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Capturing the capital city: an architectural historian pens a keepsake collection

By Shruti Shekar      

Andrew Waldron walks readers through a journey of more than 300 architectural structures that define the Ottawa-Gatineau region.

National Gallery of Canada 380 Sussex Drive Moshe Safdie, Parkin/Safdie Architects, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander 1983–88 Canada’s National Gallery began as a modest collection of artwork for Parliament, but after passage of the National Gallery Act (1913), its first director, Eric Brown, began to collect works by a substantial number of emerging Canadian artists, including the Group of Seven. Once housed in the Victoria Building (C13), now the Canadian Museum of Nature, the collection never had a proper gallery. Competitions held in the 1950s and 1970s had no tangible results, except moving the gallery into the Lorne Building (Green, Blankstein, Russell & Associates 1958–60; demolished 2011). Searching for a new home, the National Gallery finally built a place to showcase its impressive art. Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman
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Whether you’re walking through the Byward Market, or crossing the bridge to Gatineau, Que., Andrew Waldron takes you on a journey exploring some of Ottawa’s romantic-styled architecture for readers to discover unnoticed gems of this government town.

In his book Exploring the Capital: An Architectural Guide to the Ottawa-Gatineau Region, Mr. Waldron details more than 300 buildings, monuments, hotels, churches, theatres, and more across 11 different neighbourhoods and locations in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. The book’s chapters, complete with hundreds of photographs, are divided by neighbourhoods: Parliament Hill; the ByWard Market; Centretown; Sandy Hill; the Glebe, Old Ottawa South and Alta Vista; New Edinburgh, Rockcliffe Park and Vanier; the Rideau Canal; the West End; Hull and the Chaudière; Nepean; and Beyond the Greenbelt.

“One of the features of the book is that we decided it was going to be that you could do some tours walking, some tours riding your bike … [and] you could even stage [a tour] in the winter,” Mr. Waldron said. “There are all sorts of hidden gems that I knew about but I hadn’t visited. … It was a way of covering all the regions.”

St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church
82 Kent Street
William Tutin Thomas 1872–74
Built by Ottawa’s Scots shortly after Confederation, on land donated by Nicholas Sparks, this church is a good example of Gothic Revivalism, inspired by English churches of the Middle Ages. Reviving styles was popular in the Victorian age, when an industrial revolution was modernizing every aspect of life. The architect’s father, William Thomas, was one of Canada’s earliest prominent architects. His son gave special attention to producing an impressive corner spire and exceptional lancet windows, building on his skill with the Gothic. An unsympathetic addition, St. Andrew’s Tower (275 Sparks Street, Jim Strasman 1987), was built onto the rear of the church for the federal Department of Justice.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman

Mr. Waldron took three years to complete the 273-page, and said his background as an architectural historian helped him pick the best spots.

The book was launched both in English and French at the Library and Archives Canada in June. It was co-published by the University of Ottawa and Figure 1 Publishing.

While he said that Ottawa can’t be compared to metropolitan giants like Toronto or Montreal, he called it a “dramatic, romantic architectural” government city.

“When you look at what’s happened in the last 150 years of developing the city, it has [different] feels. There’s the feel of a romantic stream. There’s a feel of different cultures. … I mean if you walk behind the Parliament Buildings, there’s a whole forest. There’s no forest like that in Toronto,” Mr. Waldron said. “Everyone dismisses Ottawa … as the place where fun is forgotten, but in fact [it’s] a very emotional and intense city.”

Mr. Waldron said one of the pressures the city faces today is creating an identity that sustains older buildings, while bringing it into the next generation of modern designs.

Sparks Street Mall
Bay Street to Elgin Street
Watson Balharrie 1967; SWA Group, Cecelia Paine & Associates, Harvey Harman 1986
Nicholas Sparks gradually sold off parcels of land from his estate. His name survives on what was Ottawa’s busiest commercial street beginning in the 1860s, but by the 1950s the street had lost its appeal. Jacques Gréber proposed to revive it as a pedestrian street, one of the first in North America. A design committee supervised arrangements of planters, fountains and shelters, and tried in vain to coordinate the renovation of building façades. It was successful, and in 1967 the pedestrian street became permanent, opening three days before Canada’s Centennial celebrations. At first a people place, it too gradually lost its luster, and in spite of several revitalization attempts, it remains undervalued outside of summer festival season. A contributing cause may be the federal government’s expropriation of all the buildings in the area. Despite hopes to encourage new revitalization, security and other preoccupations have left the street underused.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman

