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The Library of Parliament

For the week of Monday February 26, 2007

On February 28, 1876, the Library of Parliament in Ottawa officially opened. This domed High Victorian Gothic Revival structure was the brainchild of Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones, and the new home for Alpheus Todd, Librarian of Parliament.

The Library of Parliament
Library of Parliament
© Parks Canada / Mallory Schwartz / 2006

Thomas Fuller was born in England in 1823. By the time Fuller moved to Toronto in 1857, he had established himself as an architect. The following year, he joined Robert C. Messer and Chilion Jones in an architecture firm. Of the three, it was Fuller who was responsible for design. The firm was granted numerous projects, but is most acclaimed for designing the original Parliament Buildings.

In 1859, a competition was held to select the design of the new legislative buildings. That year, Messer left the firm. The proposal developed by Fuller and Jones was selected above 15 other entries. It offered a symmetrical, civil Gothic structure with a central tower. On the northwest end of the building would be the library.

The library was designed on the model of the Reading Room of the British Museum. The main focus in the centre of the room was the white marble statue of Queen Victoria, created by Marshall Wood in 1871. The library features a mosaic parquet floor, domed ceiling and iron doors – the last was added at the request of Alpheus Todd. 

Alpheus Todd
Alpheus Todd
© Library and Archives Canada / C-001128

In 1841, Todd began his career with the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, as assistant librarian. Fifteen years later, he was promoted to chief librarian. The 1849 fire at the government buildings in Montréal destroyed nearly 10,000 of the 12,000 books in the collection under Todd’s care. Fearing a repeat of this disaster, Todd requested that the new Parliamentary library in Ottawa be separated from the Centre Block by a corridor and iron doors. This would, in theory, protect the library from fire.

On February 3, 1916, this theory was tested and proved to be true when a fire spread rapidly throughout the Parliament Buildings, destroying everything except the library thanks to Michael MacCormac, an employee who closed the iron doors at its entrance.

The library remains the only surviving remnant of the original Parliament Buildings, constructed between 1859-76. From 2002-06, a massive rehabilitation and upgrades were made to the building to ensure the survival of this important structure and its over 17 linear kilometres of irreplaceable materials.

The Parliament Buildings are a National Historic Site of Canada.

For more information about the 1916 fire, please see Fire! in the This Week in History Archives.

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