Arts & Culture

Sneak peek! Inside the Senate’s new temporary home

If the walls could talk, what tales they would tell.

Opened in 1912 as the city’s central train station, Union Station has since been a space visited upon by momentous events and historical characters: its floors felt the boots of the first soldiers marching to Europe in WWI; in 1941 British Prime Minister Winston Churchill decamped here from President Roosevelt’s luxurious personal train, stopping in to confer with his Canadian counterparts about the war effort after meeting with the Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbour; and the late, great Elvis Presley strode across the platform in 1957 on his way to perform two Ottawa shows.

Image courtesy of the Senate of Canada
Image courtesy of the Senate of Canada

When the tracks were removed in 1966, the lofty building was refitted for its second life as the Government Conference Centre. The next few decades saw G20 meetings, discussions on the Patriation of the Constitution, and debates on how Meech Lake Accord should proceed.

And now, in the waning days of 2018, the storied former train station is launching in its third incarnation as the Senate of Canada Building. It will be the Senate’s home for the next decade as Centre Block undergoes a full restoration.

The third life of this Beaux-Arts building has been accompanied by a truly magical transformation that restores it to its former grandeur while modernising the spaces within. In a joint venture, Diamond Schmitt Architects and KWC Architects revived the landmark, “weaving in the modern while saving the original elements,” in the words of Martin Davidson, a principal at Diamond Schmitt.

Gone are the drop ceilings that hid the glorious skylights and vaulted ceilings. After five long years, the grand building looks like herself again, her major public spaces restored. Though visitors will be most interested in the columns, arches, and ceilings of the General Waiting Room and the new Senate Chamber, the renovation has also added Senate committee rooms and parliamentary offices, new elevator banks and staircases, and state-of-the art IT and broadcasting enhancements.

Members of the public will be able to book tours of the Senate of Canada Building beginning in February 2019. For now, Ottawa Magazine offers a sneak peek of some of its spaces — and the stories behind their renewal.

The “Red Chamber.” The real desks will be transported to the Senate Chamber before Senators begin the new session in late January. The stunning ceiling, now meticulously restored, allows natural light to flood into the room. The ceiling had been covered when the building was used as a conference centre. The gilded Coat of Arms for Canada, recently completed by Dominion Sculptor Phil White, looks out over the ceremonial seating.

Canada boasts 10 native species of maple trees, the leaves of which have been cast in a double layer of glass in a series of panels at the entrance to the Senate Chamber. The leaf motif is repeated in the red carpet and on carved wooden doors in various areas of the building.

A view from the top of the marble staircase over the massive entrance hall. The ceilings were meticulously restored, as were the original chandeliers, which are now equipped with LED lights.

The entrances are flanked by bronze “canvases.” Shown: Moraine Lake in Alberta’s Banff National Park on the west wall. Not shown: a scene of Newfoundland’s Cape Race on the east wall. The architects chose the images, then converted them into dot patterns, which were done on bronze panels. The panoramas look like photographs in old newspaper clippings.

Above one of the committee rooms, a new mezzanine level makes a wonderful spot for lunch or to catch up on some Senate work. It also allows for a closer look at the intricate patterns on the former train station’s plaster ceiling.

The plaster ceiling. As part of the restoration, uplighting was added to draw attention to the ceiling and the detailing on the columns.

Image courtesy of the Senate of Canada
Image courtesy of the Senate of Canada

This aerial shot of the Senate of Canada building was taken from the Chateau Laurier, which also first opened its doors in 1912. 

Canada boasts 10 native species of maple leaves, which appear on the doors to the Senate Chamber and the committee rooms. The leaf motif is repeated in the red carpet and on glass panels at the entrance to the Senate Chamber.