a peek inside the fishbowl

26 Oct, 2014

The history of our house

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Home/reno

Our house, fall 2014

I think there’s value in knowing how we once lived.

How can you move forward if you don’t ever look back? How can you be proud of your community if you don’t know how it has evolved and changed? This is something I think a lot about, especially in my role with our neighbourhood newspaper. In terms of the stories we share with our readers, it is a fine balance, the now and then. I do like that the publication is contemporary and forward-thinking with an occasional glance backwards. There is room for a glimpse into the past in order to remember – and celebrate – the journey and the places from which we came.

I first heard of Dave Allston’s House Histories a few years ago during Westfest. He had a wee display table, decorated with maps and books, and a large aerial photo that included a view of our street. A small group of people had collected around him, presumably to talk about the good old days and learn more about the early days of their community. It was then that I found out that he farms out his sleuthing services to homeowners who want to learn about the history of their home.

So this past summer I hired Dave to research a history of our home as a gift to Mark. This was something Mark and I had been talking about for a long time, especially during our renovation. Our home was built in the early 40s, a “war time” model that is common in parts of Ottawa. I wondered about the families who lived here before we did. I’d find myself thinking about them while running my hand down the bannister that spans the stairs that lead up to the bedrooms. It sounds silly, but the bannister was one of the reasons I fell in love with this house when we first looked at it. It’s a solid piece of wood; thick and straight, with uneven brown tones throughout. I half wonder if it used to be thicker when it was originally set in place, but has been worn down by time and little hands clutching on to it as they make their way downstairs at night, and lighter touches just skimming it while running upstairs to check on a baby.

When we renovated I told our builder that no matter what, that bannister had to stay. We learned later, that the crew actually misplaced it for awhile, which resulted in an utter panic because they thought it may have been accidentally thrown out. (It was not.)

The reno provided a lot of blog fodder during the better part of a year, although not very much of it was historical in scope. Some of you may remember the note we found when our old kitchen cupboards were being torn out:

This was found behind our old cabinets!

We were amused and surprised. And mystified. Who were these people?

I can now say that this particular mystery was solved, thanks to Dave and the history he compiled of our home. Jonathan and Serafina Sebastyan Benson were just one of the many homeowners who lived here. They purchased our home on August 16, 1974. They paid $12,000 in cash and took over the existing mortgage balance of $35,000. Sadly, Jonathan passed away on May 19, 1977, less than two years after installing the cabinets. Serafina stayed on for awhile, until she sold it and moved on February 1978.

This story made me a little sad. Perhaps it’s the joy in that little note, those three exclamation marks. And having been through a reno, I know the feeling of accomplishment and renewal that comes with it. Jonathan enjoyed his new kitchen for such a short time. It reminds me that we have such a short time to enjoy the things – and the people – around us, and we don’t know how much time we have left. (Would he have bothered with new cabinets, the effort and expense, if he knew he only had two years left?)

There are many more little stories, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Dave’s book about our home actually begins a lot earlier than Jonathan and Serafina’s part in it. Our house history begins in the 1800s, when the only thing here was uninhabited scrub. The City of Ottawa didn’t exist when this book begins, and Nepean Township (because this area used to be Nepean) was only five years old when this first land grant was awarded to Thomas Gordon, an Irishman who arrived here by way of Albany, New York.

The book is laid out in chronological order, and it’s as much of a history of the area as it is a house history: going back to farming and logging days, and the later growth of the community. It also contains copies of clippings and little stories of the people who lived here, births and deaths, as well as information about a few other lots and houses on our street, which now makes me look at them a little differently when I walk by. Old real estate clippings are also fun to read:

Stop, look and listen. It's Highland Park!

And here’s a view of the Nepean High School when it was first built:

A new Nepean High School

And this was a surprise, an article that shows our home and some dangerous hedges:

Old newspaper article, from our house history

It turns out that our house was built by Charles Augustus Johannsen between 1941 and 1945. The price of the lot: $25. He was an active builder of custom homes in Ottawa, and together with his sons formed C.A. Johannsen & Sons. Our house took a few years to build and the first occupants were Jack and Frances Johannsen (who were 21 and 18). Jack was the middle son, and apparently the young couple lived in the home very briefly, likely because Jack was shipped off to war. It’s worth noting that the couple was listed in the assessment rollbook at the time as “carpenter” and MW, which stands for “married woman.”

C.A. Johannsen & Sons went on to become part of a real estate venture called Carleton Realty Company, which, through a federal deal born out of the Ottawa Home Builders Association, was responsible for the construction of those familiar war time homes across Ottawa in order to relieve a housing shortage.

This is really just skimming the surface of this fascinating collection that Dave presented to us. The binder has been passed around and we’ve all had a good read. Our own little family makes up the last chapter of the book. It’s neat to think that we’re a part of our own house history. Perhaps, when it’s time to move on, we’ll leave a copy of it for another couple who fall in love with our bannister and decide to call this their home too.

If you’d like information about your own Ottawa house history, you can find more information at Dave’s website at housestory.co.

11 Responses to "The history of our house"

1 | EmmyB

October 26th, 2014 at 9:33 am


This is brilliant! I’ve already emailed him…

2 | Susan

October 26th, 2014 at 9:34 am


That is fascinating, thank you for sharing!

3 | Meaghan Charlebois

October 26th, 2014 at 10:45 am


I just e mailed him for a quote too! I think he is going to get quite busy this season!! Thanks Andrea!

4 | Krista

October 26th, 2014 at 4:13 pm


I LOVE this. We are the first owners of our house. We’ll have to start hiding some little messages. :)

5 | Stefania

October 27th, 2014 at 11:04 am


This was a fabulous read. Love the note left in the kitchen.

6 | Ginger

October 27th, 2014 at 1:40 pm


This is so cool! I wonder if someone does this in our area….we just bought a house built in 1978 and it has had several owners. And I think the original builder/owner was important enough that they named one of the bigger parks in town after him.

I can’t remember if I ever told you this…but my Mother-In-Law’s father grew up and lived in Westboro and she visited there some when she was a little girl. I will have to find out if she remembers which street and house! :)

7 | Pamela

October 28th, 2014 at 11:18 am


What a thoughtful gift!
This is brilliant

8 | Decorating help needed! >> a peek inside the fishbowl

November 4th, 2014 at 4:52 pm


[…] that’s the bannister I mentioned in this recent post about the history of our […]

9 | Misty Pratt

January 8th, 2015 at 10:18 am


Wow, love this!!! A group of seniors recently published a little book about the history of Orleans…I think your post has convinced me I need to go out and buy it!!

10 | a peek inside the fishbowl » Blog Archive The stories of our stuff - a peek inside the fishbowl

April 17th, 2018 at 1:02 pm


[…] we commissioned Dave Allston, a local historian, to compile for us awhile back. (I wrote about it here, if you’re curious.) I was fairly certain that I’d read something about the house at […]

11 | David Lynch

January 11th, 2020 at 11:02 am


Good job indeed! My grandfather was Donald David Johannsen, son of Charles Augustus Johannsen, and I definitely got the carpenter genes from them. They built a lot of commercial buildings and houses around Ottawa as well as in Halifax. Its always nice to hear that people put time into discovering the history behind their house and have a respect for the craft. I hope you are still living there that you continue to enjoy your home that you have made, for yourself and future generations to enjoy as well!

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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