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‘I think I’m having withdrawal pains already’: Centre Block’s denizens prepare for the big, historic, and emotional move

By Laura Ryckewaert      

MPs clearing out of Centre Block are being moved into the Confederation Building and Wellington Building, while Senators are moving into new offices in the Victoria Building, the Chamber Building and the GCC.

The Confederation Hall in Centre Block. The entire iconic building will officially close its doors this December, almost 100 years after first opening, and will remain so for at least a decade. The building's life cycle will reach a 'critical' state in 2019, and extensive renovations are planned. The big move-out has been years in the making, and the last of Centre Block's occupants—including House and Senate leadership and the Chambers themselves—will clear out at the end of December into January. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Packing for any move can be a meticulous thing.

Piles of papers and books and memories have to be sorted through, deciding what to take and what to toss. Artwork and furniture has to be carefully catalogued and wrapped, ensuring precious items arrive safely in new homes.

It’s much the same for the remaining occupants of Parliament’s Centre Block building, who, almost 100 years after first moving in, will complete their much-anticipated move out ahead of decade-long renovations (at least) this winter.

Already three-quarters of Centre Block’s occupants on the House side have cleared out, as previously reported by The Hill Times.

The keys to the West Block building were officially handed over to the House of Commons on Nov. 8. A date has yet to be set for the official handover of the Government Conference Centre (GCC) to the Senate, but on Nov. 1, Senators voted to temporarily rename the GCC as the Senate of Canada Building.

Planning has been underway for the big move out of Centre Block for more than a decade. PSPC is leading the effort, but planning has been in close collaboration with the House and Senate administrations, and heritage and curatorial staff.

Originally slated to happen this past summer, the move out of Centre Block was delayed, and instead a phased move began in September. The House and Senate Chambers, Speakers and other officers, clerks, and similar direct support services (like translators), along with the prime minister, will be among the last to move out of Centre Block this winter, after which the building will be officially closed off for renovations. The House rises for the winter on Dec. 14, but the Senate sits until Dec. 21.

The move out plan for Centre Block. The red arrows mark where the Chambers are moving, while orange arrows show where occupants will be relocated. Map image courtesy of Google Maps

MPs clearing out of Centre Block are being moved into the Confederation Building and Wellington Building, while Senators are moving into offices in the Victoria Building, the Chamber Building, and the GCC.

The West Block and GCC will open up as the interim homes for the House and Senate, respectively, when sitting resumes in January, at which point the new underground Visitor’s Welcome Centre will also be in use.

The interim House of Commons Chamber, left, and interim Senate Chamber, right, in the West Block and GCC respectively. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade and courtesy of PSPC

Contracts awarded to date for Centre Block’s renovation total almost $771-million in all, including a $598-million construction management contract awarded to a joint venture of PCL and EllisDon. Renovations will take at least a decade to complete.

Leaving Centre Block will be a ‘difficult day,’ says Sen. Andreychuk

Saskatchewan Conservative Senator Raynell Andreychuk, currently the dean of the Senate, is among the Parliamentarians still to move out of Centre Block. She’s set to leave her fourth-floor corner-office for a new one on the seventh floor of the Chambers Building this winter.

Conservative Senator Raynell Andreychuk, pictured in her fourth-floor Centre Block office. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Appointed in 1993, Sen. Andreychuk said she knew from the get-go she wanted an office in Centre Block. Starting out in a cramped office on the third-floor, she made her third and final move within the building in the summer of 2017 after a coveted three-room corner-office facing Parliament’s lawns on the fourth-floor opened up.

That last move has given Sen. Andreychuk a head start on her upcoming one, with some boxes never having been unpacked. Having come to Parliament when it was a “paper world,” she said she spent the summer before last going through all of her papers, books, and the like. In the end, she tossed out “quite a few” boxes worth of files and put at least 12 more in storage.

“It was kind of reliving your life and some of the moments of the Senate when I did that,” said Sen. Andreychuk.

Senator Andreychuk’s corner office; separate rooms for her two staffers flank either side of this space. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

While she’ll have to “slim down a bit” again to fit into her next office, Sen. Andreychuk said office size has never been all that important to her—but proximity has.

Being in Centre Block, just steps from the Senate Chamber, these past years has been “highly efficient,” she said, as it’s easy to quickly pop over for votes or debates. Her new office in the Chambers Building will be a couple of blocks from the interim Chamber.

“The logistics, the security, just the efficiency—we’re all going to have to get used to [in the new building],” said Sen. Andreychuk.

But Sen. Andreychuk said the hardest part of it all is leaving behind the nostalgia and history-filled grandeur of Centre Block.

“It’s going to be, for me, a difficult day when this place shuts down,” she said. Sen. Andreychuk turns 75 in August 2019, and with projected timelines for Centre Block’s renovation, she doesn’t expect it’ll reopen in her lifetime.

