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June 24, 2014

Christopher Ryan: An Armed Presence in Midtown (The London Arms on Metcalfe)

A regular feature by Christopher Ryan, a local photographer, blogger and researcher.

The rounded entrance is one of the distinctive features of the London Arms on Metcalfe. Image: September 2013.

As I’ve written of in the past, Centretown underwent something of a construction boom during the Depression. Of course, the specific definition of Centretown wasn’t yet established at that point, nor was the term even in usage (it would begin being used around the 1950s). Though a tempting thought, the names and definitions of a city’s neighbourhoods are not static and are often the creation of the real estate interests therein.

Of course, to make things clear, the London Arms is not actually situated in Centretown. Being on the north side of Gloucester at Metcalfe, it actually falls in the Downtown area. As we’ll see, however, that wasn’t always the case either. 

Gloucester at Metcalfe, looking east (n.d. though most likely  c. 1938-9). Shenkman’s Midtown Apartments / London Arms is seen to the left. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

In the spring of 1938, J. Harold Shenkman purchased the lot at the north east corner of Metcalfe and Gloucester Streets along with the three lots eastward along Gloucester from the Toronto General Trusts Corporation for $12,000. On March 2 of that year, it was announced that he had planned to construct a 36-unit three storey apartment house at a cost of $135,000. Within six weeks of the announcement, it was announced that it had grown to a six-storey building with 70 units and parking in the basement. A rooftop terrace and a number of amenities rounded out the list. It was to be named the Mid-Town Apartments because it was located in what was then known as the Midtown area of Ottawa. Obviously, few, if any identify that area to be Midtown today.

Scientifically-designed kitchens to enhance labour saving. Source: Ottawa Journal, September 10, 1938.

By the time it had actually been constructed, the building was four storeys with 48 units. The Midtown Apartments were made available to rent for October 1, meaning that the entire project went from announcement to completion in approximately seven months. Although it wasn’t mentioned in the Journal, the architects on the project were John B. Roper and Henry J. Morin, who were better known for their grand housing designs in in tony areas like Rockcliffe and Island Park than they were for apartment houses.

"The doorway is hospitably wide and its large plate glass windows reveal the charming entrance hall and the wide main corridor with their Terrazzo floors and distinct indirect lighting." Image: September 2013.

It was almost immediately that the Midtown Apartments were rechristened the London Arms. The change wasn’t made with any fanfare, explanation, or an announcement, though classified ads began to identify it as such. As with most of these apartments, a somewhat more bourgeois crowd was attracted to the building, including some foreign officials. 

By the 1960s, the Arms came to have a bit more of a use mix. Source: Ottawa Journal, December 29, 1961.

Before the London Arms was constructed, visitors to the corner of Metcalfe and Gloucester came with their dancing shoes rather than a diplomatic passport. For nearly 50 years before it was home, it was the location of the Racquet Court, which was best known as the place to learn how to dance.

Learn the Charleston at the Racquet Court. Source: Ottawa Journal, August 3, 1925.

As popular as it was, it appears that the elements conspired against it. Originally constructed as a squash court somewhere between 1879 and 1881, it had been operated by Mr. Christopher MacGregor as a dance instruction studio since at least 1882. It was situated alongside the old YWCA, which has been nicely documented by the Midcentury Modernist. The Racquet Court may be seen at the right side of the second image. Following MacGregor’s passing, instruction was taken over MacGregor’s widow in F.H. Sinclair.

In the foreground of this photograph, taken in 1894, is the original YWCA building at the corner of Metcalfe and Laurier. You can see the Racquet Court, its older neighbour, is visible adjacent to it on the right. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

In 1927, fire broke out in the hall itself, closing the school for good. In 1928, another fire broke out, this time in the basement, just one week after MacGregor’s widow had relocated to Toronto. It was at that point noted to be owned by Toronto General Trust.

Finally, in 1931, additional more suspicious fires broke out in the then vacant building, which was subsequently torn down. Though plans were made to use the corner for a service station in 1937, they was never implemented and Shenkman was able to acquire the lot. Doubtlessly, the corner would be quite different today had a service station been constructed rather than the apartment which stands at the corner today. 

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

See also: Ottawa History Guide

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