Of Portraits and Places: The Gabor Szilasi Fonds

By Jill Delaney

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is pleased to announce a major acquisition of Gabor Szilasi’s photographs, representing his lifetime of work (1954–2016), including approximately 80,000 negatives and forty-one prints. This acquisition will make it possible to preserve his legacy and to provide access for Canadians and international researchers to the breadth and depth of this extraordinary photographer’s career and vision. The Gabor Szilasi fonds now includes early images from Hungary, the negatives from all his personal Canadian projects, and the photographs taken on visits back to Hungary and travels to other countries, including Italy, Poland, France and the United States.

Gabor Szilasi was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1928. His mother was a violinist with the Symphony of Budapest, and he grew up in a home and a society interested in music, art and culture (Gabor himself was a clarinetist in an amateur orchestra in Montréal for several years). Tragically, his mother died in a concentration camp, and his two siblings died of illness during the Second World War.

Hungary has a reputation for producing great photographers, including André Kertesz, Brassaï, Lászlō Moholy-Nagy and Robert Capa. However, the path to becoming a photographer was not straightforward for Szilasi. He enrolled in medical school in 1948, but tried to flee the new communist regime in 1949. He was imprisoned for five months, and barred from further university study and professional work. While he found manual labour and piece work after his release, Szilasi spent many hours at the Alliance Française (an international network of French language and cultural centres), which gave him access to a library featuring many books on photography. He bought his first camera in 1952 and began to shoot photographs around the city and while on holiday, as well as photographs of his family and friends. These early images show the influence of those Hungarian photographers, but also that of the Italian neo-realist cinema that he loved, and demonstrate his interest in photographing ‘ordinary’ people.

A black-and-white photograph of three women in bathing suits posing for the camera. They are standing on a dock by water.

At Lake Balaton, Hungary. c. 1954–1956. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435661)

Szilasi’s second attempt to flee Hungary came shortly after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. The LAC fonds includes the negatives for the photographs he shot in Budapest during those chaotic days, including photographs taken when the Soviet military moved in to quell the protests. He fled to Austria days later. His father followed shortly after, smuggling the negatives out in the diaper of a friend’s baby.

A black-and-white photograph of a crowd of people surrounding a fallen monument. There are men standing on the monument, looking down.

Crowd on top of Stalin monument October 28, 1956 – Hungarian Revolution. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011313448)

Upon Gabor Szilasi and his father landing as refugees in Halifax in 1957, Gabor was sent directly to a sanatorium for treatment of tuberculosis. During the next year, he spent his time in convalescence learning French and English, and poring over photographs and photo stories in magazines such as Life, Paris Match and Saturday Night. His father, Sandor Szilasi, found work in forestry. Once in good health, Gabor also found work and began to take photographs again, meeting various Quebec photographers, who encouraged his interest. In August 1958, he won his first Canadian award, the 20th Annual Newspaper National Snapshot Award for a photograph he had taken in Budapest.

By January 1959, Szilasi had found his first job in photography, working as a darkroom technician in the Service de Ciné-photographie du Québec, in Montréal (which later became the Office du film du Québec (OFQ)). He was quickly promoted to photographer, and his assignments led to extensive travel within the province.

He also continued with his study of the work of other photographers, creating an impressive personal library on the subject. During this period, he was influenced by photographers such as Paul Strand and Walker Evans, whose works portraying ‘everyday people’ were key in the development of the social documentary form of the mid-20th century. In his travels for the OFQ, and under the influence of these photographers, Szilasi found himself drawn to the vernacular of the province, the people and places of rural Quebec, a culture and a way of life unfamiliar to his urbane upbringing in Budapest.

In the early 1970s, he took on his first job as a photography instructor, at the Cégep du Vieux Montréal (1971–1979). He later taught at Concordia University (1980–1995). During this time, Szilasi began to work on his own in these regions, creating a series of remarkable portraits and views that would earn him national and international recognition. Armed with his 4×5 camera and tripod, his curiosity (he has referred to himself as ‘nosy’), and his affability and gentle charm, he gained entry into the homes and businesses of the local inhabitants, in communities such as Île aux Coudres, Charlevoix and Lotbinière. This work caught the attention of the Canadian photography community and the archivists at the Public Archives of Canada (which later became Library and Archives Canada). The Public Archives of Canada acquired a selection of 51 of these prints, in 1975 and 1982.

