ERA Architects

Senate of Canada Building (Government Conference Centre)

ERA Architects worked as the heritage architects with DSA-KWC Architects in Joint Venture, as well as John G. Cooke & Associates Ltd as structural engineers. The rehabilitation aimed to reveal the historical elements of the building that were concealed when Union Station was converted to the GCC, such as the theatrical character of the interior procession, the axial progression of spaces, the dramatic use of natural light, and the rich palette of materials, while meeting the project’s functional and technical requirements. In addition, previous insertions in the significant interior spaces, such as the General Waiting Room and Concourse spaces have been removed. Given the building’s rich character, it is well suited to accommodate the Senate program and support its ceremonial traditions as the new Senate of Canada Building.

Constructed in 1912 as Ottawa’s Union Station, the Senate of Canada Building has undergone significant transformations over the last 100 years. Originally designed by Montreal architectural firm Ross and MacFarlane, the building is an excellent example of the Beaux-Arts railway station tradition popular in the early 20th century, bearing many similarities to New York’s legendary Pennsylvania Station. In 1966, with the decline of passenger railway travel, the building narrowly escaped demolition and was converted into the Government Conference Centre (GCC).  Known today as the Senate of Canada Building, it has been refurbished to accommodate the Senate of Canada during the rehabilitation of the Centre Block.

From 2014 to 2018, ERA Architects worked as heritage architects on this project in close collaboration with prime consultants DSA-KWC Architects in Joint Venture, and with John Cooke and Associates as structural engineers. The project scope included the full rehabilitation of the exterior and interior of the building. As part of this multidisciplinary team, ERA was involved in all project phases from Schematic Design through Site Review and Construction Administration.

Ottawa’s Union Station (right) opened in 1912, the same year (the same day, in fact) that the Chateau Laurier opened its doors (left).

The rehabilitation project aimed to reveal the original character and historical elements of the building that had been concealed during earlier modifications. The theatrical character of the interior procession, the axial progression of spaces, the dramatic use of natural light, and the rich palette of materials were re-established and, in some cases, uncovered, while meeting the project’s functional and technical requirements. Previous insertions in the significant interior spaces, such as the General Waiting Room and Concourse spaces, that obscured the heritage character of the building were removed.  Interior elements, such as imitation travertine, marble and woodwork, were all repaired and refinished.

The enormous General Waiting Room of Union Station was modelled on the ancient Baths of Caracalla in Rome. A tunnel connected the station directly to Château Laurier across the street—the station and the hotel opened on the same day in 1912.

The General Waiting Room of the former train station had been modified into conference space in the 1960s— Translation booths with wood paneling and tinted windows cover the grand stairs. A similar booth on the right covers the east wall. Carpet covers the floor.

The ‘General Waiting Room,’ 2019. The staircase is restored and two committee rooms occupy each side of the space covered with perforated bronze panels representing east and west sceneries. The raised floor has been removed to expose original marble.

A major technical conservation challenge was the rehabilitation of the two suspended plaster ceilings.  Composed of precast coffered plaster panels suspended from the steel structure above, the ceilings were in poor condition at project start-up.  Investigations and testing of a number of panels were undertaken to determine their strength and typical failure mechanisms.  As no appropriate North-American plaster conservation precedent existed, experimentation with conservation products from the United Kingdom was undertaken to determine suitability.  After multiple mock-ups and tests, a conservation strategy was developed and implemented, with no visual impacts from below, serving as a new precedent for plaster conservation in Canada.

The project called for the definition of a new layer of contemporary design that complements the character of the existing building, and allows the building to assume its place in today’s urban context. To inform the implementation of these objectives, a rigorous heritage character analysis was undertaken.  On the exterior, the role of the building in its urban context was understood as having been established by an early 20th century vision for the Grand Trunk station.  A new addition on the east side of the building completes the building’s transition from a street wall condition to a pavilion viewed in the round, and appropriately responds to the building’s role as part of a gateway along Confederation Boulevard.

ERA’s heritage conservation approach, respecting the layers of heritage character lying beneath the surface combined with innovative technical solutions, makes this project an excellent example of successful adaptive reuse.

Above the committee rooms, 2019.

Concourse, 1912.

The Senate Chamber, 2019.

For a link to project details and renderings on the Public Services and Procurement Canada website, click here.

All historic images: Library and Archives Canada.
All renderings: DSA-KWC Architects in Joint Venture.
Photos: Tom Arban