It's called the Government Conference Centre and as the ridiculously boring name suggests, it hosts federal government conferences. The building is off limits to the public for all but two days a year, which is a shame considering what an enduring beauty this building is. Those who know Ottawa's history know the Government Conference Centre as the old Union Station, once Ottawa's showpiece train station. The old building is unmistakable right in the heart of the capital, beside the Rideau Canal, just east of the National War Memorial, steps from Parliament Hill and across the street from its from its former railway colleague, the Château Laurier.
although its former rooftop dome and eastern facade have been ruined by
poor renovation decisions made in the 1960s.
The history of the old station dates back to the early 1900s, when the Grand Trunk began construction of the building after the railway received a charter from the city to build a unified station for each railway. It was intended to be a passenger depot for all railways serving Ottawa, including the Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, the Grand Trunk and the New York Central, although not all railways used the station at first. The station opened for business in 1912 on the same day that its railway counterpart, the Château Laurier, opened across the street. Both buildings opened with little fanfare, since the Grand Trunk's president, Charles Melville Hays, died aboard the Titantic a few months before the buildings were complete. Hays was the visionary behind the buildings. As I mentioned in a previous post, it is widely speculated in Ottawa that the spirit of Mr. Hays haunts the Chateau Laurier.
The station saw its last train in July of 1966 when the city removed the last of its rail network from the central portion of the city, as part of an urban renewal plan. The station was in danger of being torn down until heritage activists fought to preserve it. The building then became an exhibition hall for Canada's centennial before sitting vacant for year until it became the conference centre.
A number of plans have been floated about to bring the building back into public use, including an attempt to locate Canada's Sports Hall of Fame there and another attempt to convert it into a political museum.
Nothing has happened and it continues to be off limits to the public with the exception of the two days a year when it is opened for Doors Open Ottawa.
This is the best part of the station (below) the so-called Waiting Room, which was inspired by the ancient Roman Baths of Caracalla.
This is the window facing east. You will notice at the bottom of the photo some ominous looking windows. These are translation booths that are used for government meetings. The Waiting Room has a few of these booths, which serve as an odd juxtaposition to the classical architecture. Imagine waiting for your train here when this place was actually a station.
Underneath Rideau Street, a beautiful tunnel was constructed to allow passengers to walk to the Château Laurier Hotel (see below). The tunnel wasn't opened for the event, sadly.
If you go to the Laurier, you will see a copy of a letter from Charles Melville Hays to Laurier, assuring him that the hotel that bears his name will be a proper tribute to the former prime minister.
Those who know Ottawa's history know that Laurier was more than a little uneasy about plans to name a hotel after him. However, he allowed it to happen and the rest is history.
Looking across the street from the station, you can see a gravel pathway (bottom right of photo) that was the former right-of-way that led to the Alexandria Bridge that carried trains over the Ottawa River to Hull and then on to Montreal. You can also see the train shed that is now part of the Chateau Laurier's parking lot on the bottom right as well. Those locks are the Bytown Locks, the beginning of the Rideau Canal.
When you first enter the railway station, this is what you see, looking up. The concrete above the entrance used to read Union Station.
There are plenty of reminders of the old station's history inside, including this banner at the front staircase that leads down to the Waiting Room.
There is also this interesting series of paintings (below) that chronicles the railway's influence across the country. I thought this was a classy touch.
Here's a look at the back of the station in busier times (below). You can make out Parliament Hill on the left and the Château Laurier directly behind the arched windows of the station in the centre of the image.
There were talks that the city's light rail commuter network, which will one day operate beneath the downtown in two parallel tunnels, should use the old station as the main downtown commuter stop. Sadly, this idea was shot down, which will leave the chronically underused building off limits to the public.
One wonders how Ottawa might be different today if trackage was left in place along the east side of the canal and the old station continued to operate. Ask people living along Colonel By Drive now if they would prefer a busy parkway with steady traffic throughout the day or a rail line with the occasional passenger train. I know which option I would choose.