Birks Building

Recognized Federal Heritage Building

Ottawa, Ontario
Front view of the Birks Building, 1985. (© Public Works and Government Services Canada/Travaux publics et Services gouvernementaux Canada, 1985.)
(© Public Works and Government Services Canada/Travaux publics et Services gouvernementaux Canada, 1985.)
Address : 107 Sparks Street, Ottawa, Ontario

Recognition Statute: Treasury Board Policy on Management of Real Property
Designation Date: 1986-07-17
  • 1910 to 1911 (Construction)

Event, Person, Organization:
  • Weekes and Keefer, Architects, Ottawa  (Architect)
Custodian: Public Works and Government Services Canada
FHBRO Report Reference: 85-22
DFRP Number: 08895 00

Description of Historic Place

The Birks Building is situated on the north side of Sparks Street in the core of Ottawa’s central business district. Flanked by other high-rise buildings, the façade features a tripartite division consisting of a base storey, an intervening tier of five storeys and a capping storey. The five-bay brick façade features narrow piers that separate large windows and give a vertical emphasis. The designation is confined to the footprint of the building.

Heritage Value

The Birks Building is a Recognized Federal Heritage Building because of its historical associations, and its architectural and environmental values.

Historical Value:
The Birks Building is associated with the expansion and development of early 20th century Ottawa as expressed through purpose-built stores and office buildings. Selling luxury gifts, precious metals, and gems, Birks retail jewellery store catered to an elite clientele, including the Canadian and foreign governments.

Architectural Value:
The Birks Building is a good example of a structure whose details reflect modest stylistic references to the Beaux-Arts and Baroque. It is a very good example of a functional building in that it incorporates an innovative modern structural system which is clearly reflected through its exterior. It is constructed of reinforced concrete based on the Kahn system: steel members encased in concrete. This structure exhibits good quality craftsmanship and materials.

Environmental Value:
The Birks Building, on its unchanged site in the commercial core is compatible with Ottawa’s central business district and is familiar to residents.

Dana Johnson, Birks Building, 107 Sparks Street, Ottawa, Ontario, Heritage Character Statement 85-022; Rosenthal Building / Birks Building, 107 Sparks Street, Ottawa, Ontario, Heritage Buildings Review Office Report 85-022.

Character-Defining Elements

The character-defining elements of the Birks Building should be respected.

Its Beaux-Arts style, very good functional design and good quality materials and craftsmanship, for example: the vertical massing reflecting its structural system of steel encased in concrete; the symmetrical, five-storey facade with its tripartite division of a base storey, an intervening tier of five storeys and a capping storey divided by a row of balconies; the brick cladding; the Ionic columns marking the entrance, the Renaissance-inspired balconies and the balustrade.

The manner in which the Birks Building, on its unchanged site on Sparks Street, reinforces the commercial centre of downtown Ottawa and is a familiar landmark, as evidenced by: the building’s on-going relationship to its streetscape and surrounding buildings; its Beaux-Arts design and materials that maintain a visual and physical
relationship to adjacent structures in the commercial core of downtown Ottawa; its distinctive ‘Birks’ marquee that makes it recognizable to people in the core.

Heritage Character Statement

Disclaimer - The heritage character statement was developed by FHBRO to explain the reasons for the designation of a federal heritage building and what it is about the building that makes it significant (the heritage character). It is a key reference document for anyone involved in planning interventions to federal heritage buildings and is used by FHBRO in their review of interventions.

The Birks Building (formerly the Rosenthal Building) was built in 1910-11 by C.E. Deakin, a Montreal contractor, to the designs of Weekes and Keefer, Ottawa architects. It was Recognized because it is a very good example of the development of the community and for its very good functional design.

This building is one of 19 buildings located on the north side of Sparks Street between Elgin and Bank streets, an area which has been, since the 1880s at least, the core of Ottawa's central business district. The Birks Building was constructed for A. Rosenthal and sons who operated a prestige jewellery store on Sparks Street from the 1890s. In 1910 the firm commissioned the construction of an elaborate new store and office building. Shortly after its completion, the building was sold to Henry Birks and sons of Montreal. Henry Birks was born in England and entered the jewellery trade by joining the Montreal firm of George Savage and Company. Birks opened his own shop in 1879. In 1911, Birks began a continent-wide expansion, starting with the opening of a store in Ottawa. In 1982 the company moved to quarters in the newly opened Rideau Centre and the retail space has been subdivided without the loss of any of the original architectural detailing.

The facade of the Birks Building consists of the traditional tripartite division of base storey, an intervening tier of five storeys and a capping storey divided by a row of balconies. Flanked by blocks of four and five storeys, it required large areas of glazing on the five-bay front and rear elevations for interior lightening; the facade therefore consists of thin piers separating large windows. The public spaces within continued the exterior's rich decorative treatment: French Bresche Violet marble sheathed the concrete columns, while eight-foot high panels of Missisquoi marble lined the vestibule. Marble and mahogany interior fixtures matched the marble mosaic floors. With its use of thin piers and extensive glazing, the exterior clearly reflected its modern structural system, while the Ionic columns flanking the entrance, the renaissance-inspired balconies and the balustrade reflect the architects' desire to include modest stylistic references to then-current styles, the Beaux-Arts and Baroque. The Birks Building is constructed of reinforced concrete on the Kahn system: steel members encased in concrete. The ground floor was sheathed in Philipsburg marble, while English glazed terra cotta from the Doulton potteries covered the facade above iron. In 1930, for reasons unknown, the cast iron ornamentation and cornice were removed, and replaced by insignificant detailing of classical derivation. The marquee and front show windows were changed in 1945. The original facade cladding has been removed, so that the sheathing is now of brick. When the windows were replaced, aluminum spandrels replaced the much more ornamental originals.

Birks has been one of Ottawa's most prominent jewellery stores. Though not located on a corner lot, the highrise building is a structure familiar to many residents, largely because of its distinctive marquee and its longtime use as Birks' main downtown outlet.