Saturday, January 2, 2010

A History of the Jackson Building

At the corner of downtown Ottawa's Bank and Slater streets is a large but relatively unspectacular looking nine-storey office tower.

The Jackson Building, at 122 Bank Street, may not look like much, but its understated exterior belies its rich history. Fame, chaos, and controversy are all quietly tucked into the brick walls of these government offices.

The story begins, indirectly, in the mid 19th Century. Being newly chosen as capital of the United Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, Ottawa received many migrants, many of whom were Presbyterians. Ottawa's two Presbyterian churches lent a handful of members to found a new congregation, culminating in the opening of the Bank Street Presbyterian Church in 1868 at the corner of Bank and Slater streets. Here's a map of the area from 1878, with the Church grounds at centre-right:

You can see the spire of the church on the right in this early 1900's postcard of Bank Street looking South from Sparks:

By 1909, the church outgrew the building on the site and moved into Chalmers Presbyterian Church on O'Connor at Cooper (now Dominion-Chalmers United Church).

The Bank and Slater site made its way into the hands of lumber and railway baron J.R. Booth. Booth was erecting three buildings, starting with the Booth building near Sparks and O'Connor in 1910-11, the Transportation building at 10 Rideau in 1916-17, and finally the Jackson building in 1919-21. All three were designed, at least in part, by Ottawa architect John Albert Ewart, whose portfolio includes many prominent Ottawa buildings.

Booth named his 150,000 square foot ref building was named after his son, Jackson, who was also the Chair of the Ottawa Improvement Commissionref.

In its early days, the building was much more ornate than it is today. In this aerial view from 1926, the Jackson Building, in the centre of the photo, has clearly visible canopies shading the windows of the ground-floor merchants:

This photo, from the Greber report (illustration #64), shows the Jackson building's former glory in greater detail: Much like the 1928 Victoria Building (also designed by Ewart), its architecture was a melange or Elizabethan/Tudor and Jacobean Revival sometimes called "Jacobethan", with an alternating stone and brick banding called "streaky bacon".

The building had a number of tenants. For example, on February 27, 1924, the Canadian National Railway had launched radio station CKCH on 690 kHz, with a 200 foot antenna on the roof. The station would move to the Château Laurier in 1929, and through a series of rebrandings and changes of ownership eventually became the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Ottawa station, CBO, in October 1937.

Another occupant was the Postage Meter Company, which had offices at 336 Jackson Building in 1928.

Also in 1928, the Ottawa Photographic Section of the Royal Canadian Air Force moved from Elgin Cottage to the eighth floor of the Jackson Building, before moving to Rockcliffe in 1936. This is described in S. Bernard Shaw's book Photographing Canada from flying canoes:

The staff in 1929 consisted of two officers and 18 airmen, supplemented by seven civilian employees during the busy season. They processed 1,002 rolls of film sent in by the PDs during 1928, almost double the previous year's total of 645 rolls. From the 88,000 negatives, 180,000 prints were made for the Topographical Survey Branch and 18,000 for commercial concerns and private individuals. Fairchild Canada added another 4,015 photographs to the national inventory, which totalled 254,000 by 31 March. pp.117-118
Four National Archives photos accompany the description, including this interior shot of the Jackson Building:

In 1940, the Jackson Building was acquired by the Government of Canada, who used it for the RCAF's administration during the warref. The ground floor's retail units were converted to offices, as you can somewhat see in the background of this photo from the early 1950's:

Disaster Strikes

Across the street from the Jackson Building, at 248 Slater on the South side, was the building housing Addressograph-Multigraph of Canada Ltd. The Addressograph Corporation, a predecessor of the parent company of this one, was founded in 1896 by Joseph S. Duncan, and eventually went bankrupt in 1985 ref. Their namesake machines were the ancestors of the "mail merge" feature in today's computer office suites. Namely, they allowed a pre-printed form letter to be stamped rapidly on a page, with different address plates used on each imprint. Essentially, as this chronology of the company describes it, the technology enabled the first junk mail.

Shortly after 8 o'clock on the morning of Saturday, October 25, 1958, 65-year old janitor William J. Anderson detected an unusual smell in the basement of 248 Slater. At 8:17 a.m., when he turned on the basement light switch, he unwittingly ignited a pool of natural gas that had leaked in the basement.

As this detailed contemporary account describes, the damage was horrendous. The A-M building was obliterated, the 20 by 40 foot showroom window of neighbouring Myers Motors was shot through, as were windows for blocks around. Behind the A-M building, the Odeon Theatre on Bank Street was severely damaged, and a row of houses next to the Jackson Building were damaged beyond repair. Dozens were injured and dozens more left homeless. The blast was heard as far away as Ottawa's Britannia neighbourhood.

