Boastful mansions; by architect John W.H. Watts

Like so many great architects, Ottawa's John W.H. Watts blurred the boundary between artist and architect.

Watts, who leaves a legacy of several outstanding Ottawa mansions, was born and trained in England. By the time he immigrated to Canada in 1874, art and architecture were under the spell of William Morris, whose Arts and Crafts movement sought to recapture the quality and spirit of medieval craftsmanship, a reaction against the machine-made products of the industrial revolution.

Watts, who worked for the Chief Dominion Architect for 23 years, was the first curator for the National Gallery of Canada and a founding member of the Royal Canadian Academy. At the Academy, Watts must have rubbed shoulders with George Reid, a major proponent of Morris' work and founder, in 1903, of the Canadian Arts and Crafts Movement.

Four of Watts's paintings are in the National Gallery collection.

In 1897, when Watts set up private practice, Ottawa was the home of many very wealthy entrepreneurs. Most are long gone, but photographs of the time show that north end Bronson and the Sandy Hill cliffs over the Rideau were full of the huge, boastful mansions of lumber barons, railway builders and merchants.

The Laurentian Club

J.R. Booth was so impressed with Watts' work for his son-in-law and daughter Gertrude that at the ripe old age of 82 he commissioned a huge mansion at 252 Metcalfe (now proudly cared for by the Laurentian Club).

Its style is a more formal and static composition, combining classical and medieval elements in a set of elaborately gabled facades.

To get to this heart of the house, one passes through the front entrance with its mosaic floor, then through a formal anteroom lit by patterned cut-glass transoms. Suddenly, it is like arriving at a sort of domestic town square.

To the right, the most spectacular element is a grand staircase on the north-west wall. Flanked by two stout ionic columns, the stairs split at mid-landing before ascending in reverse direction to a room-size second-storey foyer. The landing is bathed in light by a mammoth art window of leaded glass intricately patterned in the same "tree-of-life" pattern found in the first Fleck house.

In the summer, this window that celebrates life casts a rich western light across wood. And what wood it is. Swedish carvers were employed at $1 a day to convert Watts' Morris-derived patterns into three-dimensional sculpture. The bottom half of each of the columns has the distinct organic patterning of Morris' wood blocks.

Each of the main rooms features a different wood, including maple, oak, mahogany and cherry.

Instead of wallpaper, the entire three floors of the central halls are covered in thick Arts-and-Crafts tapestry. Through careful maintenance, its medieval motif remains in excellent condition.

On the south-east side, the parlor's abundant decorative trim plays second fiddle to a dominating, carved wooden arch. This bold gesture opens to a large inglenook containing one of Watts' massive, ornate fireplaces.

Smack in the middle of the inglenooks's carved top piece is a curiously blank crest. Alas, the knighthood and accompanying crest Booth desired and expected never came. But this oversight hardly takes away the pleasure of a window of brilliant colors, reputed to be a Tiffany, that casts its magic across the space.

Rhys Phillips
The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, January 29, 1994