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Remember This? Ogilvy's

Ogilvy’s began operations on Nov. 18, 1887 at 92 Rideau Street near Mosgrove Street, now roughly the location of the Rideau Centre.
ogilvy
Charles Ogilvy, circa 1901.

CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in Ottawa's history.

Once upon a time, Ottawa was the home of many high-quality, independent department stores.

The discriminating shopper had a choice between Devlin’s and Murphy-Gamble on Sparks Street and Freiman’s, Ogilvy’s, Larocque’s, and Caplan’s only a short walk away on Rideau Street. However, one by one, they succumbed to changing tastes and the formidable competitive power of the national chain stores, such as Simpson-Sears, Eaton’s and The Bay. The last to fall was the doyen of the group—Ogilvy’s. The store, which could not compete with the opening of the glitzy Rideau Centre in 1983, was sold in 1984, lost its name in 1989, and was shuttered for good in 1992. 

Ogilvy’s began operations on Nov. 18, 1887 at 92 Rideau Street near Mosgrove Street, now roughly the location of the Rideau Centre. Its proud owner was Charles Ogilvy, a devout, Scottish-born Presbyterian, who was only 23 years old at the time, but already had twelve years’ experience in the dry-goods business, working for the firm Elliott & Hamilton in Ottawa.  His small shop measured only twenty by thirty feet, and employed two others besides himself—Bob Halkett, a clerk, and John Pittaway, the messenger boy.

From those humble beginnings, the store, originally known as Charles Ogilvy’s, prospered under its “one-price” policy. It quickly became respected for its truth in advertising and the attention it paid to customers. Charles Ogilvy and his two colleagues worked long hours. Pittaway arrived at 7:30 a.m. each day to sweep out the shop, refresh the displays and otherwise get the shop ready for business. The store stayed open late at night, even past midnight, to accommodate shoppers dropping in to pick up items that had been set aside for them earlier in the day. This close attention to customer service paid off. Within a year, the firm had expanded to include 94 Rideau Street next door. And by 1900, it had grown further to encompass 96 and 98 Rideau Street as well.

In 1903, Charles Ogilvy bought the Doran property, then occupied by a number of shacks, at the corner of Rideau and Nicholas Streets for $17,500 in anticipation of future expansion. The site was considered to be one of the best commercial properties in Lower Town. Ogilvy’s dream was realized four years later when he constructed a new store on this site. The modern, three-storey, steel and concrete building was designed by Ottawa architect Werner E. Noffke of the firm Messrs. Northwood & Noffke. Before designing the structure, Noffke visited similar stores across Canada and the United States for the latest ideas. Noffke chose a classical design for the new department store with simple Grecian accents. Its external cladding consisted of buff-coloured brick with trimmings of Indiana limestone. The building’s biggest innovation was the large display windows that lined Rideau and Nicholas Streets. Its interior fittings were of a rich, golden oak.

Charles Ogilvy’s moved to its new premises at 126 Rideau in August 1907. On the ground floor was a large men’s wear department, a special counter for the “justly celebrated Ladies’ Home Journal Patterns,” silks, gloves, hosiery, underwear, ladies’ neckwear, ribbons, laces, and embroidery. Customers had their choice of taking a broad staircase or an elevator up to the second floor where the Ladies’ Ready-to-Wear Department was located. Also on that floor women could purchase corsets and “whitewear.” As well, fashions for infants and children were located on this floor as were home furnishings. The third floor housed dress-making rooms for those people who might have purchased patterns and fabric on the ground floor. Reserve stock was stored in the basement, also the location of lockers and staff toilets.

In 1908, the store was incorporated as a limited liability company, with the new firm known as Charles Ogilvy Ltd. The share capital of the company was $150,000 divided into 7,500 shares with a par value of $20. Ogilvy gave shares to some of his long-time employees, including William McGiffin, and John Pittaway, the company’s former messenger boy twenty-one years earlier. Pittaway later became a director of the firm and the superintendent of the store’s operations.

Ogilvy’s continued to prosper, with an extension added to the rear of the building to Besserer Street in 1917. This addition effectively doubled the floor space of the firm. Later, Charles Ogilvy bucked the Great Depression, adding a fourth floor to the business in 1931 and a fifth in 1934. A parking lot was also purchased near the store in 1938 to accommodate 100 cars. A cafeteria was set up on Besserer Street for employees in 1947, where lunches could be had at cost or less along with coffee, cold drinks and sandwiches for staff during their morning and afternoon breaks.

The expanding store offered a wide range of additional departments and services, including workshops for upholstery and fur coats, a power tool shop, a “Sportsman’s Lodge, a full-range furniture store, and an electrical department, offering the latest innovations in home appliances, such as electric refrigerators, ranges and vacuum cleaners, with specially trained staff on hand to help guide the customer in the use of her new purchase.

