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February 07, 2014

Christopher Ryan: The Somerset Towers - “Especially Designed to Meet the Needs of Ottawa’s Own Mystique”

A weekly feature by Christopher Ryan, a local photographer, blogger and researcher. It appears every Friday on our blog.

This week's post about the Somerset Towers Apartments on Carling (beside Carlingwood). I was attracted to it for photographing because it the twin towers' round design, but stuck with it when I learned that it was constructed by a mining company looking to make a play into residential construction. The special part was that the mining company was Buffalo Ankerite, whose fortune was made in my hometown.

Somerset Towers, west tower. September 2013.

It can be difficult to overstate the impact of the postwar housing boom. Thanks to a perfect storm of a shortage in housing, a hot economy, and all levels of government implementing policies to alleviate that shortage, countless fortunes were made in residential construction. With the potential payoff so large, numerous entrants made their appearance. One of these new entrants was a little late to the party, but managed to capture plenty of attention with its aggressive advertising campaign. Furthermore, this builder has a link to my own hometown of South Porcupine, Ontario.

The Romfield Building Corporation stormed on to the Ottawa scene with multiple full-page ads in the local papers. Source: Ottawa Journal, Spetember 4, 1964.

Unless you were paying attention to the business pages and to the strategies of Canadian mining companies, it would seem that Romfield came out of nowhere and their claims to a “tradition of elegance” would be highly suspect. The Romfield Building Corporation was, in actuality, an attempt by Buffalo Ankerite Holdings, a mining company, to break into a new market. Buffalo Ankerite had been operating in Deloro Township (in the Porcupine Camp) since 1923. The mine which bore the same name had halted production in 1953 and winding down the operation took another decade.

It was with this sort of tower (No. 5 Headframe) that Buffalo Ankerite made its fortune. Source: Lexam VG Gold Inc.

Romberg and Donnenfield combined for Romfield. Source: Montreal Gazette, December 18, 1962.

In December 1962, the Montreal Gazette reported that Buffalo Ankerite Holdings had called a special shareholder meeting to gain the authorization to enter the residential construction field. The form this took was their purchase of a consortium of twenty smaller private building companies. The name Romfield was a portmanteau of the names of the participants in the deal.

Somerset Towers, east tower. Today, the site comes with a full set of trees. September 2013.

With shareholder assent given, Romfield quickly got to work. With sites already complete or underway in Toronto, North York, Mississauga, and Montreal, the new builder moved into the Ottawa market. In January of 1964, the Journal reported that Romfield was set to begin construction of two curved apartment towers on their site at Carling and Iroquois, next to the Carlingwood Mall.

At five million dollars, the Somerset Towers was a reasonably significant project. Source: Ottawa Journal, January 29, 1964.

Comparison of the site: 1958 to 1965. Carlingwood Mall is to the left. Source: geoOttawa.

"Ottawa's Newest, Most Luxurious Apartment Residence." Source: Ottawa Journal, September 30, 1964

From the ad copy, it appears that Romfield spared no expense in its attempts to lure would-be renters to their apartments. Promises of luxurious living, a doorman, pool, saunas, modern kitchens, and model units designed by local interior designer Gordon Burrows, all indicate that Romfield was making its attempt to be noticed in a crowded market.

"Romfield Building Corporation has enhanced the skylines of Montreal and Toronto and now takes pride in its latest success especially designed to meet the needs of Ottawa's own mystique." Source: Ottawa Journal, March 31, 1966.

Romfield sold the complex to an insurance company but declined to identify which one. Interestingly, Romfield's name remained associated with the apartment in ads until 1967. Source: Ottawa Journal, September 2, 1965.

From the quick sale (one year from grand opening to the announcement) came a highly profitable year for Romfield. Unfortunately, it appears that perhaps volatility in its other industry: mining, would bring trouble to the organization.

Although it was denied flatly by Romberg, it appeared that trouble was beginning to sneak up on the mining company. Source: Ottawa Citizen, February 2, 1967.

The other end of 1967 looked somewhat different. Source: Globe and Mail, December 11, 1967.

In the December 11, 1967 issue of the Globe and Mail, a small notice of a meeting under the Bankruptcy Act was published. Two years later, the Ontario Securities Commission ordered a temporary trading ban on Romfield’s shares for certain inconsistencies. The company appears to have been able to regroup and refocus on mining and exploration into the late 1990s. Although Romfield left residential development as quickly as it came, thousands continue to call their projects home to this day.

The setting of Somerset Towers can be downright verdant. September 2013.

-- Original photos & text by Christopher Ryan.
(See more on our blog from Christopher...)

See also: Ottawa Apartments Guide
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