Library of Parliament

Are these timbits?

Library of Parliament

No, they’re just bits.

Library of Parliament

A library!

Library of Parliament

We could play all day in there! So many things to look at!

Library of Parliament

The Library of Parliament, designed by architect Thomas Fuller and his business partner Chilion Jones, is the only remaining piece of the original parliament building constructed shortly after Ottawa became Canada’s capital in 1857. Referencing the medieval chapter house and with a layout resembling the then recently completed British Library Reading Room (Sydney Smirke, 1857), the Library of Parliament was the result of an architectural competition in 1859. Among the competition criteria, many of which are believed to have been written by Canada’s first Parliamentary Librarian Alpheus Todd, were the use of galleries and the need of fireproofing features.

Library of Parliament

In keeping with the other buildings of the parliamentary precinct, Thomas Fuller designed the library in the High Victorian Gothic Revival style. The architect believed a “Gothic building only could be adapted to a site at once so picturesque and so grand”. Site however was not the only element influencing the stylistic choice. Two decades earlier, in 1834, London’s Palace of Westminster was lost to a great fire. When time came to build a replacement, there was significant public debate on which style to follow, the fashionable Neo-Classical style or the conservative Gothic. In the end, it was decided that a Gothic building was the appropriate stylistic choice to embody the British identity, and that Neo-Classical, which was common throughout the United States, had too many connotations of revolution and republicanism. When Fuller was laying the plans for Canada’s library of parliament in the late 1850s, the new Westminster Palace was beginning to approach substantial completion. It is not surprising then that the architect would select the Gothic style, the “true British style”, for Canada’s parliamentary buildings. This however, does not take away from the building’s Canadian identity, for it would be in the detailing and choice of materials that the library would distinguish itself from its European counterparts.

The exterior of the library is defined by 16 massive flying buttresses and a colourful, rough stone exterior. A polychromatic façade, or multi-coloured exterior, is a key characteristic of the High Victorian Gothic Revival style. Four differently coloured stones were used for the exterior, all mined in Canadian quarries. Grey Gloucester limestone, grey Nepean, red Potsdam, and buff Ohio sandstone give the building a colourful yet unified appearance. In addition, purple and green slate originally covered the library’s tiered roof, but they were replaced by the now iconic copper after 1888 when a rare tornado removed much of the slate roofs of the parliamentary precinct.

Library of Parliament

The attention to texture and colour continues in the interior, which has often been described as “the most beautiful room in Canada”. The circular room is lined with white pine stacks and galleries, carefully carved with thousands of patterns, flowers, masks, and mythical creatures. Prominently displayed around the room are the coat of arms of the seven provinces existing in 1876 and one for the Dominion of Canada. Above them rises a vaulted ceiling distinguished by brightly coloured and ornamented ribs and pilasters. It is said its circular shape and high ceiling were inspired by Parliamentary Librarian Alpheus Todd who recommended the building be “spacious and lofty”. Pointed arch windows and a brightly lit cupola provide natural daylight into the building. At the centre of the building is a marble statue of young Queen Victoria, sculpted by British artist Marshall Wood in 1871.

The library's interior in 1898. Source:  William James Topley/ Library and Archives Canada
The library’s interior in 1898. Source: William James Topley/ Library and Archives Canada

Library of Parliament

The northern galleries are flanked with the white marble busts of Sir John Sandfield Macdonald; Prince Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII); Alexandra, Princess of Wales (later Queen Alexandra); and Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché.

The library’s collection comprises 600,000 items, covering hundreds of years of history and tended by a staff of 300.

The library was also designed with a number of fireproof and fire retardant features. Its chosen location, slightly removed from the rest of the Centre Block and connected by a single corridor, minimized the risk of fire spreading from one building to the other. In addition, a heavy iron door separated the library from the connecting hallway. The roof was also designed with fireproofing in mind, specifying a wrought iron structure. The pre-fabricated roof was beyond the capabilities of Canada’s building industry and had to be made in Manchester by the Thomas Fairbairn Engineering Co. Ltd. It was state of the art at the time and it is believed that the library’s dome was the first of its kind in North America.

