Romancing the stone buildings

Ot's hard to explain or justify a passion.

The very nature of it precludes a sensible explanation, a legitimate justification. When that passion is stirred by stone, it's even harder.

Richard Cannings, teacher, journalist, City of Ottawa councillor, is stirred by stone. His passion is architecture – not modern, but historical. And Canada, Upper and Lower, offers lots of stir sticks.

"Holding the taxes, or cutting five jobs – when all is said and done, that goes by the board," he says. "The issues and the people are always the same. Mackenzie King was looking for prostitutes on this street, and these buildings were there."

For Cannings, 53, this passion was awakened in Montréal in 1972. He was a television reporter at the time, months away from being appointed Quebec City Bureau Chief for CFCF Radio & Television. He had a BA from Bishop's University in Lennoxville, N.S., and a B.Ed. from Dalhousie University in Halifax. He'd held various teaching positions in Nova Scotia and Québec, and had worked toward a masters degree in Canadian history while serving as vice principal at an elementary school in Québec.

In 1972, Cannings became the public relations person for Heritage Montréal, a group determined to save, among other buildings, the Lord Shaughnessy House, a magnificent, sprawling, run-down mansion on Dorchester Street. Plans were afoot to tear it down, and when that seemed inevitable, Cannings called a press conference and wrote the releases – and was assigned to cover the story for CFCF TV.

That media coverage, coupled with the prominence of the group's members—Phyllis Bronfman and that ilk—forced open the doors of negotiation. Eventually, the building was saved.

For Cannings, however, a different door cracked opened.
"I drove home from that [press] conference," he says, "thinking, sure, I'm a television reporter, but... there are 21 media outlets in Montréal, and every one of them was at this thing. So, who's more powerful, the guy who is one media outlet, or the guy who can orchestrate all 21?"

Cannings began to participate in the many historical preservation projects around Montréal, but still from a public relations point of view – good coverage and lots of it.

The Van Horne House in Montréal, built by an early CP Railway baron, was another breath-taking architectural extravaganza slated for destruction. Early one Saturday morning when Cannings was working, he got a call from a friend with a plea to "come right away!"

"They'd started tearing it down from the back, so no one could see," he says. "We rushed into the building. My friend was climbing up the mantle-piece trying to take down the gingerbread work, and the contractor came in. He told us to leave, and my friend started swinging this thing around and yelling, 'You're destroying our heritage!'

"All of a sudden I was getting more of a thrill trying to save that building than I was as a journalist." He shakes his head and laughs at himself. "But I was a journalist. I was supposed to be detached. If there was an execution, I was supposed to watch it and record it for posterity, not get involved."

'You could drive a truck through that lease'

In the late 1970's, Cannings was Press Secretary with Consumer and Corporate Affairs, and for the Minister for Urban Affairs and chief political organizer for the Province of Québec, the Hon. Andre Ouellet. That was Cannings' job.

The preservation of architectural Ottawa became his vocation.

He founded Save The Byward Market Inc., a group formed to fight the construction of a high-rise at 99 Rideau St. The fight was successful. He spearheaded the Save the Heart of Our City (SHOC) campaign, which worked to stop the proposed Vanier Parkway extension. The campaign was successful. He lobbied to have the Byward Market area designated as an architectural conservation zone, the largest in Ontario. He was successful.

He fought to save Major's Hill Park; he fought against Queensway collector lanes; he fought the proposed Kettle Island bridge. He won. He almost always does.

You'd think he'd breathe fire, chew nails, snarl. Sometimes it seems as if he's doing all three.

Cannings was never a mild-mannered reporter; this Heritage Superman's fights are legendary among preservation-minded Ottawans. And some need winning again and again.

The Byward Market area is Ottawa's most popular tourist attraction, next to Parliament Hill. It offers year-round shopping and fine dining, and amusements for adults and children alike. In summer, Market streets explode with singers, dancers, jugglers and magicians. It's a four-month carnival.

The old Market Building is the focal point. Cannings shakes his head over this one. "Know what the average rental price down there is?" he asks. "$50 per square foot. Know what we're getting for the Market Building? Seventy-five cents. We've got 16,000 square feet of rental space, and we can make, oh, $8,000 next year.

"It's a giveaway, and I was criticized for saying it's a giveaway. But it is."

And at that price, space isn't easy to come by, inside or out. The Market Building is going to be spit-and-polished, which is good. The walls are going to be moved out to the edge of the awning, which isn't so good, according to Cannings.

"Introverted spaces never work," he says. "People come for the pick-up trucks, the smells and sounds and sights of an outside market. They're trying to create a Markham shopping mall. It doesn't work; Times Square has never been fully rented."

He's referring to the Times Square building on Clarence Street in the Market. Cannings and the owner, Fred Litwack, chewed each other's throats for months over that building. Litwack succeeded in getting most of his proposals through, but he was hounded at every step by Cannings. Litwack repeatedly accused Cannings of being a "slum landlord" and a "hypocrite" because Cannings owned some not yet restored properties in the Lowertown area.

And when will the proposed reconstruction of the Market Building get underway?

"We should have had the City do a competing bid," says Cannings regretfully. "We probably would've won. And the lease – you could drive a truck through that lease. There's no definite time."

A constant irritant

The fights may stay the same, but Cannings doesn't. He revels in change, in challenge. You sense a great restlessness of intellect and spirit here, a need to keep moving, keep growing. The direction seems almost secondary to the movement itself.

