History of an Ottawa, Ontario, Canada Neighbourhood
By Marc St. Pierre
December 12, 2002:
Sandy Hill is a community located just South-East of Ottawa's downtown core.
Located on a hill, this area is known for the diverse architectural styles
of its residences, its numerous embassies, and its important institutions.
Sandy Hill's physical appearance is the product of its Georgian layout and
its many ‘lost leader' institutions designed to attract residents. The arrival
of many wealthy home-buyers of mixed cultural backgrounds, along with the
presence of a skilled workforce with good local resources led to the varied house styles.
The construction of the Parliament Buildings also affected Sandy Hill by imposing a
strong Gothic influence in the community. Lastly, strong community action has kept
many undesirable businesses and building renovations at bay.
The community of Sandy Hill is perched atop a hill just south of The Market.
It is bordered by the Rideau canal to the West, the Rideau river to the East,
the Queensway to the South, and Rideau Street to the North. Although the area
is now an old, established community with large mature trees and a relatively
diverse class base, it was not always so.
In the 1860's Sandy Hill was just that - a barren desolate hill. For the past
30 years the people of Ottawa had logged the trees which once crowned the hill.
When Ottawa became the capital of the Upper and Lower Canadas in 1865 there
was suddenly a large influx of some 300-400 people, mostly associated with
the workings of the government. Had these folks been your everyday day regular
labourers and entrepreneurs, they probably would have settled in the already
crowded Lowertown or the commercialized Uppertown, but as it was the majority
of these white-collar workers chose to settle in the brand new community of
With the arrival of so many new residents and basically a new class of people,
majority landowners Louis Besserer and Colonel By decided to survey their land
on and around Sandy Hill. Besserer and J.W. Stewart were given the job of
planning the community and decided to impose a Georgian street plan on the area,
totally disregarding the hilly topography and any street plan which might better
fit it. So, south of Rideau street all the way to Laurier one sees the typical
Georgian street plan with 66' roads. However, south of Laurier, the two men
decided that all roads should be only 60' in width in order to save money and
to increase property size. It is thus that not all the streets north and south
of Laurier line up with each other. Besserer and Stewart also changed the
orientation of the rectangular blocks from East-West, seen North of Laurier,
to North-South, seen South of Laurier. The overall effect of these changes to
the Sandy Hill area is that a barrier was created along Laurier street, dividing
the North and South sections of the community.
During the 1870's one sees many institutional buildings being built - more so
than the small, yet growing population of Sandy Hill would warrant. The theory
is that the construction of these businesses was a way to attract people to
settle in the area. Institutions would be built by the city or someone outside
the community (rather than the community itself), in the hopes that they would
attract workers who would then eventually buy a house in the community. The
idea originated from a marketing ploy in grocery stores, wherein they would offer
cheap milk so that customers coming in to buy milk might also buy expensive items
while they were in the store. Hence the nickname of the institutions as
‘lost leaders' (HIST 3209, Thurs. Oct 17th, 2002).
‘Lost leader' institutions have played an important role in the shaping of the
Sandy Hill area. The College de Bytown, now known as the University of Ottawa,
is one such example of a ‘lost leader' institution. Founded in 1848 by Bishop
Guiges, the College was originally next to the vestry of Notre-Dame Cathedral on
Sussex Drive, but moved to Sandy Hill in order to expand. (History of the U. of O.)
Other examples of ‘lost leader' institutions are St. Josephs Rectory on
151 Laurier, the courthouse, the jail and the registry office. Therefore, some
of Sandy Hill's most visible institutions were built with the idea of attracting
workers (mainly white-collar) to the area. They also served to attract other
businesses and institutions, and to establish Sandy Hill as an important place,
not just an average little community.
In addition, it is possible that, not only were these institutions designed to
attract people, but maybe they were designed to attract a certain type of person.
