Skyline: Much more than meets the eye: saying goodbye to the Doctor’s Building

The current state of the Doctor's Building on O'Connor at MacLaren. Ottawa City Council has approved its demolition. (Robert Smythe/The BUZZ)
The current state of the Doctor’s Building on O’Connor at MacLaren. The City of Ottawa’s Built Heritage Committee has approved its demolition. (Robert Smythe/The BUZZ)

This article has had been slightly updated to include the Built Heritage Committee decision, and had an additional photo added from the printed version.

Robert Smythe

The Taggart Group has applied to demolish the Doctors’ Building, an almost 70-year-old, six-storey structure on the southeast corner of O’Connor and MacLaren Streets.

I’m here to tell you that even anonymous, and some would argue dreary, buildings like this can have interesting histories. The loss of the Doctors’ Building is an occasion to reflect on milestones in modern building technology, disease control, and the advent of administrative efficiencies in a doctor’s practice.

Up until September 1954, 267 O’Connor Street had been an old converted house repurposed as medical offices for Drs. Howard Hamlin, Frank Earle, and Clifford Samis. They had recently bought the property for $17,000 with the intention of developing a new facility that would be ready at the end of 1955.

Shown here under construction, the Doctors’ Building at O'Connor at MacLaren was originally to be called “Medical House”. (City of Ottawa Archives).
Shown here under construction, the Doctors’ Building at O’Connor at MacLaren was originally to be called “Medical House”. (City of Ottawa Archives).

Everything under one roof

Their fully modern facility included a dispensary, testing labs, radiology services, a physiotherapy clinic, and a fully equipped surgery suite for minor procedures, with a recovery room. Smoother patient control could be managed in centralized waiting areas and access to shared medical receptionists was available.

For air handling and purification they would rely on the latest standards set by the Buildings Research division of the National Research Council. Lighting was to be comfortably soft and indirect, or bright and task-oriented where needed. Soft baffled surfaces were meant to mitigate stress-inducing noises.

The Ottawa City Hall on Green Island (1958) is often touted as the city’s first fully air-conditioned office building, but this building bested it by three years in being completely air-conditioned with the Carrier Company’s “Weathermaster System.” As the company that installed it boasted, the same system was in use in New York’s much more famous Lever House and United Nations Secretariat buildings.

From a newspaper ad promoting model air-conditioning system in the Doctor's Building. (Ottawa Journal, December 22, 1955)
From a newspaper ad promoting model air-conditioning system in the Doctor’s Building. (Ottawa Journal, December 22, 1955)

Architects with renowned connections

Somewhat surprisingly, to design their building the three doctors picked a Montreal firm of corporate heavyweights: Greenspan, Freedlander and Dunne, Architects.

To supervise the job, the practice then turned to a young and relatively untested architect, George Bemi, as their local associate. Educated at the University of Manitoba’s ground-breaking School of Architecture, he would go on to design buildings like the Ottawa Congress Centre, the Ottawa Public Library Main Branch, the Ottawa Police Department’s headquarters, and almost a dozen downtown office towers. This would be one of his first assignments in the city.

And in a case of fame by association, the Doctors’ Building’s primary architects (Greenspan et al.) would also act in a similar capacity as on-the-scene partners with that era’s most world-renowned “starchitects” like Mies van der Rohe, Luigi Nervi, and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill on major projects in Montreal.

Designed to accommodate up to 50 doctors, “Medical House” (as it was initially going to be called) would be the city’s first purpose-built building of its kind since the charming Medical Arts Building, an Art Deco landmark that had been erected on Metcalfe Street 30 years earlier.

In covering the building’s opening in December of 1955, the Ottawa Journal noted something that we would find truly remarkable today: “Convenient to the O’Connor Street main entrance is the Community Nursing Service which offers 24-hour service. Through a special switchboard arrangement a doctor may be located any hour of the day or night, for emergency cases.”

Of course it has to be remembered that in pre-OHIP times you had to pay for all of this out of pocket.

Decades on, the building is just surviving in a much diminished state with a small lab, a few clinics, and some offices. Its panoply of wall-to-wall convenient in-house services is long gone.

Although it’s now re-shrouded in dulled chocolate brown curtain walls on the two street-facing elevations, the Doctors’ Building originally had a more sleek and crisp appearance with shinier panels of “Bermuda Blue” and white to contrast with buff brick on the other two sides. In more recent years an addition to the south was carried out in yet more brown.

The guardian stone angel of the Doctor's Building on O'Connor at MacLaren Street. (Robert Smthe/The BUZZ)
The guardian stone angel of the Doctor’s Building on O’Connor at MacLaren Street. (Robert Smthe/The BUZZ)

The modernist Madonna

Hanging out near the top of the building is a Modernist Madonna cradling a child. You must look up at the northwest corner of the building to see her. She is somewhat weathered with soot, but the angular edges are as sharp as ever.

How this design gesture came to be is lost to time, but if this aging box is to be demolished, surely she can be the one morsel of the Doctors’ Building that can be recycled.

After this building’s been disappeared, Taggart is proposing to landscape a tiny triangle at the O’Connor and MacLaren corner. When she has landed back on earth maybe she should be ensconced here.

Why demolish this building? It’s a preparatory step in the development of landmark buildings on the large parking lot that surrounds it.

This demolition must be considered by the City of Ottawa’s Built Heritage Committee because the building is situated in the midst of the Centretown Heritage Conservation District, even though it’s not listed in the Heritage Register. However, the committee is unlikely to put up much of a fight.

UPDATE: The City of Ottawa’s Built Heritage Committee approved the demolition of this building on May 14. The committee’s recommendation will be considered by City Council on May 29.

Read an article arguing against razing this building in the April 2024 BUZZ:
267 O’Connor Street: “Never demolish, never remove”

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