Historic Rochon Residence to become home for the arts

·4 min read
A major rehabilitation of the nearly 200-year-old Rochon Residence on St. Patrick Street in Ottawa's ByWard Market wrapped up this fall. The building's original pièce-en-pièce timber walls are now cladded in wood fibre boards that provide both insulation and protection. (Alistair Steele/CBC - image credit)
A major rehabilitation of the nearly 200-year-old Rochon Residence on St. Patrick Street in Ottawa's ByWard Market wrapped up this fall. The building's original pièce-en-pièce timber walls are now cladded in wood fibre boards that provide both insulation and protection. (Alistair Steele/CBC - image credit)
Alistair Steele/CBC
Alistair Steele/CBC

Perhaps you've passed it by and never really noticed the squat house with the long history near the corner of Sussex Drive and St. Patrick Street, on the very edge of the ByWard Market.

Yet there it has stood through nearly two centuries, staring north at Notre-Dame Cathedral and now the National Gallery of Canada.

Just like the early logging town of which it's an increasingly rare relic, the little white building is sturdy, unobtrusive and built from timber.

Now the National Capital Commission (NCC) is giving the early 1830s-era Rochon Residence a new lease on life in more ways than one.

The two-bedroom house at 138 St. Patrick St. is named after one of its original inhabitants, woodcarver Flavien Rochon, who crafted the stalls and sanctuary of the cathedral across the street in 1844. Rochon's work can also be found in the Library of Parliament.

WATCH | Take a tour of the newly restored Rochon Residence:

'Very few left'

The NCC acquired the Rochon Residence in 1965 as part of a larger plan to preserve the built history of the area. While most of the original timber homes that characterized early Bytown gave way to larger structures built of stone and brick, the Rochon Residence stood stubbornly by.

"This used to be the type of building that you'd see all over Lowertown [and] the ByWard Market, but there's very few left — certainly very few that you can still recognize as easily as this one-and-a-half-storey cottage made of logs, so it's a very special little building," said Heather Thomson, the NCC's heritage program manager.

The house last underwent repairs in 1980, but 40 years later it was beginning to show its age again. The 2020 federal budget allotted $690,000 for a major restoration.

In April, workers removed the drywall and exterior cladding to assess the situation.

"The timbers themselves, even though well-built, were struggling a bit with moisture over the years … so we had to rehabilitate some of the existing timbers and reinforce them," explained Stefan Krauss, the design lead on the project.

That included adding extra floor joists for more stability and reinforcing a section of roof between the original structure and a rear kitchen addition built a few years later.

National Capital Commission
National Capital Commission

"Some parts were just missing … where they didn't pay too much attention when they built the house," Krauss said.

The workers uncovered a few surprises, including a hidden dormer with original cedar shingles that had been sealed in during an earlier addition.

Krauss and his team finished the restoration project about two months ago. Now the house, which still has the faint smell of fresh paint, is ready for a new occupant.

A home for the arts

Since first acquiring the property, the NCC has leased the Rochon Residence to private occupants. This time, one of a pool of applicants will become the new resident though an artist-in-residence program whose goal is to reanimate federal heritage buildings in the capital, starting with 138 St. Patrick.

The hope is this little house is going to have a beautiful artistic impact in some way. - Jen Halsall, NCC

The NCC devised the pilot project by consulting with local arts and culture groups, then issuing a request for expressions of interest earlier this year. The chosen applicant will be announced early next year.

"Who knows what artistic work is going to go on in here? We have tremendous excitement for what we're going to see coming out of this house," said Jen Halsall, the NCC's manager of residential construction.

"The sun in the late evening just comes pouring through the windows and bathes everything in this beautiful orange gold, and you see all the old wood just light up with colour," Halsall said.

"You could take that so many different ways as an artist, whether you're into mixed media or carving or painting or storytelling — this house is in many ways reflective of the melting and blending ground that Lowertown was as well. So who's to say what the inspiration will be and what form it's going to take, but the hope is this little house is going to have a beautiful artistic impact in some way."

If the pilot project is a success, the NCC could expand it to other historically or architecturally significant properties in and around Ottawa, such as the modernist Strutt House in Gatineau Park.

"We have a series of other houses also that could benefit from this type of approach, so we're hoping that if this goes well, we can bring it to some other sites next year," Thomson said.

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