Restaurant to move into former bank space

A new restaurant, Riviera, will open its doors this spring at 62 Sparks St., adding a new chapter in the storied existence of the downtown building erected in 1937.

Wedged between two taller structures, the sandy-stoned, uniquely designed heritage building has a rich history — including one of Ottawa’s largest bank heists.

“We were definitely handed such a beautiful structure to work with,” says Jordan Holley, one of the lead chefs and future co-owners of Riviera. He adds that not even paint colours were changed.

Once renovations are complete, it will be the first time the building has been used as a restaurant. It originally held Ottawa’s first Imperial Bank of Canada before it became CIBC in 1961. After the bank closed in 1982, the building held the Civil Service Co-operative, and most recently Ian Kimmerly Stamps with vacancies in between.

“People, when they’re having a dining experience, like the experience to not just be the food but also the atmosphere,” says David Jeanes, president of Heritage Ottawa, a non-profit organization that advocates for preserving historical buildings in the city.

Jeanes has been showcasing 62 Sparks St. during Heritage Ottawa’s Sunday walking tours for 12 years and will be hosting the next one on May 8. He says the stonework maple leafs at the crest of the building’s front were carved by a sculptor named Fred Winkler whose work is also chiselled into Toronto’s Globe and Mail headquarters and the Design Exchange building.

While the Riviera renovations are giving the building an interior makeover, the exterior looks quite similar to how it did 58 years ago for Imperial Bank employees, such as Boyne Johnson. He was the bank’s 27-year-old chief teller but became known as the Champagne Bank Robber.

James Powell, author of the blog, Today in Ottawa’s History, is producing a historical, non-fiction story for every day of the year.

In an October blog post, Powell wrote that Johnson, a trusted employee, removed the equivalent of about 2.2 million in today’s dollars from the bank’s vaults in 1958. He then casually went about his life, visiting relatives before flying to Windsor one morning and crossing into the United States in a taxi while his wife thought he was out hunting.

“It’s a bit of a pathetic story,” says Powell. “He pulled off a pretty clever robbery, but hadn’t thought about what he was going to do next.”

Powell writes in his blog that Johnson eluded police for nearly three weeks before a waitress at a nightclub in Denver, Colorado, identified him. A very detailed wanted poster was credited for his capture. Aside from offering a $10,000 reward, the poster, described Johnson as neatly dressed, a frequenter of night clubs and a man with a “penchant for champagne and the ladies,” says Powell—hence the name “Champagne Bank Robber.”

Powell’s story on the heist says all the stolen money was returned and that police testified that Johnson seemed to be relieved to have been caught. He was “a model prisoner,” serving four years in the Kingston Penitentiary.

The building’s rich history is complimented by the preserved vintage architecture.

“Those kinds of features really add character to a restaurant,” Jeanes says. He adds that placing the Riviera in a historic building like 62 Sparks St. gives it a flair similar to the Maplelawn mansion on Richmond Road, which is now home to the Keg restaurant.

Holley told the Citizen that Riviera will have a casual, yet fine-dining feel, suitable for both suits and denim. The chef of 18 years says the restaurant is set to open in May.

As far as the legacy of the Champagne Bank Robber goes, Holley says he’ll talk to the bar manager to potentially add a menu item referencing Johnson and his ill-fated flight to Denver.