Reconstruction, 1916-1965

Cornerstone for the new building

On September 1st 1916, the original cornerstone, which had been salvaged from the ruins, was laid by Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, 56 years to the day after it was laid by his brother, now King Edward VII.

Arthur William Patrick Albert  The cornerstone of the old Centre Block

After it had been decided that the Centre Block would be completely rebuilt, a team of architects was chosen to produce a design that look as much like the old building as possible. However, many things had changed since the 1850s. New structural techniques and materials had been developed and Public Works had learned some important lessons from the fire. The new building would also be larger than the original and a full storey higher.

The Library from the West Block

The new Centre Block under construction

Drawing of the proposed new Centre Block, 1916

The new Centre Block under construction

John Pearson and J. Omer Marchand planned the new Centre Block with a logical framework of corridors so that access to exits was clear. Instead of wood, the interior walls were Tyndall limestone from Manitoba and the floors were marble. The structure was a modern steel frame but it was covered with the same local Nepean sandstone used for the original buildings.

The government hoped to move into its new building within a year but there was a war on. Materials and labour were in short supply and expensive. The work continued but slowly.

The foyer of the new House of Commons, 1920

Opening of Parliament

The first parliament to sit in the new building opened with great ceremony on February 26, 1920, just over four years after the fire. The country had changed dramatically during those years. It had come to realize the full horror of the Great War as the casualty lists grew longer and longer. Its armies had proved themselves on the battlefields of France and Belgium, earning the respect of their allies and Canada had taken a place on the world stage as a participant in the treaty negotiations at Versailles. Sir Wilfrid Laurier stated that the 20th century belonged to Canada. On that day in February, 1920, as the new session of parliament was opened, anything seemed possible. The new Centre Block, 1927

The new building was a powerful symbol of this turning point in our history. The old century was gone and with it a well-loved monument of the Victorian era. But the Library survived, containing the memories and archives of the nation and the new building stood fresh and full of potential like the post-war age. Workmen on the Peace Tower

It was nowhere near complete. The tower was just beginning to rise from its base, and the interior lobbies and corridors were bare of ornament. Large panels of smooth stone awaited the sculptor's chisel that would call forth scenes from Canadian history, coats of arms, native plants and animals. It would take decades to complete.

July 1, 1927, the Diamond Anniversary of Confederation

On Dominion Day, 1927 Viscount Willingdon, the Governor General, dedicated the Peace Tower and inaugurated the Carillon, played for the first time by Dominion Carillonneur, Percival Price.

Prime Minister Mackenzie King The ceremony on Parliament Hill that day was the culmination of many years of planning and hard work, including the efforts of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. King was determined that the Peace Tower would be a fitting memorial to Canada's war dead, and was the driving force behind the carillon. His speech on the day of the Jubilee, broadcast across the nation, was a moving and powerful commitment to peace.

Fire in the Library

In 1952, disaster struck once again. An electrical short in the roof of the Library caused a fire that nearly destroyed the Gothic Revival masterpiece. Firefighters desperately tried to reach the flames that were spreading within the dome by cutting through the metal roof and pouring water through. This effectively dowsed the fire but also flooded the interior and the collections.

After surviving the great blaze of 1916, the beautiful room was blackened with smoke, its roof ripped open like a tin can and broken plaster fell to the floor below. Water poured out the door in a torrent while shocked librarians surveyed the damage.

For many years it had been obvious that the library was too small. In addition to its role as the reference library for Parliament, it was also the National Library, and for a long time, a public library for the city. The crisis started a debate and some people thought the building should be torn down and replaced with a larger, more efficient library. Public Works went so far as to produced drawings. Perhaps when they saw the drab, ordinary building that was proposed, people realized how special Fuller and Jones' library was and the importance of saving all that remained of the original Centre Block.

The library was restored, and a new National Library building was built a few years later, west of Parliament Hill, to relieve the pressure on the old.

Demolition of the old Supreme Court

The Old Supreme Court Building, July 1956

In 1955, a sorry, dilapidated building on the western edge of Parliament Hill was demolished to make way for a parking lot. Nobody was particularly upset. It had been a fire trap for years but it had been the Supreme Court of Canada from 1889 until 1945.

It doesn't seem to be very important but this was the beginning of a dark period in the history of Parliament Hill. After the Second World War, the prominence of cars in every aspect of life began to change the way we lived. At the same time, people were obsessed with everything new and modern and were ready to throw away the old and out-of-date. Nothing was safe from the threat of demolition or from the creeping phenomenon of the parking lot.

West Block renovations

The ongoing quest for more office space on Parliament Hill became critical again in 1961. The old departmental buildings were looking pretty tired and run-down after years of minor modifications to pack in as many desks as possible. There was a serious suggestion to demolish the West Block and start fresh with a modern new office building on the site.

Renovations to the West Block, 1962 This proposal seems outlandish now and so does another suggestion to tear down the East Block to create more parking, but it shows how close we have come to losing these treasures out of blind enthusiasm for progress. Every style of architecture goes through a period of high risk when it is old enough to be out of fashion but NOT old enough to be "Heritage".

Fortunately none of these projects was carried out. The West Block was renovated instead. Many original features, such as fireplaces, decorative woodwork and other details, were removed, and the interior was stripped of its Victoria character. On the outside it still looked like the same building but inside the offices were modern.

The Carillon reconstruction

When the original bell in the Victoria Tower crashed to the ground at the height of the fire that cold night in February, the moment was recorded as one of high drama. A decade later, the new carillon rang out for the first time, broadcast across the country by radio as the Peace Tower was dedicated.

The carillon is a musical instrument consisting of 53 bells. The chimes heard on the quarter hour are the same pattern as the bells of Westminster and they are linked to the clock works. The keyboard of the carillon is located in a small room in the tower where the Dominion Carillonneur controls the bells.

The carillonneur is a highly skilled musician who must be very fit to handle the instrument. The bells are linked directly to the keyboard, and before every performance the connecting wires must be calibrated to adjust for temperature and other variables. The performer uses both hands and feet to create a magical effect that can be heard throughout the city.