Remnants of Britannia's past as resort getaway up for heritage protection

The city wants to preserve summer homes that are more than a century old, but some of their modern inhabitants are worried they'll get stuck with decaying properties.

Residents worry it would leave them with rodents, mould, sagging foundations

An old white and green cottage in a riverside part of a city.
This cottage at 195 Bradford St. was once home to dentist and prominent yacht club member Mark McElhinney. It's now home to Malcolm Campbell, who worries the chilly cottage's days are numbered. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

The City of Ottawa wants to preserve Britannia Village's history as a summer resort, but some worry a heritage designation will leave them stuck with rickety homes close to ruin.

During a built heritage committee meeting on Tuesday, city staff initially recommended eight properties for heritage designation, most of them built as second homes for wealthy families who flocked to Britannia as a bucolic Ottawa River getaway.

Lesley Collins, the city's program manager for heritage planning, said the cottage community grew from "the Victorian ideals of taking the airs and getting out of the heat and dirt of the city in the summertime."

Britannia's "golden age" arrived with the streetcar around 1900, with most of the properties under consideration dating from that era or shortly before.

Wrapped in generous verandas, some come with rustic-sounding names like "The Pines" and "The Gables."

"It's a very unique story in Ottawa's history," said Collins. "It actually speaks to early ideas about transit and how transit can spur development."

Summers spent yachting on Ottawa River

The former inhabitants were businesspeople, civil servants and local officials from Nepean Township.

Many played a leading role in the early history of what's now the Britannia Yacht Club, whose 19th-century clubhouse was the eighth property on the designation list.

A yachting clubhouse's tower against a blue sky.
The clubhouse of the Britannia Yacht Club, which is also up for heritage designation and was a favourite haunt for many of the homeowners of the other properties. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

The original homeowner of 195 Bradford St., dentist Mark McElhinney, was a prominent member of the club. Malcolm Campbell now lives in that home.

He came to committee on Tuesday to ask it to hold off on the designation, at least until it can be checked by a structural engineer.

Campbell said people come by the home to "smile and remember how it was." But he said the house is chilly during winter, and sits on a foundation of timber and flagstone.

In his view, its original inhabitants could never have expected it to last 126 years.

"The stone is sagging, the wood is deteriorating and I'm getting dry rot. It's heartbreaking," Campbell said.

"I've painted it and loved it and done the basic sweat equity to the home, however I do believe it is approaching the finish line of its lifespan."

A man outside a city hall meeting room.
Campbell asked the city's built heritage committee to hold off on designating his home in Britannia Village, and staff recommended deferral. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Staff ultimately recommended deferring that designation to allow more time to consult with Campbell, who was out of the country as they worked with other residents. That left seven properties on the list.

The committee voted to designate all seven, sending them to council for final approval.

Bay Coun. Theresa Kavanagh called Britannia Village "a real jewel" in her ward, which doesn't usually see many heritage designations.

'It reminds them of the old times'

Heritage designation can mean complications for residents who want to renovate their properties, since alterations and additions require city approval.

Significant work or demolition requires council to weigh in through a process that can be time-consuming and expensive.

But designation also opens the door to grants that can help residents keep heritage properties in good repair.

While Campbell got a reprieve, Janet Durno didn't. She lives just down the street in a 120-year old cottage once inhabited by civil servant and yacht club member Ebenezer Stockton.

Now she's dealing with wet and mouldy insulation, an unusable fireplace and an unfortunate groundhog that died while shorting out her electrical system.

A white cottage built in 1904.
This cottage at 119 Bradford St. dates back to 1904. Its current owner says it has been infiltrated by rodents and mould. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

"I do value the heritage nature of Britannia, and for many years have maintained my old house at considerable cost, but I am very concerned about the proposal to designate it," she said.

"In my view the house is becoming increasingly fragile. It was built as a cottage with little storage space, no basement or proper foundation."

Collins called the reality in Britannia Village an "unusual situation," but noted that there are several heritage homes in Lowertown without modern foundations.

A grey house built around 1900.
The Turret Cottage at 205 Bradford St. was built in the Queen Anne Revival style around 1900. Its first owner was Frederick William Harner, clerk of Nepean Township from 1866 to 1905. (Michel Aspirot/CBC)

Campbell said he's studied the "wonderful history" of Britannia Village and respects the need to commemorate it, but he thinks some properties might be beyond saving.

"I can understand the city and people loving it because it reminds them of the old times and what it used to be like," he said. "Yet you are sort of stuck with that small cottage as your principal residence, so it's a little tricky."


Arthur White-Crummey is a reporter at CBC Ottawa. He has previously worked as a reporter in Saskatchewan covering the courts, city hall and the provincial legislature. You can reach him at