Most of these businesses and organizations would have appealed only to educated
Middle to Upper class people. For example, only people with some sort of education
and money would have qualified to use or work in such places as the College de
Bytown, the Courthouse, the Jail or the Registry Office. Thus, for the most part,
only wealthy, educated High class people would have been attracted by the
‘lost leader' institutions. This phenomenon becomes even more apparent when one
looks at the community churches as ‘lost leaders'. Consider that "the leading
Irish-Catholic political families... coalesced around St. Joseph's Church in
Sandy Hill, and the fashionable French Canadians did the same around the nearby
With a pre-planned community layout and several important institutions, Sandy
Hill was well on its way to becoming a favourite place of residence for newly
arriving government workers. However, several additional factors had to have
been present in order to attract all these people. After all, Sandy Hill was a
rat-infested, deforested hill with a sewage problem, leading none other than
Sir John A. MacDonald to move his desk upstairs in order to escape "the stench
in his ground-floor study"(Gwyn-54) of Stadacona Hall. So what is it that made
Sandy Hill an ideal community?
Located atop a hill, there is a good chance that this area appealed to the
wealthy in that they could look down upon the rest of the city. Furthermore,
its proximity to the Lowertown market allowed for servants to buy groceries on
foot, rather than with the help of a horse and carriage. The community was
also conveniently located near the only bridge spanning the Rideau Canal in
the Ottawa area, Sapper's Bridge. Thus, Sandy Hill residents, most of whom
worked in the Parliament Buildings in Uppertown, had only a short way to go
in order to get to work. The fact that MacTaggart Street station and the Lay By
were close also would have appealed to prospective home-buyers in the Ottawa
A characteristic of Sandy Hill which makes it unique to the rest of the city
is the rich and varied architectural styles of its homes. In a five minute
drive through the community, one may see a dozen different house styles, ranging
from Spanish Colonial Revival and Victorian, to Georgian and Romanesque. More
importantly, however, by looking at the history of the area one may begin to
understand why Sandy Hill homes look as they do.
Conditions for the architectural mosaic of the area were perfect from its very
beginning. A large infusion of wealthy home-buyers with a relatively broad
religious and cultural base, and skilled labourers with the resources to back
them up all played an important role in the building of Sandy Hill's homes.
The wealthy potential homeowners were the white-collar workers. These workers
who eventually settled in Sandy Hill were not of a single homogenous religion
or culture, as seen in Lowertown, New Edinburgh, and Uppertown. Interestingly
enough, they were a group of people united by social class, not ethnicity.
Thus, contrary to other communities dominated by just one or two cultures and
religions where only a few architectural designs are present, Sandy Hill's
diverse people brought with them diverse architectural styles.
Yet another reason these homes presented a more diverse collection of styles
may be due to the presence of skilled woodworkers and masons, and the raw
materials needed to build the homes with. Since the great construction
projects of the Parliament Buildings and the Rideau Canal, the Ottawa area
probably enjoyed an increase in the number and diversity of tradesmen.
These men, especially those with experience on the Gothic style Parliament
Buildings, would have been invaluable to the development of Sandy Hill's homes,
such as Stadacona Hall with its gothic design (Fletcher-186). Likewise, the
specialization of the lumber industry in the Ottawa area, as well as the
opening of more and more rock quarries would have provided the specialized
building materials and intricately carved wood needed in homes like Philomene
The influence of culture on architecture in Sandy Hill is seen at several
properties. For instance, the Embassy of the Russian Federation on 285 Charlotte
presents "a stolid, bleak image to the streetscape" (Fletcher-181). Referred to
as a Stalinesque Brutalist style, the embassy is representative (at least in my mind)
of the harsh, bleak life of communist Russia. Likewise, the oddly angled, but
innovative window style on the South and West side of Montpetit Hall of the
University of Ottawa could be representative of the idealistic mind set of the
The work of skilled tradesmen and varied resources is also seen in several
residences in the Sandy Hill area. The Odell House on 180 Waller demonstrates
the skills and resources of its builder, Horace C. Odell, as a mason and brickyard
owner. Odell incorporated many fancy features into this house, such as "round-headed
dormer windows...draped hood mouldings with prominent keystones...[and a] wishbone
gable atop its panel and inset windows in its double door" (Fletcher-195).
The previously mentioned Philomene Terrace was also a highly decorated building
with very detailed wood carvings on the porch and gables, and limestone masonry
complete with ‘fire walls' of stone at both ends of the Terrace gables. Again,
a good example of Ottawa's fine tradesmen and their wide range of available resources.
