Heritage designation recommended for Island Park gas station

Story and photo by Ted Simpson – 

A large piece of Kitchissippi history is on its way to being granted reprieve from certain doom, in the form of a new Heritage Designation, thanks in part to the efforts of one passionate local man.

The landmark that’s come into question is the small “cottage” style garage at the corner of Richmond Road and Island Park Drive, which was originally built in 1934 to serve as one of the very first drive-in gas stations. The reason for its unique appearance is that in the era it was built, oil companies designed their new stations to blend in with the existing neighbourhood, a sort of reflection of what Island Park would have looked like in the 1930’s.

Local artist and history buff, Andrew King, took an interest in the building last summer after previous owners Island Park Autos shut down, leaving the lot vacant and its future up in the air.

“The nature of this neighbourhood is slipping away and unless we preserve these little pieces of history, we will lose an important connection to our past for future generations,” says King.

“It’s a small building, but many may not know why it’s an important part of our neighbourhood history that’s sadly being torn away for infills and condos.”

The “cottage” gas station on Island Park was owned by Pierre Trudeau’s father, Charles Emile Trudeau. It was a used car lot before it was shuttered in August 2014.
The “cottage” gas station on Island Park was owned by Pierre Trudeau’s father, Charles Emile Trudeau. It was a used car lot before it was shuttered in August 2014.

King turned his curiosity into a column in the Ottawa Citizen that detailed the history of the old garage and made a case for its significance to the neighbourhood and city as a whole. Over the past year, King’s work has served as an impetus for Kitchissippi Ward Councillor, Jeff Leiper, and city staff to put together a proposal for Heritage Status for the building. This status would protect the building’s exterior design and location, and prevent any owner from altering them.

“Thanks to the City of Ottawa staff for going above and beyond in researching and compiling a great report on this Island Park Drive landmark that for many, is a gateway into the city from across the provincial border,” says King.

Obtaining Heritage Status designation under the Ontario Heritage Act is a fairly complex process: there’s the Built Heritage Sub-Committee, the city Planning Committee and then to City Council for a final vote. On August 14, the project cleared the first hurdle, as the Heritage Sub-Committee voted unanimously in favour of designating the garage based on its architecture, location and historical value.

The committee presentation invited King to speak about the significance of the building and present his research.

“There was no plan really, just to inform folks that may not know about its history… it worked,” says King.

Councillor Leiper said in his comments: “The station is more than just an architecturally interesting artifact, it is a symbol of how our city grew, and gives us pause to think about how we want it to continue to grow.”

There was one party on hand that was not quite so receptive of the presentation, the property’s current owner, Main and Main.

“We have yet to identify a redevelopment strategy to come even close to being practical or workable for us,” said Daniel Byrne on behalf of the company.

When the property was first developed in the 1930’s, it was done in a way that sought to preserve the area’s existing look and heritage. Ironically, this is what King is asking of its current developer. “Hey, if you want to be in the neighbourhood, you gotta be a neighbour who respects the ‘hood,” says King.

We asked Dave Allston, our resident historian, about the heritage designation and potential uses for this building. Here’s what he said:

So from a historical perspective, I’d say it is important to preserve, because it is a symbol, a representation of another era. And not just another era, but an important moment in time, particularly for our neighbourhood, when cars became prevalent, and opened up the outside world for fast, reliable travel. All within a couple of short years, you had Richmond Road morph from being a dusty road farmers used to bring their produce to town to being a busy main thoroughfare to outside destinations for casual travelers; you had Island Park Drive being constructed to encourage drivers to simply use the car as a form of entertainment; and you had the Champlain Bridge built to enable travel to the Quebec side. The effect all of these had on Kitchissippi were significant – home building exploded, merchants of all new forms opened up along Richmond Road, schools were built, sidewalks installed, etc. It was a radical period of change in Kitchissippi, and this gas station saw us through that period, and represents it, at such a key intersection, where it all happened.

To repurpose it, there are a lot of options. The easiest might be to simply hope to find car dealerships willing to take on the property and use it as its office. More uniquely, we’ve seen many examples, even in Ottawa, of restaurants moving in and setting up in former gas stations. This one is particularly small, so it might be hard to accomplish – perhaps with an expanded patio for summer business. A smaller specialty sandwich/soup place could be good as well. Or from the environmental angle, there is the option to create a fueling site for alternative  transportation vehicles (electric cars, bio diesel cars, etc.), which is in theory, the future of where we are going. This would be the most interesting maybe, as it would be literally re-purposing not only the building but its use – the fuel of the 1930s re-purposed to the fuel of the 21st century. 

There is also a lot of room to build next to (along the west edge), or perhaps something could be constructed around it, preserving the existing building in its entirety, yet allowing for an enlarged structure to occupy the lot (as we’ve seen with the former Friday’s Roast Beef House on Elgin Street for example). But for sure there are a lot of options. 

Is this building worth saving? What do you think? Take the poll below or send us your feedback

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