Government Conference Centre

Classified Federal Heritage Building

Ottawa, Ontario
Exterior photo (© Monique Trépanier, Architectural History Branch | Direction de l'histoire de l'architecture, 1988)
Exterior photo
(© Monique Trépanier, Architectural History Branch | Direction de l'histoire de l'architecture, 1988)
Address : 2 Rideau Street, Part of Confederation Square National Historic Site, Ottawa, Ontario

Recognition Statute: Treasury Board Policy on Management of Real Property
Designation Date: 1989-01-19
  • 1909 to 1912 (Construction)

Event, Person, Organization:
  • Bradford Lee and Ross and MacFarlane  (Architect)
Other Name(s):
  • Former Union Station  (Other Name)
Custodian: Public Works and Government Services Canada
FHBRO Report Reference: 88-028
DFRP Number: 54533 00

Description of Historic Place

The Government Conference Centre is located on Confederation Square in downtown Ottawa. Built as Ottawa’s Union Railway Station, the monumental building’s Beaux-Arts, classical style was typical of early 20th century railway stations. Two principal facades distinguish the solid and impressive structure. The formal, front entrance façade features a symmetrical, tripartite design with a projecting central bay, giant columns and a prominent entablature. The designation is confined to the footprint of the building.

Heritage Value

The Government Conference Centre is a Classified Federal Heritage Building because of its historical associations, and its architectural and environmental values:

Historical value:
Originally built as Ottawa’s Union Station, the present-day Government Conference Centre is one of the best examples associated with the great railway-building era in pre-war Canada, an activity central to the development of Canada’s early national unity and prosperity. The building continues to shape the country’s political and cultural identity in its role as the Government Conference Centre, the locale for major national and international conferences. Originally as a port of entry to the Capital and later as a meeting venue, the building has long been associated with many figures of national and international significance. The building strongly depicts several phases of Ottawa’s development such as its function as a capital city as well as in the development of the city core.

Architectural value:
The Government Conference Centre is an excellent example of the Beaux-Arts tradition, a design favoured for this building type. The ordering of both the exterior and the interior are related expressions of Beaux-Arts design principles. Exhibiting the full vocabulary of classical forms, the symmetrical composition, large colonnades and arches of the building’s formal entrance and linear facades express the progression of spaces on the interior. As well, the axial symmetry and the progression of the interior spaces, of varying heights and proportions, permit a large, open layout in main spaces. Excellent decorative treatments and materials complement the overall design of the building.

Environmental value:
The Government Conference Centre reinforces the present character of Confederation Square in the commercial area of Ottawa’s downtown. The building is a familiar landmark to the residents of the city and the region.

Leslie Maitland, Government Conference Centre (former Union Station) Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office Report 88-028.

Government Conference Centre, Ottawa, Ontario. Heritage Character Statement 88-028.

Character-Defining Elements

The following character-defining elements of the Government Conference Centre should be respected:

Its role as an illustration of the great railway-building era in pre-war Canada is reflected in:
The design which is in the spirit of the grand railway era and on the interior, the main railway hall.

Its Beaux-Arts style, very good functional design and excellent quality materials and craftsmanship as manifested in:
The large scale, heavy massing and classical composition; The north and west facades, specifically the symmetrical, tripartite front façade composed of giant columns, strong corner pilasters, and a substantial cornice and entablature whose 3-dimensional treatment creates a strong play between light and shadow; Its smooth, rich and white exterior of Indiana limestone; Its patterns of fenestration and access; The axial symmetry and hierarchical progression of space leading to the main hall of the former railway station; The use of strong, durable construction materials such as a steel frame and brick and terracotta firewalls; and The architectural treatment of the interior, specifically the main railway hall and the principal offices, which are decorated with classical elements such as coffered barrel vaults, plaster work and marble fireplaces.

Heritage Character Statement

Disclaimer - The heritage character statement was developed by FHBRO to explain the reasons for the designation of a federal heritage building and what it is about the building that makes it significant (the heritage character). It is a key reference document for anyone involved in planning interventions to federal heritage buildings and is used by FHBRO in their review of interventions.

The Government Conference Centre, a prominent landmark on Confederation Square in Ottawa, was originally built as Union Station. It was constructed in 1909-12 to the designs of architects Ross and MacFarlane, based on original plans by architect Bradford Lee Gilbert. The building served as the central railway station for the City of Ottawa until the 1960's. With the removal of railway lines from the city Centre, the building became vacant and was eventually converted to a conference Centre by the Federal government. The custodial department is Public Works Canada. See FHBRO Building Report 88-28.

Reason for Designation
The Government Conference Centre has been designated Classified because of its important historic associations and its architectural design and prominence.

As a central railway station, it is tangible evidence of the great railway-building era in pre-war Canada. This activity was central to the aspirations of the young country for national unity and prosperity, and the Ottawa station was one of a number that were erected on prominent urban sites across Canada. Since its conversion to house the Government Conference Centre, it has taken on new significance as the locale for major national and international conferences that continue to shape the country's political and cultural identity.

Its architectural design is within the Beaux-Arts tradition, firmly established at the time as the favored mode of expression for this building type. Although the building's function and much of the adjacent land-use have undergone radical change, the main building continues to be an important and substantial landmark within the nationally-significant Confederation Square environment.

Character Defining Elements
The significance of this building lies in the ordering of both the exterior and interior as related expressions of the principles of Beaux-Arts design.

The exterior, in carefully-dressed ashlar masonry of Indiana limestone, is marked by a formal entrance façade on Rideau Street and a secondary façade facing the Rideau Canal and Confederation Square. The entrance façade is of symmetrical tripartite design, with a projecting central bay. Four-storey columns set in antis support a substantial but simple cornice and an entablature pierced by windows. The façade facing the canal is linear; it expresses the progression of spaces on the interior with colonnades and arches at a massive scale.
The interior retains the general layout and decorative treatment of the original station, although extensively obscured by recent alterations and additions. The axial progression from the entrance through the lobby, the waiting room, the ticket office and into the concourse, is still intact physically but difficult to experience because of the subdivision of the space. The decorative treatments such as the coffered barrel vaults in the major spaces and the marble fireplaces in the front offices are also still in place for the most part, even if hidden from general view.

Because of the architectural significance of the building and the importance of its historical associations as both a railway station and a conference Centre, great care must be taken in the preservation of both the spatial and physical qualities of the building. On the exterior, this implies a program of careful maintenance, and the involvement of appropriate conservation specialists for any repair or restoration. The two original façades should be maintained as is, including the patterns of fenestration and access, and also those portions of the other façades which are evidence of original design. The other façades should be maintained as integral parts of the building fabric, but changes may occur as part of the continuing evolution of the building's use. Any such changes should respect the original design intent and not interfere with the balance of the two primary façades. The fire stair on the east wall is a successful exercise in contemporary design within this historic context and could well be maintained.

The interior is a somewhat uncomfortable and ad hoc adaptation of the original plan and the layout and fittings have been adapted to new use. Any redesign should take a starting point the importance of respecting the original axial symmetry and the progression of spaces of varying heights and proportions. It should also recognize that the finishes such as the coffered barrel vaults and the marble detailing are integral parts of the original design expression, and should be carefully maintained and enhanced. The tunnel connecting the station to the Chateau Laurier Hotel is a traditional feature of the building. It should be maintained.

In terms of the relationship of the building to its site, the prominence of the building must be maintained to the north and the west. The other façades have been modified considerably and are part of a new urban fabric. They are still open to change, as long as the balance of the north façade and the clear lineal progression on the west side are not disturbed or thrown off balance by new work.