In his book Ottawa: City of the Big Ears, Haig writes, "The beautiful Gothic
detail of the Centre Block induces much pride in the new Dominion"(122). Sandy
Hill was no exception to this and its citizens demonstrated their pride by emulating
the Gothic style of the Parliament Buildings in their community. Two houses within
a block of each other were both built in a Victorian Gothic design. David Ewart's
house on 464 Besserer and the Patterson House on 336 Daly are two examples of the
effect of the Gothic Parliament Buildings on Sandy Hill. Ewart's house has
"trefoil-arched dormers"(Fletcher 185) with inset gothic window frames, while the
Patterson House of 245 Augusta, "is a cream-coloured stucco Gothic cottage"(Fletcher-186).
Other examples of the Gothic influence in Sandy Hill range from the Anglican Church
of St. Alban's the Martyr (1867) and Stadacona Hall (1871), to the neo-Gothic style
church which burned down and was replaced by Sacre Coeur Church.
Another driving force behind the appearance of Sandy Hill has been the people. The
area has a rich history of community action and participation which has, over the
years, shaped the communities appearance considerably by weeding out NIMBY
(‘not in my backyard') businesses and institutions. As early as the late 1870's
citizens were uniting against the construction of a new Grey Nuns hospital in
their community, fearing the potential spreading of diseases, such as influenza
and plague, in their backyard. Though the hospital was eventually built, it was
quickly burned down by local residents. Yet again in 1893 citizens raised their
voices and took action. When the 1836 wooden Cummings Bridge was replaced in 1893
and named after Samuel Bingham by the city, angry people tore down the name plaque
and threw it in the river. The bridge is still named after Cummings today as a
Community action has not just been a thing of the past. As recently as 1991 the
Sandy Hill community stopped a resident from turning his house into a shelter for
homeless women. Eric Cohen, the homeowner, then decided to turn his place into a
42 bedroom rooming house, which also did not appease local citizens. In the end
he buckled under pressure from the Ontario Municipal Board and local neighbours,
scrapping his rooming house plan. Similarly, when the owner of the beautiful
Paterson House on 500 Wilbrod proposed to turn the mansion into a Bed and Breakfast
the community intervened and had the building proposal rejected due to,
"insufficient parking spaces, potential noise and alcohol issues..."(Fletcher-183).
Thus, one sees a strong tradition of community action wherein non-desirable NIMBY
institutions and businesses are kept at bay to the community. Nowadays, in addition
to dedicated citizens groups, Sandy Hill has several specific bylaws aimed at
preserving its heritage sites and older buildings.
Conversely, many find it surprising to learn that Sandy Hill has an area of high
density housing (referring to apartment buildings, not terrace and town homes).
The North-East corner of the community along Charlotte is known as apartment alley
and according to Fletcher is "a series of high-density dwellings built in the
early 1900's in response to the demand for more housing adjacent to downtown" (183).
What is curious about this is why the rich Sandy Hill citizens and their unusually
active community groups would have allowed this obviously lower-income oriented
housing to be built in Sandy Hill, while they fought ferociously to disallow other
such potential ‘black marks' on the area. Although the answer to this question
could not be found, one thing is apparent- all the high-density housing in Sandy
Hill is located on the fringes of the community. It is doubtful that this is a
coincidence, and most likely is was a case of, ‘if it must be put here, put it as
close to the outside as possible!'
Sandy Hill's close proximity to the Rideau river, its large mature trees and its
development into a mainly Middle and Upper class district precipitated the arrival
of Embassies. Today, there are maybe a dozen Embassies in Sandy Hill, mostly all
overlooking Strathcona Park and located on one of the four following streets:
Range Road, Laurier, Charlotte or Wilbrod. Due to the presence of these Embassies
in the Sandy Hill area "a new polyglot and cosmopolitan atmosphere began to
permeate the social and political life.."(Eggleston-35). This atmosphere now
adds to the uniqueness of Sandy Hill and no doubt has, and continues to, attract
new residents and enterprises to the community.
