CityNews, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the Ottawa's history.
July 31, 1984
On Tuesday, July 31, 1984, Caplan’s department store - a Rideau Street landmark for almost seventy years - closed its doors for the last time.
Many were confused regarding its date of closure. The Ottawa Citizen had erroneously reported that the store had shut the previous Saturday. It subsequently issued a correction apologizing for its error.
The department store had been the life work of Caspar and Dora Caplan. Caspar had arrived in Ottawa from Lithuania in 1892 with only 63 cents in his pocket. On his first day in business, as a door-to-door salesman, he reportedly sold some pens to a lady. It was a propitious sale. The lady in question remained a customer for the rest of her long life.
Caplan travelled around the city and outlying communities selling “small wares” from the back of his horse and buggy. With money scarce, he did a lot of his business through barter, exchanging his goods for dairy and farm produce.
From that small acorn did the mighty oak that was to become Caplan’s Department Store grow.
In 1897, Caplan married Dora Roston of Montreal. As a newly-married man, the life of an itinerant salesman no longer suited. In 1899, the couple opened a bricks-and-mortar shop in LeBreton Flats, on Queen Street West. Sadly, their building burned down in the Great Fire of 1900, forcing Caplan back onto the road.
In 1904, he and his wife opened another store, grandly called the Ottawa and Hull House Furnishing Company, at 491 Sussex St., in the building which later became the Jeanne d’Arc Institute. (The institute, which was operated by an order of nuns established by Mère Marie Thomas d’Aquin, became a boarding house for young, working women from 1917 to 1980. Today, the edifice is a registered Canadian heritage building.)
The Caplans’ small store, with floor space amounting to only 750 square feet, sold men’s and ladies’ fashions on the main floor, and linoleum in the basement. The couple had an apartment above their shop. Rent, amounting to $35 per month, included a stable for their horse.
Business boomed for the young, enterprising couple. Sussex Street was a thriving commercial area during the early 1900s, as it was close to the Bytown market, hotels and boarding houses.
On payday, people converged on the Caplans’ store to spend their hard-earned money. They were always warmly greeted, often by name. The store also appealed to those short of ready cash as the firm was an early adopter of the “weekly payment” business, a form of instalment credit. This was a risky venture as there were no credit agencies back in those days. Credit was extended on the basis of personal knowledge of their customers and trust.
The prospering company moved to larger quarters down the road at 557 Sussex Street in 1908. The new premises had 2,250 square feet of floor space. An arc electric light lit the street outside of the store. At that time, the expanding firm added a furniture department to its list of retail offerings.
Eight years later, the Caplans moved again. This time to their 135 Rideau St. location, which was to be their address for the next 68 years. The store was incorporated at the beginning of 1916 with a capitalization of $50,000.
The department store was dealt a serious setback in 1917 when a fire of unknown origin, swept through its furniture department. While the blaze was quickly extinguished, more than $15,000 damage was caused which was only partially covered by insurance. Undeterred, the Caplans persevered.
Caplan’s department store flourished through the Roaring Twenties, and even through the Great Depression.
In 1928, two new departments were added—shoes and children’s clothing. An elevator was also installed. Two years later, more land was purchased, with a big modernization program launched, both internally and externally. In 1937, a mezzanine floor was added for office space. The store also began to sell furs and electrical appliances. A toy department was added in 1938.
Plans to incorporate the adjoining building into the department store were put on hold owing to the beginning of World War II, and the illness of Caspar Caplan who retired from the business, leaving the operation of the department store in the hands of his wife Dora and their two sons, Samuel and Gordon. When Caspar died in 1943, Dora took over as president of the company.
After the war and through the 1950s, Caplan’s continued to expand.
In 1948, the company acquired the next-door premises. The first phase of a massive expansion plan was completed in 1951. New departments were added—cosmetics, costume jewellery, draperies, kitchenware, woollens, linen and chinaware in 1953, unpainted furniture, outdoor garden supplies, televisions and “wheeled” goods in 1954.
The external look of the building was also modernized with the addition of a marble veneer. By the time of its 50th anniversary in 1955, the store had about 45,000 square feet of floor space.
