The Government Conference Centre, the modern-day temple on the Rideau Canal that will soon become temporary home to Canada’s Senate, is a cherished Ottawa landmark.
When the city’s central train station opened in June 1912, however, it was greeted with a mixture of bewilderment and amusement. What to make of this $1.9-million granite colossus? And what to make of the fairytale-like Chateau Laurier facing it, unveiled at the same time? A Roman temple paired with a French chateau; some wondered if it was a joke. Others could appreciate the grander plan at work.
Constructed by the Grand Trunk Railway, a Montreal-based company that built much of Canada’s rail infrastructure, the station and hotel were designed as an ensemble. The company gambled that investing in monumental architecture would transform workaday Ottawa into a glamour destination. Its rival, Canadian Pacific Railway, had already built a string of such hotels — Quebec City’s Chateau Frontenac (1893), the Banff Springs Hotel (1888) and Victoria’s Empress Hotel (1908) — and was reaping the rewards of an exploding tourism industry.
The gamble paid off. Grand Trunk Central Station, rechristened Union Station in 1920, became Ottawa’s transport and social hub. For half a century, almost everyone who visited the city — celebrities, world leaders and royalty — passed through it. But transportation was not the only thing at stake. This was about transforming Ottawa into a capital city in more than name alone.
The country was booming. From 1896 to 1914, Canada had the world’s fastest-growing economy, built on a wave of immigration, industrial growth and expansion west.
Many, including then-Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, felt its status was not reflected in its capital city. Beyond the trio of Gothic-revival edifices that crowned Parliament Hill, Ottawa remained the ramshackle logging town it had been 50 years earlier when Queen Victoria designated it the seat of Parliament. Factories and residential neighbourhoods crowded together. Rail lines ran helter-skelter. Smokestacks blocked views of Parliament Hill. It was hardly a capital worthy of what Laurier had dubbed “Canada’s century.”
Ottawa looked to bold architecture to broadcast its new status. The architectural movement that embodied this early twentieth-century bravado was the Beaux Arts. With its grand staircases, barrel-vaulted ceilings, cavernous rotundas and Corinthian columns, no building exemplified this aesthetic better than Ottawa’s Union Station.
“The building has been through a lot of changes in the century since, not all of them beneficial,” says Senator Scott Tannas, Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on the Long Term Vision and Plan, which is overseeing the Senate’s relocation. “The current renovation is an opportunity to restore the building to its original elegance and the Senate is serving as a catalyst for that.”
Grand architecture demanded an equally grand setting. An overarching civic plan tied Grand Trunk’s transport complex to the government complex 400 metres to the west via Connaught Place, a sweeping triangle of green lawns and wide boulevards.
Five prominent buildings, now gone, ringed the plaza: the old post office, the Russell House Hotel — the city’s finest until the Chateau Laurier was built — the Russell Theatre, old City Hall where the National Arts Centre now stands and, beside it, Knox Presbyterian Church.
By 1939, all would be gone, destroyed by fire or demolished to make way for the new National War Memorial. The 21-metre granite arch, originally designed to commemorate Canadians who fought and died in the First World War, forms the ceremonial heart of today’s Confederation Square.
This article is part of a series about the Senate of Canada’s move to the Government Conference Centre. In 2018, the Senate will relocate to the conference centre, a former train station built in 1912 while Parliament’s Centre Block – the Senate’s permanent home – is rehabilitated.
With preparations to convert the historic train station into the temporary Senate on budget, the savings to taxpayers will be approximately $200 million compared to the original proposal to find an alternative location on Parliament Hill.
The Senate is expected to occupy its temporary location for 10 years.