Classified Federal Heritage Building
(© (Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, 1992.))
Central Experimental Farm National Historic Site, Ottawa, Ontario
Treasury Board Policy on Management of Real Property
1902 to 1904
Event, Person, Organization:
David Ewart, Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works
Natural Resources Canada
FHBRO Report Reference:
Description of Historic Place
The Dominion Observatory is a symmetrical, two-storey, stone building that features a central, four-storey octagonal tower flanked by two “T”-shaped flat-roofed wings, which are oriented at a 15º angle away from the tower. In 1905, the one-storey transit house was added to the western wing and housed the meridian circle telescope and transit instruments used to determine time, longitude and star positions. The tower, which is capped by a retractable copper dome and serves as the main entrance to the building, formerly housed the observatory’s equatorial telescope. Located at the north edge of the Central Experimental Farm on a campus-like site bounded by Carling Avenue and Observatory Drive, the Dominion Observatory forms a picturesque ensemble with the South Azimuth building (1912) and the Photo Equatorial building (1914) which formerly played supporting roles in the Observatory’s scientific endeavours. The designation is confined to the footprint of the building.
The Dominion Observatory is a Classified Federal Heritage Building because of its historical associations, and its architectural and environmental values.
The Dominion Observatory is one of the best examples of the important historic theme of the advancement of pure and applied scientific research at the national level in Canada. Established to aid and improve the survey work of western Canada through the investigation and application of positional astronomy, the Observatory also served as a world-class centre for astronomical and geophysical research, and developed a national profile as the source of Dominion Observatory Official Time. The Dominion Observatory is one of four major public buildings constructed in Ottawa during the expansionist years of the Wilfrid Laurier government as part of Laurier’s efforts to turn Ottawa into the –Washington of the north-, and heralded Ottawa’s transformation from a lumber town to a capital city. Scientists of national standing directly associated with the observatory include its co-founders William Frederick King and Otto Julius Klotz, along with John Stanley Plaskett.
The Dominion Observatory is an excellent example of an eclectic blend of Romanesque Revival and Edwardian Classicist styles. Carefully planned by the founding scientists, the functional design of the building’s research facilities originally accommodated the requirements of a small scientific department and has proven to be adaptable to new uses. A very good example of David Ewart’s work, the building successfully combined aesthetics with the original functional requirements, making it well-suited to both the scientific activities it housed, as well as fulfilling the government’s desire for a building that would express the federal and national importance of the institution.
The Dominion Observatory has a principal public façade which features most of the decorative detailing, and a more functional façade which features the photographic laboratory’s skylight and the curved projecting wall of the stairs which are direct expression of the building’s functions. Constructed of the highest quality materials and craftsmanship, the public and functional facades of the building are unified by the masonry work, which is characterized by a rich and vibrant palette of colours and textures.
Visually prominent by virtue of its distinctive design, massing, materials and location, the Dominion Observatory forms part of a harmonious ensemble that includes the South Azimuth building and the Photo Equatorial building, which together reinforce the picturesque character of the Central Experimental Farm. The Dominion Observatory is one Ottawa’s most well-known and easily recognizable public buildings.
Jacqueline Hucker, Dominion Observatory, South Azimuth and Photo Equatorial buildings, Ottawa, Ontario. Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office Report 92-35, 92-41, 92-42; Dominion Observatory, South Azimuth and Photo Equatorial buildings, Ottawa, Ontario, Heritage Character Statement 92-35, 92-41, 92-42.
The character-defining elements of the Dominion Observatory should be respected:
Its masterful, eclectic blend of the Romanesque Revival and Edwardian Classicist styles, excellent functional design, and exceptionally high quality materials and craftsmanship as manifested in: the symmetrical composition of the building which consists of the central, four-storey tower and two “T”-shaped wings, one of which also features the one-storey former transit house addition; the formal treatment of the principal south façade including the decorative detailing, which expresses the federal and national importance of the institution, in contrast to; the simpler, less elaborate treatment of the north façade which is a direct expression of the building’s interior functions; the distinctive and vibrant exterior treatment which unifies the public and functional sides of the building and is characterized by a rusticated limestone base, rock-faced variegated Nepean sandstone walls, and contrasting smooth, red Sackville sandstone string courses and window and door surrounds; the tower’s decorative, stone detailing including the foliated capitals which flank the main entrance and separate the windows of the tower’s drum, the incised lettering and carved royal coat of arms above the main entrance, the stone brackets supporting the drum’s balcony; the hemispherical copper dome which caps the tower; the decorative ironwork including the drum’s balustrade; the large clock face at the center of the tower’s drum which recalls the Observatory’s former timekeeping function; the interior features that define the building’s early federal government office character such as the pressed yellow brick, ceramic tile floors, moulded baseboards and paneled wood office doors with transom lights, as well as the original light fixtures.
