Ottawa domes: the lost, the obvious, and the forgotten

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A few months back, I came across a beautiful photograph from the collection of the Bytown Museum. At first, I wasn’t able to identify the city I was looking at. I then spotted Chaudière Falls and came to recognize the beautiful stone and wrought iron fence that surrounds Parliament Hill. What threw me off were the domes in the foreground. “Domes? There are no domes in Ottawa,” I thought to myself. How wrong I was.

The most obvious one is located right on Parliament Hill. The Library of Parliament is perhaps the most iconic building in the national capital region. In fact, the Reading Room, located under the dome of the library, has been referred to by some as one of the “most beautiful rooms” in Canada. The original design for the Library of Parliament contemplated the construction of a groined roof made out of stone and hollow bricks. However, it was feared that due to the large span and the great weight of the materials, together with the height of the lantern, any imperfection in the work could have serious consequences. Even a dome-shaped ceiling and lantern made out of wood was being considered. Given its great height over the floor, so it was argued, the wooden dome would be ‘out of reach of fire’.

The wrought iron frame, nearly 90 feet in diameter, was definitely a more permanent solution and resolved the weight concerns. The dome was ordered from a Manchester firm in England. It should be noted that the Library of Parliament was the first iron dome in Canada and only the third iron dome in North America. Both the St. Louis Court House (1862) and the Washington Capitol (1864) predate the Ottawa one.

Mere metres from the gates of Parliament Hill, at the corner of Bank and Sparks Street, stood one of Ottawa’s most distinct buildings – and yet another story of an Ottawa dome. Hailed by the Ottawa Free Press in 1899 as a ‘monument to the present commercial stability’, the structure was one of Ottawa’s first Beaux-Arts buildings. The former Sun Life Assurance Company Building was designed in 1897 by New York trained architect and Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works, Edgar Lewis Horwood. A copper dome and a sculpture depicting Mercury – the Roman god of trade, merchants, and travelers – topped the corner of the building.

The Dominion Bank purchased the building in 1944 and significantly altered the exterior in 1949. In an attempt to modernize the building, the façade was clad with limestone, and the fluted pilasters, classical cornice and much of the decorative elements, were all removed.

The dome, along with the lantern and the sculpture of Mercury, or flying green boy as it was once referred to by the Evening Citizen, were also removed. The sculpture was restored and given to the Bytown Museum where it was temporarily exhibited on the main floor until fall of 1982. Mercury was eventually handed over to the National Capital Commission before it found a new home on top of the former Larocque Department Store building on Rideau Street. Mercury still overlooks the ByWard Market area today as it can be seen high above the Lone Star Texas Grill restaurant, near the corner of George and Dalhousie Street.

Another monumental dome once graced the top of Ottawa’s Union Station (originally named Grand Trunk Central Station; now Government Conference Centre). The station predates Toronto’s, and is perhaps one of the city’s most impressive buildings. Connected by underground tunnel to the Château Laurier hotel, both buildings are clad in buff Indiana (Salem) limestone and opened in 1912.

As the 1909 drawing shows, a large Roman dome was meant to cover the light well for three floors of railway offices. However, the design was altered and in the end, the large dome only lit a flat skylight in the Railway Commissioners’ courtroom.

Jacques Gréber’s general report from 1950 called for the removal of the Union Station to facilitate traffic to move more easily on and off the proposed Colonel By Drive that was to replace the train tracks. While the building was spared from demolition, the magnificent dome was removed in 1956 to construct an unattractive penthouse level to produce more office space.

The 5:23 minute segment from James A. Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks (Glimpses of Ontario; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) provides a glimpse of what Ottawa looked like in the 1940’s – shortly after the National War Memorial was unveiled and before the train tracks were moved from the downtown core.

The Dominion Observatory, the Canadian Museum of Civilization and Tabaret Hall are three buildings that are also worth noting – for their present, or past plans for, notable domes.

Completed in 1905, the Dominion Observatory, whose dome was expressly constructed to house a 15″ refracting telescope, became the primary reference point for anyone measuring time and geographical locations in Canada. This handsome sandstone building was designed by David Ewart who was responsible for the Victoria Memorial Museum Building (now Canadian Museum of Nature), the Royal Canadian Mint building and the Connaught building.

One of the most striking dome interiors can be found across the Ottawa River. As part of Douglas Cardinal’s design for the Canadian Museum of Civilization, several domes were incorporated. One of the larger ones is adorned with a massive mural by Alex Janvier called Morning Star. Each of the quadrants, yellow, blue, red and white, represent a period of the story of Aboriginal people. The mural, covering 418 square meters, took four months to complete.

The most ambitious dome project in the city of Ottawa was never fully realized.

A devastating fire in 1903 destroyed the main building of the University of Ottawa, taking the lives of three individuals. A commanding structure, inspired by Washington D.C.’s Capitol building, was erected in its place. The building, now called Tabaret Hall, was built in phases. However, the central space that was to hold the monumental dome was never fully completed. It was covered by a “temporary” wooden roof in 1905, which was eventually replaced by its current acrylic dome in 1970.

2 comments

  1. The building currently topped by the Mercury weathervane is called, appropriately, Mercury Court, in which the well-known Ottawa heritage architect Barry Padolsky has his offices.

  2. Great post, Mike! I’m originally from Kingston, and I used to spend hours poking around the old buildings downtown, looking at archival photographs and trying to visualize what was once there.

    Having lived in Ottawa for over 15 years, I take as much interest in my new hometown, but the larger size can make it overwhelming. Your post has inspired me to spend more time exploring old Ottawa/Bytown.

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