“I think I’m having withdrawal pains already. I will miss that building.”

The many unique spaces and features of Centre Block 

The original Centre Block building burned down in 1916 but was quickly rebuilt and reopened for use by 1920, though work remained (the Peace Tower, for example, was completed in 1927).

A close up of an example of the Canadian nature motifs throughout Centre Block, here carved into wood in a room in the Senate Speaker’s suites. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Centre Block is a rare North American example of neo-gothic architecture. Its architects, led by John Pearson, had a hand in every aspect of the rebuild—from the layout to the choice of materials to the carvings to the furniture design—with the building’s purpose as the seat of Canada’s federal government in mind. As House curator Johanna Mizgala puts it, Centre Block was designed as a “total work of art.”

Motifs of Canadian nature—squirrels, acorns, oak leaves, and bison—are carved into the wood and stone of both the Senate and the House Chambers, and beyond. The theme of “the ship of state” also runs throughout, from the Rotunda that is Centre Block’s entrance foyer and heart—with the nautical pattern of its flooring and a carving of Poseidon on its pillar—up to the prime minister’s office on the third floor.

Clockwise from top left: A view from the Rotunda; a close-up of a north-facing carving of Queen Victoria on the entranceway from the Rotunda to the Hall of Honour; the Hall of Honour which marks the divide between the House (on the west) and Senate (on the east) in Centre Block; the compass rose and wave pattern of the Rotunda’s floors, which includes stone from WWI European battlefields. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade

This carving is found flanking the House Speaker’s chair inside the Chamber. The Hill Time photograph by Andrew Meade

The faces of important figures from royalty to past press gallery heads are carved into Centre Block’s stone walls and pillars, along with those of some of the stone masons (the inclusion of mason’s goggles are an easy tell) and quirkier carvings like one outside the House Speaker’s office depicting a joker sticking out his tongue. Some of the stone walls bear markings from fossils.

The intricately carved Memorial Chamber, which sits below the Peace Tower, is one of Centre Block’s most unique spaces. Originally built for a Book of Remembrance listing the names of Canadians who died in the First World War, it’s home to seven such books today. Those will be moved into the North Court addition that connects the new underground Visitor’s Welcome Centre to the West Block.

The Memorial Chamber. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

There are other unique elements to the building, including the old mail chutes (in use up to the late 1980s or early 1990s) and even the stairs, which have been slightly warped through use over the decades.

Also of note are the ornate rooms that make up the House and Senate Speakers’ suites.

In August, The Hill Times had a chance to tour the four rooms that are the Senate Speakers’ suites, located off of the Speakers’ Hall. When the Queen (or King, as in the past) is in town, the Speakers’ suites are given over for her use. The suites include: a room to meet and greet foreign dignitaries and other special guests, a larger reception room for hosting dinners and events (with a table from the 1920s that can extend to seat up to 24 people), an office for staff, and an office for the Speaker, complete with changing room and bathroom. On the House side, the Speaker suites also feature a small apartment-space.

The Speaker’s Hall itself is lined with large, gold-framed portraits of past Speakers, weighing anywhere from 50 to 100 pounds, estimated Tamara Dolan, project coordinator for Senate Heritage and Curatorial Services.

The Senate administration, including Ms. Dolan’s team, worked with PSPC to establish requirements for the move: what paintings need to be brought over and how they need to be handled. The artwork handlers and conservators hired by PSPC are the ones who will do the actual moving of the paintings and heritage furniture items, throughout the building, over the winter, including items in the Senate Speakers’ suites.

Clockwise from top left: The Senate Speaker’s hall; the first of four rooms that make up the Senate suites, used to meet and greet special guests; a larger reception space, not pictured is the large table that usually occupies its centre; the Senate Speaker’s office, with the mace locked up in its cabinet to the far left. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade

These handlers and conservators also helped assess the condition of all the paintings and heritage pieces, and have in turn weighed in with their own recommendations on the move-out plan. Those pieces include the Victorian-Style table that was used by the Queen to sign Proclamation of the Constitution Act, 1982, which sits in the Senate Speaker’s personal office

“If something needs to be stabilized, they’ll treat it accordingly, and then it will either be crated or soft-packed and brought over to the Government Conference Centre or to storage, depending on where it has to go,” explained Ms. Dolan.

The carvings inside the suites include more of the nature motifs found in the Senate Chamber (and elsewhere), along with the royal cyphers of monarchs from King George V to Queen Elizabeth II and the faces of past governors general from Confederation up to the 1920s, when the building was built.

