By Curtis Wolfe
Stories passed on from former residents of 53-55 St. Andrew tell of a romance between a French Canadian and an Irish Catholic couple who constructed the building, bringing together two settling peoples in Lowertown among divisive 19th-century language and religious tensions.
Details of the potential romance remain uncertain, but historical records show that John and Ann McGillivray owned the lot where 53-55 St. Andrew sits from at least 1861. John was Presbyterian of Scottish heritage born in what is now Quebec, and Ann was a Catholic from Ireland.
John and Ann may have married in 1835 and they had at least one adopted daughter, Mary-Ann (perhaps Marie-Anne), born in 1851. She was recorded as a French Canadian of “unsound mind” in the 1871 census. John and Ann may have taken her in for additional domestic help or for charitable reasons.
While not quite the same background as the married couple in the rumored romance, John and Ann’s household reflected a large part of the diversity of early Bytown.
The current building at 53-55 St. Andrew can be dated to 1849, making it among the older existing historic buildings in Lowertown. Its symmetrical façade, gable roof and minimal decorations are details common in Georgian houses, a popular style with Upper Canada builders in the early-to-mid 19th century.
The McGillivrays ran 53-55 as a hotel and tavern, as well as a boarding house for longer-term occupants until about 1877, when they opened a grocery on the main floor. This made it a rare midblock business in Lowertown.
While it may seem like an unlikely spot for a business, the McGillivrays’ hotel and others in the vicinity probably benefited from ferry passengers and raftsmen from the nearby riverfront wharves. Several lumber and transportation companies had workplaces near the riverfront in Lowertown. The now-demolished Goulden’s Hotel at Sussex and Bruyère, on the site of the Embassy of Kuwait, was another such hotel in the immediate area.
According to records, John’s occupation varied throughout the years. He was at times a hotel keeper, a hunter or a labourer. If it is the same person, he was also listed as a lock master on the Rideau Canal between 1872 and 1900. In 1878, Ann was listed as the only resident at 53-55, as John possibly worked outside the city while she ran the business. (His name reappears in city directories by 1880.)
John died in 1881 or 1882. Ann kept the property until 1887, when she sold it to Jacob (Icaobe) Coursolle. (See “49-51 St. Andrew: Another Lowertown Story” published in the February 2023 edition of the Echo for information on Coursolle.) Jacob continued the grocery store for several years.
When he closed shop, subsequent owners of 53-55 and 49-51 often lived in 53 or 55 and rented out the other units. For example, in 1903 ownership changed when Jacob Coursolle sold these two buildings to Wilfrid Charlebois, who took up residence in 53. Wilfrid began his career in the late 1880s as a carpenter but spent the majority of his career as a building superintendent at the Ottawa Separate (Catholic) School Board.
Living with him, Wilfrid’s adult son Edgar Charlebois also worked as a carpenter. In 1906 the Ottawa Citizen reported Edgar was building a tower on the West Block when it began to collapse. He escaped injury by jumping off a ladder.
By the 1990s, the building’s condition had deteriorated and it was a known site for drug use and illegal activities. International real estate advisor Patrick Smith and contractor Raymond Ethier restored and modernized the property in 1999. Their work was recognized in a full-page feature in the Ottawa Citizen’s Homes section.
The renovations included converting eight small hotel rooms in the attic into larger, more accommodating spaces. When removing the aluminium exterior, they discovered wooden board siding that had been scored to look like stone blocks. At the time, city heritage staff thought it likely was the only example of such wooden scoring in the city.