Published in the Westmount Examiner on May 22, 2009.
Standing almost hauntingly on the south side of St. Jacques Street just east of McGill are the remains of the old Ottawa Hotel, a venerable auberge from this city’s picturesque past. Most Montrealers, whose daily grind takes them within the vicinity of the timeworn edifice, are totally unaware of its bewitching tale. In the very sight of its Victorian exterior, pedestrians march by it hurriedly. We shouldn’t.
Montreal was still the colonial capital of Canada when the Ottawa was constructed in 1845, eventually eclipsing an older guest house of the same name. Situated on what was then known as Great St. James Street, the new hotel rivalled the best that the city had to offer at the time, including the acclaimed St. Lawrence Hall located only blocks away. Its
comparatively simple neo-classical facade was made of limestone while the interior was exceedingly rich in frescoes and other decorative features. According to advertisements from the period, the brand new facility was considered innovative with every floor in the five-storey building possessing hot and cold water baths.
In its heyday, just after Confederation, the celebrated inn accommodated notable politicians, businessmen, actors and actresses from all across North America, as well as many from Europe. When the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865, thousands of Americans renewed their acquaintance with this city and its splendid hotels. The poet Bret Harte, Pasquale Brignoli (the famous silver tongued tenor), Hugo Charles Rignold, British actresses Mary Frances Scott-Siddons and Adelaide Neilson, and the New Orleans – born prima donna Minnie Hanck were just some of the stage favourites of the day who spent time at the flourishing Ottawa Hotel. Indeed, Samuel Browning, the proprietor and manager of the successful establishment, was considered to have been one of Montreal’s most eminent hoteliers of his time.
All in all, perhaps the most important individual to sojourn at Browning’s hotel was the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Beecher and her husband (a professor of theology) lodged at the illustrious auberge in the spring of 1869, using it as a base to visit several of Montreal’s notable churches. The nightly tariff for a room was $2.50 in the fledgling currency of the day.
During the 1870’s, its kitchen was considered one of the best in Montreal and it was not uncommon to meet many a celebrity within its dining room, as the Ottawa became increasingly renowned for its splendid cuisine and fine wines along with its well – appointed rooms. It was said that its dining hall could accommodate as many as 500 patrons at each sitting. Later in time, its bar also became regularly frequented by thirsty Montrealers.
In addition, the St. James Street inn became the first in Canada to adopt the European plan for its lodgers, which, as a result, brought in a great number of British commercial travellers as well.
The guest house was closed around 1881 and the structure was rented out for stores and offices. Amazingly, however, nearly 130 years after its termination, the physical evidence of the hotel’s existence still can be easily appreciated within the edifice, including the staircase upon which so many prestigious visitors to early Victorian Montreal walked all those years ago.
In its golden age, the Ottawa Hotel bristled with life and energy in a still youthful yet sophisticated Montreal. Today, the near forsaken building is but a shadow of its great past; nevertheless, with a little fancy, it will again whisper its harmless ghost stories to those willing to heed its colourful chronicle.