The store built its reputation of three things: reliable merchandise; a money-back guarantee for unsatisfactory goods; and excellent customer service.
Caplan’s was one of the first Ottawa stores to provide parking facilities for its customers—a major plus in an era of growing automobile ownership.
Caplan’s was also known for its good management-employee relations. The firm was reportedly one of the first in Ottawa to move to a five-day work week. Staff had their own recreation association as well as a bowling league. The company also sponsored social events. In the years before provincial health care, Caplan’s provided employees with a low-cost hospital plan as well as life insurance.
The Caplans were also active in the community.
Caspar Caplan was a founder of both the Jewish Community Council and of the Adath Jeshuran Synagogue, of which he was president from 1930 to 1935. Samuel Caplan followed in his father’s footsteps, and was the synagogue’s president during the 1950s. Gordon Caplan was active in the Kiwanis Club, the Ottawa Better Business Bureau, and was a founding member of the Rideau Street Merchants’ Association.
Despite ongoing efforts to keep pace with changing times, Caplan’s, like all of Ottawa’s big downtown department stores, began to lose ground during the 1960s and 1970s due to growing competition from suburban shopping centres.
In 1972, Caplan’s tried to fight back, launching a “million-dollar expansion.” It held back the tide for a time but it was not enough.
The final blow to Caplan’s fortunes was the building of the Rideau Centre in the early 1980s. Not only did foot traffic to the store plummet during the course of construction which closed Rideau Street for a time, but Caplan’s had a glossy, new competitor right across the street when a shopping complex opened for business in March 1983.
After trying to boost business by converting Caplan’s into a discount store, offering reductions of as much as 60 per cent on name-brand goods, George Caplan, the last head of the family-run business, called it quits in January 1984. He announced that most of the department store’s 40 departments would be closed, and its staff of 100 reduced. Only the fashion and accessories departments would be retained.
The first two floors of the Caplan building would be converted into a “mini-mall” of independent retailers, while the upper two floors would be leased as commercial office space. George Caplan also asked the company’s creditors to wait until the end of April 1984 to be paid in order to allow the firm time to re-organize itself.
The business owed roughly $1.6-million to secured creditors and $1.4-million to 470 unsecured creditors. Staff were also owed $30,000 in vacation pay. He stressed, however, that the firm was neither bankrupt nor in receivership.
Caplan’s creditors gave the firm more time. Indeed, the end-April deadline was extended by another 60 days. But sales continued to decline and losses rose. In mid-June, George Caplan confirmed what everybody knew was coming, that the family-owned firm would sell of its remaining stock and close for good.
The family would retire from the retail business and would henceforth concentrate on its real estate interests which included ownership of the Caplan building.
The Caplan family’s real estate firm, which was called the Ottawa House Furnishing Company, renovated the old department store building in 1984, and rented parts out to a variety of enterprises, including a BiWay discount outlet and a Moore's menswear clothing store. A Canada Employment Centre also opened in the building. CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas) had offices there as well.
Gordon Caplan, the son of founders Caspar and Dora Caplan, kept an office in the building until his death in 1990 at the age of 89.
In 1997, the building was purchased by the Canril Corporation, whose aim was to redevelop the site. Various proposals for the property came and went, including the construction of a casino, a cinema, and a sports museum.
With the old building becoming increasingly dilapidated, Canril sought permission to demolish it. This set in motion a battle between heritage supporters, City Council and the developers.
To make the situation more complex, any changes to the George Street side of the building were subject to city approval, owing to its location in the ByWard Market Heritage Conservation District. The same was not true, however, for the Rideau Street side, despite parts of it dating back to the 1870s and the façade being more architecturally and historically significant.
After several minor fires, and a “repair or demolish” order from the Ottawa Fire Marshal, agreement was finally reached with the city to demolish the old building in 2003, as long as any future development of the site included the construction of a replica façade of the old Caplan's building.
In 2005, Canril reached an agreement with the City of Ottawa to build a 19-storey condominium building on the site of the Caplan's building which would extend from 90 George St. to Rideau Street. As per the previous agreement with the city, the developer duly constructed a replica of the Rideau Street façade based on a precise imaging of the building that was made in 2000.
The new condominium tower opened for residents in 2009.