Preliminary Report – The Ottawa Improvement Commission (1903)

1912: Annotations by Colborne P. Meredith

Ottawa Architect Colborne P. Meredith (1847-1967), an OIC commissioner, led the public criticism of the OIC’s implementation of Todd’s 1903 report.  Meredith’s criticisms are reproduced in the endnotes to each section of Todd’s report.

 In 1910, Meredith was young, aggressive and well-connected. [1]  The Commission had become a bit stodgy by 1910, and there was a whiff of scandal concerning their operations.[2] If Prime Minister Laurier wanted the young Meredith to stir things up, he got more than he bargained for.  After the OIC ignored his suggestions that they hire design consultants, Meredith started a well-co-ordinated lobby to destroy their reputations and take control of a new plan for the nation’s capital.[3]   He formed a loose affiliation with Ottawa engineer Noulon Cauchon and Mawson to pursue the commission himself.

At first, Meredith did not seem to be aware of Todd’s 1903 report and suggested that the Olmsted firm be retained to prepare a plan.[4]  Meredith visited the Olmsted office in an unofficial basis in 1910 to sound them out, but took no further action.[5]  He finally wrote Todd requesting a copy of his Preliminary Report in October 1911 following the victory of Robert Borden’s Conservative Party in federal elections.[6]  Todd realized that the new regime might offer some possibilities and offered to meet with Meredith.  Todd also wrote to Mawson offering his services, perhaps not realising that the English landscape architect was working with Meredith.  Meredith tried to coax Todd into publicly criticizing the OIC, but without success.

Meredith’s objective was an elite commission of technical experts to supervise preparation of a comprehensive plan.  His model was based upon Washington’s successful experience with the 1902 Senate Parks Commission (McMillan Commission).[7] The new prime minister turned Meredith’s lobbying to his political advantage. After Mawson’s attacks, Sir Wilfrid Laurier defended the OIC in Parliament, claiming that Todd’s long-forgotten 1903 Preliminary Report had guided the Commission.[8]   Meredith responded by sending Borden a detailed and confidential memo that critiqued the Todd report section by section, but also attacked the OIC in the severest terms:

“. . .the Commission has, from the first, carried on its work in a most unbusinesslike way, and persists to continue doing so notwithstanding all the criticisms that have been made, and are content to have the general park scheme, the engineering work and the designing of structures requiring artistic training done by a so-called superintendent, who is nothing more than a bricklayer”.[9]

The prime minister asked for permission to include Meredith’s analysis of the 1903 Report in a government policy paper on Ottawa planning.  Meredith agreed, either not understanding the furore his remarks would cause, or perhaps relishing it.  The policy paper included the RAIC memoranda, the criticism of Unwin and Mawson, the entire text of the Todd report and Meredith’s critique.[10]  It was front-page news in the Ottawa newspapers, with headlines like “Merciless Analysis of Commission’s Work.”[11]

The OIC responded by co-opting Frederick Todd and mounting a public relations campaign.  The commission issued a beautifully printed report, lavishly illustrated with pictures of its new parks and driveways.[12]

Todd was offered the design and supervision of park improvements for a seven-acre site on abandoned cemeteries in downtown Ottawa.  Not coincidentally, the lands were directly across the street from Prime Minister Borden’s new house.  Meredith had been keeping Todd in the dark while secretly trying to force the OIC into giving the commission to Mawson and his Canadian associate, Horace Dunnington-Grubb.[13]  The OIC contacted Todd in September 1912. Having learned from previous experience with the OIC, Todd prepared a detailed cost estimate and contract before commencing the design.[14]  Meredith had enough gall to write Todd congratulating him on the commission.[15]

Todd designed a charming urban park, with a shelter on the highest point and a view to Parliament Hill (Figure 5).  Without blushing, Laurier’s Liberal OIC appointees named it Macdonald Gardens after the famous leader of the Conservative party and Canada’s first prime minister. The Commission also sent their workmen to improve the grounds of Borden’s home.  These political gestures and low-level bribery did not work.  The prime minister may have been flattered, but he continued to cut the OIC out of future planning initiatives.[16] 

Meredith, Mawson and Noulan Cauchon intensified lobbying for an expert commission to prepare the new Ottawa plan, on the 1902 Washington model.  Borden wanted a process that was under his direct political control, rather than an independent panel of expert professionals.  Senior staff discreetly assembled a group of prominent Conservative businessmen in a new Federal Plan Commission (FPC), chaired by Herbert Holt, a railroad engineer and president of the Royal Bank.[17]  Adding Hull to the FPC’s mandate followed Todd’s recommendation.  It was also an astute political move, since the Québec side of the Ottawa River had realized few benefits from the Ottawa’s designation as the seat of government, and received little attention from the OIC.

The FPC ignored Meredith and Mawson’s lobby and had retained Edward H. Bennett of Chicago as its consulting architect and planner.[18]   After the appointment of Bennett, Frederick Todd was on the outside again, but at least he had designed one park.  It was his last commission in Ottawa.

Notes by David L.A. Gordon

[1] His mother was Fanny Jarvis, a member of a prominent Toronto family, and his father was Edmund Allen Meredith, first Under-Secretary of State for the Dominion of Canada.  For an autobiographical essay see, CPM papers, Vol. 9, Rambling Recollections, “I” and Gwyn, op. cit., p. 219-220. Laurier appointed Meredith to the OIC despite his Conservative Party background, perhaps because he was active in the executive of the Ontario Architectural Association and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada. See Chas. Murphy (OIC Secretary) letter to Hal McGiverin M.P. August 3rd, 1910, copy in WL correspondence, pp. 179663-4.  It is not clear whether Meredith was also artistically talented.  Only a few of his designs survived, including the former Murphy Gamble department store.

