, he wishes that passenger trains had been allowed to continue serving downtown instead of being moved out to Alta Vista. So does Maitland.

“Toronto and Montreal have their downtown rail lines and they have commuter rail right into the city from their distant suburbs. We’re having to rebuild that from scratch,” she says. The waterfront parkways leave little room for traditional park uses, such as baseball diamonds. We’re only now doing things like adding pedestrian crossings to make the pathways more reachable.

Whatever their plan’s flaws, though, and whatever was left undone, we’re living in the city Gréber and Mackenzie King made for us.