Government Conference Centre

Did You Know?

  • Year Built: 1909-12
  • Approximate Size: 7,378.7 m2
  • Current Occupants: Public Works and Government Services Canada
  • Future Occupant: The Senate (on an interim basis)

The Government Conference Centre had noble beginnings. Originally built in the early 1900s as Ottawa's central train station, the Beaux-Arts building at 2 Rideau Street was inspired by the City Beautiful movement. The aim of this urban-planning philosophy was to introduce beautification and monumental grandeur in cities.

The building and its location on the edge of an open space—Confederation Square—surrounding a grand monument—the National War Memorial—are a rare Canadian example of City Beautiful-inspired design.

This century-old heritage building is in great need of rejuvenation. The rehabilitation of the Government Conference Centre will ensure the preservation of this heritage building and will provide a temporary home for the Senate while the Centre Block undergoes much needed renovations. Once the rehabilitation of the Centre Block is completed, the Government Conference Centre will be made available for other government business and used for generations to come.

History and architecture

Built between 1909–12 as Ottawa’s Union Station, the building was designed in the Beaux-Arts style, which was very popular for train stations of this era. The interior grand architectural spaces were inspired by the classical Roman Baths of Caracalla (built between AD 212–216). The likeness is especially evident in the general waiting room, which is dominated by an elegant barrel-vaulted ceiling that is patterned with deep coffers to create a decorative design.

The building was originally designed by New York-based architect Bradford Lee Gilbert, but was taken over by Ross and MacFarlane, a Montréal-based firm.

This building at 2 Rideau Street is one of the best examples from the great railway building era in pre-war Canada and its architectural style has a dignified, theatrical quality that embodies the heyday of train travel. This theatrical nature is evident in the oversized columns, symmetrical composition, hierarchy of spaces and dramatic use of light and shadow.

This grand building served as Ottawa’s central train station until July 1966, when the city’s current station was opened outside of the downtown area. Plans to demolish Union Station to relieve traffic congestion were abandoned, and after several years of interim uses, the building was converted to a government conference centre in 1968–69.

Five distinct blocks make up this Beaux-Arts building, four of which—the main entrance, general waiting room, ticketing block and concourse—were built as part of the original train station. Their exterior walls are a combination of limestone, granite and brick. The original train sheds located at the southern end of the building were demolished and replaced in 1973 by a one-storey concrete section. It serves as the main entrance to the building.

Since its transformation to the Government Conference Centre, events of both national and international significance have taken place within its walls:

  • Constitutional talks in November 1981 led to the eventual repatriation of the Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982).
  • The “Open Skies” Conference in February 1990, an exercise between NATO and Warsaw-Pact countries on the issue of aerial observation in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, contributed to the reunification of Germany. 
  • The Ottawa Treaty, or Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, signed in December 1997, led to a program to demine former conflict zones around the world.
  • In November 2001, Canada hosted the G20 Conference, the first opportunity that the international community had to meet and discuss the response to the events of September 11, 2001.
  • The federal budget lock-ups are held here annually when journalists are briefed in advance of the budget speech.

The building was designated a Classified Federal Heritage Building in 1989 because of its historical associations, architectural value, and environmental impact as a familiar landmark of the city and the region.