He has changed hats several times throughout his life, and in 1986 he received another BA, in the history of art and architecture, from Carleton University. He has applied that degree to his personal career; he is a developer who renovates and restores old buildings.

Wearing his city councillor hat, Cannings is a constant irritant, not so much in what he does and supports, but in the way he does it. Passion is hard to swallow as a steady diet.

When you walk into City Hall and take the elevator to the second floor councillors' offices, you can't help but notice the starkness of it all. White stone outside and in, acres of glass, and for contrast, black-lacquered wood trim. The reception area is furnished in black leather; the predominant work of art—a 4' X 6' canvas—could be a study of Auschwitz in winter.

You wonder if the black-and-white scheme was chosen by a team of psychologists to promote and stimulate the decision-making process. It's hard to waffle in black and white.

Cannings' office has the same black leather furniture, black wood highlights. Cannings never waffles.

He flings himself into whichever fight grabs him, but he always fights through to the finish. While his intensity may drive people crazy at times, those who work closely with him on any project wind up admiring and respecting his motives and his commitment to closure.

In 1988, Cannings was elected President of Heritage Ottawa, and served for three years. His co-worker and successor, Louisa Coates, has nothing but good things to say about his work with that organization.

"Richard is very knowledgeable," she says, "and very inspiring. He's absolutely dedicated to the architectural history of the city. He worked 30 hours a day on whatever was going on at the time."

She remembers the World Exchange Plaza chapter of her association with Cannings.

"Richard was after them from day one," she says. "He wanted to make sure that, if it was going in, it would conform to every regulation known to man."

Somehow, the building, at the corner of O'Connor and Albert Streets, wound up being one storey higher than by-laws allowed.

"Richard hit the roof," she says. "I got a call one day at work—at my regular, full-time job, I mean—and it was Richard, yelling, 'Get down to City Hall. Check this out right away. Go. Go.' I went." She laughs. "Of course, there wasn't anything he could do about it at that point. I think that made him madder than the extra floor."

Cannings' wife, broadcast journalist Julie Van Dusen, very diplomatically expresses rueful acceptance of Cannings' single-mindedness. "He doesn't think 'heritage preservation' all the time," she says. "Well, actually, he does."

Coates remembers an evening when Van Dusen was less good-naturedly tolerant. "Richard called, wanting me to go somewhere to do something," Coates says. "It was urgent. It always was.

"He was calling me from the hospital, outside the room where Julie was in labour, about two hours before the baby was born. Can you believe it? In the middle of the call Julie came out in the hall and saw Richard on the phone. Was she mad!" Cannings and Van Dusen have three children—Molly, Patrick and Olivia—but Coates can't remember whose birth it was.

"Working for Richard, you lose track of your own life, let alone his."

'We had the votes'

The Aberdeen Pavilion fight is the one Cannings remembers with mixed emotions. The Pavilion—better known to Ottawans as the Cattle Castle—is that pale yellow embodiment of the Victorian penchant for whimsical excess dominating Lansdowne Park. The fight to save it was long and hard, involving community groups, the media and every conceivable level and branch of government.

"I spent three years of my life with that," Cannings says with pride. "We had 32 votes at council, and the flippers—yes, no, yes, no—would change their minds again. The truth is, we had the votes. It was going to go through no matter what the plan was."

And there were some interesting plans. One proposed a disassembly and storage of the Pavilion until it could be erected on Museum of Science and Technology land. Another proposed relocating it to Victoria Island.

"Those weren't plans," Cannings scoffs. "Just another way of getting rid of it, putting it in storage and losing it."

The Pavilion was saved, was grandly re-opened in June of 1994. It is a thing of beauty, and Cannings is proud, but one thing about the fight still rankles.

"Jim Watson came along and took ownership of it," he says, "and Watson was in short pants when that battle first started."

Watson was, and still is, the city councillor representing the Glebe (OT9), where the Pavilion is located. Watson threw himself into the fight, but many questioned his motives; he's never made any bones about his aspirations to be Mayor.

Cannings seems to have no such aspirations. With Mayor Jacqueline Holtzman stepping down, he has very firmly stated that he will not run for the job.

In a 1990 interview, Cannings indicated that he didn't see council in his future, that political life was too limiting. In 1991 he repeatedly rejected suggestions that he throw in his hat in the upcoming election, and continued to do so right up until he ran and won in By-Rideau (OT4). He is now in his second term as councillor. Time will tell.

'Something out of the Middle Ages'

"Our levels of government defy belief," Cannings says. "In Ottawa we've got all the levels of federal involvement: the NCC [National Capital Commission], the DND [Department of National Defence]. Then you have provincial involvement: the Ministry of Environment and all that. Then you have 11 municipal governments. And six school boards. And they're at the bottom of the totem pole, but they take 51 percent of the tax dollars. The City's only worth 15 percent."

He's warming up.

"Nothing is co-ordinated. And then the NDP did the ultimate thing. They created another level of government, the regional government. We're desperately in need of reform."

He's got a full head of steam now, and somehow he's back to buildings.

"Look at this crazy city hall. $72 million. It might be a hi-tech factory in 10 years. We might have to sell it. And the $90 million regional headquarters, the Nepean city hall, the Gloucester city hall. Hell, we've gone crazy. It's like something out of the Middle Ages."

He's off. You can almost see him galloping across a wasteland of red tape, an armful of be-ribboned lances tilting determinedly at windmill demolition teams.

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