Some City Archives photos are reproduced in this scan of the back page of the February 1999 Centretown Buzz. In the top photo we see the rear corner of the Odeon Theatre, and in front of it a pile of rubble where the two-storey Addressograph-Multigraph building used to be. Myers Motors is visible in the lower-left corner of the top photo, and again in the photo on the bottom left. On the bottom right, we can see from inside the Odeon Theatre straight through to the Jackson building, which had lost all its exterior windows in the blast.1

Centretown Buzz Feb 1999 last page: A blast from the past- Kaboom- Slater St Explosion, 1958Anderson, who suffered third-degree burns over 70 percent of his body, survived long enough to tell his account, dying five days later.

If you exclude the 25 businesses--including the Odeon--which closed permanently following the blast, Anderson was the only fatality. Being a Saturday morning, most offices and businesses were closed, and hundreds of schoolchildren scheduled to watch cartoons at the Odeon next door had not yet arrived.

Five days after the blast, HRH Prince Phillip surveyed the damage, as shown in this photo from the City of Ottawa's entry on the blast:

Ottawa Citizen columnist Robert Sibley (who blogs here) wrote a good report on the incident and the ongoing investigation and controversy faced by Mayor Nelms following the incident in an article published on the eve of the thirtieth anniversary. If you have a valid Ottawa Public Library card and account, you can read it online here. (Bruce Ward's shorter 1998 article mistakes a photo of a neighbouring building for the Jackson building).

In short, the culprit was a gas leak from a decomissioned coal gas pipe that had recently been reactivated by the City for natural gas. The line feeding Addressograph-Multigraph's building was not being used by the company, and a block in the unused (and uncapped) pipe was gradually unblocked by the natural gas, which flooded the building, creating a ticking time bomb. The findings of a coroner's jury eventually became the basis for Ontario's regulation of natural gas distribution.

The blast had secondary consequences all over the city. As described by Jean Lunn in this article (PDF) in a 1982-1983 edition of Archivaria, the Jackson Building's federal government occupants were relocated to the wartime "temporary" buildings next to the Supreme Court. This delayed the removal of these buildings so that the National Library and Archives (which had long been seeking a permanent home) could construct their new building on the site. In the photo below taken from the 1950 Gréber report (Illustration #150), you can see the temporary buildings next to the supreme court at the lower-right of the photo. On the other side of the Supreme Court, tucked behind the Justice building, is the last temporary building, which is still standing.

Meanwhile, the Jackson building was still reparable, but would need a lot of work to return to a usable state.

The repair would eventually land on the desk of Ottawa architect James Strutt, the modernist architect who designed the terminal building at Ottawa's Uplands Airport (later renamed the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport), and who "played a mean boogie woogie on the piano."

Strutt died November 8, 2008 at age 84. The Globe and Mail's obituary, reproduced here, summarizes the problems with the repairs to the Jackson building:

His was a second attempt at repairing the place, and his problems began when the original drawings on which he based his work proved to be inaccurate. Preliminary repairs had botched the job and caused structural changes, then gone unrecorded on the blueprints.

To correct the problem, he authorized major engineering work that ended up costing a great deal more than was originally budgeted.

It was a bureaucratic nightmare," said his son. "Engineering teams went ahead and did the work and sent him the bills, but the government refused to pay."

Instead, Mr. Strutt was left to foot the lot. It was an unfortunate debacle, and he ended up declaring bankruptcy and closing his practice. Afterward, he decided to shift careers. In 1969, he took a teaching position in the architecture department at [Carleton] University. In 1977, he became the director, and retired in 1986.
Since reopening in 1969, the Jackson Building has continued to house numerous government departments, and is the leading contender as the potential site for the Ottawa Parole Office. Architecturally, it has fallen into obscurity. A Stimulus project was announced on October 1 to repair the brick building envelope (hence the scaffolding in the first photo), but this is unlikely to have any drastic effect on the building's appearance.

Now that you're caught up on the history, maybe the next time you look at that plain brown office building, you might see it in a new light.

Explore exterior views the Jackson Building in Microsoft Live Maps' Bird's Eye view or in Google Street View. Better yet, head on down to Bank and Slater and see it in person.


  1. Fantastic and fascinating post !

    I've gone by that building no doubt 1000s of times and I had no idea it has such a storied past.

    Thank you !

  2. I work there - I wish our offices look as good as some of those in the early photos.

    Tank you for an informative article.

  3. I've known people who've worked in the Jackson Building and have passed by it countless times. I had no idea about its history! Thanks for posting these Ottawa histories -- really enjoying them.

  4. I lived on Slater Street behind the Jackson Building during WW2 years. I remember it has a small shopping mall/concourse at the entrance on Bank St. I seem to remember a news agent/tobacconist, pharmacy/lunch counter amongst the stores. After WW2 and before the blast an addition was built on the Slater St. side of the building.

  5. I started working in the Jackson Bldg on June 3rd, 1963.
    At one point I was the chief of assessing and had about 60
    persons working with me and occupying about half the first floor of 122 Bank Street.
    Reading the history brought back many memories.