In conclusion, Sandy Hill is today a lovely place to walk through. No longer is
there the smell of raw sewage and a treeless landscape. Now there are large,
mature trees lining the roads which compliment the beautiful and varied
architecture of homes, ranging from huge mansions to quaint bungalows.
Yet there are still reminders of why the community looks the way it does;
straight orthogonal streets reflect the Georgian plan, important institutions
represent the area's attempts to attract residents, and varied architectural
styles remind us of the wealth of the area, the prevailing cultures, as well as
the skill and resources of labourers at the time. Last but not least, the lack
of undesirable businesses in the area tell of the community's strong voice.
#1. http://sfuo.ca/static/home/about/uottawa/index History of the U. of O. Student Federation of the University of Ottawa. (Accessed on Oct. 21, 2002 and Oct. 24, 2002).
#2. Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Queen's Choice (1961) The National Capital Commision, Ottawa, Canada.
#3. Fletcher, Katharine. Capital Walks: Walking Tours of Ottawa (1993) McClelland &Stewart, Toronto.
#4. Gwyn, Sandra. The Private Capital (1984) McClelland &Stewart, Toronto.
#5. Haig, Robert. Ottawa: City of the Big Ears (1975) Haig and Haig Publishing Co., Ottawa.
By: Marc St. Pierre (email@example.com), Fall 2002
E-mail Marc St. Pierre, Ryan Besserer, Georges Tissot, Claire, Dorothy O'Brien Pratt, Shawn Besserer, Sylvie Besserer-LeBouthillier and Al Lewis
October 17, 2002:
(These are some notes from Professor Taylor's Urban History class today)
In 1841, the Act of Union joined Upper Canada and Lower Canada into one province.
Geographically then, Bytown was at the center of the United Canadas, rather than being
on the periphery of two provinces.
In 1848 Thomas McKay, who had mills and a small village at Rideau Falls (New Edinburgh)
began exporting sawn lumber, by barge, down the Ottawa River through Lake Champlain to the
northern United States market. American entrepreneurs such as Weston and Bronson began
to explore business opportunities in the Bytown area. They were able to obtain leases
to the hydraulic power at the Chaudiere Falls and they began to establish lumber mills
on Victoria Island. A settlement of blue collar mill workers grew at Lebreton Flats and at
Wrightville on the north side of the Ottawa River. These wooden houses were destroyed in the
Great Fire of 1900 but were soon rebuilt. At that time, most of the mill owners
(e.g. Bronson and J.R. Booth), moved to higher ground above Nanny Goat Hill.
This was a change in the industrial order. During the time of the square timber trade,
the entrepreneur / owners lived outside of Bytown (John Egan at Eganville on the Madawaska),
Gilmour (I think) at Arnprior and others at Buckingham, and McKay at the mouth of the Rideau.
The leaders in the sawn lumber industry, in contrast, were centralized, along with their
workers, in Bytown/Ottawa.
In 1855 the City of Ottawa was incorporated. This was partly done to extricate itself
from the rest of Carleton County, to which many of Ottawa's tax dollars went.
Colonel John By died in 1836, leaving a large estate (immediately south of Nicholas Sparks'
property and extending as far south as Gladstone Avenue and Mann Avenue). This property was
acquired by a land development company owned by group of local speculators.
N.B. At this time there were several "neighbourhoods" in Bytown/Ottawa. The Irish
Catholics and French lived in Lowertown, the English, Scottish, and Irish Protestants
lived in Uppertown (Vittoria Avenue, Wellington Street and Sparks Streets), the blue collar
mill workers lived at LeBreton Flats and there was a settlement at New Edinburgh - around
Thomas McKay's mills at Rideau Falls. The Bytown and Prescott Railway (narrow gauge) entered
the town from Manotick Station where my ancestors supplied the steam engines with firewood),
through Gloucester and crossed the Rideau River to Taggart Street in Lowertown, where there
was a station. J. R. Booth's railway entered the city and ran along what is the Queensway today.
From the Queensway it ran north to LeBreton Flats and another spur followed the east side
of the Rideau Canal, past todays Conference Center, which was originally the CNR Station.
