hoosing a piece of land

It is in 1928, when Canada became a sovereign state, that France sent its first diplomatic representation to Ottawa. Jean Knight was the first ambassador of France in Canada. He established his offices at 140 Wellington Street, and took up residence with his family on Laurier Avenue, in a villa called Stadacona Hall. Jean Knight was, rather quickly, put in charge of finding a prestigious building, of vast dimensions, destined to house both the services, and the residence of the head of mission.

Jean Knight searched for several years. He was particularly interested in the bigger buildings situated along the Ottawa River, next to Rideau Falls. But the houses susceptible to being convenient for diplomatic missions were rare, and their owners didn’t want to sell.

The only solution was then to buy a piece of land and build. On the 17th of June, 1930, Jean Knight suggested to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that they buy the Blackburn property on Sussex Drive. The location, at the summit of a cliff that dominated the Ottawa River, access route to the West since Champlain, was superb. The view extended far back to the forests of the Québec province. The land was admirably situated : at close proximity to the Governor General’s residence, and the Parliament, seven minutes on the tramway to get to the business district and Rockliffe Park (at that time, a tramway connected Rockliffe to downtown Ottawa). The land was also susceptible to appreciate in value : the Canadian government was planning urban construction for the surrounding areas, such as the demolition of nearby factories, and the landscaping of a public garden.

The price of the property, $80, 000 Canadian, was high. The French government, however, knew there wasn’t a better location. The buyer credits were voted on the 30th of November, 1931. The bill of sale was signed on December 31st, 1931, between Ms. Mary Alberta Blackburn, and Mr. Arsène Henry, French Ambassador.

Negotiating the land :

Download the purchase letter sent to the Department
(PDF: 1837 Ko)

The land negotiations were not easy. The purchase bid was pushed back several times, and the owner of the property, Arthur Blackburn, who was amongst the millionaires of the city, was reputed as an avid businessman. He refused to rent out his property without a formal guarantee of buy, and reclaimed interest payments (the purchase bid had expired), as well as
reimbursement for the furniture in the house : an electric stove, rideaux-stores, garden tools, and a safe. France refused to pay : the country had always stated that it never had any intention to buy those articles. Eventually, France agreed to buy some of them.
The Ambassador at the time, Arsène Henry, didn’t hesitate to show his annoyance. In a telegram addressed to Paris, he wrote : “Mr. Blackburn, who collected an unexpected sum for his property is obviously trying to exploit us, he is well-known in these parts for his miserly, and underhanded spirit. I am giving myself the permission to consider it difficult, and unpleasant to go see him just to give a negative answer, which he will certainly take with his lack of education, and his customary bad character. Moreover, I am in bad terms with him, personally, for reasons however, that have nothing to do with the present business. ”

Enlarging the land :

In January 1938, while construction was in process, France bought the Lemay property for $25,000 : a section that separated the Embassy from the edge of the cliff. The land was thus sensibly enlarged.
At the same time, the province of Ontario gave, for one symbolic dollar, an alluvium strip of land at the bottom of the cliff. The Ottawa River thus became the limits of the property.

What did the district resemble at the time?

The district was, at that time, essentially industrial. The Rideau Falls, which constituted an important source of hydraulic energy, attracted several industries : flour-mill, clothing factories, and notably, a sawmill, managed by an American entrepreneur, originally from Vermont, named Joseph Currier, who eventually became a deputy of the federal Parliament.

At number 24 (the Prime Minister’s actual residence, which is next to the Embassy) lived Senator Edwards, whose fortune was based on the lumber industry. In 1868, Deputy Currier built this beautiful villa, entitled “Gorffwysa,” meaning the “haven of peace,” as a wedding gift to his young bride. In 1943, it became the official residence of the Prime Minister.

At number 36 lays the imposing residence of the Lemay family, whose chief, Tertulien, a very well known businessman, had passed away some 10 years previously. At that time, his children lived in the house : Oscar, Juliette, Yvonne, Alice, and Evangeline. Their property was bought by France in 1938 in order to enlarge the land, and the house was demolished.

At number 62 (the actual Embassy) lived Arthur and Minnie Blackburn, a rich family from Ottawa who had lived in that house for 60 years. The Blackburn family sold the property in 1931 to France.


Choosing an architect
The architectural project

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