The Parliament Hill Precinct

The Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are some of the most recognizable structures in Canada. Although the Peace Tower may be the most iconic part of the exterior of the buildings, it’s the newest addition to the precinct. Originally built between 1859 and 1866 in the Victorian High Gothic Revival style, Centre Block officially opened on June 6, 1866 as Parliament for the Provinces of Canada. The location was chosen by Queen Victoria in 1857 and was the biggest construction project of its time in North America, running way over budget, in part due to the cost of blasting out the bedrock to build the foundation. On July 1, 1867, Centre Block was chosen to be the official Parliament for the Dominion of Canada. Its location was considered ideal for many reasons, namely its distance from the American border, as well as its visibility to those who lived in the area.

A black-and-white photograph of the original Centre Block on Parliament Hill.

Parliament Buildings, Centre Block, by Captain Jacobs, c. 1886 (MIKAN 3319558)

Centre Block stood on Parliament Hill for 50 years until the evening of February 3, 1916 when a fire broke out in the House of Commons’ reading room. The flames spread quickly and seven lives were lost that night. While many of the stone walls remained standing, the only part of the building to truly survive was the library, which was built in 1876 with iron doors (which were closed by a clerk before leaving that evening). Although rumours claimed arson was the cause, the fire was a result of a discarded cigar.

A black-and-white photograph showing a very elaborate round building with pinnacles and flying buttresses in a wintry setting next to a building partly encased in ice. Firemen are putting out a fire.

View of the Library of Parliament and Centre Block on the day after the Centre Block fire, taken by William Topley in 1916 (MIKAN 3194673)

Despite Canada being heavily involved in the First World War at the time, it was clear that the buildings had to be rebuilt. With the country expanding, it was decided that the Parliament Buildings would follow suit. The plan was to keep the same Gothic Revival style as the original buildings without creating carbon copies of them. Construction started later that year and was completed in 1922. The Peace Tower, named in commemoration of Canada’s commitment to peace, was completed in 1927.

A black-and-white photograph showing the first three stories of a building with the rotunda of the Library of Parliament in the background. Cranes and construction materials surround the area.

Rebuilding of the Centre Block, Parliament Buildings, c. 1917-1918. Photo taken by Samuel J. Jarvis (MIKAN 3319865)

A black-and-white photograph showing the main Parliament building from the front with crowds of people filling Parliament Hill.

Jubilee celebrations on Parliament Hill in 1927 (MIKAN 3549627)

Today, Centre Block is bordered by the East and West Blocks and by a large public open space that serves many purposes—it’s a celebration area on Canada Day, a place for demonstrations and protests, a spot for noontime yoga in the summer, etc. Tours of Centre Block are given throughout the year and it’s become one of Ottawa’s most popular attractions.

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