Canada’s Four Corners Building
93 Sparks Street
King Arnoldi 1870–71
A venerable survivor beside younger neighbours, this sandstone building was erected by the Montreal Telegraph Company. Its first tenant was the Merchants Bank of Canada, a sister company backed by local lumber barons. The dignity of the carved faces in the window keystones above suggests that they were bank directors. Small metal plates at the ends of tie beams help hold the building together. The top storey is a replacement for the original mansard roof.
Walk up Metcalfe Street to see Ottawa’s first generation of business blocks, the Marshall Building (14 Metcalfe Street, William Hodgson 1881–86; Diamond Schmitt 1996). The Victorian Italianate brick structure originally accommodated Molsons Bank, evident in the MB carved in the keystone over its widest arch. The federal government later installed offices. From 1996 to 2011, the building served as the National Capital Commission’s Capital Info Centre. The architects glassed in the north side facing the open plaza.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman

“In 1967 there was a lot of demolition. …There was a huge transformation. The difference today is there’s still demolition … [but] it is much more sensitive, it’s more integrated with the landscape around it in part and there’s city planning,” Mr. Waldron said.

He indicated that the book was written for three reasons. The first was to commemorate Canada’s 150th birthday, noting he didn’t see similar projects during the 150 celebrations.

The book was written as a keepsake—his second reason—for people of all backgrounds, including academics, visitors, and locals, he said.

And finally, it was written for people to learn about all the interesting places that are located in Ottawa, which people often fail to notice.

“There hasn’t been a book like this in 30 years,” Mr. Waldron said. “It is nice to have [the book] come out this year.”

Exploring the Capital: An Architectural Guide to the Ottawa-Gatineau Region, by Andrew Waldron, photographs by Peter Coffman, Figure 1 Publishing, 273 pp., $24.95.


The Hill Times

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica
375 Sussex Drive
John Cannon, Pierre-Adrien Telmon 1841–53; James R. Bowes, Louis-Philippe Hébert 1883–87
A pair of tall towers with reflective tin spires mark the oldest surviving church in Ottawa. This landmark replaced a decades-old wooden church that had become too small for Bytown’s growing French-speaking population. Local builder Antoine Robillard followed the designs of Father Cannon, who was responsible for the classically inspired round-headed doors and their entablatures. When the Oblate Fathers took over the parish, Father Telmon was sent from France to continue the work. He chose a Gothic Revival style just as it was coming into fashion; the large windows over the doors have Gothic pointed arches and tracery. The Diocese of Bytown was formed in 1848, and the unfinished church was elevated to the rank of cathedral. It is now one of twenty-three Canadian churches designated as basilicas. The steeples were finished in 1858; the choir followed four years later, and the exceptional gilded wood sculptures in the late 1870s, under Canon Georges Bouillon. The basilica underwent a major restoration in 1999.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman

Thomas D’Arcy McGee Building
90 Sparks Street
David, Boulva, Cleve 1978–81
A reflecting glass and aluminum skin covers this twelve-storey office with an expressive wide overhang and a central lightwell. Built for the Royal Bank, the shiny structure is a striking contrast to its brick and terracotta neighbours. Inside, the six-storey atrium, intended as an interior extension of Sparks, provides access to offices and shops, including a lower-level mall. The Metcalfe Street portion of the building incorporates the bank’s former headquarters (E.P. Warren 1961), stripped down to its structural steel frame. The building was renamed after the Father of Confederation who was assassinated in 1868 at 142 Sparks Street.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman

Blackburn Building
85 Sparks Street
W.E. Noffke 1907–13; 1965
Robert Blackburn amassed a fortune from lumber, mining and real estate, and passed it on to his sons. The brothers originally planned a seven-storey hotel, but ended up with a ten-storey office building, using a new type of reinforced concrete. The Union Bank of Canada was the anchor tenant. Unfortunately, a rich cornice studded with superb copper lion heads was removed in 1965, and the lower floors modernized. Two narrow office buildings from the same era stand up the block on the way to Elgin Street: the Saxe Building (75 Sparks Street, Weeks & Keefer 1909), with fine decorations, and the Hope Building (61–63 Sparks Street, W.E. Noffke 1910), built for stationers James Hope and Sons Ltd. At the top, above the words ‘Bible House,’ stands a large allegorical statue of ‘Hope.’
Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman

