Edgar Mitchell sits in the corner of a Tim Horton’s in Manotick and shows me a graph he keeps tucked away in a desk at his home. He points to a baseline, explaining that the line represents average monthly sales at the Duke of Somerset and Lockmaster Tavern for the five years before the City of Ottawa passed a bylaw prohibiting smoking in public places. Running through the baseline are peaks and valleys representing good months and bad. March is nearly off the chart (God love St. Patrick’s Day). January is a shallow valley. Much of the graph is as consistent as a topographical map. “This, right here,” and he points at a dot on the graph, “that’s when full compliance of the smoking bylaw kicked in.”
I look to where he is pointing and see the graph start to change. The line representing monthly sales suddenly goes down like an elevator cut loose from its cable. “This is when I had to shut her down,” and he points to another dot on the graph, the date October 31, 2004, etched beside it. “It took just four years to put me out of business.” Mitchell sits back and shakes his head. Losing Somerset House — the family business started by his great-grandfather — is a memory he’ll never shake. Something he never saw coming.
He turned 65 this year and now works in a Home Depot store in Barrhaven. He doesn’t get downtown much and certainly doesn’t make a point of driving by Somerset House for the memories it brings back. “Maybe the smoking bylaw was a good thing,” he says, taking a sip of coffee, looking around the restaurant. “But when people tell you that no one suffered because of it, don’t believe them.”
In 2005, Mitchell sold Somerset House to Tony Shahrasebi, getting little more for the property than the money he owed suppliers and various levels of government in taxes. Shahrasebi was a local businessman, originally from Iran, who had made his fortune in the parking-lot business, parking-lot attendant being the only job he could get when he arrived in Canada from Iran after the overthrow of the shah in 1979.
He began his career in Montreal, and the trick to his success is one of those quirky stories you hear from time to time, one that leaves you shaking your head and muttering “Now why didn’t I think of that?”
“The parking lots in Montreal were always full. You couldn’t get in them half the time,” remembers Shahrasebi. “One day I thought to myself, You could get more cars in here if you just took the keys from the driver and parked the car yourself.” It’s called tandem parking — letting the lot attendant park the car so that he can cram in as many as possible — and it made Shahresebi a fortune. In 1992, he moved to Ottawa and brought his business, Capital Parking, with him. The same year he started buying and renovating commercial property in the city.
Somerset House looked like an ideal property when Shahresebi purchased it from Mitchell. He already owned an adjacent building on Somerset Street. He had renovated heritage buildings in the past (including a Korean restaurant, also on Somerset Street, that won him an award from Heritage Ottawa in 2009). He fell in love with Somerset House and imagined another bar or restaurant operating on the ground floor with some renovated apartments above. He would restore the building to its former glory. He came up with a renovation plan and got to work.
Then in the mid-afternoon of October 19, 2007, while a work crew was in the basement, part of the southeast wall collapsed, trapping a worker in a Bobcat for nearly two hours while police, paramedics, and firefighters attempted to free him. (Except for some minor bruises and scratches, he was unhurt.) While the rescue was underway, police closed the streets around Somerset House to vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Barricades went up from O’Connor Street all the way to Kent Street, from MacLaren Street to Cooper Street — four full city blocks. And there they would stay for the next two months while Shahrasebi and the city argued over what should be done with Somerset House, an argument that ended when the city partially demolished the building.