INTERESTING OTTAWA HOMES #3 - 55 JULIANA RD By Roderick Bell (Article)


 Roderick Bell


This article is the third in a series on “interesting houses in Ottawa”.  The writer Roderick Bell, the owner and occupant of this house, is a retired Canadian Diplomat.  He tells his story below: 


Falling in love with a House "

Real  estate agents frequently tell prospective clients that a  cardinal rule for the buyer is not to fall in love with one house and  close their eyes and minds to other possibilities.

Love precludes the  best deal, so the belief goes.  Like most maxims, there are grains of  truth in this head-over-heart rule. But surely the choice of a house,  which will become a home, is also a decision of some intimacy in which  the heart should have its say. In any event I ignored the common  wisdom. There was only one house for me. I have no regrets. I first visited the house some twenty years ago, a guest invited for  Easter dinner. Its distinctive twentieth century modernism made a  radical statement, not least in the company of the unexciting  Rockcliffe Park traditionalism of its neighbours. In subsequent years,  I would often pass by the house on weekend walks and would always stop  to admire its sharp, clean, angular lines which, while contrasting  with the softer contours of the woods which surround it, nonetheless  seem to rise naturally from the trees. I was starting to obsess. Some years after that Easter dinner, I was back in the Middle East on  a posting. A friend, who knew how much the house interested me,  contacted me in Riyadh to say that the house was on the market. Days  later, again it was Easter; I flew back to Ottawa, bought the house,  concluded the sale in several frantic days and headed back to Saudi  Arabia, all in impulsive defiance of that golden rule of real estate  experts.


Its History

The house has an interesting provenance. It was built in 1955 by the  architect Hart Massey on commission from George Ignatieff. Massey,  great-grandson, of the founder of the farm implement firm and scion of  a Canadian family also prominent in philanthropy and Methodism, was  also a first cousin of Mrs. Allison Grant Ignatieff.  His father, Vincent Massey, was the first Canadian-born Governor General of this country.  To this pedigree, I note that the  house has been owned by three Canadian diplomats. Some may think that  does not add much to its lustre.

Following his degree at Oxford, Hart Massey worked in London for a  British architect and traveled widely on the continent where he was  deeply affected by developments in European architecture, especially  those architects in the tradition of the German Bauhaus school (Walter  Gropius, Mies van der Rohe et al). Their practical, minimalist  aesthetic which rejected the copying of historical styles and all  external ornament made a formative impression on Massey.

Massey returned to Canada in the early 1950's and opened a small  office in Ottawa. The Ignatieff house was one of his earliest projects, certainly the first of his limited series of private residences. His  later houses, all in Ottawa, are often more complex and dramatic  structures than the Ignatieff house, not least the prize-winning  house he built for himself on Mackay Lake. But the essence of his  modernism is stated simply and directly in the Ignatieff house. It was  his experiment from which the later houses evolved.

Its Sense of Place
The Ignatieff house is a simple cubist structure with the keynote flat  roof of the modernist school, as well as its clean lines and straight  edges. It is devoid of all ornament; it is all sharp angles and straight lines. Its facade is quite naked; it hides nothing for there  is nothing to hide.  The modules of the house also fit the steep, treed hillside property on which the house is built. Indeed you can see in the otherwise spacious basement space the progressively lower ceilings in the storage areas as the house rises up the hill.  The landscaping itself was left largely unadorned and retains the maple forest that was probably always a feature of the rough landscape.

On a street of 1950's conformity, the Ignatieff house makes a very strong statement. It would be interesting to know contemporary public reaction to the house. My guess is that there would have been considerable muttering in hidebound Rockcliffe Village. We do know that the G-G visited the finished house in 1954 for a vice- regal blessing.

Hart Massey
In his relatively brief career, cut short by ill health, Hart Massey always  maintained a small practice; he was not interested in an architectural  assembly line. Colleagues who worked with him still recall his great  attention to detail and his interest in exploring the possibilities of  the new materials and new technologies of the 20th century (e.g.: the  sculptured concrete of the Sir John Carling Building which Massey designed).  As for his  private commissions, one academic writer has recently described his  domestic output as "every house is a jewel".  It is interesting that  in retirement he did begin designing and making jewelry. Of course the Ignatieff house and subsequent, more complex Massey  houses are not to all tastes. After almost sixty years the house can  still raise hackles. While working in the garden one day, I was told  by one passerby that the house looked as if it should be in a trailer  park. Oh well, he was at least honest. It is ironic that when  architects of the 21st century have moved on from the 20th century's  so-called Inernational Style, inspired by Bauhaus, some of us are  still bothered and upset by a movement which began in the early  decades of the last century. Over the years, Hart Massey's role as an advocate in Canada for  architectural modernism has been neglected by the critical community  and by the academy, perhaps due to his personal modesty and to his  refusal to trade on his family's prominence. In addition his output  was limited.  The limit, however, was never in the quality. It is  gratifying that the wheel is turning and that the architectural  community is again turning its attention to his work and to his  contribution to Canadian artistic history.”

Rod Bell

This series draws on the support of Heritage Ottawa

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