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Museum helps Senate secure historic seat

This article is part of a series about the Senate of Canada’s move to the Senate of Canada Building, formerly known as the Government Conference Centre. In 2018, the Senate began to move into the building, a former train station built in 1912, while Parliament’s Centre Block — the Senate’s permanent home — is rehabilitated. The Senate will begin operating from the Senate of Canada Building in early 2019. 

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 at least 10 years.


When the Senate moves into Ottawa’s revamped Government Conference Centre, visitors will be able to take a seat in the entranceway and reflect on more than 100 years of history around, above and even beneath them.

That’s because the Senate has secured the return of one of 12 original benches from the 55-year period when the downtown Ottawa building was the capital city’s central train station.

The bench, which had been on display at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, will return to what used to be the train station’s general waiting room.

During the first half of the 20th century — the golden age of rail — the public entered this cavernous hall through an entrance off Rideau Street marked by four-storey limestone columns. Double-sided benches resembling back-to-back church pews could seat as many as 12 people each. Visitors could relax, read a newspaper and wait for their trains to arrive.

Senate Heritage and Curatorial Services Project Co-ordinator Tamara Dolan is pleased it is returning to its original home.

The benches remained fixtures of the general waiting room for five decades. This photo was taken in the 1920s. (Library and Archives Canada)

“I think the most interesting part about the bench for the general public — when they visit the Senate in the Government Conference Centre — will be to see the bench in the space where it was originally intended to be,” Ms. Dolan said.

The station, built in the monumental Beaux-Arts style and unveiled in 1912, handled up to five million passengers a year until it was decommissioned in 1966, when trains were rerouted to a new station. A year later, the National Capital Commission stepped in to spare Union Station from the wrecking ball. Eight of the station’s benches were transferred to the newly opened national science museum.

The museum refinished the mahogany woodwork, repaired the Tiffany-style lamp fixtures and incorporated several benches in its railroad heritage gallery, where they complemented the museum’s collection of steam engines.

The attraction in Ottawa’s east end recently reopened after a three-year renovation. It put one bench up for sale in February along with other surplus artifacts. Observant Senate employees noticed a news article about the online posting and moved quickly to secure the piece of history.

“When the Senate contacted us, we were thrilled to co-operate and get this heritage piece back into its original home,” said Gordon Perrault, the museum’s Conservation and Collection Services Director. “It’s part of our country’s history.”

Senator Larry W. Campbell, chair of the Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration, expressed the Senate’s delight at the bench’s return.

“I want to thank the Canada Museum of Science and Technology. They were actually selling this and they gave it to us,” Senator Campbell said.


Twelve mahogany benches, seen here in the 1950s, were used in Union Station’s general waiting room, where travellers waited for their trains. (National Capital Commission)

The vintage bench, recently acquired by the Senate, had been part of the Canada Science and Technology Museum’s transportation history exhibit for decades. (Canada Science and Technology Museum)

Senate Heritage and Curatorial Services Project Co-ordinator Tamara Dolan helped negotiate the bench’s return to the historic train station, which will become the Senate’s temporary home.

Two Tiffany-style lamps featuring stained-glass shades and bronze metal brackets top the bench.


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