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John Ebbs: Preston Street Resident and Honourary Italian

By Oliviana Mingarelli

Photo courtesy of John Ebbs

John Ebbs, born and raised in Ottawa, has spent most of his life representing many of Preston Street’s oldest and most respected families. After the death of his father, Mr. Ebbs took over the family law firm and continued to represent many of his father’s clients, who were of both Italian and non-Italian descent. Even though his main office was for most of his career located on Sparks Street, Mr. Ebbs constantly kept in touch with members of the Italian community. In fact, so much so that in 1971 he built what is now the building that houses the Bank of Nova Scotia on Preston Street, and within the structure built himself a second office in order to more effectively run his business.

Mr. Ebbs speaks fondly of his memories of the Italian community. In fact, he loved it so much that he co-owned the former Prescott Hotel (now simply called The Prescott) with Tony Disipio for approximately forty years. During their partnership, his legal skills were instrumental in attaining the hotel’s liquor licence, which at the time was no easy feat. The Prescott Hotel held the first liquor licence in the area.

Though he has since retired from the legal field, Mr. Ebbs has kept his office within the Scotia Bank Building in order to continue to manage it and the apartments beside it with his long-time associate Pat Burkett.

During his time as a legal representative within the Italian community Mr. Ebbs practised mostly residential law, but also had his hand in the commercial aspect of it. One of his most important jobs within the residential field was arranging mortgages for people to buy. Yet, unlike many people of the time, Mr. Ebbs was never nervous about any of his Italian clients not paying their mortgages.

“I always knew that if I had an Italian client then they were going to pay it off,” he says. “They were great for that. They would do anything to make sure that mortgage was paid. They have always been a friendly and reliable people!”

Within the commercial community he often worked with Fern, Pat and Leo DeGrazia, former owner of Chappie’s Lunch, where Leonardo’s Restaurant now is. Of course, during his ownership of the Scotia Bank Building, Mr. Ebbs has also been able to work with many different tenants and various other people.

“I’m very happy to be here [in the community],” Mr. Ebbs remarks. “It has been a very pleasant experience.”

One of the biggest changes he remembers seeing on Preston Street is the change in its market value.

Though retired from his law practice, John Ebbs still visits his office in the building he built (and still owns) on Preston Street.

“Approximately 25 years ago, Preston Street was ripe to sell yet many people didn’t,” he says. “That is why the street hasn’t developed as much as it could have.”

During the time when many businesses were interested in purchasing property on Preston Street, they encountered an unforseen problem: the fierce bond that people had to their homes. Almost nobody was willing to sell their house, no matter what the price. There are still many privately owned homes in the Preston Street area.

When asked whether he thinks that Preston Street will ever be “ripe to sell” again, Mr. Ebbs responds:“I think so. It’s a lovely street—it’s continued growing. There are a lot of industrious and smart businessmen along Preston Street who work hard and are developing their properties to take best advantage of them. There’s no doubt that Preston is known as a restaurant mecca for Italian food.” 

John Ebbs, a long-time resident of Preston Street.

Having also been associated with the Preston Street BIA (Business Improvement Association), Mr. Ebbs has developed a great respect for all the people who help to keep Preston Street running smoothly.

Even though there are now many non-Italians living within the area, he remarks that Preston Street is definitely first and foremost an Italian area of which the focus is St. Anthony’s Church.

“I worked very closely with Father Ferrero when he financed the convent across the street (The Sisters of the Adolorata),” he remarks affectionately. “We were great friends and it was a tragedy when he died. He did an amazing amount of work for the Italian community. He was instrumental in getting many Italians into this area from Italy.”

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, a time during which hundreds of Italians were immigrating to Ottawa, Mr. Ebbs was the only person in the area who was authorized to sign for the Italian Embassy. Therefore, anything that had to be notarized had to go through him before it could be approved. Mr. Ebbs fondly remembers how Father Ferrero would act as the interpreter during many of these dealings since most of Preston’s new residents could not speak English. Even though many Italians have since moved across the city, many families still come back to St. Anthony’s for mass on Sundays and to celebrate special occasions.

“They use St. Anthony’s not only as parish but as a home parish,” Mr. Ebbs says emphatically.

Would he ever consider moving away? Never. He explains that even though his residential home has never been on Preston, the street has always been a very important part of his life.

“I never want to move,” Mr. Ebbs says. “I know so many people that live here who aren’t Italian but who love to live in this area because they love it so much. I don’t have any plans to give up this building” he says. “As long as I’m healthy, I’ll be here.”

What will Preston Street resemble in the future? According to Mr. Ebbs, it will likely develop commercially as Bronson did and in the long run grow even better than Bronson has. Preston Street has great potential. As of now, it is mostly known for its great Italian food but the future may have many more great things in store. And of course, Mr. Ebbs will be here as long as he can to see it happen.

This article was originally published in the March 2002 issue of Il Postino.


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