20 Dec 6 facts about the Senate’s beautiful new home for the next decade
Canada’s senators took possession of their new chamber Thursday, a refurbished train station with ties to the First World War, constitutional talks and the King of Rock and Roll.
It took six years and $219 million to convert the building, which will be home to the Senate for at least a decade while Centre Block is gutted and refurbished.
In accepting the newly renamed Senate of Canada Building, Speaker George Furey said it was appropriate that a train station should serve as Parliament’s Upper Chamber. The railroad was essential for Confederation by spreading economic wealth, while the Senate ensured Canada’s regional and minority interests were protected.
“Within these walls we will continue to debate issues that reflect the challenges of our time … a forward-looking institution with the interest of future generations always uppermost in our minds,” Furey said.
The century-old building began life as Ottawa’s Union Station, linked by underground tunnel to the Château Laurier that opened at the same time across Rideau Street.
When the trains stopped arriving in 1966 (a few years after Elvis Presley alighted to play a 1957 concert at the old Ottawa Auditorium), the building was converted to the Government Conference Centre.
Diamond Schmitt Architects of Toronto and KWC Architects of Ottawa oversaw the project, which involved adding a floor inside the cavernous main hall that increased floor space by 40 per cent. The building also received a seismic upgrade and new mechanical systems to replace its existing services which had fallen into disrepair.
Steeped in history
Ottawa’s Union Station was modeled after New York’s magnificent Penn Station, which was demolished in 1963. Union Station nearly suffered the same fate when Ottawa’s train station opened on Tremblay Road in 1966. “Saving this station was really the birth of the heritage movement in North America,” said Rob Wright, assistant deputy minister for the parliamentary precinct for Public Services and Procurement Canada.
The building served as the tourist welcome centre during Expo 67 and then became the Government Conference Centre. It hosted federal-provincial talks that led to the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982. In recent years, however, it had rarely been used.
The senate’s “Plan B”
The conference centre wasn’t the first choice for the Senate’s temporary home. The first plan was to build a glass-covered chamber in the courtyard of East Block, mirroring the House of Commons’ temporary digs across the parliamentary lawn in West Block. Senators settled on the conference centre as a cheaper alternative, said Sen. Scott Tannas of the Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration.
When the Senate moves back to Centre Block, the temporary home will be available for other uses.
MPs will still have to attend the Senate for special occasions like the speech from the throne. But it won’t be as simple as walking down the hall.
“It’s not an insurmountable problem,” Tannas said. “It’ll probably be cause for some entertainment the first time you have the Black Rod jump in a cab to come down Wellington Street to bang on the door,” he joked.
The mechanics of how that will happen is up to the speakers of the House and the Senate. “It will all be worked out,” he said.
Let there be light!
For the first time in decades, natural light floods into the Senate of Canada building through its gorgeous arched “Diocletian” windows.
“For the last 60 years, the windows were blocked off,” said Martin Davidson of Diamond Schmitt Architects. Workers removed the covering, replaced the many broken window panes and refurbished the framework.
The original chandeliers were also retrieved from storage and refitted with LED lighting to improve energy efficiency.
Let there not be noise!
One of the most beautiful elements of the main hall are enormous photo reproductions on the walls depicting iconic scenes such as the Valley of the Ten Peaks in Banff National Park. The photos are there for function as well as form. They are reproduced by thousands of tiny holes in a bronze wall backed by sound-proofing material. The holes absorb sound, deadening the echo and making conversations easier to hear.
Another unanticipated noise problem occurred in the Senate chamber itself. Mock Senate sessions revealed noise bleed into the chamber from the secondary security screening area outside. Public Works is scrambling to install a noise baffle to fix the problem before the Senate begins sitting in the new year. Senators agreed Thursday to delay their first session in their new home until Feb.19 so the problem can be fixed.
The Senate of Canada Building is more accessible to the disabled than its former Centre Block home. Elevators have been upgraded, more stairwells have been added and Braille signage put in place. And for the first time, Senators will be competing head-to-head with Netflix in Canadians’ homes. Beginning in March, sessions in the upper chamber will be televised for the first time.
“You’ll have a more open Senate that’s more accessible to the public,” said Sen. Raymonde Saint-Germain. “I know that some of the more senior senators are attached to the old chamber, but to me, this building means modernity.”