Published in the Montreal Gazette on August 17, 2015
It seems that hardly a day goes by without yet another unearthing of something attesting to the strong and vibrant English-speaking presence that once existed in Montreal. More often than not, this occurrence comes in the form of an aged building suddenly baring one aspect of its colourful past.
For a little over two decades, the abandoned grey-stone structure on St – Jacques, near McGill Street, that once housed the Ottawa Hotel has fascinated me. I am not certain why but I suppose I figure any man-made creation that can withstand the elements – and man himself – for 170 years is worthy of respect.
For those who might not know ‘The Ottawa’ was one of the city’s major hotels during the middle of the nineteenth century. Its principal competition was the St. Lawrence Hall, which was located only a few blocks away.
Erected in 1845, The Ottawa’s glory years were just before and just after the Confederation of 1867. Through its doors entered many an important guest, perhaps the most celebrated being Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’, who lodged there with her husband in 1869, while the couple was in town visiting Montreal’s iconic nineteenth century churches.
The illustrious auberge closed around 1881, mostly because of stiff competition from the palatial Windsor Hotel that opened only three years earlier on Dominion Square. For the next century the edifice housing the old Ottawa was used by various enterprises, particularly the storey found at street level. However, for most of the twenty-first century the entire building has been derelict.
As I walked by the evocative edifice this morning, I stopped and studied for a moment the condo conversion work currently being undertaken. Much of the structure has been gutted, yet I couldn’t help but notice that some letters, hidden surely since the hotel’s closing in 1881, could be distinguished above what was once the main entrance to the historic inn. Ever so faint, yet still partially visible, they read: ‘Ottawa Hotel, S. Browning’. The latter was a reference to the owner and manager of the facility, Samuel Browning, an American-born hotelkeeper who made his livelihood and favourable reputation in Victorian Montreal.
These pale remnants of a now long forgotten town hotel contrast sharply with those discovered recently elsewhere in the city. I refer, of course, to the uncovering of the Northeastern Lunch mosaic sign on St. Catherine Street East, at St. Timothée. (“Salvaged sign adds to Montreal’s mystique,” Gazette, July 20, 2015, A-15)
For the longest time, like the Ottawa Hotel, the better part of that dated marker was entirely hidden from view by various types of construction materials. That is to say, until a few years ago when a corner of the casing fell off, exposing the commercial sign’s last two letters – CH.
As a local historian always on the lookout for city fine points and potential stories, I noticed quite quickly the unexpected, yet very partial exposure of the sign’s long hidden secret. I consulted on-line Montreal’s Lovell Street Directories to determine the complete name of the business concern in question. My research took me back to the year 1914 when this particular Northeastern Lunch first made its appearance at this location. It was the fourth such eatery in the city.
My suspicion is that not just the lunch counter but rather the entire building dates from 1914, which means that both the structure, and its vintage sign, are over a century old.
It strikes me that when a civic entity – be it, for instance, a building or a street name – reaches that venerable age, it should be deserving of a little patrimonial consideration. That is why I am happy to read that the Northeastern Lunch sign will be incorporated in one way or another into the new edifice to be erected on the site.
Below, Ottawa Hotel (centre), circa 1874
As for those old Ottawa Hotel markings, I suspect it’s unfortunately much too late.