The Chambers
40 Elgin Street
BBB Architects, Commonwealth Historic Resource Management 1994–95
The National Capital Commission (NCC) manages federally owned land from this fourteen-storey infill, part of a complex of connected historic and modern buildings known as the Chambers. The tower is behind the impressive Queen Anne Revival Central Chambers (42–52 Elgin Street, John James Browne 1893). Its generous bay windows and decorative detailing are in exceptional condition and integrate well with the earlier Scottish Ontario Chambers (44 Sparks Street, William Hodgson 1883). The modest Bell Block (40 Elgin Street, William Hodgson 1867), in between, serves as an entrance to the tower and links all of the buildings together, reflecting different ages of Victorian office blocks.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman

Royal Canadian Mint
320 Sussex Drive
David Ewart 1905–08; Department of Public Works 1909–16; Henry Gordon Hughes 1935
This British Royal Mint branch was built when it was decided that Canadian coinage should be manufactured in Canada. The building filled a demanding set of specifications set out by the mother mint. Ewart continued the Baronial theme from the neighbouring building, but with a more fortified appearance appropriate to its purpose. The guard house and spiked iron fence (1908) harmonize in style and spirit with the massive turrets flanking the entrance. A refinery, in which bullion is mixed and melted, was added to the right rear, and a wing in front of that (1909–16). A florid bronze-cast coat of arms sits over the central door. In the early 1980s, the Master of the Mint unwittingly demolished a portion of the building, despite its being a Classified federal heritage building. At the instigation of the government, the Master was required to reconstruct what had been demolished. Part of the Mint’s operations have moved to a new plant in Winnipeg, and this building now specializes in collector and commemorative coins and as a museum.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman

Rathier House & Store
195 Cumberland Street
c. 1862
Bruyère Street was the northern edge of the original survey of Lowertown. Distant from the bustle of Bytown, it developed as a residential street. At Bruyère and Cumberland is Rathier House, one of the few stone houses built in Lowertown, even though many of its residents worked as stonecutters (the material was too expensive). The dressing and coursing of this landmark is especially competent. A century-long succession of grocers, beginning with Abraham Rathier, operated a store on the ground floor and lived over the shop. The angled corner entrance was standard for stores. Farther east along Bruyère Street, at King Edward Avenue, is the castellated former Lowertown firehall (241 Bruyère Street, 1897). In use until the 1950s, the fire station was converted to serve as the Armand Page Community Centre, named after a longtime resident of Lowertown who was Ottawa’s fire chief. In the early 1990s, the community centre was closed and converted to apartments.
Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman

The Parliament Buildings
Wellington Street
Poised majestically on the crown of “The Hill,” is the seat of the Government of Canada. Barrack’s Hill became the obvious choice for Parliament, and a competition was held, with the winners adopting a Civic Gothic style. The three buildings were ready in 1866. Two—for government departments, cabinet ministers, the prime minister, and the governor general—flank Centre Block, with space for 264 public servants, but when New Brunswick and Nova Scotia joined Confederation to create the Dominion of Canada, they immediately became overcrowded. Today, half the public service is scattered among other buildings in Ottawa and Gatineau. After years of neglect, Parliament Hill is undergoing a twenty-year program to restore the buildings (2007–27). This began with the rehabilitation of the West Block, to be completed in 2017, and will finish with conservation of the Centre Block.
The Centre Block accommodates the chambers of the elected House of Commons and the appointed Senate. All legislation is debated here. On a cold February evening in 1916, the original Centre Block (Thomas Fuller, Chilion Jones 1859–66) was destroyed by a spectacular fire, save for the Library. Parliament sat for four years in the Victoria Museum (C13) while the Centre Block was rebuilt. The architects (John A. Pearson, J. Omer Marchand 1916–27) at first intended to preserve parts of the destroyed building but instead designed a steel frame using the same Nepean sandstone. Pointed-arch windows, steep roofs and corner turrets continue Gothic Revivalism but with an underlying Beaux-Arts office plan, following two major axes, dominated by the 90-metre Peace Tower with a fifty-three-bell carillon to honour Canada’s war dead, especially the soldiers who died at the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Since completion, over thirty sculptors have collaborated under the Dominion sculptors (William F.K. Oosterhoff 1950–62; Eleanor Milne 1962–93) on the richly ornamented interior. While the Centre Block is undergoing its restoration, the Senate will be moved to the Government Conference Centre (G1).
Photograph courtesy of Peter Coffman

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