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A Profile of Architect Cecil Burgess

Originally published in the December 2010 OSCAR.

by Jean-Claude Dubé

Old Ottawa South has the privilege of having been the neighbourhood of choice of a most prolific architect of Ottawa during the 20th century. While the designer of the Old Fire Hall No.10 Werner Edgar Noffke (1878-1964) may be better known, his contemporary Cecil Burgess (1888-1956) left behind a legacy just as bountiful and diverse as his fellow professional and rival.

English-born and trained, Cecil Burgess arrived in Ottawa in 1908 at the age of 20. He worked as a draughtsman and assistant for the firm of Weeks and Keefer for some years and resided as a roomer at 418 Gladstone. He married Violet Hervey from Round Hill, Nova Scotia in 1913 and took residence at 81 Third Avenue. At that time, he had partnered with his boss, A.Le B. Weeks, under the company name of Weeks and Burgess. When he moved to 404 Riverdale Avenue, his partner was R.H. Millson.

25_Bellwood_front_smallCecil Burgess then took up residence with his young family at 25 Bellwood and remained there for thirty-some years. Those years were the most fruitful period of his sound and imaginative career. Every time we pass by Lansdowne Park and admire the design of the Coliseum we should be reminded of his great talent for creativity and innovation infused with restraint.

The Coliseum is possibly the very first Art Deco civic building designed in Canada in the 1920s. Early 20th century architectural design in urban Canada was not evolving as rapidly as it was in European and American cities. As can be seen on many buildings and houses completed during that period in Ottawa, and especially in the Glebe and Old Ottawa South, the designs were of the Edwardian style with large cornices, block-like brackets and braces, oversized keystones, porticos and pediments, columns, flattened roof lines, and heavy horizontal banding.

The introduction of modern and rapid building construction methods with structural steel and reinforced concrete brought about the concept of walls no longer being weight-bearing but rather like skins applied to a skeleton with strong components.

Support columns were replaced with thin wall-engaged pilasters that offered much vertical visual features. The architectural bulkiness of former decades was replaced with a light and frugal distinctiveness of the Roaring Twenties.  Society had been through a Great War, Spanish Influenza, a large national debt, financial turmoil and unemployment. The new decade brought the radio, phonographs and talking movies. Car manufacturing, paper mills and gold mines created new employment and financial security. People started touring overland by car and overseas by pleasure ship. Jazz music, novel dances and upsetting dress styles brought new meaning to the word “modern”. Cecil Burgess was a man of his time, he was modern, and he designed the Bank Street Coliseum in 1926.

The Coliseum at Lansdowne Park was a project paid by three government levels to help celebrate the centennial of Ottawa. The street façade addition was made perpendicular to the then existing building known as Howick Hall. It was built in record time. The contract was given in February 1926 and week-long centennial celebrations were held in the large 200-seat dining room on the second floor in August. This upper floor has huge multi-paned windows that brought natural light and ventilation to the dining room and the kitchen, bathrooms and an office or reception room in the north-west corner.

Early in the 20th century, Cecil Burgess was involved with the architectural drawings of Ashbury College, the Ottawa Hunt Club and the Rivermead Golf Club House, the Rosenthal Building and the Birks Building on Sparks Street, Fire Hall No.5 on King Edward and the Bank of Montreal at Somerset and Bank (now part of the Hartman’s Metro grocery store).

With his partner, R.H. Millson, he designed the Larocque Department Store, Rideau and Dalhousie; the Plant Bath, Somerset and Preston; the Blackburn Building, Spark Street; Fire Hall No.11, Parkdale Avenue; St. John Anglican Church in Kars; Holy Name Catholic Church in Pembroke; St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Perth; and the Carnegie Library in Renfrew.

After the Coliseum in 1926, which Burgess designed with the partnership of Hazelgrove & Burritt, he worked mostly alone for the following ten years. This is when he designed St. Matthews Anglican Church on First Avenue, The Windsor Arms at 150 Argyle, the Duncannon at 216 Metcalfe, the Val Cartier Apartments on Cartier Street and the Trafalgar Apartments on Metcalfe. These buildings are all variations of the Stripped Classicism early version of Art Deco. The Windsor Arms has a most beautiful entrance that is worth a trip just to see.

The 6-storey Art Deco Postal Terminal Building on Besserer Street, which he designed with his partner E.A. Gardner in 1935, became redundant when the train station was moved to the outskirts of the city according to the Greber plan. It was demolished to make way for the Rideau Centre.

Between 1942 and 1944, Cecil Burgess oversaw the construction of eighty building at HMCS Cornwallis Naval Base near his wife’s hometown of Round Hill, N.S. At that time, Cornwallis was the largest naval base in the British Commonwealth.

25_Bellwood_side_smallHe had kept his house on Bellwood and after the war he came back to restart his practice. He designed St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on Lyon Street and the Manor Park Public School. Being an active member of Trinity Anglican Church at Bank and Cameron, he oversaw the reconstruction of the church after it burnt down in 1947. He had served as rector’s warden of the church from 1934 to 1942.

In the 1950’s, Cecil Burgess moved to a smaller house at 684 Echo Drive. This was where he passed away in July 1956 at the age of 68 after a short illness.

A charter member of the Ottawa Kiwanis Club, Cecil Burgess was known for his philanthropy and had been a director of the Ottawa Boys’ Club from 1939 to the time of his death.

A resident of Old Ottawa South for 40 years, Cecil Burgess left his mark in all areas of the city and the Ottawa Valley. He designed dozens of churches, schools, houses, apartments and civic buildings. However, there is one building that deserves our special attention: the Bank Street landmark building that we all know as the Coliseum. This building saw the election of many federal political party leaders including four Prime Ministers: Mackenzie King, St. Laurent, Lester Pearson and John Diefenbaker. And in 1961 the newly-formed NDP party choose Tommy Douglas, the father of Canada’s health care system, as leader at its founding convention held at the Coliseum.