Artful Preservation Published on April 23, 2018

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The anticipation for opening day of the striking new Ottawa Art Gallery is igniting huge public interest. The $40 million re-development project, designed by KPMB Architects, will showcase a gallery that has expanded from its original Arts Court Daly Avenue building to take over an entire city block.

The Firestone Gallery was built as a cornerstone in the building to house the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art (FCCA). It consists of 1,600 pieces—paintings, drawings and sculpture—from major Canadian artists of the 20th century including the Group of Seven.

Art enthusiast O.J. Firestone, who fled Nazi Europe more than eighty years ago from Vienna, entered Canada as a refugee. He became an economist with the government and travelled the country with his wife Isobel Torontow, a concert pianist and music teacher. Inspired by the art in the National Gallery, in the 1950s he began collecting works by Canadian artists only, to show his love for the country that had welcomed him.

In 1972, the collection had grown so vast the family donated their Rockcliffe Park home and the entire art collection to the Ontario Heritage Foundation. Twenty years later, O.J.’s son Bruce Firestone and Ottawa Mayor Jim Durrell finalized a deal with the Foundation and the City of Ottawa to transfer ownership to the City and house all of the works at the Municipal Art Gallery at Arts Court.

When the former family home was slated for demolition in 2007, the original architect George Bemi was invited to salvage a few unique elements of the structure. The spectacular marble and brass staircase was saved and is now embedded in the OAG main entrance leading visitors up to the Firestone Gallery.

The family is gratified that the OAG has recognized that the Firestone home was an architectural work of art. Brenda Firestone knows her parents would have been thrilled that Ottawa now has a world-class gallery that showcases the Firestone collection as a historically significant one. Ottawa At Home chatted with Brenda from her home in Victoria, BC.

What was it like growing up in your family home, Belmanor? The house was named after my mother Isobel and built in 1960 in the Village of Rockcliffe Park. My father’s vision to create a modern, modular home was considered very radical. It says a lot about him that he took such a risk to build a house like that in a neighbourhood that had classical-style architecture dating back to the early 20th century.

While curating his growing collection he enjoyed conducting tours, regaling visitors with stories about the art and the artists. Art was everywhere and it was like living in a gallery. As the collection outgrew our home, my parents thought carefully about its future.

What will it be like to see the new Firestone Gallery? It will be very emotional, as I will be stepping back in time when I climb the salvaged original marble and brass staircase leading me upstairs to the gallery.

Both of my parents are gone, but their legacy continues to shine within the new OAG. The spirit of the house has been successfully recreated and the teak veneered walls in the gallery and the lobby are similar to the teak panelled salon in Belmanor, where my father held court talking about the collection to the many visitors who came to visit through the years.


Vera Cody

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