150 Elgin Street--or Grant House, as it is formally known--was built in 1875 for member of parliament Sir James Grant, "a prominent physician" according to the heritage plaque on its front wall. The plaque also observes that "this house recalls the former residential character of Elgin Street."
At some point, the building was purchased for the University of Ottawa's University Club, which as early as 1930 was eyeing fresher digs.
In the 1970's, the house was threatened with demolition as part of the plans for the Downtown Distributor, a megaproject to create a 17-lane east-west expressway through downtown in the blocks between Laurier and Gloucester avenues. Ironically, the Distributor project saved the building, as the City expropriated the building from the Club in 1966, as its only legal option to prevent developer Bill Teron (known now for founding Kanata) from building a 14-storey tower on the site. Had the tower been built, the City's bill to expropriate and demolish it for the Distributor would have been much more expensive than for the existing building. The Club had been thinking about a new location .
Evidently, the City-owned house sat vacant for five years, as it was reported in the January 24, 1971 issue of the Centretown News (before the paper passed hands from the community to Carleton University's journalism department) that the house to be demolished to make way for more parking. Since the house would be demolished in a few years for the Distributor, why not use it to expand the lucrative parking venture in the neighbouring lot?
In the March 7 issue, Centretown News readers objected to the demolition proposal, and supported the proposal by the Mayor's Committee on Youth to use the building as a 60-bed youth hostel. This community outcry, in partnership with Alderman Mike Cassidy, saved Grant House from demolition.
As we now know, neither the hostel plan nor the Distributor came to pass (the hostel idea would later come to fruition in the Nicholas Street Gaol, another building on the Haunted Walks tour), and Grant House would be turned into Friday's Roast Beef House by restauranteur Ken Dolan for a 37-year run from 1972 to 2009. The restaurant closed in 2009 after an 80% rent increase in 2003 combined with a 25% decrease in sales that didn't pick up after a regular seasonal lull. Even those who didn't visit the restaurant were familiar with the greeter in Victorian coat and tricorne hat who stood in the doorway cheerily bowing to passersby.
But after September 2009, the house sat empty.
The rights to the Friday's name were bought by Moishe Smith of Prime 360 on Laurier. Smith balked at the asking price for rent on Grant House, and instead brought the restaurant to Somerset Village, at 343 Somerset Street West. The revived Friday's opened in March. [Edit: it subsequently closed. Burgers on Main opened in early 2012 at 343 Somerset
Then, earlier this year, plans for a $2M renovation were announced to turn Grant House into a high-end steak and seafood restaurant, by Marisol Simoes and husband Zadek Ramowski. The two own and operate two trendy restaurants in the Byward Market.
The renovations are now underway, beginning with new windows and a fresh coat of paint for the old Victorian manor:
The block had been sold by the City of Ottawa to Morguard, which had earlier planned to build an office tower with the Ottawa Concert Hall at the ground level (retaining Grant House untouched). However, those plans have stalled when the Friends of the Concert Hall couldn't raise enough funds to match the municipal, provincial and federal contributions.
The house stands as a monument to Centretown's residential heritage in a district that is now filled with large commercial and institutional buildings. We should be greatful to the Centretowners who spoke up in 1971 to keep this house from being lost forever. Their effort is reminiscent of the current Rescue Bronson initiative, a team effort of the CCCA, DCA, CCOC and Councillor Diane Holmes. Rescue Bronson seeks to prevent the City's plans to widen Bronson Avenue, and reconfigure the section north of Gladstone Avenue to a three-lane arrangement that will carry the same traffic but allow more space for the residences and pedestrians who walk along the street. This would help rescue Bronson Avenue from the car-centric style of road planning that gave us the Downtown Distributor and breathe new life into what is officially a gateway corridor.
Rescue Bronson is holding a public meeting tonight at 7pm at McNabb Community Centre. Visit RescueBronson.ca for more information and to sign the online petition to Rescue Bronson Avenue.