“Werner Ernst Noffke: Ottawa’s Architect” by Shannon Ricketts
Reviewed by Andrew Elliot
How does one review a book that is a gem? And Shannon Ricketts’ little book on the Ottawa architect W.E. Noffke is surely one.
Entitled Werner Ernst Noffke: Ottawa’s Architect, and published in 2013 by Heritage Ottawa, this is an attractively designed yet slim book, with a simple eye-catching cover. At 75 pages long, this is no hefty coffee-table issue, but something that anyone can pick up and bring with them as they go about Ottawa tracing Noffke’s work. Whether you have a casual interest in architectural history or you’re a heritage nut, this book is for you.
As an architectural historian who once worked for Parks Canada, Ricketts brings many years’ experience to her writing, and provides the reader with a concise and entertaining history of Noffke’s life and work. The author begins with an extensive biographical introduction. She then sets out to document each of Noffke’s significant buildings, which number about 60. Each page is laid out with a black and white photo, the name of the building and a brief commentary. The middle of the book has several pages of amazing colour photos of interior features in some of the most outstanding homes.
It turns out Noffke was not picky in choosing his projects. He left his mark on residential, commercial, ecclesiastical, governmental and industrial buildings. He may not have had the avant-garde qualities of other early 20th century architects, but as Ricketts notes, Noffke’s “adaptability was undoubtedly one of the factors in the success” of his practice. Ricketts continues: “It should also be remembered that, lacking the opportunity for extended, formal training in architecture, Noffke had to learn by doing. He was consequently less advanced in his ideas and quite possibly also less hampered by theoretical convictions concerning his role as a formulator of public taste.” Thus he was able to work with many of the popular early 20th century architectural styles.
Iconic Ottawa buildings figure among his work: the Medical Arts building on Metcalfe, the Blackburn building on Sparks Street, Ogilvy’s at Rideau and Nicholas, the Old Ottawa South former fire station, and Postal Station B across from the War Memorial.
For those living in the Glebe, especially near Central Park east of Bank Street, this book might be of special interest. Ricketts explores in detail the creation of a kind of “better homes and gardens” landscape. Noffke became very involved in the public-private initiative between Clemora Realty and the Ottawa Improvement Commission to bring the best of the “City Beautiful” ideals to life. The idea was to design grand-looking homes that both complemented and blended with the park-like landscape and the park-like Clemow Avenue cutting through the park. This was (and is) landscape design at its best.
Noffke’s contribution was to design several Spanish-themed estate homes, with lavish and detailed arts-and-crafts interior features. Ricketts recounts how Noffke got the commission. In 1911, he happened to be adding a conservatory to Miss Adelaide Clemow’s Laurier Avenue west home, when plans for the area were being laid out. She liked what he was doing and asked him to work for her on the larger development project. The homes built here between 1912 and 1914 include one for Noffke himself, a number of Ottawa businessmen and an Ottawa mayor, and represent the largest concentration of Noffke buildings anywhere in Ottawa. This district around the park has aged beautifully, and since 2011 has been protected within a Heritage Conservation District.
Ricketts also tells us that Noffke designed other buildings in the Glebe – in 1910, the Andrew Hayden house at 534 Queen Elizabeth Driveway near Bronson; in 1926, Corpus Christi School and several more houses on Clemow, west of Bank Street; and in 1929, a lovely apartment building, Ambassador Court, located on Central Park West.
Is there anything to be critical of in this publication? Is there room for improvement? Perhaps there could have been better clarity in distinguishing Noffke’s early work from his middle and late work. Might it have been worthwhile to include maps throughout the book showing where the buildings are located, instead of placing the maps at the end? Also, the maps could have been clearer, to help those going on a walking tour to see where they were going. But these are issues more with presentation than with content and may be ironed out in the future. This book is part of a launch of what is expected to be Heritage Ottawa’s occasional series of publications delving into aspects of Ottawa’s architectural and social history.
Overall, this is a wonderful hybrid walking guide/reference book by an architectural historian who has done her homework. Noffke is noteworthy because, as Ricketts points out, Noffke’s lack of formal training or set theoretical convictions “allowed him immense freedom and, although not a leader in the stylistic movements of the day, he used new ideas with intelligence, always demanding quality of execution… This focus resulted in structures that were both visually and functionally successful.” Noffke is an architect of the public and for the public, and it is about time a book like this came out to celebrate his work.
Glebe resident Andrew Elliott is an archivist and architectural historian who can be reached at email@example.com.