The widespread public outcry against a proposed addition to Ottawa's Château Laurier, presented last week by Larco Investments, clearly demonstrates that passions for this beloved heritage structure run high.
With its architectural style echoing French chateaus of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Château Laurier has been a cherished icon since the hotel first opened its doors in 1912. Today, the Château Laurier is federally recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada and is designated as a heritage building under Part IV of the Ontario Heritage Act.
So how, many wonder, can such an overtly modern addition to this heritage-designated icon even be contemplated?
The Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada states:
"Conserve the heritage value and character-defining elements when creating any new additions to an historic place or any related new construction. Make the new work physically and visually compatible with, subordinate to and distinguishable from the historic place."
The "glass lantern" on the Victoria Memorial Building at the Canadian Museum of Nature is one example of this standard successfully applied.
The credo that new additions to heritage structures should be recognized as products "of their own time" is intended, in part, to prevent an undesirable theme-park effect of mimicry or "faux historicism" where new construction might be confused with original historic fabric. Modern additions to heritage buildings can certainly be successful - but achieving visual harmony and a successful balance of contrasts between old and new is a complex, case-specific undertaking for which no recipe exists.
A compatible addition to the Château Laurier must respond sensitively to the heritage character of the original building and its exceptional site.
The Château is prominently visible not only from Wellington Street and Confederation Square, but from the adjacent Rideau Canal locks (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the Ottawa River (recently designated as a heritage river) and Major's Hill Park, among other prominent locations. These iconic views are invaluable elements of Ottawa's heritage character that deserve to be honoured, respected and preserved by sensitive height, massing and overall design of any new addition to the Château Laurier.
Heritage Ottawa is concerned that the proposed addition to the Château Laurier, as presented last week by Larco Investments, fails to satisfy the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada.
It merits clarification that while federal recognition as a National Historic Site of Canada is merely honorific and carries no specific protections, designation under the Ontario Heritage Act does invoke certain protections and procedural requirements.
As a building designated under the Ontario Heritage Act, any addition to the Château Laurier will require approval by Ottawa City Council. Owners of the Château Laurier will be required to submit a detailed heritage application to the City. The application will be assessed in accordance with Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada before proceeding to the Built Heritage Subcommittee, Planning Committee and finally Ottawa City Council for final approval.
Heritage Ottawa regularly appears at Built Heritage Subcommittee and Planning Committee meetings to comment in detail on heritage applications, and expects that the Château Laurier application will be no exception.
We recognize that the owners of the Château Laurier legitimately seek to enlarge the building's capacity, and we appreciate their proposed removal of the current parking garage in favour of newly created underground parking.
The proposed design appears to satisfy requirements of a heritage overlay to the applicable zoning regulations which states that the heights of exterior walls and roof slopes must not exceed those of the original building. We are, however, concerned that the proposed addition as currently presented is ultimately inappropriate to the heritage character of the Château Laurier and its environs.
Heritage Ottawa will continue to monitor developments regarding a proposed addition to the Château Laurier, and to advocate for a solution of architectural excellence that honours its heritage value.
Update: Read Heritage Ottawa's statement of November 27, 2016, as published in the Ottawa Citizen.