It crossed Wellington/Rideau Street and travelled along the east side of the 6 entrance
locks. Those were the days. The Chateau Laurier Hotel was built about 1910? - it was a CN
Louis T. Besserer of Montreal owned what is now "Sandy Hill" - south of Rideau Street
to Laurier Avenue. This estate was managed for him by J.W. Stewart (Stewarton on the map).
Beginning in 1865, approximately 400 politicians and civil servants moved to Ottawa which
was by now the capital of the United Canadas. Later, at Confederation in 1867, more
politicians and civil servants moved here from the Maritimes. Where would they all live?
The lower level civil servants (mostly French and Irish Catholics) chose their new
neighbourhood in Lowertown. They made this location decision based on race and religion.
The upper income politicians and civil servants chose their neighbourhood based on income.
They needed to be accommodated in Upper Town (Sparks land) or in a new neighbourhood in
Sandy Hill (Besserer land).
To attract settlers (OK, to sell land), Sparks and Besserer began to offer property
as "loss-leaders" to various institutions for free. Sparks supplied land for a new
Uppertown Market where Confederation Square is today. He also supplied land for a new
City Hall. In turn, Besserer (via Stewart) provided land on the east side of the canal for
a new Gaol / Jail, Court House and Registry Office. He also freed up land for St. Josephs
RC Church, St. Alban's Anglican Church and Bytown College - now the University of Ottawa.
In Sandy Hill, Stewart decided to pack more houses into his development by surveying
the streets to be only 60 feet wide. The normal is 66 feet wide, with the two market streets
in Lowertown (George and York Streets) each being 132 feet wide. This caused an offset of the
streets running into Rideau Street, and provided a natural "social barrier" between the
neighbourhoods of Lowertown and Sandy Hill.
See Capital Walks by Fletcher for more details concerning Sandy Hill and Lowertown.
April 29, 2003:
The Besserer family of Sandy Hill
I recently read your article about Sandy Hill and was very impressed. I am a descendant of
Louis T Besserer and I am currently doing some research into the donation of land to build
the University of Ottawa. I was wondering if you may know where I can find access to any
information about the agreement of donation to build the school. Thank you very much
Thanks for your e-mail.
You could try contacting Serge Barbe who is the archivist for the City of Ottawa.
He may have the information or will be able to direct you to the source.
... Al Lewis
March 5, 2004:
Hi, I am a descendant of the Besserer family, grandson of Georges Besserer.
I have studied at the Univ. of Ottawa and have lived in Sandy Hill for the most
part of my life. Although I did not yet explore the question of the donation of
Land for the Bytown college, it is a well acknowledged reality. I think the U of O.
archivist might be of some help. But I learned that the documentation can be found
in the Perth County archives. I hope we can learn more of the history of the land
that was given as an acknowledgment of service in the army at the end of the
18thc and beginning of the 19th (if I am not mistaken-- I do not have the facts
in hand right now) Yours and of hope of keeping in contact,
Here are some early records concerning Louis Theodore Besserer:
6 Aug 1843
Burial in the church of this mission of Dame Marie Angele Reaume / Rheaume, aged 34 yrs., who
died the day before, wife of Louis Theodore Besserer, Esq. Of Bytown
Witnesses: Prospere Olivier & Joseph Turgeon
11 May 1844
Funeral service for Gustave Honourus Besserer, son of Louis Theodore Besserer,
resident of Bytown, and the late Marie Angele Reaume / Rheaume. He was buried in the new church
2 Mar 1848
Baptism of Louis Guillaume Cameron, born 25 August of the marriage of Louis Theodore
Besserer, Esq., Notary Public, and Dame Marguerite Cameron of Gloucester
Rose de Lima Leger Parisien
Source: Ellen Paul's records of Notre Dame Cathedral
March 24, 2004:
Dear Marc et al:
I have in my possession the Besserer papers you are talking about for the
university & the family & history of the family tree. I have, a few years back
gave copies to the Ottawa Archives. I also have the original map of ownership
of L.T, Besserer also his photograph and the copy of the grant of Sandy Hill. he
also owned Besserer's Cove in Orleans which is now Hiawatha park. He was originally
buried in MacDonald's cemetery which is now the park between Charlotte & Cobourg
parallel to Rideau. But in later years the coffins were moved to Beechwood cemetery
and buried in a lot that contains about 16 coffins and places for an outlandish
amount of urns. But unfortunately nobody bothered to enscribe his name on the
stone on this huge...huge lot. For any other info that I may have, write to me.
