Newly digitized images of the construction of 395 Wellington

By Andrew Elliott

Located on a site overlooking the Ottawa River, the Library and Archives Canada (LAC) building (known more fondly as 395 Wellington or, even more archaically, as PANL—Public Archives National Library) is an iconic structure that is highly visible from many vantage points on both sides of the Ottawa River. The building embodies the preservation of the national collective documentary memory, which Library and Archives Canada gathers and disseminates.

The history of the design and construction of this Classified Federal Heritage Building is an interesting one. While the original proposal targeted a site near the intersection of Bank and Wellington streets, in November 1952, the National Planning Committee of the Federal District Commission (now the National Capital Commission) approved the 395 Wellington Street address as the most appropriate location for the new National Library and Archives building. At the suggestion of Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent, Cabinet agreed to retain the services of the prestigious firm Mathers & Haldenby to design the new building.

The firm of Mathers and Haldenby (1921–1991) was established by Alvan Sherlock Mathers ([1895–1965] born in Aberfoyle, Ontario) and Eric Wilson Haldenby ([1893–1971] born in Toronto).

Construction, however, was delayed for almost a decade. The primary reason: No. 1 Temporary Building, which sat on the site, had not yet been demolished. In 1958 the project was further delayed following a major gas explosion on Slater Street, which destroyed a government building and saw the relocation of hundreds of civil servants to the remaining offices at No. 1 Temporary Building.

In 1960 Ellis-Don was awarded the contract to construct the building and in the fall of 1963 construction finally began in earnest. The entire construction project, which lasted until 1967, was recorded by Ottawa’s Van Photography Studio.

Recently, a remarkable series of photos showing the progress of the building was digitized by LAC. These images can be found in the Department of Public Works Accession. Included are the following photos:

A black–and-white photograph showing a large construction site with various types of construction equipment, and trees and other buildings in the distance

Excavation of the building site, September 4, 1963 (MIKAN 3600820)

A black-and-white photograph showing the unfinished facade of a 10-storey building. There is construction board on the ground floor. There are cars (including a VW bug!) and pedestrians going about their business.

A view of the partially constructed building looking north, July 15, 1965 (MIKAN 3600860)

A black-and-white photograph showing a building completely surrounded by scaffolding.

View of the building looking southeast, August 16, 1965 (MIKAN 3600863)

A black-and-white photograph showing a construction site with a partially finished building.

A view looking northeast taken on November 26, 1965 (MIKAN 3600869)

A black-and-white photograph a low-ceilinged room with rows upon rows of shelving in various states of completion.

An interior view of partially finished stack shelving, November 21, 1966 (MIKAN 3600895)

A black-and-white photograph of a large room with scaffolding and construction materials scattered about.

Partially finished Reading Room showing the coffered-light ceilings, February 24, 1967 (MIKAN 3600901)

A black-and-white photograph showing a partially completed interior covered in deeply-veined, white Carrera marble.

Main floor showing the beautiful marbles in the entrance of the building, June 27, 1966 (MIKAN 3600882)

On May 10, 1965, Governor General Georges Vanier laid the official cornerstone. Inside the cornerstone he placed an elaborate copper casket containing pictures and descriptions of the building as well as copies of the latest publications of both the National Library and the National Archives. On June 20, 1967, in time for the celebration of Canada’s centennial, Canada’s new, purpose-built National Library and Archives building was officially opened. You can listen to the opening ceremonies here:

395 Wellington is an interesting combination of functional and aesthetic design. As the Federal Heritage Building Review Office Report 04-027 (FHBRO) states, “[it] is a high quality achievement . . . . Aesthetically, it is a hybrid of two tendencies, balancing remnants of federal classical modernism with Modernism’s new trends, both of which it handles with sophistication and refinement, resulting in a modern, functionalist, rational appearance . . . . Functionally, the complex range of the building’s uses is well served and the arrangement of public areas and that of services and stacks is reflected in the composition of the building.” (For further reading see: http://historicplaces.ca/media/18730/2004-027(e)publicarchivesandnationallibrarybuilding.pdf)

As one can see, neither time nor expense was spared with regard to the building’s design. Today, the building continues to have an iconic presence near the heart of downtown Ottawa.


Andrew Elliott is an archivist with the Science, Governance and Political Division of Library and Archives Canada.

 

Ottawa’s Uppertown: A lost neighbourhood uncovered

By Andrew Elliott

A black-and-white photograph showing a streetscape at a crossroads.

Wellington and Bank, ca. 1900 (MIKAN 3325940)

On February 27, 1912, following what appears to have been at least a few years of behind the scenes deliberations, the federal government expropriated all properties located in Uppertown, an area bounded by Bank, Wellington, and Bay streets and the cliff along the Ottawa River. On March 9, 1912, a notice of expropriation was filed at the Ottawa City Registry Office (the area can be seen on these fire insurance plans: east view and west view (MIKAN 3816030).

The area was expropriated to make way for a new supreme court and other federal buildings. In 1913, the government launched a design competition, in response to which many of the major architects of the day submitted designs for the building complex. The designs can be found in the following LAC collection, which comprises 11 designs for the location of proposed departmental buildings. With the outbreak of the First World War, the fire and subsequent reconstruction of the Parliament Buildings, and changes in government, no concrete action was taken with respect to these plans until the early 1930s.

The area expropriated was both commercial and residential in nature. We have come to think of the stretch of Wellington between Bank and Bay streets as a boulevard flanked by grand, iconic government structures and large green spaces, but this is a relatively recent development. The towers of the Confederation and Justice buildings were built in the 1930s, followed by the Supreme Court building and, finally, the National Library building (now Library and Archives Canada), which was erected for the 1967 centennial. Continue reading

Library and Archives Canada releases its latest podcast episode, “Rising from the Ashes”

Library and Archives Canada (LAC) is releasing its latest podcast episode, “Rising from the Ashes.”

On February 3, 1916 at 8:37 p.m., the alarm was raised on Parliament Hill that a fire had broken out in the Centre Block. By the next morning, the building had been reduced to a smoking ruin, encrusted in ice. The exact cause of the fire was never determined.

With Canada fully immersed in the First World War and the 50th anniversary of Confederation rapidly approaching, it was imperative that parliament be rebuilt immediately to engender a sense of enduring strength and continuity in the hearts and minds of Canadians. In this episode Johanna Mizgala, curator for the House of Commons, takes us back to that chilling night in Canada’s history. She also discusses the bold vision of the architects charged with the task of rebuilding parliament.

Subscribe to our podcast episodes using RSS or iTunes, or just tune in at Podcast–Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.

Centre Block: Rising from the Ashes

On February 3, 1916 at 8:37 p.m., the alarm was raised on Parliament Hill that a fire had broken out in the Centre Block. By the next morning, the building had been reduced to a smoking ruin, encrusted in ice. The exact cause of the fire was never determined.

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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