Sandy Hill was first developed in the mid-1800s as a residential neighbourhood just outside of the city centre. The early years of Sandy Hill were very prestigious, as this was the city’s wealthiest neighbourhood from around 1860 until early 1900s. During this time, it was home to wealthy lumber barons, Canada’s prime ministers and other top government officials.
The College of Bytown (now the University of Ottawa) moved into the neighbourhood in 1856 to become the first bilingual education institution in Canada.
Naming the area was so simple and literal that its almost comical, as it has some steep hills and sandy soil. The area's geography does factor into the character of the neighbourhood, which has very few large buildings probably because the soil prevented the building of big, sturdy foundations.
The majority of development in Sandy Hill occurred from around 1880 to 1920, as part of a redevelopment and rapid intensification of the core area of Ottawa when the city’s population quadrupled. During this era, many wealthy elites left Sandy Hill to the more secluded Rockcliffe Park area. As the wealthy moved out, the middle class arrived, and the population shifted to mostly civil servants, railway employees and merchants.
Present day Sandy Hill is shockingly similar to what it looked like100 years ago, as about 80 per cent of the existing buildings were constructed before 1920. This allows an unusually rich cross-section of Ottawa architecture on view over the last 150 years. Some stunning examples of early architecture include Laurier House, the former home of two PMs and a current National Historical Site (open for tours from Victoria Day to Thanksgiving), and the Canadian school of Le Cordon Bleu which is housed in a Victorian mansion that offers lunch and dinner in its Signatures restaurant.
Socially, the neighbourhood has become a real mixed bag. A massive population of university students lives in old buildings that have been subdivided into multiple rental units near the campus, along with a significant number of co-op housing projects that are now home to many new immigrants. There are also still a large number of embassies in the area, hosting high-profile foreign dignitaries located mostly in the east end along the Rideau River. With the average price of a detached home in Sandy Hill now in the range of $650,000 to $850,000, home ownership is expensive for many buyers.
Real Estate Salesperson Chantal Lafontaine of Ian Charlebois and Associates, says most potential homebuyers in Sandy Hill are attracted to the history of the neighbourhood and its homes with character in a suburban-like setting that is close to downtown without the hustle and bustle of the city.
The good news for history-loving homeowners is that the City of Ottawa has extended heritage protections to many buildings, and to some entire streets and blocks within Sandy Hill. Last year, city council created two new Heritage Conservation Districts in the community: the Russell Avenue-Range Road district and the Besserer-Wurtemburg district. These designations stipulate that any property elements deemed architecturally significant must be maintained during any renovations, and the property cannot be altered or demolished without direct approval from the city.
These designations are important for people interested in buying into the area. “When you’re buying a heritage designation property, you’re also buying the restrictions that come with it,” notes Chantal. “It’s not as simple as getting your hammer and nails out; you have to do your research and it can get quite costly.”
LIVING WELL IN SANDY HILL
Artists Mitchell Webster and Janet K. MacKay enjoy life to the fullest in Sandy Hill, where they create and showcase beautiful bronze sculptures and paintings in oil and acrylic in their WorldView Studio, at 210 Blackburn Avenue.
Their home and studio date back to 1915, and they have worked to keep the spirit of the house alive. “We’ve done a fair bit of renovations, but we’ve done all the renovations to make the home period correct,” says Mitchell. This included restoring the small garage at the back of the property, which was originally used to keep horses, to become a sculpture-making space.
There is a strong creative community in Sandy Hill of artists, writers and filmmakers. The artist couple, who count at least two dozen of their neighbours as also being customers, believe they live in one of Ottawa’s finest neighbourhoods. “With its proximity to downtown and the river—and these new pedestrian bridges—it’s pretty sweet,” concludes Mitchell.