November 11th in Ottawa is a day of ceremony aimed at remembering the men and women who have served during times of war, conflict and peace. For residents of Lowertown, Wallis House serves as a daily reminder of a military presence in the community that spanned more than fifty years. While its first 75 years were dedicated to health care, after decades with the Department of National Defence, the building itself was in need of serious healing.
Wallis House at the corner of Rideau and Charlotte streets, pictured here in the 1940s, was built in the mid-1870sEnter Sandy Smallwood and his company, Andrex Holdings. In 1994, Public Works put the building up for sale to the highest bidder. Smallwood’s first bid of $1 was rejected and Public Works decided to demolish. However, supported by community groups, Smallwood had a chance to make a second bid of $320,000 – approximately $100,000 more than the $203,000 paid by National Defence Naval Service in 1943.
He recalls that the original multi-year plan to sell the units in phases turned into pandemonium when the first units went up for sale. “By lunch, they had sold out the first phase, which we had expected to take a year,” he says. “By the end of the weekend the whole building was sold out.”
The Wrens at Wallis House During the early period of military ownership, Wallis House got its name from a War of 1812 naval hero, but undoubtedly some of the building’s most interesting naval memories relate to the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service recruits housed here from 1943 to1945. The Canadian Navy was the last service to admit women but by 1943 hundreds of members of the WRCNS were parading proudly through the nearby streets.
At Wallis House, inspections by Princess Alice, Honorary Commandant Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service, revealed some of the physical life of the Wrens quarters. She visited the galley, mess, refrigeration plant, stores and supply office, knitting stores, regulation office, recreation room, sickbay and upper deck to inspect the ratings’ cabins and dormitory.
The Wrens’ social life included weddings, corn and wiener roasts on the grounds, as well as charity events. Christmas 1943 witnessed a traditional ship’s concert enjoyed by 400 Wrens stationed in Ottawa and a Christmas Day dinner where officers served ratings in a gaily decorated mess hall. In August 1944, more than 500 Ottawa-based Wrens celebrated the second anniversary of their naval service with a church parade that started at Wallis House.
When the Second World War ended in August 1945, close to 7,000 women had served in the navy.
By September of that year, the Wrens at Wallis House were being demobilized and re-introduced to civilian lives. Fifty years later, some of these women were among the crowds eager to view the building as re-envisioned by Sandy Smallwood.
So let us remember the women of the WRCNS who served during the Second World War and who added their narrative to this building. But also, we can give thanks to the man who saved this magnificent building. Now home to 47 luxury, two-storey condominiums occupied by all kinds of residents – young and old, single and living with a partner – Wallis House is unique in many ways. As Sandy Smallwood says, historic buildings like this one have stories that cannot be replicated and the Wrens story at Wallis House is just one example.