Restoring the threatened beauty of classic building interiors

Photo: KWC Architects

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Special to The Globe and Mail, by Wallace Immen

When it opened in 1912, Ottawa’s Union Station was an architectural delight that led passengers through a procession of palatial rooms to board a train. But by the time the railways moved out of downtown in 1966, tastes had changed.

Like many ornate civic buildings and temples of finance that suddenly seemed old-fashioned, it sat empty and faced demolition. The Beaux Arts-style station on Rideau Street managed to get a second life as a government convention centre, although its ornate interiors became obscured by partitions and translation booths and it was criticized for its lack of climate control and poor acoustics, says Martin Davidson, principal of Diamond Schmitt Architects.

“It wasn’t difficult making a list of what needed to be done because everything needed to be upgraded” when the company, along with Ottawa-based KWC Architects, began strategizing a total restoration in 2014, Mr. Davidson recalls.

“There were challenges with ventilation, universal accessibility and hazardous-waste remediation, and it needed a full mechanical and electrical renovation. On top of that, the building had deteriorated over 100 years and there were holes in the ceilings where birds were getting in,” he says.

But its beautiful coffered ceilings and decorative trims could be revived with application of enough tender loving care.

A multiyear restoration that transformed the station into the chambers and offices of the Senate of Canada has just received top honours for government buildings in the 2021 International Architecture Awards, a juried program that had 450 global candidates.

The challenges the project faced are one reason many architecturally significant buildings from the early 20th century ended up demolished or having only their façades saved, says Jan Kubanek, a Montreal-based senior conservation architect with ERA Architects. “Generally, interiors are fragile, and they were built for a very specific purpose and function, making them difficult to convert for other uses. That’s certainly true of movie palaces of the 1920s and 30s, which is why so many of them are empty or have been lost.”

But there has been a generational shift in appreciation of landmark interiors and increasingly there is a public outcry if beautiful and significant interiors are threatened with destruction, Mr. Kubanek says.

An early example is the art moderne Round Room in the former Eaton College Street store that was restored in 2003 – after sitting empty for many years – into an event space known as the Carlu.

ERA advised on the restoration of that interior that had an historic designation, but a heritage status doesn’t always guarantee a building will be conserved, Mr. Kubanek says.

“Buildings owned by the federal government have a very different system of designation and protection and they will definitely include interiors in these designations, which was fortunate for Ottawa’s Union Station” when the opportunity came to use it as the home of the Senate of Canada during a decade-long reconstruction of the Centre Block.

Installing modern technology in buildings from a simpler era can pose unique challenges, says Ralph Wiesbrock, partner and principal of KWC Architects Inc., which collaborated with Diamond Schmitt on the Ottawa restoration.

The station’s concourse that was destined to be the Senate chambers was a very lofty space that originally had no heating or air conditioning and has an ornate vaulted ceiling with a skylight for illumination. Its concrete floor that led to the train platforms was also sloped and originally had retail kiosks and phone booths lining its walls.

“It was a challenge to find places to put ductwork, conduits and cables without doing irreversible damage and it became a three-dimensional planning exercise. There was lots of crawling around in the shallow barrel-vaulted attic space to see where we could fit ductwork and figure out how to put lights and sprinkler systems into the coffered ceiling as unobtrusively as possible,” Mr. Wiesbrock says.

Accessibility upgrades were challenging as well, in a building whose entrance is several steps higher than the sidewalk on Rideau Street and had extensive staircases between interior spaces.

An army of restoration specialists had to be recruited. “There was a really amazing level of engagement by the fabricators, artists, technical people and contractors on the project,” Mr. Davidson says. “The station was built at a time when materials were expensive and labour was cheap, almost the reverse of what we have today, so the walls had faux travertine finishes, rather than actual stone, that had to be restored and repainted with conservation techniques.”

The restoration became an amazing scene with workers on scaffolds repairing the plaster ceilings while others were installing new wood carvings and metal panels that are perforated to improve the space’s acoustic quality and are decorated with historic scenes of Canada, he adds. A recurring theme is maple leaves, with three-dimensional carvings of different species that reflect light from different angles. The reconstruction has also filled in a blank exterior wall that had been covered with stucco when a former hotel that butted against the station was demolished in the 1970s. “The new exterior section that replaced it is clearly modern in its sensibility and materials, and yet is absolutely based on the composition and principles of the building, with deep insets and clear sense of columns and bays and depth and shadow. It builds on the original architecture,” Mr. Davidson adds. “A corner of the front had also never been completed and we were able to take measurements from the opposite side to complete it.”

The Senate, which moved into the restored space in 2019, is destined to move back to Parliament Hill by the end of the decade once the extensive renovation of Centre Block is complete. But the restored buildings offices and meeting spaces in the restored train station have been designed to be compatible with other government functions when the Senate moves out, Mr. Wiesbrock says.

The Senate chamber may pose challenges for reuse because it is the most bespoke space, but the design allows for removing some of the Senate-specific elements so the room can be redesigned for other purposes, he explains.

“We were particularly proud of solving the challenge of achieving the kind of beauty and functionality that weaves together the building’s prominent heritage. As architects, we are synthesizers and to see it all come together through all the technical challenges is very satisfying,” Mr. Wiesbrock says.

“Even though we had worked on this for years, on the opening day we walked back in there and said ‘Wow!’ We were all fortunate to be part of a project this significant. It will have a long life ahead of it.”

 

Related Reading:

Former Union Station is New Senate of Canada | Heritage Ottawa Newsletter, by Carolyn Quinn | May 2019

Union Station — 50 Years | 50 Stories | Heritage Ottawa