The Parliament Buildings – a stunning example of Gothic Revival Architecture
Designed in a Gothic revival style by Thomas Fuller and set on a dramatic hill overlooking the Ottawa River, the Parliament Buildings officially opened on June 6, 1866, about a year before Confederation. They have become iconic Canadian symbols familiar to Canadians and people around the world.
Gothic Revival Style in Architecture
Classical Gothic buildings of the 12th to 16th Centuries were a source of inspiration to 19th-century designers in numerous fields of work. Architectural elements such as pointed arches, steep-sloping roofs, lancet windows, spires with crockets, rubble-course stonework, decorative patterns, finials, scalloping, hood mouldings and fancy carvings were applied to a wide range of Gothic Revival objects.
Gothic Revival is an architectural style that began in the late 1740s in England. The popularity of revival of medieval Gothic architecture grew rapidly in the early 19th century, in contrast to the neoclassical styles prevalent at the time. The Gothic Revival was imported to Canada from Britain and became the most historically influential style.
The Gothic Revival period lasted longer and was more thoroughly embraced in Canada than in either Britain or the United States. The desire for a unique Canadian style led Canadian architects returned to the Middle Ages Gothic for inspiration. Gothic architecture had become closely associated with Canada and turned to the most Victorian of all styles. Many Canadian prominent religious, civic, and scholastic institutions are housed in Gothic Revival style buildings.
The new architects retained the medieval motifs, including pointed arches, lancet windows, spires with crockets, rubble-course stonework, decorative patterns, finials, scalloping, and hood mouldings, but recombined them in entirely new ways. The forms were the same, but their arrangement was uniquely modern.
Presenting a fascinating blend of stateliness and vibrancy, the Parliament Buildings also departed from medieval models by integrating a variety of eras and styles of Gothic architecture: elements of Gothic architecture from Britain, France, the Low Countries, and Italy all in one building.
In his Hand Book to the Parliamentary and Departmental Buildings, Canada (1867), Joseph Bureau wrote, “The style of the Buildings is the Gothic of the 12th and 13th Centuries, with modification to suit the climate of Canada. The ornamental work and the dressing round the windows are of Ohio sandstone. The plain surface is faced with a cream-coloured sandstone of the Potsdam formation, obtained from Nepean, a few miles from Ottawa. The spandrils of the arches, and the spaces between window-arches and the sills of the upper windows, are filled up with a quaint description of stonework, composed of stones of irregular size, shape and colour, very neatly set together.”
The Parliament Building complex had a strong impact both nationally and internationally, and established a course for federal building design over the following decades.
For hundreds of years the Parliament Hill (as we know it now) served as a landmark on the Ottawa River for First Nations and, later, European traders, adventurers, and industrialists, to mark their journey to the interior of the continent. After Ottawa (called Bytown at the time) was founded, the builders of the Rideau Canal used the hill as a location for a military base, naming it Barrack Hill. A large fortress was planned for the site, but was never built.
In 1857, Queen Victoria was asked to select a capital and the seat of government for the new Dominion of Canada. Surprisingly, she chose the lumber town of Bytown over the established cities of Toronto, Kingston, Montréal and Québec City, and Barrack Hill was chosen as the site for the new parliament buildings.
“Ottawa having been selected by Her Majesty as the Capital of Canada, the sum of £75,000 was voted by the Legislative Assembly, for the erection of a Parliament House, and a premium of $1000 offered for the best design not to exceed that amount. Messrs. Fuller and Jones were the successful architects, and although the design was considered by many as too costly, responsible contractors were found who tendered within the government vote.” (From Hand Book to the Parliamentary and Departmental Buildings, Canada, by Joseph Bureau, 1867)
A call for design proposals was answered with 298 submitted drawings, and the winners were announced on 29 August 1859. The team of Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones won the prize for the Centre Block with their Victorian High Gothic scheme of a formal, symmetrical front facing a quadrangle, and a more rustic, picturesque back facing the escarpment overlooking the Ottawa River. $300,000 was allocated for that.
Prince Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), laid the cornerstone of the Centre Block on September 1, 1860. The construction of Parliament Hill became the largest project undertaken in North America to that date.
By 1876, the structures of Parliament Hill were finished, along with the surrounding fence and gates.
On 3 February 1916, a tragic fire destroyed the original structure, except for the Library, which was saved by a quick-thinking employee who closed the Library’s massive steel doors. Reconstruction began later that year.
Despite the ongoing war, the original cornerstone was re-laid by Governor General Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, on September 1, 1916; exactly fifty-six years after his brother, the future King Edward VII, had first set it. Eleven years later, the new tower was completed and dedicated as the Peace Tower, in commemoration of the Canadians who had lost their lives during the First World War.
Since 2002, an extensive $1 billion renovation and rehabilitation project has been underway throughout all of the precinct’s buildings; work is not expected to be complete until after 2020.
Parliament Hill attracts about 3 million visitors each year.