Centre Block’s rehabilitation includes making the building more energy efficient, stripping it of hazardous materials like asbestos, and bringing it up to modern-day safety and accessibility standards. It’ll also mean introducing modern technological features to “ensure the building meets the needs of a 21st-century Parliament,” as described by PSPC.

“Through this complex rehabilitation, we are committed to preserving the heritage character of these buildings, such as the original detailing and finishes,” said the department.

A slight warp to the stone stairs in Centre Block can be seen, worn down over the decades by its many occupants. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Design planning is still underway for the Centre Block, and the degree to which all the many features and spaces in the building will be preserved remains to be seen—for example, will the time-warped stairs be replaced?

Asked to weigh in, Ms. Mizgala said, “it’s hard to know at this stage.”

“I think there’ll be a bit of a give and take, there has to be. There are practical things about climate and humidity and cabling and things that need to be done; accessibility issues in terms of rendering this a fully-functioning 21st-century building,” she said.

But Ms. Mizgala said among those involved in the decision-making are a number of people “who really, really love and value this building.”

“There are certain heritage and ceremonial spaces that everybody is in agreement that they are master works of Canadian architecture and no one is going to want to change them in such a way that that goes away,” she said.

What’s going where: a primer

For both the House and the Senate, the move-out for MPs and Senators is planned as a “briefcase move.” Parliamentarians and staff are responsible for packing up their personal effects, books, and binders, which PSPC is then responsible for moving over, along with any furniture and artwork.

The House of Commons Chamber in Centre Block, right. Close-ups of some of the intricate details and carvings within the Chamber are seen along the left. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

All of the desks and clerks tables currently in both the House and Senate Chambers in Centre Block were designed by Mr. Pearson, and all will be moved over to the respective interim Chambers this winter.

The Senate Chamber in Centre Block, right, with close-ups of carvings and the Chamber ceiling. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The current House of Commons Speakers chair is staying put, as it physically won’t fit through West Block’s doors, and instead a chair used by former House Speaker Edgar Rhodes will be used. As of filing deadline, it wasn’t clear what would happen with the Senate Speaker’s chair.

The House Speaker’s chair can’t fit in the West Block, and will stay in place, protected, during renovations. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

There are hundreds of portraits and paintings hanging throughout the Centre Block building, many of which will be relocated to the West Block and GCC during renovations, with others being moved elsewhere or set to be tucked away in storage.

The portraits of former prime ministers will be relocated to the West Block and installed “in the vicinity of the Chamber,” according to the House of Commons, as will the House Speakers’ portraits.

Some pieces will have to go in storage or to other buildings: for example, a painting of the Fathers of Confederation—a 1968 recreation by Rex Woods of the original 1884 painting that was destroyed in the 1916 fire—will be relocated to the Sir John A. Macdonald building.

The portrait of Sir John A. Macdonald, pictured here while still in Centre Block, was moved on Nov. 16. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Already some PM portraits have been moved, including those of John A. Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Charles Tupper, and John Thompson, which were relocated to the West Block on Nov. 16. A 1929 painting, The Ghosts of Vimy Ridge, by Australian William Longstaff, which hung in the Railway Room, has also already been relocated to the Wellington Building.

Of the 145 pieces of artwork in the Senate’s heritage collection currently in Centre Block, 51 will be relocated to the GCC, including portraits of British monarchs, from Queen Victoria to Queen Elizabeth II; the Senate Speaker’s portraits; busts of former Senators, including one of James Gladstone, the first-ever Indigenous Senator, according to Alison Korn, media relations for the Senate.

Another 113 pieces in Centre Block are on loan to the Senate, and of those, 24 will be moved into the GCC, including portraits of French royals currently hanging in La Francophonie room; Indigenous artwork; and a portrait of Canada’s first female Senator, Cairine Wilson.

While all these pieces are important, no doubt particular attention will be given to moving plans for the 1842 portrait of a young Queen Victoria, which has already survived four fires. It twice had to be cut out of its frame in the rush to save it, the last time in 1916.

This Rodin bust will be moved into the West Block, according to the House administration. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Centre Block is also home to a number of sculptures, including a 1921 bronze bust by French sculptor Auguste Rodin of a woman, entitled La France—this version of Rodin’s original 1904 bust was cast by the Government of France as a present to recognize Canada’s part in the First World War. Currently situated in a small alcove off the House Speaker’s hall on the ground floor of Centre Block, the Rodin bust will be moved and re-installed near the House Chamber in the West Block.

On the other hand, a bronze statute of George Baker, a sitting MP who was killed in action during the First World War, that sits in the foyer outside the House Chamber, is considered a “fixed heritage piece” and will remain in place, protected, during renovations.

The old glass-bottle Coke machine below Centre Block. Its fate amid and post construction is unclear. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The sub-basement level below Centre Block, known as CBUS, is used for storage and various back-of-house services. It’s where the carpenters and wood workers employed by Parliament are located, for example, and also notably includes a 1960s-era glass-bottle coke machine, which still works today (provided it’s stocked and you have a Loonie handy).

