Skyline: the early apartments of Centretown

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by Robert Smythe

Centretown has a rich legacy of apartment buildings, beginning in the early 1900s and reaching a stylish peak in the 1930s. Several major real estate developers were active in these years. Among them was Snear Miller (1879-1952), who came to Canada in 1902. After opening a boot-making shop at Somerset and Arthur Streets, he turned to property investment and built a number of the neighbourhood’s most distinctive apartment houses. Here are five that you may recognize, with quotations from some of the newspaper advertisements that promoted them to prospective renters.

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Of truly imposing appearance and possessing the latest and most approved fitments for home comfort is the magnificent Palace Court Apartments. (Ottawa Journal, September 8, 1928)

With a wide variety of sizes, some including sunrooms, each unit was finished with textured plaster walls, silvered hardware and electric fireplaces. There was a laundry and drying room in the basement. Dumbwaiters with call bells and corridor garbage chutes linked to an incinerator were available for added convenience.

As a sign of the times, Miller constructed a 25-car parking garage nearby. The building is now called the Annedale. The Palace Court Apartments was designed by architect Cecil Burgess in 1928.

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The Royal Court Apartments, originally known as the Palace Court Annex, was constructed by Snear Miller shortly after the Place Court and also designed by Burgess. Its 14 “airy and well-lighted apartments, with their wide corridors, handsome walls and attractive illumination fixtures” had proved to be very popular—according to the advertisements.

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The Val Cartier Apartments (25 units built at a cost of $80,000) were constructed in 1931 on the site of an empty excavation for a “high-class apartment,” which had fallen through a few years earlier. It was the beginning of the transformation of this end of Cartier from a street of grand houses into a stretch of apartment blocks which continued into the 1960s and 70s. With some art deco flourishes, the Val Cartier set the style and tone for Miller’s next four apartments. The Val Cartier Apartments were designed by architect Cecil Burgess in 1931.

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The latest additions to the Apartment House enterprises of Mr. S. Miller are the “Royal York” and the “Manhattan”… The individual suites, small or large, are uniform in design, roomy where room is needed, compact where compactness means less work and ease in housekeeping. (Ottawa Journal, September 12, 1935)

The two buildings were constructed on the site of the former Protestant Orphans’ Home. The Royal York had 24 units, with specially designated maids’ rooms in the basement. The Manhattan was larger, with 35 apartments. A cinder block parking garage once joined the apartment houses.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll of the kitchens featured the latest model of electric range, equipped with temperature registers and shaded lights, while the bathrooms were “models of what real bathrooms should be,” having large hand basins and bath tubs with built-in showers. “Both blocks of the building are the last word in exterior and interior design and finish—following the plain but massive style, now so much in vogue, while the balconies, doorways and windows are ‘neo-modernistic’, decidedly distinctive and notable for good taste and dignity.”

The Royal York and Manhattan Apartments were designed by architect W.E. Noffke in 1935.

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The Kincora combines the advantages of being within easy walking distance of the business part of the city, and at the same time situated in a residential district which has the quiet and coolness so greatly desired. (Ottawa Journal, September 6, 1938)

As well as the latest in kitchen appliances and bathroom fittings, each unit was wired for both long- and shortwave radio reception. As an added feature, Miller included clotheslines on the roof accessed by an enclosed iron staircase. The 40 apartments ranged from bachelors to two-bedrooms, with rents from $33-$75 a month. The Kincora Apartments was designed by architect Walter C. Sylvester in 1938.