Downtown Introduction

Written by Bytown Museum on 03/Dec/2009

A photograph of the corner of Metcalfe and Sparks streets, 1864
A video of Ottawa-Centre MP Paul Dewar

For many, the downtown core is synonymous with the federal aspect of Ottawa's dual-identity. It is associated with Parliament Hill, politicians and red tape. But the site of Canada's seat of government has its roots in early Bytown. Before the Parliament Buildings were constructed in the mid-1800s, Parliament Hill was known as Barracks Hill. During the construction of the Rideau Canal, the British military built five barracks and a military hospital on the site.

The surrounding land was owned by Irishman Nicholas Sparks. He purchased 200 acres of land in 1821 and offered 20 acres to the British for the construction of the canal. In 1848, he laid out Sparks Street and subdivided his land into building lots. Sales were slow initially, but by 1865, business was thriving as construction of the Parliament Buildings neared completion and hundreds of civil servants were transferred from Québec City to Ottawa. By 1880, the area was inarguably the core business district in Ottawa and Nicholas Sparks was a very rich and well-respected man.

In the 1930s, the area underwent a dramatic makeover. This included replacing canal-side development with parkland and the construction of Confederation Square, which is now home to the National War Memorial. These alterations changed traffic patterns and accelerated the movement of businesses away from Sparks and Elgin streets toward Bank Street. The development of government office complexes such as the one at Tunney's Pasture led to a further exodus from the downtown core in the 1950s.

Today, downtown is the home of government, big business and the city's biggest tourist attraction – Parliament Hill. The beautiful historic buildings in this area and the views of the Ottawa River have helped to establish the nation's capital as one of the most beautiful cities in Canada.

As you explore the downtown map, you will discover some of the city's most intriguing sites, from the Balancing and Sir Galahad statues to the history of Confederation Park and the site of the assassination of Thomas D'Arcy McGee.

Do you have a favourite memory, spot or shop in downtown Ottawa? Share your story with us.


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Bytown Museum

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For many, the downtown core is synonymous with the federal aspect of Ottawa's dual-identity. It is associated with Parliament Hill, politicians and red tape. But the site of Canada's seat of ... read more