Restoring the West Block: Stone masons on Parliament Hill

Listen as Kevin Tovee, John-Philippe Smith and Melina Craig explain the history of stone masons, and how they have played a critical role in the Parliamentary Precinct renovations, specifically the West Block.

Transcript: The many jobs of heritage conservation for the rehabilitation of the Parliamentary Precinct

Start of video

[Music plays]

(Text on screen: Public Services and Procurement Canada)

(Text on screen: This footage was recorded prior to the Government of Canada’s physical distancing guidelines. Canadians are encouraged to continue to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines.)

[Shot of West Block tower and clouds.]

[Shot of Kevin Tovee standing in front of Centennial Flame.]

[Close-up shot and shot of Kevin standing on steps of West Block and looking at the camera.]

[Shot of the Carleton University’s main entrance sign is shown in the sunlight.]

(Text on screen: Carleton University, Canada’s Capital University)

Probably when I was about twelve years old I came to Ottawa, and I just remember being in awe at the kind of the size of the building. I moved to Ottawa to come to Carleton.

[Shot of Kevin Tovee speaking.]

(Text on screen: Kevin Tovee, Assistant Project manager, EllisDon)

[A wide image of West Block, the peace tower is in the background.]

[Stone masons work on scaffolds repairing the tower.]

[An Exterior shot of the West Tower with new copper roofing and scaffolds.]

While I was attending Carleton, again I was looking into the policing career path. So to get some experience on that I took a security position working on West Block and this was during the time when they were doing the Renovation of the two north towers on West Block.

[Workers point to a workbook with stone work diagrams.]

[Two workers lift heavy stones with a chain hoist.]

[Another worker does fine sanding on an ornate carving.]

[Kevin stands outside West Block talking to a worker.]

[Various shots of the exterior stone work of West Block.]

So I got to know a lot of the trades that were working there. I really got along with the Masonry company, and when I graduated I knew security, policing wasn't really for me. And I joined the Masons that were working on that project.

[Shot of John-Philippe Smith speaking.]

(Text on screen: John-Philippe Smith, Assistant Sculptor, Heritage Conservation Services, Public Services and Procurement Canada)

About a hundred years ago it was quite common place to have stone masons pretty well anywhere in the city centre in Canada.

[Image of West Block construction in black and white photo showing earlier era construction work.]

(Text on screen: Dominion-Wide/Library and Archives Canada/PA-022409. Dominion-Wide Photos.)

[Black and white image of workers repairing stonework in earlier times.]

(Text on screen: Dominion-Wide/Library and Archives Canada/PA-057531)

[Shot of John-Philippe walking in modernized West Block main chamber.]

[Shot of John-Philippe looking up at the stonework in main West Block chamber.]

[Shot of ornate stone work.]

However, what happened with the start of the 1920's or so, there seemed to be a decline and that was a result of, partly because of the first world war, a lot of the younger stone masons were off to war.

[Close up shot of stonework with hand pointing out details.]

[Shot of John-Philippe Smith speaking.]

And with the war there was development of new technologies, such as; metal, glass, and concrete.

[Shot of John-Philippe outside inspecting stonework looking up.]

[Close up shot of date and orange stonework above. Date inscription is 1878.]

[Shot of John-Philippe Smith speaking.]

[Shot of Grotesques and refinished stonework.]

These building materials kind of progressed quite a bit. So as a result that was reflected in architecture and unfortunately there was a decline in the trade.

[Shot of John-Philippe Smith speaking.]

There seems to now be a renewed interest and a return to the trade. And you are seeing that particularly in Ottawa, with all the work that's happening in the Parliamentary Precinct and particularly with West Block.

[Shot of West Block doors with Melina Craig sitting on steps.]

[Shot of Melina Craig speaking.]

(Text on screen: Melina Craig, Project Management Support Services Team Lead & Senior Project Manager, West Block Rehabilitation Program, Public Services and Procurement Canada)

West Block was build in 1858 to 1865 as a departmentally building for the growing Public Service at the time.

[Black and white image of West Block with horse drawn carriages on the street.]

(Text on screen: West Block from Wellington Street, William James Topley, Library and Archives Canada/PA012395)

And it was an instrumental building during the formative years of our country.

[Image of workers working up on West Block roof with Peace tower in background.]

(Text on screen: Reconstruction of the West Block, 1962, Dominion-Wide/Library and Archives Canada/PA-022411, Dominion-Wide Photos)

The last time the West Block had been renovated was back in the 1960’s.

[Recent image of West Block panning down showing recent work.

The last renovation was more of a small scale project. Renovating some of the offices and some of the finishes.

[Ariel view of West Block and construction installing new glass roof and other elements.]

[A closer view of the complex glass domed roof.]

[Interior view of paintings and ornate doorways to offices.]

[Image of newly completed House of Commons chamber within West Block pans down.]

We needed some swing space for the House of Commons. And the building, the West Block seemed to accommodate that well, with the office space that was available and the courtyard space, that we were able to fit up as a new chamber.

[Image of elegant hallways within building.]

[Image of large meetings with chairs and microphones in a large circle.]

[Melina looks over chamber with lights in background.]

PSPC's role in the project as the owner of the building was to oversee the planning and the design and construction, because there is many different groups that were involved in the building.

[An image of the chamber pans upward to reveal complex metal and glass roof.]

[An exterior image of the complete West Block pans down.]

So the management of all these different players was a very critical part of the project.

[A wide image of the West Block entrance pans down to reveal Melina sitting on steps.]

At it's Peak more than 200 masons were working on the building every day.

[Kevin Tovee is speaking]

Projects like the West Block, they have done a phenomenal job in rejuvenating

[An exterior entrance to West Block with ornate carvings is shown.]

[An image of the rooftop and tower pans downward and sunset.]

Not only in interest but people actually following through with joining to Masonry apprenticeships and its been really great for the trade.

[John-Philippe continues narration as image of him is shown walking the new chamber walkways.]

[He points to examples of stone work above an ornate door.]

[Detailed stonework is shown in an exterior shot which pans down. A close up of a stone carving is showing. The image returns to John-Philippe talking in interview.]

What makes me the most proud about having working on West Block is the fact that this is one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in Canada and to have been part of that is just, it's pretty special.

[Shot of Melina Craig speaking to camera.]

Working on West Block has been a project of a lifetime.

[Shot of Melina walking down side hallways of the Chamber.]

[Shot of the hallway of the Chamber.]

[Melina sits in side hall with statues admiring new construction and design.]

[Melina smiles in interview as she continues story.]

When I was shown a picture of the reconstruction of Centre Block back in the early 1900's after the fire. There was a photo, a black and white photo of the team that had worked on reconstruction of Centre Block.

[An image in black and white shows the historically photo of the earlier construction team standing in front of West Block.]

[The image switches to a close up of the black and white image with workers which then fades to the modern colour photo of the recent construction team members.]

[The image zooms out showing the many people on the project.]

We ended up—as a team we ended up taking a picture just like the one they did in front of Centre Block. To immortalize what we did here.

[Shot of Kevin Tovee speaking.]

[Shot of the exterior of West Block completed construction.]

[Kevin walks around West Block looking at various elements.]

[Shot of Kevin Tovee speaking.]

[Shot of the exterior of West Block completed construction.]

[Shot of the House of Common chamber.]

Now that I have a son, I've brought him here a few times and just being able point out saying this is something I've done here, or I've done that over there. It's really rewarding, so just being a part of history like that and being able to show friends and family is really rewarding.

[Music stops]

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(Public Services and Procurement Canada signature)

(Canada Wordmark)

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