[2]  Ottawa Citizen, “The Glebe Streets: Infusion of a new spirit into the Ottawa Improvement Commission”, April 20th, 1904; Letter from Charles Murphy to W.S. Fielding, Minister of Finance, August 9, 1910, Laurier papers, MF 214, 85188-85190; Letter from T.C. Boville, Deputy Min. of Finance, to OIC, August 24, 1910, calling attention to the Commission’s over-expenditure of $108,416.42 relating to public works and maintenance. Boville also made “some suggestions as to the carrying on of the Commission’s business.” CPM files, vol.11;

[3] Meredith chaired the conference of the Ontario Association of Architects in Ottawa in 1911, and also headed the Ottawa chapter of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada that year.  He arranged for the RAIC and the associations of Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta to send briefs to the government attacking the policies of the Department of Public Works and the OIC.  The RAIC report is included in a “blue paper” issued by the federal government:  Report and Correspondence of the Ottawa Improvement Commission. 2 George V. Sessional Paper No. 51a. Ottawa:  C.H. Parmelee, 1912.  For Meredith’s behind-the-scene orchestration of events, see CPM Vol. 6, files 42-44.

[4] OIC Minutes, Oct. 3, 1910.

[5]  Olmsted Bros. Papers, File 5070, “Ottawa City Plan, Ottawa Canada 1913-1914”

[6] Letter to W.B.S. Armstrong, (Civic Guild, Toronto) from CPM Sept. 25, 1911; letters to CPM from Todd October 26, 1911; to Todd from CPM October 27, 1911, CPM papers, Vol. 5, File 36, OIC 1911.

[7] For the McMillan Commission, see C. Moore, (ed.) The improvement of the park system of the District of Columbia, 57th Congress, 1st sess. S. Rept. 166. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1902  and also J. A. Peterson, “The Nation’s First Comprehensive City Plan: A Political Analysis of the McMillan Plan for Washington, DC, 1900-1902, Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 55, No. 2, Spring 1985, pp. 134-150.  On Daniel Burnham’s role as principal consultant to the commission, see DHB papers, and T. S. Hines, Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974, Ch. 7. The District of Columbia political model was also popular in Ottawa at the time.

[8] Laurier speech in House of Commons, January 12, 1912, Hansard, pp. 977-981.

[9] CPM to RLB, January 13, 1912.  Meredith also sent his memo to Laurier.  CPM to WL, June 13, 1912, CPM papers, 1912 correspondence file.

[10] Report and Correspondance of the Ottawa Improvement Commission, op. cit.

[11] “Merciless Analysis of Commission’s Work”, Ottawa Evening Journal, February 23, 1912.

[12] OIC 1913 Special Report, op. cit.

[13] Letters from CPM to Todd, April 16th, 1912; Todd to CPM, April 24, 1912; CPM to Todd, April 25, 1912, CPM papers, Vol. 6, File 42; OIC minutes, April 4 & May 6, 1912, show that Meredith introduced letters requesting the design commission from both Thomas Mawson and Horace Dunnington-Grubb, Mawson’s former employee, then practising in Toronto.

[14] Letters to Todd from Kearns (OIC Sec.) Sept. 21, 1912; to Kearns from Todd, Sept. 23, 1912; Memo and cost estimate to OIC from Todd, Sept 28, 1912; Letter from Kearns/Bate to Todd, Sept. 30,1912; OIC papers, Series B-1, Vol. 104, parts 1 & 2, Macdonald Gardens.

[15] Letters to CPM from Todd, Sept. 30, 1912; to Todd from CPM, Oct. 1, 1912: “…Mr. Kearns ‘phoned me yesterday for authority to accept your conditions, and it gave me great pleasure in telling him to write to you and go ahead with the work at once.” CPM papers, Vol. 6, file 42, OIC 1912.

[16]  Meredith repeatedly tried to pull Todd into the fray, encouraging him to put his disappointment with the OIC on the public record. CPM to Todd, January 18, 1912, CPM papers.  Todd gave Meredith copies of his report, but refused to condemn the government, presumably hoping for future commissions.  Todd to CPM, January 19, 1912, CPM papers.

[17]  The Deputy Minister of Finance approached Sir William Van Horne, the well-known former president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, but he declined. For the circumstances of the formation of the FPC, see the 1913 correspondence of the Deputy Minister of Finance in the OIC papers. Herbert Holt (1856-1941), president of the Royal Bank and Canadian Northern Railway was then recruited as the chair . Other Commission members included Montréal lawyer Sir Alexandre Lacoste, Toronto developer Robert Home Smith and architect Frank Darling. For Holt’s background, see T. Regehr, A Capitalist Plans the Capital,  unpublished paper to the Canadian Historical Society 1984 meeting.  Professor Gilbert Stelter’s suggestion that we review this paper is appreciated.  The background of the other members was obtained from the Cyclopaedia of Canadian Biography, H. C Charlesworth, (ed.) (Toronto,  The Hunter-Rose Company, Limited, 1919) and The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Canadian History. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1926) and Who’s Who and Why, (Toronto: International Press, 1914).

[18] Gordon, David L. A. “A City Beautiful Plan for Canada’s Capital: Edward Bennett and the 1915 plan for Ottawa and Hull.”  Planning Perspectives, 13, 275-300, 1998.  For Bennett’s background, see Draper, Joan, Edward Bennett: Architect and City Planner, 1874-1954.  Chicago:  Art Institute of Chicago, 1982.