Like Philadelphia’s infamous Barnes Foundation, the Firestone donation comprised both a significant art collection and the residence in which it was housed. For reasons that will be further explored, however, the house and collection were separated. The collection was relocated to the municipal art gallery, while the house (designed for the display of the collection) was rented, sold, rented again, sold again, and ultimately demolished. Furthermore, the spaces of the Ottawa Art Gallery, in which the collection is now shown, differ significantly in proportion and feeling from the display spaces of the house. One’s experience of the collection is, at present, substantially different than was intended in situ.
The House that Jack Built
O.J. (Jack) Firestone commissioned “Belmanor,” named for his wife Isobel, at a time when both his family and art collection were growing. From its inception, the house was expected to accommodate the often-contradictory functions of gallery and residence. When Belmanor was completed in 1961, the four Firestone children ranged from four to thirteen years in age.
While the architect of record is George Bemi, all parties concur that Jack Firestone worked closely with his friend and associate Sam Gitterman on the design of the house. Gitterman was, at the time, Chief Architect at the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), in which capacity he promoted the orderly production of dwellings in the expanding suburban landscape of post-war Canada. During Gitterman’s time, CMHC published numerous volumes of plans for compact single-family houses.
At first glance the Firestone house seems significantly different both from the CMHC prototypes and from other houses Sam Gitterman designed over the course of his career, most of which were relatively compact dwellings with steeply sloped roofs. By contrast the Firestone house was large (close to 8000 sq. ft. on three levels), flat roofed, and more abstract in its design sensibility. It included large expanses of curtain wall, pre-cast concrete sheathing, and screens of decorative concrete block recalling F.L. Wright’s Millard House and, more immediately, Edward Durrell Stone’s townhouse of 1956. Nonetheless it is possible to see Belmanor as a clever transformation of a popular four-bedroom suburban house of the period. One can imagine the interchange between client and architect—the former demanding modernity and monumentality in service of the collection while the latter promoting efficiency and accommodation for the family.
Sam Gitterman’s interest in compact designs may also help explain why Belmanor differs from modernist houses in Ottawa of this period, most of which were lower in profile, organized around an exterior space, and sat on large, heavily wooded sites. By contrast, the perimeter of the Firestone house was relatively simple; it sat close to the street, and, typical of the raised ranch, none of its major public spaces communicated directly with the outdoors. This was to some degree a function of the site, a relatively shallow corner lot sloping toward the south. Locating the main living room / gallery along the south side of the house meant that this room sat a full level above grade. Had the plan been reversed, the living room / gallery could have opened onto the sculpture court on the northern, uphill side of the site. While this would have been expedient from a display and conservation perspective (less direct sunlight in the primary display space; adjacent indoor and outdoor exhibition spaces), the room would have been less convivial as a living area. This is one of several examples where the functions of residence and gallery might be seen to have been at odds with each other.
Although Gitterman’s design clearly distinguished the private from the public realms of the house, the collection transgressed boundaries. As it grew, more rooms were taken over as display spaces. The upper-level corridor was hung with sketches, and three of the five bedrooms on this level were appropriated as galleries, even while the children were living at home. The walls of the guest room were covered with works by A.J. Casson, one of the bedrooms was dedicated to the works of Arthur Lismer, and another to works by A.Y. Jackson. The study on the main level doubled as an exhibit space, and was used as a staging area from which larger-scale works were rotated into the main public rooms. Significant works were even displayed in the powder room on the main level. However unorthodox from a curatorial perspective, the house was experienced as a celebration of art. In addition to the Barnes Foundation, then, Belmanor recalled Sir John Soane’s townhouse in London: a residence, a private museum, and a tribute to the garrulous vision of its proprietor.
With the consent and involvement of the children (the youngest of whom was fourteen at the time), the house and the collection were donated to the Ontario Heritage Foundation in 1972. The terms of the donation permitted the Firestones to remain in the house in exchange for opening the collection to visitors. Accordingly, the house became a de facto institution in a residential neighborhood.
When the Firestones divorced in 1978, Jack remained in the house. He and his second wife, Barbara, lived amongst the collection until 1990, when they moved to a larger, more traditional house nearby. During this period, Jack’s health deteriorated to the point that he was no longer able to open the collection to visitors. With the house sitting vacant, and the collection increasingly inaccessible, the Ontario Heritage Foundation began exploring alternatives. At issue was the expense of running the house and managing the collection—costs that Jack assumed while residing there.
It was clear to all parties that the original terms of the donation would have to be revisited. When the Foundation proposed moving the collection to Toronto, Jack’s son Bruce (with the help of Mayor Jim Durrell and Gallery at Arts Court Director Mayo Graham) brokered the transfer of the house and collection to the City of Ottawa. Options were explored for keeping the collection in the house, including severing and selling off of a portion of the property to support its operation, but this proved impossible. In 1992, it was agreed that the collection would move to the Gallery at Arts Court (later to become the Ottawa Art Gallery), where it would be cared for and exhibited. The decision was made to sell the house to support an endowment to renovate space at Arts Court and help maintain the collection.
The real-estate market was slack when the house went up for auction; when it sold in 1995 it was able to command only a fraction of what it would have been worth even five years later. Its new owner rented Belmanor to the Union of Myanmar, which used it as an official residence for close to a decade. The house was sold again in 2004. Although having purchased Belmanor with the intention of living there, the new owner eventually opted to demolish it. The choice to replace rather than renovate hinged on the fact that key systems had deteriorated beyond repair (including the radiant heating system), coupled with the fact that Belmanor, like many houses of its era, had been built with virtually no insulation. The house came down in early 2007.
Picking up the Pieces
The demolition of the house raises important issues about architectural patrimony and the boundaries between the public and private realm. While Belmanor was an architecturally significant house with an equally significant history, it was also, at the point it was pulled down, firmly back in the private realm. Even had the City of Ottawa been in a position to re-acquire and support the operation of the house as a gallery, it is not likely that it would have done so. The works were well cared for at the Ottawa Art Gallery, and it was clear that the house and the collection were unlikely ever to be reunited.
Prior to its demolition, the new owner invited the Ottawa Art Gallery to document, dismantle, and salvage portions of the house. This was eventually accomplished with the help of a leading heritage conservation firm. With key fragments of the house (the stair, paneling, coffers, brass screens, etc.) now in archival storage, the stage is set for a provisional reunion of architectural and artistic artifacts in a new, purpose-built facility. In this scenario, the collection would comprise the roughly 1,600 works that the Firestones assembled, as well as significant elements of the environment originally designed as an armature for the collection.
What transpired with Belmanor is in many ways tragic and is contrary both to Jack Firestone’s vision and the terms of the initial donation to the Ontario Heritage Foundation. Nonetheless, silver linings may be glimpsed. Housed as it is with the Ottawa Art Gallery, the Collection is more accessible than it would have been had it remained in Belmanor. Furthermore, it now benefits from higher conservation and care than would have been possible in the house. The substantial increase in the value of collection also raises questions about how secure it would have been in the house, which would have been difficult to monitor and secure.
On the 35th anniversary of the donation, the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art again finds itself at a turning point. The Ottawa Art Gallery’s search for a new home —one that can incorporate both architectural and artistic artifacts, in which works from the Collection can again be hung in large, well-lit rooms, and that includes intimate galleries dedicated to the works of individual artists—holds promise. Time has reinforced the importance of the works, and the Collection is more significant now than ever. The donation demands to be put back together in a way that not only respects, but builds upon Jack Firestone’s magnanimous vision.
—Benjamin Gianni, Associate Professor, Azrieli School of Architecture and Urbanism, Carleton University (Ottawa).