Downtown Rideau has played a central role in Ottawa's commercial and retail sectors since shortly after the area was first settled more than 170 years ago. Lt. Col. John By arrived in 1826 to begin construction of the Rideau Canal in 1826 and Rideau Street formed part of an original route to Montreal. Just one year later in 1827, Rideau Street emerged as the primary commercial district serving the residents of Lower Town and Upper Town, which it neatly divided. Underground sewers and drains were eventually installed on Rideau Street in 1850. The next year, a sidewalk on the north side of the street was built, and a public water well was installed at the intersection of Rideau and Dalhousie streets. Gas lamps first appeared along Rideau Street in 1854. Despite the significance of the street, it remained unpaved until 1895.Until this time, merchants were forced to sprinkle water on the street twice a day to keep dust from entering their stores and spoiling merchandise.
As the settlement called ByTown grew, it officially became Ottawa in 1855. Rideau Street continued to thrive. In 1857 Queen Victoria declared Ottawa the capital of Canada. With this distinction came the parliament buildings and an influx of Federal civil servants. Nearby, Rideau Street's clientele was thereby expanded by these new residents.
1889 The Department Store Era
The introduction of the department store in late 19th century had a significant influence on the appearance and structure of Downtown Rideau. In 1889, T. Lindsay and Co. opened Ottawa's first multi-purpose department store, and by 1901, the north side of Rideau Street accommodated 3 such businesses. Each store was located in a multi-storey building fronting on 2 streets-Rideau and George. This marked the beginning of Rideau Street's reign as the premier-shopping district in Ottawa, as it became known for its many high quality department stores.
A.J. Frieman's Department Store, now home to The Bay, was Ottawa's largest. Ogilvy's, located on the south side of Rideau Street across from Frieman's emphasized quality and personal service. Two other department stores-Caplan's and Larogue's-served a broad clientele on both sides of the Ottawa River. By the 1920s, Rideau Street was home to upwards of 50 family-owned retail establishments. These retailers included L.E. Stanley, McKerracher-Wanless, Beardsley's Shoes, Dworkin Furs, Edelson Jewellers, Letellier Shoes and Trudel Hardware. Some of these stores continue to operate in Downtown Rideau today.
1916 Architectural Landmarks
The construction of 3 important buildings anchoring the western limits of Rideau Street at Sussex Drive also had a significant impact on the appearance and structure of Rideau Street. The Transportation Building, (10 Rideau St. and now an office tower attached to the Rideau Centre) erected in 1916, represents a variation on the Chicago Style of architecture introduced in the 1880's using innovative technology that led to the construction of tall commercial buildings. Ottawa's main rail terminal, Union Station (2 Rideau St. and future home of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame), was completed in 1916. In that same year, the Chateau Laurier Hotel (1 Rideau St.), with a reputation as the most luxurious hotel in Ottawa, was built. This reputation remains, with the Chateau Laurier continuing to host a great many parliamentarians, foreign dignitaries, and celebrities. All three of these buildings remain prominent assets of Downtown Rideau. The intersection of Rideau and Sussex Drive continues to be one of the most prestigious commercial addresses in Canada and the world.
The 60's and 70's- Suburban Competition
In the year's following the Second World War, Downtown Rideau, like many other downtown districts, faced increasing competition from new suburban shopping centres, many of which were anchored by department stores. By the 1970s, this increase in retail competition was compounded in Downtown Rideau when the federal government moved 18% of its downtown workforce to Hull, Quebec. For the first time in its 144-year commercial hierarchy history, Downtown Rideau began to experience a loss of downtown shoppers, and many of its family-owned businesses began to close.
As Downtown Ottawa faced a rapidly declining consumer market share throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the local, provincial and federal governments took decisive action to improve the situation. The number, location, and size of regional shopping facilities in Ottawa were restricted and massive investment into public transit downtown occurred. In particular, $166 million was spent on the Rideau Area Project-a joint undertaking of the local, provincial, and federal governments and a consortium of private developers, in 1983. The centerpiece of the Project was the redevelopment of a 35-acre parcel east of the Rideau Canal with frontage on both Rideau Street and Colonel By Drive. On this site, the Rideau and Ottawa Congress Centres were built, along with the 475 room Westin Hotel. The Rideau Centre is the largest regional shopping facility in Ottawa with 1.1 million square feet. It includes the Sears department store and over 180 retail outlets. The Congress Centre is Ottawa's premier trade and convention facility.
1993 Redevelopment Project
In the early 1990s with the recognition that the Rideau Area Project had failed, a further $4.2 million dollar investment in Rideau Street was made by Downtown Rideau property owners and businesses and the City of Ottawa. The purpose of this project was to restore Rideau Street to its previous function as a commercial mainstreet, major east/west artery and an open-air, pedestrian-friendly place.
Among the primary physical renovations to Rideau Street was the removal of the transit mall's pedestrian glass enclosures, which obstructed views of storefronts and straitening of the roadway. Mixed-use vehicles and two-way traffic was returned and streetscaping elements were added that complements the architectural character of Downtown Rideau's historic buildings. These efforts have had the effect of returning Rideau Street to a conventional "mainstreet", by knitting Downtown Rideau back into Ottawa's bustling urban fabric both functionally and visually, and creating a new pedestrian-friendly atmosphere to attract more Ottawans and visitors to Rideau Street.
The importance of Downtown Rideau today as Ottawa's Arts & Theatre District and retail centre stems from its historic role as the primary commercial district of early Ottawa. Located just one block east of Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal, Downtown Rideau did, and still does, provide a focus for the region's shopping, hotel and meeting activities. The proximity of Downtown Rideau's main street- Rideau Street- to many of the capital's local and national landmarks and attractions further enhances Downtown Rideau's role as the centre of activity in the City of Ottawa.