A man standing in a doorway, his left arm akimbo. He is wearing a ball cap and suspenders, and is smiling towards the camera. Flowers and a Quebec flag surround the door.

Louis-Philippe Yergeau. 1977. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435658)

The portraits are carefully composed and perceptive environmental portraits of people he met over the course of several years. The elements that surround his subjects act as a kind of vernacular iconography, narrating their lives and illuminating their place in the cultural and social life of rural Quebec as it was undergoing rapid change. Later photography trips in the 1970s focussed on documenting the places themselves, such as Abitibi-Témiskamingue and Rouyn-Noranda, revealing Szilasi’s other abiding interest: architectural photography.

A black-and-white photograph of a white building with two sets of stairs leading to the entrance on a street corner. Written on the building in four places are the words “Taverne du Coin.” There is a stop sign near the building.

Taverne du Coin. Rouyn, Quebec. 1979. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e010692454)

These two themes—portraiture and architecture—have dominated his long and prolific career. LAC acquired a selection of his Sainte-Catherine Street storefront photographs in 1983, a project he began in 1979. The views, taken along the length of the street, allow the viewer to consider the history of the buildings and of the street, from the original facades of the 19th and early 20th centuries through the subsequent layering of new signage, new siding, or other embellishments and renovations. Szilasi’s recognition of the constant change that pervades and shapes our modern culture has driven much of his work.

A black-and-white photograph of a building whose façade is white and dark. The words “Molly McGuire’s Pub” (with a small shamrock) are written. There are two men and a car in the foreground.

Molly McGuire’s Pub, 2204 Ste. Catherine Street West, Montreal. 1977. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e010692455)

The Szilasi fonds includes prints and negatives from two other architectural projects. In his Intersections project, the photographer expands, literally, on his storefront images of Montréal by creating expansive views of characteristic intersections in the city. Using a banquet camera to widen the view, he makes the buildings appear as isolated islands surrounded by pavement and automobile traffic, thus creating a sombre reflection on the North American city.

A black-and-white photograph of a tall factory building located at an intersection. There is a bridge on the right-hand side linking the building to a roadway. Cars are parked in a row on the left-hand side.

Angle St. Laurent and Van Horne. Montréal, 1981. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e010692453)

In Gabor’s LUX project, the photographs focus on the quality of light as much as the architecture, while documenting the visual language and motifs of consumer culture. Szilasi ventured out into the summer dusk with his camera to capture the unique neon signs of Montréal’s retail businesses at just that magical moment between day and night, when the sky seems to glow with the same intensity as the neon signs, infusing the images with a sense of delight and intimacy.

A colour photograph of a lit-up restaurant sign. The sign is on a brick building with large arches. The words “Frites Dorées” and images of a hamburger, a poutine and a hotdog can be seen on the sign.

LUX: Frites Dorées. Montréal. c. 1982–1985. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435666)

The fonds also reveals the multifaceted and evolving nature of Szilasi’s portraiture over time. The photographer has played with many different approaches and cameras throughout his career to explore the notion of portraiture itself. The negatives include his early street photography in Budapest, the rural environmental portraits, his portrait diptychs of the late 1970s, the closely cropped collaborative portraits shot with a Polaroid 55 camera starting in 1992, and his self-portraiture project with the clients of Les Impatients in Montréal in 2003–2004.

In between all of these important projects, Szilasi was also constantly documenting the arts scene, the artists and writers of Montréal, as well as various Montrealers, through works such as his unforgettable portrait of a car salesman at the Auto Show in 1973. He has also recorded the diversity of his adopted city, from his street photography of his fellow citizens during Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations in 1970, to a documentation project on the citizens of the immigrant-rich Saint-Michel neighbourhood starting in 1996.

A black-and-white photograph of a man in a suit wearing a white carnation on his lapel leaning on the hood of a 1970s-model car. The man has his arms crossed, and he is smiling at the camera.