Much of Ogilvy’s success was due to the firm’s treatment of its employees which rose in numbers from three in 1887 to more than 600 by 1953. Staff were treated well, especially through the dark years of the Great Depression when not one person was let go. Service people were also given half pay while in the armed forces, with a job guaranteed for them on demobilization. Moreover, Charles Ogilvy gave shares in the firm to long-time employees. Indeed, the department store became owned by its employees after Ogilvy’s death in 1950. Employees were additionally given a benefit package far superior to that offered by most enterprises at the time, including a group life and health insurance plan, a retirement annuity plan, and a shorter work week to permit better work-life balance. Employees were also members of The Employees’ Club of Charles Ogilvy, or the 'ECCO Club' for short, which hosted sporting and social events and even had a recreation centre on the Rideau River. The company had a hockey team for a time called the Ogilvy’s Dry Goods Earthquakes.

Charles Ogilvy died in January 1950, leaving a relatively small estate of less than $300,000. His chief beneficiary was his second wife, Elizabeth Johnstone Kennedy Ogilvy, who he had married in 1947. (His first wife of many years, Elizabeth Roby Addison, had died in 1946.) He also left shares in Ogilvy’s to key employees, including to the faithful John Pittaway who was still attached to the firm. A provision of his will left the family residence at 488 Edison Avenue to his wife for her use until her death after which it would be given to Charles Ogilvy’s Ltd as a rest and convalescence home for employees. Also after the death of his wife, the residue of his estate was to be divided equally among Ottawa charities, including the May Court Club, Union Mission, the Victorian Order of Nurses, the Ottawa Day Nursery, the Salvation Army, the Lady Grey Hospital, the Perley Home, and the Ottawa Association for the Blind.

The department store continued to flourish after Charles Ogilvy’s death through the 1950s and 1960s. The Ogilvy’s Annex, a two-storey addition on the western side of the main building, was added in 1960. Two new outlets were opened at Billings Bridge and at Lincoln Fields, and staff increased to 700-800 persons. However, in 1969, Ogilvy’s main store on Rideau Street suffered a major fire with damages estimated at $1.2 million. The store lost its entire stock and was closed for close to three weeks. Other retail outlets were also affected by the three-hour blaze including Trudel Hardware, Classy Formal Wear and the Guardsman Restaurant.

While Ogilvy’s recovered from this blow, the store then began to feel the competitive pressures from the big nation retail chain stores that entered the Ottawa market in the early 1970s. Profitability declined. But the big blow came in 1983 with the opening of the Rideau Centre just a few steps to the west of Ogilvy’s main store. After posting a profit of $482,000 on sales of $23.2 million in 1982, Ogilvy’s lost $280,000 on sales of $25.4 million in 1983. The firm never returned to profitability.

After months of dickering, the 240 shareholders of Charles Ogilvy Ltd. sold the business outright to Joseph Segal and his partner John Levy, the owners of Robinson’s, a regional department store chain based in Hamilton, Ontario. The price was $10.9 million, of which $10 million represented the value of the Rideau Street main store. This valued the business along with its inventory at less than $1 million. The shareholders, mostly store employees, did well out of the deal. They received $87 per share, half in cash and half in preferred shares in Robinson’s payable in full by 1989. This compared to $20-25 they had paid for their shares originally.

Segal and Levy immediately sold the Rideau Street main building for $10 million to a subsidiary of Comark Inc., the operator of high-fashion ladies’ fashion stores. The Ottawa retail business, now called Robinson-Ogilvy, was consolidated onto the first two floors and the basement of the Rideau Street building, which the firm rented on a long lease from Comark. The upper floors were rented out to other businesses. The Robinson’s chain also invested $2 million in upgrades to attract a more youthful clientele.

The investment failed. In 1986, Segal and Levy sold the Robinson’s chain of stores including the three Robinson-Ogilvy stores in Ottawa to Comark Services Inc, the firm that owned Irene Hill and Brettons. But Comark also struggled to make a go of it. Ogilvy’s, once the largest department store in Ottawa, now had less than one half of the floor space of Eaton’s or The Bay. Moreover, it never found its niche market, and struggled to re-build customer loyalty. The firm also lost the loyalty of its staff owing to layoffs.

In 1989, in a last-ditch effort to rebrand itself, the Ogilvy name was dropped, leaving the firm to operate solely as Robinson’s. The chain briefly opened a big branch store in the new Place d’Orléans Mall in the East end, but it was quickly forced to sell that business to The Bay in May 1992. The following month, the firm that Charles Ogilvy had started in 1887 disappeared into history.

The mortal remains of the firm—the old head office building on Rideau Street—remained. Vacant, the building was purchased in 1995 by Viking Rideau Corp. with a view to incorporating the structure into the Rideau Centre. In 2000, the five-story building was designated as having historical and architectural significance under the Ontario Heritage Act. However, Viking Rideau objected to this designation and sought permission from Ottawa City Council to demolish the building. Heritage organizations, especially Heritage Ottawa, strenuously objected. In the end, an agreement was reached to conserve the original three-storey façade along Rideau and Nicholas Streets. This agreement was carried out by Cadillac Fairview as part of a larger renovation of the neighbourhood in 2015 following its purchase of the building from Viking Rideau.

 

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