Without a doubt the most recognizable feature of modern Ottawa is the Parliament Buildings. The centre of Canadian governance both symbolically and literally, the Parliament Buildings are a beautiful addition to Ottawa’s skyline and to Parliament Hill. Once Ottawa was chosen as the capital of Canada, the government issued a call for architectural designs for the buildings; the winning designs were chosen in 1859. The firm of Thomas Fuller and Chillion Jones of Toronto won the contract for the Centre Block; another firm, Stent and Laver, won the contract for the East and West Blocks. Construction officially began when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, visited in 1860 and laid the corner stone. As with any major construction project, the initial cost estimates quickly proved to be unrealistic. One major issue was that the proper type of stone was harder to obtain than originally believed; the original plan had been to ferry the stone over the river from Hull but this turned out to be prohibitively expensive and most of the stone was instead brought in from Nepean Township. The initial cost estimate sat around 1 million dollars; by the time the buildings neared completion, three times that much had been spent.
Cost aside, the Parliament Buildings turned out to be a triumph. The design, in the Victorian High Gothic Revival style, was widely praised in later years due to its harmony with the chosen site; foreign as well as domestic praise was easy to come by. Anthony Trollope, an author from England, said “I know no modern Gothic purer of its kind or less sullied with fictitious ornamentation.” Many of the internal elements of the House of Commons, including the Speakers Chair and the Mace, come from England or are replicas of their equivalents there, further emphasizing the ties between the two nations. The grounds which surrounded the building were improved in 1873, when New York landscape architect Calvert Vaux designed an improvement without ever having visited Ottawa. Today, statues of famous Canadians dot the grounds; these include many of the Fathers of Confederation, the Famous Five, and various Prime Ministers since Confederation such as Diefenbaker, Mackenzie, Borden, Pearson, and King.
Tragically, the original Centre Block was not fated to last to the present day. On February 3, 1916, a fire which broke out in the House of Commons Reading Room rapidly consumed the entire building; it was only the luck of a librarian who succeeded in closing the doors to the Library of Parliament which saved that building. In the aftermath of this fire, it was debated whether the Centre Block should merely be restored on the original design (as the Library was, with the limited damage being repaired), or rebuilt entirely. In the end the latter choice was taken; the old building had been cramped since initial occupation with the addition of numerous provinces and their MPs to Confederation; office space and space in the House chamber itself were desperately needed. The new design, by John A. Pearson and Jean-Omer Marchand, added a floor onto the building; though it remained in a Gothic style, it was a more 20th-century style, with a much taller central Tower also added.
Despite worries that the new design could not live up to the standard set by the old, today the buildings are as loved as they were before the fire. The government learned this the hard way; in 1950 it had planned to tear down the West Block and replace it with a modern office building to open more space for the Civil Service, but were forced to back down amidst loud protests. A second fire, in the Library of Parliament in 1952, also thankfully spared most of the structure, and it was afterwards restored to its original magnificence. The Parliament Buildings remain the centre of the city and of the country, and are certainly one of the most beautiful locations in Ottawa.
1 Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Queens Choice. Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, F.R.S.C. Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1961. 127.
2 Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Queens Choice. Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, F.R.S.C. Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1961. 130.
3 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Parliament Buildings.” Last modified April 2015.
4 Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Queens Choice. Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, F.R.S.C. Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1961. 13-14.
5 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Parliament Buildings.” Last modified April 2015.
6 Public Works and Government Services Canada. “Explore the statues, monuments, and memorials of the Hill.” Last modified August 2016.
7 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Parliament Buildings.” Last modified April 2015.
8 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Parliament Buildings.” Last modified April 2015.
9 The Canadian Encyclopedia. “Parliament Buildings.” Last modified April 2015.
10 Eggleston, Wilfrid. The Queens Choice. Ottawa: Roger Duhamel, F.R.S.C. Queen’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1961. 17.
Centre Block Image: Samuel McLaughlin, Série Rouge, Library and Archives Canada, accession number 1972-083 NPC, C-000773. (http://data4.collectionscanada.ca/netacgi/nph-brs?s1=Richard+William+Scott&s6=y+and+gif&l=20&Sect1=IMAGE&Sect2=THESOFF&Sect4=THESOFF&Sect5=FOTOPEN&Sect6=HITOFF&d=FOTO&p=1&u=http://www.collectionscanada.ca/archivianet/02011502_e.html&r=1&f=G)