Ford/Mercury salesman at Salon d’automobile, Place Bonaventure, Montréal, Quebec. 1973. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435663)

These negatives showcase Szilasi’s deep involvement with both the photographic and artistic communities in Montréal. Like most photographers, he carried his camera with him almost all the time. This resulted in a loose, but extensive, body of work documenting his friends as well as many other photographers, artists, writers, and musicians. His photographs of the innumerable vernissages he attended beginning in 1960 were the subject of a major exhibition (Gabor Szilasi: The Art World in Montréal, 1960–1980) held in 2017 at the McCord Museum, in Montréal. Other lesser known images in the collection come from his many commissions, including for Cirque du Soleil, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (photographs taken in Giverny, France), as well as from his various trips back to Budapest and his travels to other locales during his long career.

A black-and-white photograph of a tall old building with advertising featuring the Canada Dry logo, a woman with blond hair and a woman’s legs in high heel shoes. There are bushes in the front of the building, and people are moving about.

Budapest (Canada Dry). Budapest, Hungary, 1995. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435665)

A black-and-white photograph of a man, in a striped buttoned-up shirt and dark trousers, looking towards the camera. He is sitting backwards on a rolling chair beside a desk, on which a lamp, papers and books can be seen.

Sam Tata in his apartment in Ville Saint-Laurent, Montréal, Quebec. June 1988. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435660)

A black-and-white photograph of a man in a buttoned-up shirt, with a sweater over his shoulders. The man is standing behind a medium-format view camera.

Photographer Gabor Szilasi photographing in Sam Tata’s apartment]. Ville Saint-Laurent, 1979. Photo: Sam Tata (e010977793)

Lastly, LAC has also acquired a number of prints of Szilasi’s self-portraits in the most recent accrual. These photographs vary from an early casual image clicked with the camera held at arms length, to an enigmatic portrait taken in the heat of a Cocoa Beach, Florida, motel room, with his wife and daughter in a doorway behind him, and a more recent photograph (2014) of himself in a mirror surrounded by hundreds of his beloved photography books.

A colour photograph of Gabor Szilasi looking towards the camera, through a mirror, surrounded by shelves of books

Self-portrait, Westmount, Quebec. 2014. Photo: Gabor Szilasi (e011435667)

These images are further evidence of Szilasi’s commitment to experimentation with the medium to which he was first exposed in the library of the Alliance Française in Budapest. The negatives and prints in the LAC fonds provide a wealth of images exploring the people and places that became his home and his community in Montréal and Quebec.

Other LAC resources:

Jill Delaney is a Lead Archivist, Photography, in the Specialized Media Section of the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Lower Mainland Region: Customs Examining Warehouse

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

While many locals and tourists can spot the distinctive clock tower of Vancouver’s former post office at Hastings and Granville, few step around the corner to see the classically inspired architecture of the Customs Examining Warehouse on Howe Street.

Black-and-white photograph of the exterior of the Customs Examining Warehouse in Vancouver, B.C. There is a wooden sidewalk in the foreground, and horse-drawn carts are delivering goods to the building entrance.

Examining [or Customs] Warehouse, Vancouver, B.C. (a046650-v8)

In the boom years leading up to the First World War, increasing trade led to the need for more substantial customs warehouse facilities in cities across Canada. In 1908, the federal government approved the purchase of a Vancouver warehouse site for $75,000. Located on the traditional territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, the building served as an annex to the post office. It is one of four federally owned buildings on the site.

Document outlining the decision to purchase land to build an examining warehouse in Vancouver. The document is signed by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier.

1908 Order in Council to purchase a site for an examining warehouse in Vancouver (e010701436 )

As one of eight new customs houses built across the country, the Vancouver warehouse shared many design elements with counterparts in Montréal, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Port Arthur. Public Works Chief Architect and his team selected a classically inspired façade with a rusticated stone base, rectangular windows, a heavy cornice at the roofline, and ornamental brick pilasters to give the appearance of supporting columns. Constructed from 1911 to 1913, the building was also one of the first structures in Vancouver to use modern steel framing and reinforced concrete floors.

