Tour sparks focus on heritage

By Elayne Duggan

During a guided tour, visitors to Sparks Street Mall can now hear about the life and shooting-death of D’Arcy McGee, a father of confederation, — as it happened on that street in 1868. The tour is a way of promoting Ottawa’s history, while at the same time attracting locals to the commercial district.

“We have thousands of workers in this area that are on the mall every day at lunch hour. This is what keeps the businesses going, but we want the locals to come down and shop here on the weekends, so Saturdays we’re having the tours,” says mall manager Peter Harris.

As part of the Sparks Street Heritage Program, the tour began on Sept.5, and will continue every Saturday at 2 p.m. until the end of October. Along the way, tour-goers meet up with D’Arcy McGee, as played by local actor, Eric Paul Parent, and Nicholas Sparks, played by Jordan Hancey, who provide an account of Canada and the Ottawa region in their infancy, and the contribution each made to the growth of the nation.

“People say there’s nothing going on on Sparks Street. Maybe not after five o’clock— although I’m trying to change that — but from nine to five, Monday to Friday, there’s more going on on Sparks Street than anywhere else in the city,” says Harris.

A description is given of 30 or so buildings along Sparks Street, such as the Bank of Montreal at 144 Wellington St., once part of Banker’s Row. The Montreal Telegraph building at 83 Sparks St. is also featured and dates back to 1870. In addition to learning the dates of such buildings, visitors of the tour will hear about the buildings’ historical significance, and also about the architects who designed them.

The tour comes subsequent to a study of the 30 buildings by the City of Ottawa. The $46,000 Central Area West Heritage Study, which began two years ago, includes the first three blocks of Sparks Street from Elgin to Bank, as well as the entire central area west.

As of yet, Sparks Street is not classified as a heritage district. However, one of the preliminary recommendations of the study is that Sparks Street from Elgin to Bank should be awarded this distinction. The final report is not due out before December.

Heritage Ottawa has provided wording for signs outside the stores, which will allow people to learn the dates of the buildings, the architects, and the original building names as part of a self-guided tour.
“We support what [Harris] is doing primarily because it’s focusing in on the unique heritage aspect of a very important street in Ottawa and in the process of doing that is increasing the public’s awareness of those heritage attributes,” Carolyn Quinn of Heritage Ottawa says.

As part of this marketing strategy, information pamphlets will also be available to promote businesses and the history of the street. Harris estimates the cost of the heritage program in its beginning stages will amount to between $15,000 and $20,000, paid for by the mall.

Albert Gabbay, owner of Albert Opticians and chair of the ad and promotion committee, says the tour is only one part of what the mall is doing to drum up more business.

He wants to see more activity during the winter months that will attract locals to the street. A traditional Christmas setting is on the agenda with 7.5-metre decorated trees at each intersection, as well as a choir on Dec. 12 and 19.

“We are really looking to add a lot of excitement and certainly make it more accessible to families especially,” says Gabbay.