"Often imitated, never duplicated" best describes Wallis House, both a city landmark and an award-winning historical redevelopment that has become Ottawa's benchmark for genuine loft living. Aside from being the city's first loft conversion, Wallis House further served to revitalize the east end of Rideau Street as well as preserving a significant federal heritage property.
Built in 1873, Wallis House started life as the County of Carleton Protestant General Hospital, designed by Ottawa architect Robert Surtees who also designed the Arts Court building at the corner of Nicholas and Daly. Its long and colourful history continued from there as a training institute for nurses and a seminary for the Catholic Archdiocese before it was purchased by the federal government to serve as headquarters for the Women's Royal Naval Service.
It was at this time named Wallis House after Provo William Parry Wallis, a Canadian-born Admiral of the British Fleet. Wallis House carried on in service as a refuge for post-war squatters, a recruiting centre for the Korean War, and lastly a storage depot for military weapons until until 1990 when it was decared surplus by DND and put up for sale for a cool $4.2 million.
Although the City of Ottawa had originally hoped to develop non-profit residential units on the property, there was no interest from the private sector at this price for a building that the federal government had classified as an environmental hazard. Rumours abounded that the building would be demolished.
A public and media outcry ensued. With the objective of preserving Wallis House, the City negotiated a partnership with Andrex Holdings headed by Sandy Smallwood, a developer specializing in the renovation of heritage properties, and the site was purchased from the federal government in 1994 for $320,000.
The City developed 60 non-profit units at Lady Stanley Place, but for Mr. Smallwood the hard work was just beginning as he related to the Ottawa Citizen earlier this year: "The roof had leaked and collapsed in areas and there was water damage everywhere, not to mention asbestos and other hazards... It was appalling how they'd just let it go... [But] what was remarkable was that for all the damage, the structure was sound. It was made from massive virgin timbers, stone and brick."
With an estimated cost of $2 million for the envrionmental cleanup alone, Mr. Smallwood raised initial capital by selling off part of the property's 2.5 acres of land to Domicile, who subsequently developed Brigadier's Walk, an enclave of 24 freehold townhouses facing Macdonald Gardens.
The next year was spent on masonry repair and detailing, restoration of the original glassworks and flooring, and tearing down plaster to uncover the brick and stone walls, to name just some of the work done in conjunction with the ReDevelopment Group. In fact, each of Wallis House's 46 lofts was designed around the unique features originally found within the building and the original purchasers in 1995 were further allowed to customize their own units.
The result was a ground breaking loft conversion with the first release of 20 units selling out in one weekend. The building now features some of the most stunning architectural space in Ottawa with interior courtyards, a rooftop garden, sunrooms, exposed beams, walls of brick and stone in all units, wrought iron staircase railings, 9' windows, 14" ceilings, restored hardwood flooring, and some very clever design work courtesy of local impresarios 2H and Urban Keios.
In every sense Wallis House is unique, distinct and historic: truly, how many other condo projects boast a former morgue in the basement?