Black-and-white photograph showing the construction of the Customs Examining Warehouse in Vancouver. The lower section has a stone exterior, and the upper section has a steel structure and unfinished brickwork.

The Examining [or Customs] Warehouse [under construction], Vancouver, August 5, 1912 (a046662-v8 )

In 1983, the federal government formally recognized the Customs Examining Warehouse as a heritage structure, along with the adjoining Post Office, Winch Building and Federal Building. The Department of Public Works then began an ambitious conservation project, connecting all four buildings with a glass atrium. Completed in time for Expo 86, the complex is now known as Sinclair Centre, in honour of politician and businessperson James Sinclair (1908–1984). Sinclair Centre currently houses several federal government offices and many retail shops and businesses.

This marks the end of our series highlighting early infrastructure in British Columbia. While federal infrastructure projects varied according to the needs of the diverse geographical areas of B.C., increasing settlement was often the impetus for these expanded federal services. This settlement and accompanying federal infrastructure led to significant and continuing impacts on local First Nations and Métis communities. It also changed the landscape of towns, cities and rural areas across the province. Explore Library and Archives Canada’s extensive collections to discover more about how B.C. has transformed over the 150 years since joining Confederation.


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Vancouver Island Region: Dominion Astrophysical Laboratory

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

While astronomical research predates Confederation, federal investments in the field began in earnest in the early 20th century. After the construction of an observatory in Ottawa in 1905, astronomer John Stanley Plaskett began advocating for a state-of-the-art reflecting telescope. This led to the construction of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Saanich near Victoria, British Columbia. The observatory in B.C. was once the world’s largest telescope facility.

The Dominion Astrophysical Observatory is located in the traditional territories of the Xwsepsum (Esquimalt), Songhees, Tsartlip, Pauquachin, Tsawout, Tseycum and Malahat Nations. Their ancestors were signatories of the Douglas treaties of the 1850s, also known as the Fort Victoria treaties. Differences between the treaty text and the oral histories of the First Nations signatories have led to continuing debate as to whether the treaties were land sales or peace agreements.

Land clearing and construction at the site began in 1914 and continued despite the challenges posed by the First World War.

Black-and-white photograph of a group of men posing with a team of horses attached to a wagon carrying part of a telescope.

Hauling 9.5-ton polar axis to the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, circa 1916–1917 (a149324-v8)

Work on the observatory sparked interest internationally as well as locally. The site became a tourist destination as residents visited to observe the progress and attend the official opening in 1918.

Black-and-white photograph of a large group of people inside the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory for its opening ceremony. The group is gathered in front of the telescope and on the viewing platform.

Opening ceremony of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory; view of the telescope (a149323-v8)

With the world’s largest operational telescope at their disposal, Plaskett and his fellow astronomers wasted no time in beginning an ambitious observation program. Specializing in binary stars and later focusing their sights on the Milky Way, the team made extensive contributions in the study of astronomy. Successive teams have continued this vital work, and today the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory is one of two observatories managed by the Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre.

Black-and-white photograph of the exterior of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.

Dominion Astrophysical Observatory (a032169-v6)

The observatory engaged with the public and continues to do so. In the 1920s and 1930s, observatory staff contributed to ongoing local newspaper columns and radio broadcasts on astronomical topics of the day. Today, the charitable organization Friends of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory promotes public outreach activities at the observatory and the Centre of the Universe visitors centre.


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

The 260th anniversary of the Murray Map: The St. Lawrence Valley through the eyes and pens of British military engineers

By Isabelle Charron

Colour photo of a very large hand-drawn map made up of 44 sheets spread over a dark tiled floor. A smaller, rectangular map is located on a table in the upper-left corner.