Library of Paliament

This attention to fireproofing would prove crucial on February 3, 1916, when a great fire consumed much of the Centre Block. The removed layout of the library, its incombustible stone structure, and the closing of its heavy iron doors protected the library from any damage, and today it stands as the only remaining part of the original 1860s parliament building.

Even with all the careful fireproof planning of Thomas Fuller’s original design, the library would eventually be affected by fire in 1952. The fire broke out in the cupola of the library itself, causing significant smoke and water damage. Following the fire, reconstruction efforts were led by Toronto architecture firm of Mathers and Haldenby, who replaced the original timber elements of the dome with steel and installed additional plaster fireproofing.

The rest of the Centre Block did not survive the fire of 1916. Within twelve hours, the building was completely destroyed, except for the Library of Parliament, spared by the closing of its heavy metal doors. With the fire occurring in the midst of the First World War, rumours began to circulate a German arsonist had started the blaze, while the Toronto Globe asserted that the official cause of the fire was reported as a carelessly left cigar.

Reconstruction of the Centre Block began immediately, with a team of architects led by John A. Pearson and Jean-Omer Marchand overseeing a design much like the original, but expanded in size and pared down in ornament, more in keeping with the Beaux-Arts ethos of the time. By 1 September 1916, less than seven months after the fire, the original cornerstone was relaid by the then governor-general, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, exactly 56 years after his brother, the future King Edward VII, had done the same. The first sitting of parliament in the new Centre Block was opened by Governor General the Duke of Devonshire on 26 January 1920.

Library of Ottawa

The Centre Block is arranged symmetrically around Confederation Hall, located immediately inside the main entrance. It is an octagonal chamber, the perimeter of which is divided by limestone clustered columns into eight bays of two different sizes, themselves subdivided by dark green syenite pillars. The arcaded arches are topped by gables sculpted to commemorate the confederated nature of Canada and they support one side of the hall’s fan vaulted ceiling with carved bosses, while the other side rests on a single column in the centre of the room. This column is borne on a stone carved with an image of Neptune amongst sea lions and fish in a mythical sea. It was placed at noon on 2 July 1917, to mark the 50th anniversary of Confederation, and above it was carved the words:


Confederation Hall
Confederation Hall
Confederation Hall
Confederation Hall

Extending from Confederation Hall is the Centre Block’s north to south axis, running between the Library of Parliament and the Peace Tower, through the Hall of Honour, which serves as the route of the parades for both speakers of parliament. It is a long, rib vaulted space of Tyndall limestone divided into five bays by superimposed double arcades of lancet arches atop clustered columns on pedestals.

Hall of Honour
Hall of Honour

Running the length of the hall and resting on corbels carved into early English foliage and other customary symbols, is a ribbed vault ceiling rising to bosses carved with Tudor roses and fleur-de-lis. The hall is bisected by small, vaulted corridors, the east one leading to a committee room, and the west to the old reading room; the latter is known as the Correspondents’ Entrance, as it is lined with bosses and label stops sculpted by Cléophas Soucy between 1949 and 1950 into the visages of ten notable parliamentary correspondents: Charles Bishop, Henri Bourassa, John Wesley Dafoe, Joseph Howe, Grattan O’Leary, Frank Oliver, John Ross Robertson, Philip Dansken Ross, Joseph Israël Tarte, and Robert S. White. The north end of the hall is crossed on both levels by the Centre Block’s north corridor, with an overlooking gallery lined by iron railings by Paul Beau.

The Hall of Honour was intended to be a gallery where statues of notable Canadians would be arranged in the niches along each side. That plan was later abandoned in favour of a more general purpose of commemorating the 1916 fire, as well as honouring those who participated in the Great War. The sculptures remain incomplete; only the north end, closest to the Library of Parliament, has completed carvings. The largest of these stone sculptures is a low relief memorial to nursing in Canada, depicting those care-givers who participated in World War I, while another work, Canada Remembers, pays tribute to those who were involved in the Second World War. Two other pieces mark the efforts of early nation-building, such as that donated by Canadians living in the United States and which celebrates the 60th anniversary of Confederation.