I am also a great great grand daughter Of L.T.
also posted on March 24, 2004:
See also Timothy O'Brien whose descendant Dr. John Robert O'Brien practised medicine
in Sandy Hill.
November 1, 2004:
My name is Shawn Besserer and I am trying to trace
back my family roots, and was hoping you may be of assistance. My great grand-father
is Alex Besserer, of North Bay (where's there is a street named after him).
I think he was born around 1900 (Birth place unknown), and passed away around
I am particulary interested in the names of Louis-Theodore Besserer's 12 children,
and the names of any brothers or sisters he may have had.
Thank you for any help,
June 30, 2005:
Good day everyone,
My name is Sylvie Besserer-LeBouthillier, grand-daughter of Dorcy Besserer and Grace Forget.
I believe my grand-father's siblings were: Georges, Percy, Samuel, Gordon, Florence,
Margot and Laura.
I seem to recall having met you Georges at my grand-father's funeral and remembered
you had done some genealogical research on the family name.
I know that Johann Théodor Besserer was a German military surgeon and a Calvinist
in Prinz Friedrich de Brunswick Regiment that arrived in Canada in 1776. He was
the father of Louis Thédore. I also know that Louis Theodore had 12 kids but I
can't find their names.
Any information on Louis Theodore's children would be greatly appreciated.
Also, has anyone been able to trace the genealogy of Johann Theodor Besserer when
he was still in Germany?
... Sylvie Besserer-LeBouthillier
Thanks for your interesting e-mail regarding your Besserer ancestors. This pushes our
history back quite a few years!
When I was young (in the 1950's) my family was friends with a Samuel Besserer. His
wife's name was Loretta. Could he have been one of your grandfather's brothers?
He probably would have been born between 1900 and 1910, as a rough guess.
Do you mind if I add your e-mail and e-mail address to our web site, as a contact
for other researchers?
Please let me know.
... Al Lewis
Good morning Al,
Please add me to your email.
Whatever I find I will share with you.
I believe Samuel was my grand-father's brother.
During the 1950's, Sam and Loretta lived on the Ottawa River near the end of
Woodroffe Avenue. We used to visit them. There was a raft out in the river where
we kids swam (often all day).
Sam was known as one of the the best sport fishermen on the river. He would
take a couple of the men out fishing with him. I think that there were still booms
on the river then to control the logs during the log drives. Anyway, Sam would fish
at one end of the boat, and catch fish, while his visitors would fish at the other
end of the boat and not catch anything. Then they would switch ends and Sam still
caught all the fish. Good memories for kids growing up in 1950's Ottawa.
To get to Sam and Loretta's house from Richmond Road, cars had to pass under a
railway bridge and also had to cross an iron-grated bridge which was designed
to keep the cows from wandering up to Richmond Road. The Ottawa River Parkway
has now replaced all of the homes and the railway is long gone. I believe that
this area was the original Ira Honeywell estate. Two nearby streets are named
"Honeywell" and "Rice". Rice was one of his sons.
December 12, 2005:
Macdonald Gardens Park in Sandy Hill, north of Rideau Street, is being upgraded
by local volunteers in conjunction with the City of Ottawa.
May 21, 2008:
Sandy Hill home at 149 Daly Avenue, once owned by Louis T. Besserer.
Photo Source: City on the Ottawa by Courtney C. J. Bond, page 58
August 17, 2009:
New e-mail address for Dorothy Pratt: firstname.lastname@example.org
April 30, 2010:
Source: Bytown Gazette, January 14, 1841
See also, the old Sandy Hill Cemetery
Search the Ottawa Citizen and Bytown Gazette for other articles
January 11, 2012:
Have a look at the Sandy Hill Draft Heritage Report.
January 12, 2014:
Sacre Coeur Church on Cumberland Street burned down in 1907 and 1979. The beautiful Gothic building has been re-built.
Back to Bytown or Bust - History and Genealogy in the Ottawa area