Plan of Canada or the province of Quebec from the uppermost settlements to the island of Coudre […], 1761–1763 (item 5446324). The map was assembled with all the necessary precautions on the floor of the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) Preservation Centre, in Gatineau. The assembled map is about 8.8 m by 15.5 m in size. James Cook’s large map of the St. Lawrence (e010691696) is displayed on a table, seen here in the upper-left corner. Photo: David Knox, LAC

In September 1760, the British army took Montréal, but there was still no guarantee that it would hold on to the heart of New France and Canada (the present St. Lawrence Valley). It had little knowledge of the territory it occupied or of the river and land lines of communication with New England. This lack of knowledge weakened its hold on these areas. To make up for this, General James Murray, Governor of Quebec, undertook to have the St. Lawrence Valley mapped in detail. The occupation provided an advantage: many military engineers were already present in the territory, including the talented John Montresor and Samuel Holland. Holland settled in the city of Québec and had a significant impact on the history of cartography in Canada. The maps and information compiled during this major project were ultimately sent to King George III of England and senior officers to improve their knowledge of the territory and its inhabitants. These documents would become essential tools in the event of a handover to France, which could require a new invasion attempt.

Thus, in spring 1761—260 years ago—teams surveyed the entire area from Les Cèdres to Île aux Coudres. During their journey, they included every element of physical and human geography: relief; cultivated, wooded and swampy land; rivers; roads; village cores, including houses, churches, and mills; and many other sightings. They also included the First Nations communities of Kahnawake, Kanesatake, Wendake, Odanak and Wôlinak. Fortifications and British troop positions were also represented. General Murray also demanded that, for each village, the number of families and the number of men able to bear arms be counted and that these data be included on the map. It should be noted that the location of the logbooks belonging to the surveyors who took part in this extensive cartography project remains unknown.

Colour map showing a river and islands, on which the words “St. Rose” are written at centre, towards the bottom of the map.

Sainte-Rose (Laval). At the time, surveyors noted that Sainte-Rose, located on the south shore of the Rivière des Mille Îles, illustrated above, had 85 families and 95 men able to bear arms. The communities of Boisbriand and Rosemère are located on the north shore of the river. Details of sheet no. 9. (e010944374_9)

Colour map showing a river and a village with the words “New Lorrette” written at centre, towards the top of the map.

Wendake. Detail of sheet no. 33. (e010944374_33)

Seven immense hand-drawn maps of the St. Lawrence Valley (commonly referred to as the “Murray Maps”) were drawn as part of this project, each including numerous sheets. Three draftsmen, Charles Blaskowitz, Digby Hamilton and Charles McDonnell, drew the final, watercolour-enhanced versions so that they could appeal to their prestigious recipients. Two of these maps are part of LAC’s collection: the map belonging to the Board of Ordnance (item 5506021), which was tasked with supplying the army and military engineers, and the map belonging to James Murray (item 5446324). Two maps are in the British Library in London: the map belonging to William Pitt, Minister of War and future Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the map belonging to King George III. Another map, which may have been intended for Governor of Montréal Thomas Gage, is kept at the William L. Clements Library of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The other two maps, including Commander-in-Chief Jeffery Amherst’s, are missing. Perhaps they will re-emerge one day? Since the Murray Maps reported military intelligence for that time, they were never engraved for publication. The extent of the territory represented, the form followed, and the style of drawing differ somewhat from one map to another. Thus, the Board of Ordnance map, the design of which is more artistic, covers a slightly smaller area, from Les Cèdres to Cap Tourmente. It consists of 23 sheets of varying dimensions divided into four sections. The map intended for James Murray includes 44 sheets of roughly the same size and extends to Île aux Coudres.

Colour map showing a river and a village with the words “Château Richer” written near the centre of the map.

Château-Richer. Detail of sheet no. 36. (e010944374_36)

No similarly detailed map of this immense territory, on this large scale, had been drawn under the French Regime. Even still, cartographic production had been very prolific: think of the maps of Jean-Baptiste-Louis Franquelin, Gédéon de Catalogne and Jean-Baptiste de Couagne, or even the maps created by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin (e.g., item 3693313) at the Dépôt des cartes et plans de la Marine, in Paris, using information from the colony. The Murray Maps are therefore a unique representation of the St. Lawrence Valley on the eve of the official transfer of New France to England through the Treaty of Paris of 1763. They constitute one of the most significant cartographic projects undertaken by the British army during the 18th century, along with projects carried out in Scotland (Roy, 1747–1755), Florida (De Brahm, 1765–1771), Bengal (Rennell, 1765–1777) and Ireland (Vallancey, 1778–1790).