Nurses' Memorial
Nurses’ Memorial

Parliament Buildings National Historic Site of Canada is prominently located on a hill above the Ottawa River on Wellington Street in downtown Ottawa. It includes four Gothic Revival style buildings grouped on landscaped grounds, namely the West Block, the Centre Block, the East Block, and the Library. Built 1859-1865 to serve the united provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, the Parliament Buildings were occupied by the House of Commons, Senate and departmental offices of the new Dominion of Canada after Confederation in 1867.

On Alexandra Bridge with Parliament Hill in the background
On Alexandra Bridge with Parliament Hill in the background

The Parliament Buildings were initially conceived to serve the needs of the government of the united provinces of Upper and Lower Canada; however, after Confederation in 1867, they were occupied by the House of Commons, Senate, and departmental offices of the new Dominion of Canada. Originally known as Barracks Hill, the site was chosen for its commanding location, its fine uninterrupted views of the region, and for its three decades of occupation by a military garrison and the Royal Engineers, rendering it a central focus of town social life.

Construction of the building complex began in 1859. The original buildings were examples of Ruskinian picturesque High Victorian Gothic architecture, designed by two architectural partnerships. Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones designed the original Centre Block and Library, and Thomas Stent and Augustus Laver were responsible for the East and West Blocks. The buildings were intended to house all government activities with the East and West Blocks reserved for the entire civil service. The Centre Block was sufficiently complete in 1865 to be occupied by government departments, and it was officially opened on 6 June 1866.

The Centennial Flame commemorates Canada’s 100th anniversary as a Confederation. The Flame was first lit as part of the centennial celebrations of January 1, 1967. It was meant to be a temporary monument, but due to great public support it still stands today. Visitors and tourists throw coins into the flame’s surrounding fountain every day. A 1991 Act ensures all these coins are collected every year for the Centennial Flame Research Award Fund run by the House of Commons Comptroller. The fund supports Canadians researching disabilities.

Library of Parliament

Ottawa started as a settlement called Bytown in 1826, just a few years after the War of 1812. It was named after Lieutenant Colonel John By. He was commissioned with securing a route between Montreal and Kingston that didn’t rely on the St. Lawrence river — which came too close to the New York border for comfort. Here he would build the famous Rideau Canal Locks. These locks allow boats to enter the Ottawa river safely by raising and lowering their height slowly. Very slowly! Just like a mini Panama canal, a boat enters each lock and a team of workers hand crank the locks open and shut just like they did when Colonel By had them commissioned 180 years ago. It takes around two hours for a boat to complete the system. During the winter the canal freezes and becomes the world’s largest skating rink.

Searching for Timbits

People skate to work with their briefcases! How Canadian is that?

Library of Parliament

Right beside the locks is the tiny Bytown Museum, the oldest stone building in the city. It consists of a few floors of artifacts and memorabilia of days gone by. Here you can learn the story of Bytown as a lumber powerhouse, and see Colonel By’s hat and a large Union Jack flag recovered from the Parliament fire of 1916.

Bytown Museum
Bytown Museum

Bytown was rocking and rolling. It had a booming lumber industry and a reputation for being lawless. In 1855 they decided to change the brand, and switch the name to Ottawa, the Algonquin word for “trade.” In 1857, Queen Victoria chose Bytown to become Canada’s capital, and two years later construction of the Parliament Buildings was under way.

Well before the coming of the first European settlers, Canada’s aboriginal peoples had discovered the food properties of maple sap, which they gathered every spring. According to many historians, the maple leaf began to serve as a Canadian symbol as early as 1700.

Alexander Muir wrote The Maple Leaf Forever as Canada’s confederation song in 1867; it was regarded as the national song for several decades. The coats of arms created the next year for Ontario and Quebec both included the maple leaf. The maple leaf is the most widely recognized national symbol of Canada.

Library of Parliament

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