The CBUS level will continue to be used for storage during Centre Block’s renovation, including by the renovation project team. Services like the carpenters and woodworkers, along with printing, maintenance and material handling, multi-media, food, and procedural services will all be moved into the West Block building, according to the House.

The parliamentary restaurant, currently on Centre Block’s sixth-floor, will move into a slimed-down space in the West Block, with seating for just 108 people. The West Block will also include a new cafeteria space, comparable in size to what’s on the fifth-floor of Centre Block.

The press gallery will also clear out of its third-floor office, known as the ‘Hot Room,’ this winter. There will be workspace for media on a basement level underneath the interim House Chamber, where some press gallery staff will be, but most Hot Room occupants, including reporters, will be moved into offices in the National Press Building at 150 Wellington.

Centre Block’s Library of Parliament, pictured earlier this year, will be closed off and cleared out during renovations. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

The Library of Parliament isn’t being renovated—having completed its own facelift back in 2007—but access to it will be cut off while Centre Block is under construction. In turn, the Library has to move its main collection, including what’s in its below-ground stacks, out of Centre Block and into either storage in Gatineau or branch locations in the West Block, Wellington Building, GCC, or on Sparks Street. The Library is also responsible for overseeing the relocation of visitors’ services and the parliamentary boutique to the Visitor’s Welcome Centre.

The Peace Tower will also be renovated as part of work on Centre Block. PSPC said it’s working with the House to ensure the Dominion Carillonneur can continue to play “for as long as possible during renovations,” and at this point, plans will see the bells continue to ring until at least the summer of 2022.

The Hill Times

LTVP building renovation costs to date

A joint venture of PCL Constructors and EllisDon was awarded the construction management contract for Centre Block’s renovation, totalled at $598,077,450.

On top of that, a $127,359,752 contract for architectural and engineering services was awarded to the joint venture, Centrus; a $13,423,979 cost, time, and risk management contract was awarded to Turner & Townsend; a $14,970,906 contract for project management support services was awarded to a joint-venture of Colliers Project Leaders and Tiree Facility Solutions; a $7,686,067 contract was awarded to EllisDon for east pavilion masonry work already underway; and a $9,158,472 contract for the since-completed rehabilitation of Centre Block’s ventilation towers was awarded to Atwill-Morin (Ontario) Inc.

Altogether, that’s a total of almost $771-million.

Here’s a look at the cost of renovating other buildings so far as part of PSPC’s Long Term Vision and Plan. Not included is the recent cost of renovating the Library’s branch at 125 Sparks St., which PSPC did not provide by filing deadline.

  • 1 Wellington St.: $23.6-million
  • Valour Building: $77.5-milion
  • Security Perimeter Project: $9.8-million
  • Centre Block: $771-million (based on contract awards to date)
  • The Wellington Building: $425.2-million
  • The Sir John A. Macdonald Building: $99-million
  • The West Block: $863-million
  • The Government Conference Centre: $269-million (this includes the cost of leasing nearby office space for the Senate)
  • The Visitor’s Welcome Centre: $130-million (for phase one)
  • Parliament Hill Pathway Connectivity Project: $15.5-million
  • The East Block: the full renovation of this building will follow Centre Block, but some masonry work has been bumped up out of necessity, with contracts totalling roughly $173.6-million

Total to date: $2.7-billion

Centre Block’s time capsules

Two time capsules are buried beneath the stonework of the Centre Block building.

The first sits underneath the building’s north-easternmost cornerstone, and was originally laid by the future King Edward VII (then Prince Albert, the oldest son of Queen Victoria) on Sept. 1, 1860. The original building was completed in 1866. A glass-bottle time capsule, it includes a record of the names of top Canadian legislators, including those in charge of the building’s original construction, along with gold, silver, and copper coins from the time. After the 1916 fire, this time capsule was recovered and re-laid by the King’s brother, the Duke of Connaught, with copies of newspapers of the day added to it.

A second time capsule sits under the cornerstone of the Peace Tower, and was laid Sept. 1, 1919 by King Edward VII’s grandson, then Prince Edward (Queen Elizabeth II’s uncle, who abdicated before his coronation). A sealed copper time capsule, it contains papers on the history of the Parliament Building and the event leading up to the cornerstone laying ceremony, as well as Canadian coins and stamps, newspapers of the day, a list of MPs and the current cabinet, greetings from 16 foreign countries, and even the Prince of Wales’ trip itinerary.

The Hill Times asked about plans for these time capsules—in particular given the upcoming 100th anniversary of the second time capsule being laid—and was told there are currently no plans to unearth or disturb either.

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