Colour map showing a basin formed where a river widens. An archipelago of about 15 small islands borders the right shore of the basin. The words “Bason of Chambly” are written near the top of the map.

Chambly, Fort Chambly, and Saint-Mathias-sur-Richelieu. Detail of sheet no. 11. (e010944374_11)

This Flickr album contains the 44 sheets of James Murray’s personal copy, which was restored and then re-digitized. The finding aid includes the index map on which the electronic copy numbers for each sheet have been added and a comprehensive list that makes it easier to search for and identify places (note that today’s toponyms are used). You can easily locate the sheets that interest you and download images using LAC’s Collection Search tool.

A large part of the built heritage that appears on the Murray Map has disappeared, the landscape has undergone major transformations, and the representation of many features is not perfect. Nevertheless, you may be able to find the house of your ancestors, your neighbourhood, the church or mill that you visited on vacation, or even the roads that you have travelled over the years. Comparing the Murray Map with current images, like those found in Google Maps, is also very interesting. You can also use Co-Lab, LAC’s crowdsourcing tool, to help further document this cartographic treasure. The possibilities are many. Explore as you wish!

Enjoy your trip to the 18th century…through the eyes and pens of British military engineers.

Colour map showing a river, houses, a church, and a road. The words “Pointe du Lac” are written near the bottom of the map.

Pointe-du-Lac (Trois-Rivières). Detail of sheet no. 22. (e010944374_22)

To learn more:


This blog was written by Isabelle Charron, early cartography archivist in the Specialized Media Section of the Private Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

Breaking ground: 150 years of federal infrastructure in British Columbia – Kootenay Region: Rossland Post Office

By Caitlin Webster

British Columbia joined Canada 150 years ago, and in the years that followed, federal infrastructure expanded throughout the province. This infrastructure is well documented throughout Library and Archives Canada’s collections. This eight part blog series highlights some of those buildings, services and programs, as well as their impact on B.C.’s many distinct regions.

In the pre-war years of the early 20th century, Canada saw unprecedented growth, both in its population and its federal infrastructure. As the population increased by 64 percent between 1900 and 1914, demand for expanded federal institutions grew as well, and the federal building inventory tripled in size.

Much of this growth was taking place in newly established towns such as Rossland, a mining town in southeastern British Columbia. Like many small towns in Canada, it received a substantially built post office in the early 1900s. Due to the great volume of construction across the country, many of these buildings shared common architectural elements. The 1903 Rossland Post Office followed this standard design, featuring a steeply pitched and truncated roof, round-arched openings, and gables with ornamental parapets.

Black-and-white photograph of the exterior of the post office building. Small groups of men and children stand at the building’s unfinished entrance and one of its unfinished windows.

Post office [under construction], Rossland, B.C. (a046453-v8)

With the outbreak of the First World War, economic growth abruptly ended. As a result, many of these federal buildings acquired an unexpected prominence in small towns. Some buildings became city halls or other municipal buildings, while others, like the Rossland Post Office, retained their original purpose.

The federal buildings of this era were prominent due to the quality of their construction and the building materials chosen. In most instances, the Department of Public Works avoided the use of wood and instead chose iron, stone, brick and other sturdy materials. The goal of this approach was to protect federal assets against fire and other hazards, and to serve as an example of quality construction in their various communities.

Unfortunately, the use of such materials provided only partial protection for the Rossland Post Office. On March 1, 1929, what became known as the “Big Fire” swept through the town’s business district. The blaze destroyed all of the wood-frame buildings between the Bank of Montreal and the post office. Firefighters used dynamite on some structures in an attempt to create a firebreak, which unfortunately destroyed all of the post office windows and hastened the fire damage to the structure.

Rossland’s Big Fire, March 1–2, 1929 (a046410-v8)

In the end, the Rossland Post Office lost its distinctive roof with ornate gables. However, the stone-and-brick construction enabled the restoration of the two remaining floors. The prominent structure still serves as the city’s post office, and it is now part of Rossland’s Official Heritage Register.

To learn more about the architectural styles of federal buildings, see Crown Assets: The Architecture of the Department of Public Works, 1867–1967, by Janet Wright, 1997 (OCLC 1017536309).


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.