The manner in which the building reinforces the picturesque character of the observatory’s campus-like setting within the Central Experimental Farm, as evidenced in: its visual prominence owing to its distinctive design, massing, materials and location; its harmonious relationship with the South Azimuth and the Photo Equatorial buildings, which together form a picturesque ensemble.
Heritage Character Statement
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 Dominion Observatory was built in 1902-04 to the designs of David Ewart, Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works from 1896 to 1914. The South Azimuth building (1912) and the Photo Equatorial building (1914) are related structures. The observatory is now occupied by the Geological Survey of Canada. Energy, Mines and Resources is the custodial department. See FHBRO Building Report 92-35, 92-41 and 92-42.
Reasons for Designation
The Dominion Observatory and its associated structures were designated Classified because of the architectural and historical significance of the ensemble, and also for environmental reasons.
One of four major public buildings constructed in Ottawa during the expansionist years of the Wilfrid Laurier government, the Dominion Observatory possesses a vibrancy not found in other Ottawa federal buildings of this period. Because it was intended to stand on Parliament Hill, the building was personally designed by Chief Architect Ewart. A masterful blend of Romanesque Revival and Edwardian Classicism, the design combines references to institutes of higher learning with a contemporary taste for grandiloquent classical buildings with interesting domes. The South Azimuth building and the Photo Equatorial building, which played supporting roles in the observatory's scientific endeavours, were given the same elaborate exterior treatment.
Historically, the observatory embodies the theme of pure and applied research at the national level, recalling the role of astronomy in the survey of western Canada and world class work in astronomy and geophysics, as well as a national profile as the source of Dominion Observatory Official Time. Scientists of national standing directly associated with the observatory include William Frederick King, Otto Julius Klotz and John Stanley Plaskett.
The intrinsic value of the three buildings is enhanced by the integrity of their campus-like setting and the harmonious relationship with the surrounding Central Experimental Farm.
Character Defining Elements
The heritage character of the Dominion Observatory resides in the building's masterful marriage of aesthetics and functional requirements, and in the robust materials, colours and textures that distinguish its exterior. Smooth red Sackville sandstone provides a strong contrast to the rock-faced variegated Nepean sandstone walls, boldly outlining the windows and doors and running in uninterrupted string courses around the building. Copper and decorative ironwork provide additional visual interest.
The four-storey tower is the architectural and scientific focus of the building, accommodating the main entrance as well as the 13 foot diameter pier which once supported the telescope. It possesses the lion's share of the building's ornamentation: foliated capitals flank the Romanesque entrance and separate the windows of the drum; incised lettering and a carved royal coat of arms surmount the entrance; a tightly packed line of brackets supports the drum balcony, which is encircled by a balustrade designed to match the ironwork of the Parliament buildings; and the large clock face at the center of drum recalls the observatory's former timekeeping function. The tower culminates in the retractable copper dome, which is still in good working order.
The tower anchors two flat-roofed wings with identical facades, creating a strong impression of symmetry and order that should not be compromised.
The observatory is relatively intact in its overall appearance, major interventions notwithstanding: an elevator shaft added in the 1960s projects through the roof behind the dome, two large chimney stacks have been removed, and windows and doors have been replaced with inappropriate metal units. Because the facade was so carefully designed, all of its features merit maintenance and preservation. The stone and copper work in particular require careful conservation. Consideration should be given to returning to windows matching the configuration seen in early photographs, and to alleviating the visual impact of the elevator shaft.
The interior is in excellent condition. The original layout, as well as features that define its early government office character - yellow brick walls, ceramic tile floors, moulded baseboards, original light fixtures and paneled office doors with transom lights - are intact and merit preservation. The removal of wrought iron railings from the curved staircase to accommodate the elevator shaft is unfortunate. The extant section of rail at top of stairs must be retained as a record of the original configuration.
The South Azimuth building and the Photo Equatorial building are constructed of the same materials as the observatory, and suffer from neglect. The buildings should be stabilized and features that recall their earlier scientific role preserved, such as the South Azimuth building's slate louvers and the stairs leading to the dome of the Photo Equatorial building.
The three buildings form a picturesque ensemble that harmonizes with the natural setting of the Experimental Farm. A 1946 aerial photograph illustrates the original sinuous circulation pattern, which is largely intact, as well as whimsical star-shaped flower beds that no longer exist. Management of the landscape should be in keeping with early patterns.