Once a bustling avenue of shops, restaurants, hotels and theatres, Sparks Street today is a mere shadow of its former self, a once glorious past swallowed by the Federal Government and the National Capital Commission who expropriated most of the buildings on the downtown Ottawa street. With a good portion of its past life-force depleted, a stroll down Sparks Street can still provide an interesting look back at some of Ottawa’s finest preserved architecture. A look upwards on a walk down this historic street reveals fascinating details that may be overlooked when walking with eyes straight ahead at street level. One such architectural detail up above provides a curious mystery and may reveal Ottawa’s own version of the DaVinci Code.
Located at 93 Sparks Street, at the corner of Metcalfe, there is a building dubbed “Canada’s Four Corners”. For as long as I can remember, this building has been the home to the longest operating souvenir shop in Ottawa, its impressive architecture filled with various pieces of Canadiana being offered to the throngs of tourists that pass it each day on their way to Parliament Hill. Also for as long as I can remember, the old building has been unfortunately encased in what seems to be a perpetual scaffolding facade that hides its ground level grandeur. Above the scaffolding there are details of sculpted heads that adorn the keystones of each second level window. These scowling bearded faces all look identical, except for one…one head is mysteriously smiling. Different than the others, this smiling face for some reason is the only head that is not scowling. Why is it smiling? To solve this mystery of expression, let’s go back and check out the history of this old building….
Built in 1870 by John Kelly, the structure was designed by Ottawa architect King Arnoldi, who also designed many churches and other notable buildings throughout the Ottawa Valley. Built as a rental property, it was first called “The Montreal Telegraph Building”, whose first tenant was the Merchant Bank Of Canada, a very influential bank that was part of the financial empire of prominent Montreal entrepreneur, Sir Hugh Allan. Sir Hugh Allan was the richest man in Canada when he died in 1882, and a study of this man may reveal clues as to why there are bearded sculpted heads on his building.
Hugh Allan was a Scotsman who made his vast fortune as a shipping magnate, owning the largest privately owned shipping empire in the world. Based in Montreal, Allan’s riches grew after he became the director of the Bank Of Montreal while still in his thirties. Allan formed the Merchant Bank of Canada in 1864 and because of his association with the bank he garnered further wealth in his other profitable ventures. Allan invested in communications technology, manufacturing, and mining. In 1852, he became president of the Montreal Telegraph Company, and rented out the new Sparks Street building to his own bank, the Merchant Bank of Canada that operated in the building until 1954 when it was sold to the Canadian National Railway.
Allan was somewhat of an illustrious fellow infatuated with the realm of fantasy and mythology. As a child, Allan was obsessed with a medieval castle ruin in Scotland near Ayrshire, a castle called “Ravenscraig”, a place where he would spend countless hours exploring. After become extremely wealthy in Canada, Allan bought property in Montreal on Mount Royal to build his own castle, a mansion he dubbed oddly enough “Ravenscrag”. This imposing 72 room property was decorated with figures inspired by Allan’s interest in mythology, including hand-painted frescos and murals illustrated with mythological scenes. His favourite room at Ravenscrag, the library, was dominated by a wall-to-wall mahogany bookcase decorated with carved panels depicting sea monsters and mermaids. Above the main entrance to Ravenscrag, a sculpted crest with Allan’s motto “SPERO” greets those that enter, which in Latin means “I hope”.
One can speculate that Allan had a hand in the design of the Ottawa Sparks street building in collaboration with King Arnoldi. Arnoldi’s experience with medieval church design combined with Allan’s fascination with mythology may be the reason the building is adorned with 11 sculpted heads. But who are these heads representing and why is only one smiling?
The heads are the keystones in each of the arched windows of the building. Ten of them are of a scowling bearded man that look remarkably similar to Sir Hugh Allan himself. Perhaps Allan wanted to ensconce his likeness into his building like the Greek gods he was fascinated with in ancient temples of past. Yet one of these carved heads has a completely different expression. The smiling head is perhaps a clue Allan left for us to figure out, an unsolved mystery that was part of a bigger puzzle Allan arranged with Arnoldi.
A look back at Allan’s life history reveals he had 11 children. There are 11 carved heads. One of his children, Arthur Allan, was the last child to be born in 1871, in the exact same year the building was being built. Arthur later died in a fire. Is the smiling head a representation of Allan’s last born child, a symbol of hope for his empircal dynasty like his motto ‘Spero” implied? Also in the year 1871, Allan was created a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George by Queen Victoria for his services in connection with the development of ocean steam navigation in Canada. Perhaps his knighthood in the same year the building was constructed could be a clue to the grinning carved head.
Allan died in 1882 and took with him the secret of the smile. Wanting to solve this Ottawa DaVinci Code, I asked staff who currently work in the building if they knew why one of the heads is smiling but they hadn’t even noticed the anomaly. The architect of the building, King Arnoldi died in 1904, so we may never know what the two men were up to when they designed these heads. Until someone else comes forward with an answer to this mystery, the carved face on Allan’s grand building will continue to smile down on the Sparks Street souls that unknowingly pass below.