Thursday, April 9, 2015

Act Four for Ottawa's old Union Station

Ottawa's old Union Station is about to get a new lease on life. Again. The 103-year-old building, which served as the city's central passenger station until 1966, is about to undergo a $190-million rehabilitation to ensure the heritage structure is ready for its new task: housing the Senate of Canada.

In the fall, work began to clear what is known as the Government Conference Centre of all its employees so that the entire building could undergo much needed repairs. Anyone who has been inside this building for federal budget media locks-ups (like me) knows the building is tired. A number of ill-advised modifications made in the 1970s have hurt the building's aesthetics while a number of other much-needed modifications have been delayed.

Read about the interior of the station in this post.

The overdue renovations to the old Union Station were helped by the fact that Parliament Hill's Centre Block will soon undergo major renovations and rehabilitation, which will require the Senate Chamber to be vacated. That means the Senate will need a temporary home. That home will be in the old Union Station. The building's central Waiting Room has enough room to house the Senate and has played host to national political debates over the years.

This new function marks the third time this building has been selected for national duty following its use as a station. When tracks were removed from central Ottawa, the old station was in danger of being torn down, but was saved by heritage conscious citizens who fought for the structure's future.

The station was initially saved due to Canada's Centennial in 1967 when it was used as a home to a Canadian heritage display.

Amid questions over its future, the federal government converted the old station in a conference centre for all sorts of government uses. Unfortunately, that meant that the building was no longer open to the public. It is opened to the public for a couple of days a year as part of the Doors Open Ottawa event, although that will not be the case this year as the building is being fenced off.

I took a stroll around the old station on April 8 over my lunch hour to get some shots of the work being done. The shot below shows the east façade of the building. You can see the fencing is already up. This shot also shows the difference between the outer façade of the building the brick face of the inner parts of the building.

On the Rideau Canal side, I took a few shots of the old right-of-way. This is what engineers would have seen on their approach (although they would have been under the train sheds at this point). Of course, the trees, fencing, stone work and lamp posts were not there in the railway days. The tunnel beneath Wellington Street allowed trains to pass by the Chateau Laurier and over the Alexandria Bridge to Hull. That bridge is now used for cars and trucks.

Here's a shot from 1964 that shows what the approach to the station looked like in the waning days of the rail along the canal (Canada Science and Technology Museum collection). You can just make out the station through the haze.

Here's a shot of the west façade of the station today.

And another shot. As I mentioned, in the railway days, there were sheds for passengers disembarking from passenger trains, but they ended before trains emerged into daylight. Passengers would have seen these windows when their trains approached the Wellington Street bridge.

Here's a 1964 shot of a westbound CPR passenger train about to emerge from the sheds (Canada Science and Technology Museum archives). It is stationed right about the same spot where I took the photo above.

Now compare the top image in this post with a 1920s aerial, taken from Parliament Hill (Library and Archives Canada image). Note that the building itself is little changed except for the absence of the sheds. In the top image, you can just make out tiny glimpse of Ottawa's Shaw Centre, the city's major conference and events centre.

Before I finished my tour, I took a shot of the old station from the Mackenzie King Bridge. It's easy to imagine this is a functional station. You can also see the Chateau Laurier directly behind the old station.

Here's a shot, below, likely taken from Laurier Avenue, from an earlier vintage. A lot has changed since then, including the construction of the Mackenzie King bridge, which was the spot where I took the above shot. The freight sheds are gone along with the tracks. Also, the buildings to the right of the old station are mostly gone, replaced by Ottawa's Westin Hotel, the Rideau Centre mall and Shaw Centre. That rail yard has mostly been replaced by the Nicholas Street arterial road that feeds the Queensway and the University of Ottawa campus. Shot below is from the Canada Science and Technology Museum archives.

According to the government, the old station will begin housing the Senate in 2018, which means the renovation of this building will require years of work. The building needs new electrical and sprinkler systems, new plumbing fixture, new stone work and a host of other upgrades including removal of hazardous material (read into that what you will). Happily, some of the 1970s additions, including hideously ugly translations booths, will be removed, allowing the building's original features to be fully visible in the Waiting Room. Among the other curious items needing to be addressed will be the restoration of a skylight, which was painted over at some point in the building's past.

Special thanks to fellow blogger Eric Gagnon of Trackside Treasure for helping find the last photo in this post

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