This story of the Champlain Towers apartment building is the first of a series of occasional articles which we hope will interest our fellow tenants. The article is not exhaustive. There are many other equally interesting stories to be told about life in the Champlain Towers. We encourage readers to contribute their own articles about their experiences in living at 200 Rideau Terrace.

 The Champlain Towers is a fine example of 1960s residential high rise architecture in Canada’s National Capital. The building is also closely associated with several Canadian leaders who resided in the building. This article is divided into two parts: the first part is focused on the building and answers the five Ws -- who, what where, when, why; the second part describes some famous tenants and noteworthy incidents.  


PART A : FIVE Ws

WHO?

Two men stand out in the story of the the Champlain Towers: real estate developer Robert Campeau and architect George Bemi.

Robert Campeau was a self made real estate developer who began his career constructing a single house in Ottawa in partnership with his cousin. Campeau became known for constructing large neighbourhoods of single family homes in Alta Vista and Kanata.  Although criticized for their quality Campeau homes gradually acquired a reputation for solid middle class value. Campeau was frequently in conflict with Ottawa Mayor Charlotte Whitton over zoning issues. In later years Campeau graduated to large apartment buildings (Colonel By Towers) and office builings (Tower C Place de Ville)  before leaving Ottawa to expand into international construction including the acquisition of famous department stores in the United States to anchor his commercial real estate developments.  


George Bemi practised in Ottawa from 1955 to 2005. He was one of the leading architects of the time and contributed over 300 buildings to Ottawa, including projects such as St Basil’s Church, the existing Main Branch of the Ottawa Public library, the downtown YM-YWCA, and Ottawa Police Headquarters. Bemi designed the Champlain Towers in a Modernist style of architecture, characterized by: an exposed structure, a minimal and refined choice of materials, lack of ornamentation, and a grid system. He won an Ontario Association of Architects Award for his work on the Champlain Towers.

WHAT?

On July 31, 1959 the Campeau Corporation received a permit from the City of Ottawa to erect an 11 storey building on the Rideau Terrace site. Before construction started the Campeau Corporation subsequently filed for a new amended permit to build a 12 storey building.

The City of Ottawa attempted to cancel the original permit on health grounds (sewage overload). Campeau resisted what he considered to be an illegal act by the City of Ottawa in canceling his permit.

Mr. Campeau doubled down on his plans and proposed the Champlain Towers become a 17 rather than an 11 storey building. Faced with opposition from local residents and a city-wide 110-foot ceiling on high rise-buildings Mr Campeau revised his plans. He abandoned the 17 storey proposal. Campeau did seek and won from City Council a proposal for a two storey penthouse addition to the recently completed Champlain Towers.  

The two storey penthouse was completed with the stated objective of attracting “politicians, diplomats, judges and other leading figures.”

The five penthouse units were larger in size ranging from 1900 to 2000 square feet. They all contain a working fuel fireplace, two and a half bathrooms and three balconies with a wrap-around wooden deck. All penthouse units have both north and south facing views which even now after fifty seven years are stunning.


WHERE?

The Champlain Towers are located in the Lindenlea neighbourhood of Ottawa on a hill overlooking to the south the neighbourhood of Vanier. To the north is the community of Rockcliffe. The Champlain Towers are  2.3 miles (3.7 kilometres) from the Parliament Buildings. On a clear summer night you can hear the bells of the Peace Tower from the higher floors of the Champlain Towers.



WHEN?

Construction began on the Champlain Towers on March 1, 1961. The Towers were officially opened in 1962. The penthouse apartments were advertised as available in 1963


WHY?

In 1960 Ottawa was a small capital city of approximately three hundred thousand people. The tremendous growth of government spurred by World War II launched Ottawa on a steady period of growth which would lead to a population of one million in 2018. The Champlain Towers building was an early attempt to meet the needs of that growth.


 PART B : DISTINGUISHED TENANTS COLOURFUL INCIDENTS


The Champlain Towers succeeded in attracting several prominent tenants including senior level judges and politicians.
 
Among the judges who lived at the Champlain Towers were Bora Laskin, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and Maxwell Cohen Chairman of the Canadian Section of the International Joint Commission. It is interesting to note that on January 25 1977 the Ottawa Citizen reported that a $ 20,000 fire had damaged the penthouse apartment where Justice Laskin resided.


Among the politicians who lived at the Champlain Towers was Paul Martin Senior, a Liberal Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister, who held several ministerial positions including that of Secretary of State for External Affairs. Martin enjoyed politics as a form of theatre.  The following excerpt from Just Watch Me, volume 2 of John English’s biography of Pierre Trudeau, describes a colourful incident involving Prime Minister Trudeau and the Champlain Towers:

The next morning April 23 he (Trudeau) met the caucus on Parliament Hill .... to discuss the latest very good poll results. The caucus was raucous and most Liberal MPs were ready for an election. So was Trudeau. He went immediately to his West Block office and slipped away via a secret staircase. Then to avoid suspicion, he entered a car in which a puzzled Paul Martin was waiting. They travelled inconspicuously past the Parliament Buildings and along Rideau Street and soon arrived at Martin’s residence at Champlain Towers, in Ottawa’s east end. They descended to the basement garage, where yet another car awaited Trudeau. With the press completely tricked, his new driver took him to Rideau Hall, which he entered by the inconspicuous greenhouse entrance; there a bemused Governor General Roland Michener signed the order dissolving the House. As Martin later wrote, the “ twist perfectly illustrated Trudeau’s liking for the unexpected and his disdain for convention.”