Why do some landmarks escape the wrecking ball, and others not? Gone forever is the Ottawa home of Robert Borden, WWI prime minister depicted on the $100 banknote. In 1962 it was pondered as a possible National Historic Site. In 1971 it was demolished by Cadillac Fairview Developments to make way for a grey complex with an unfortunate name, the Watergate Apartments.
It was “Glensmere,” a Queen Ann Revival mansion at 201 Wurtemburg Street on the Rideau River; for 31 years a place of repose and happiness for Borden and his wife Laura. Built in 1894 on park-like grounds, it was designed by the same British-born architect who designed the ornate interior of the Library of Parliament, Frederick J. Alexander. Glensmere was a generous combination of wood and stone, projecting gables and a wraparound verandah.
As prime minister Borden ended his workday by walking three kilometres from Parliament Hill home to Wurtemburg Street. Here this modest man spent contemplative moments gardening, bird-watching and practicing his golf swing. Here Borden entertained VIPs and plotted Canada’s war through two tumultuous terms.
“No Canadian prime minister faced quite the same preponderance of grave problems as proved his lot in wartime,” wrote a newspaperman in 1937. “At heart he was a man of simple tastes, unpretentious and democratic despite the wealth of high honours properly bestowed upon him.”
Maclean’s readers in 1927 voted Borden among the “greatest living Canadians.” When he died in 1937 grieving war veterans stood with heads bowed outside the Glensmere home and all along the road to Borden’s grave at Beechwood Cemetery. “Life is vain,” Borden wrote. “Life is short.”
Borden bought Glensmere in 1906. The house then was as unaffected as the man. It was so drafty a radiator froze and burst his first winter in the place. Borden complained the street was pot-holed, the grounds were a “jungle” of weeds and the city had left a derelict graveyard across the street overgrown with bushes where “undesirable characters” liked to hang out.
He spent the rest of his life improving the home and property. When the city reclaimed the neighbouring graveyard as a park Borden had it named in honour of John A. Macdonald.
In 1942 Borden’s nephew sold Glensmere to the Chinese Nationalist Government. It remained a legation until 1970, when it was lost to the wreckers.
In a cruel joke on Borden’s memory, a splendid house next door to his prized Glensmere not only stands but is now protected. Yet there is no plaque to commemorate Canada’s wartime prime minister lived on Wurtemburg Street. All that remains is an old iron fence with Gloucester limestone pillars, a silent sentinel to what once stood here.
By Andrew Elliott