The castle Birkett built

| September 30, 2017 | 0 Comments
Hungarian Ambassador Bálint Ódor and his wife, Lili Franciska Török, live in an urban home known as Birkett's Castle on Metcalfe Street. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

Hungarian Ambassador Bálint Ódor and his wife, Lili Franciska Török, live in an urban home known as Birkett’s Castle on Metcalfe Street. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

We’ve all seen and heard of famous castles — Windsor Castle, Prague Castle, Mont Saint Michel, Ludwig’s (Mad Max’s) Castle in Bavaria. Exotic locations, fantastic designs, tourist destinations.
And then there is Birkett’s Castle. Whose, you ask? Birkett’s? Where would that be? Try downtown Ottawa. Ask around about Thomas Birkett, a former mayor of Ottawa with grand ideas about how he wanted to live. Perhaps he didn’t think of his house on Metcalfe Street in Centretown as exactly a castle, but in 1896, the wealthy hardware merchant made sure that all the accoutrements of fine living and showmanship were included in the plans for his Gothic Baronial-style home. There are turrets, crenellated battlements (where soldiers could fire arrows at attacking enemies), rows of rectangular windows and stepped gables.
Birkett was mayor in 1891 and a Conservative member of Parliament from 1900 to 1904. His house certainly turned heads and perhaps drew some snickers, but after he died in 1920, it went on to host some imposing tenants. It was home to the Japanese embassy from 1926 to 1930 and later served as headquarters to a number of organizations including the Canadian Boy Scouts and the Canadian Heritage Foundation.

This magnificent hand-carved staircase leads from the centre hall to a landing with a large stained-glass window.  (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

This magnificent hand-carved staircase leads from the centre hall to a landing with a large stained-glass window. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

The government of Hungary bought the building in 1994, using the house as its ambassador’s residence and a new wing on Waverley Street as embassy offices. In 1997, the embassy received a Certificate of Merit from the City of Ottawa for restoring and maintaining the building in its original style. Since then, the house received a heritage certificate of merit from the city, a point of great pride for Ambassador Bálint Ódor. The certificate hangs in the striking front hall, near the bronze head of King Saint Stephen, the first crowned king of Hungary.
Everywhere there are gleaming wooden floors, wood-framed windows and doors topped with intricate metal transoms, and there’s a magnificent hand-carved staircase leading from the centre hall to a landing with a large stained-glass window.
Ódor and his wife, Lili Franciska Török, who are on their first posting abroad, are the fortunate residents of one of the capital’s most distinctive homes, which is not only beautiful, but full of cultural treasures. The front door is heavy and Victorian, the pine floors inlaid.

Ambassador Bálint Ódor and his wife, Lili Franciska Török.  (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

Ambassador Bálint Ódor and his wife, Lili Franciska Török. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

The main floor has two large receiving rooms — a main reception room with cream-coloured furniture, and an adjoining room with leather furniture and a small desk that the ambassador calls the library. A newly renovated sunroom, decorated with turquoise furniture, is the pride of the diplomatic couple. From the foundation, the home was totally restored two years ago to its original state, complete with tall leaded glass windows.
The entrance hall is covered with pink-patterned fabric wallpaper and detailed wood wainscoting, a Victorian detail repeated in all of the downstairs rooms. An exciting innovation in the residence is a piano donated to the embassy by the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, prompting Ódor, who arrived more than two years ago, to launch a series of cultural events featuring Hungarian artists and aptly dubbed the Concert at the Embassy Series.
He is also hugely proud of his Hungarian chef. “There is fierce competition among embassy chefs,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye, “but ours is the best.” The residence’s pale pink dining room, which can seat 14 for a sit-down meal, usually serves fusion Hungarian food, he notes. Chicken paprikash, a classic Hungarian specialty, is prepared in a special way. For bigger receptions, they move the furniture and can host up to 150 guests. The house is equipped with a commercial kitchen.

The home's newly renovated sunroom is decorated in turquoise furniture. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

The home’s newly renovated sunroom is decorated in turquoise furniture. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

Dinner is served on a hand-painted Herend dinner service, the famed fine porcelain from a small town in west Hungary. The embassy pattern is named after Queen Victoria, who ordered a set in 1851 and used it for the rest of her life. It’s still in use by the British Royal Family.
Other cultural items deck the halls, so to speak. A beautiful collection of ceramic figures by Hungarian artist Margit Kovacs are treasured objects at the residence. A museum containing her work opened in 1973 in Szentendre, a town on the Danube River north of Budapest.
There is a bronze statuette of Hungary’s most famous race horse, Kincsem, whose name means “My Treasure” in Hungarian and who won an all-time record 54 races in 54 starts between 1876 and 1879. There’s also a Gobelin tapestry of King Matthias Corvinus, a renaissance king of Hungary, as well as oil paintings by Hungarian masters from the late 19th Century and copperplate etchings with views of Budapest that are all part of the cultural collection at the residence.

The residence's pale pink dining room can seat 14 for a sit-down dinner, for which the couple usually serves Hungarian fusion cuisine. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

The residence’s pale pink dining room can seat 14 for a sit-down dinner, for which the couple usually serves Hungarian fusion cuisine. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

While the house looks large and imposing, there are just three bedrooms on the second floor, which is plenty of space for Ódor, Török and their two daughters, aged three years and six months. For Török, the location is perfect, with two parks, one with a pool, and the canal close by.
“We love to skate and we love the cold,” she said. “After just two weeks in Ottawa, I felt at home. It’s a wonderful place for young families.”
A small, beautiful heritage “castle” with cultural treasures, fine food, international visitors and small children seems the perfect combination for a smoothly running diplomatic life. And conveniently, Daddy’s office is attached to the residence.

The stained glass window at the top of the grand staircase has been lovingly preserved.   (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

The stained glass window at the top of the grand staircase has been lovingly preserved. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

Details such as this wooden transom over the door appear throughout the home. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

Details such as this wooden transom over the door appear throughout the home. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

Greeting visitors in the residence's front hall is a bust of King Stephen I of Hungary. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

Greeting visitors in the residence’s front hall is a bust of King Stephen I of Hungary. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

The home features two large receiving rooms for diplomatic receptions, which the ambassador frequently hosts. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

The home features two large receiving rooms for diplomatic receptions, which the ambassador frequently hosts. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

The Royal Conservatory of Toronto donated this grand piano to the embassy, prompting the ambassador to launch a  series of piano concerts at the residence.  (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

The Royal Conservatory of Toronto donated this grand piano to the embassy, prompting the ambassador to launch a series of piano concerts at the residence. (Photo: Ashley Fraser)

Longtime journalist Margo Roston is
Diplomat’s culture columnist.

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Margo Roston is Diplomat’s culture editor.

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