Decorative arts and finishes

Collection Spotlight

Decorative arts and finishes

It is called the “Jewel in the Crown of Parliament Hill,” the “grand old lady,” the “wedding cake” and “Canada’s most beautiful room.” This architectural wonder is the Main Library.

The Main Library will be closed for the next 10 years while Centre Block receives a facelift that includes restoration, rehabilitation and upgrades. You can follow the rehabilitation of the parliamentary buildings on the Government of Canada website. The Library continues to support Parliament from five new or renovated branches located throughout the Parliamentary Precinct.

This section lets you explore some unique architectural details of the Main Library while the building is closed.

Story of the Library 

Soon after Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the permanent seat for the Parliament of Canada, the Department of Public Works invited architects to submit designs for the Parliament Buildings. Alpheus Todd, the Librarian of the Legislative Assembly at the time, proposed some ideas for the design of the Library. His suggestions, which were influenced by Edward Edwards’ Memoirs of Libraries and the recently built Reading Room in the British Museum, included:

  • a circular or polygonal shape so that the contents of the Library could be seen in one view;
  • a domed ceiling with skylights;
  • alcoves and tiered galleries;
  • separation from the main Parliament Buildings by a corridor; and
  • fireproofing elements.

Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones won the competition and began construction of the Parliament Buildings in December 1859. The Library building construction lasted until 1876. Its interior finishes were completed by 1878.

 Architectural style

The Library is an example of High Victorian Gothic Revival. This architectural style was popular in England late in the 19th century. Inspired by medieval architecture, it is eclectic and highly romantic, using multicoloured decoration and multiple textures.

The ornate exterior, for example, shows off three types of sandstone. The circular wall is surrounded by 16 flying buttresses topped with pinnacles. A lantern dome roof caps the structure.

Inside, the spacious reading room rises to an impressive 40-m domed ceiling. Its walls are surrounded by richly sculpted white pine panels. The overall impression is reminiscent of a medieval chapter house.

Built to last

The Library of Parliament is the only section of the original Parliament Buildings to survive the fire of 1916. Because of Alpheus Todd’s original fireproofing specifications, the quick thinking of a Library clerk to shut the iron doors spared the Library – and Canada – from a devastating loss.

In 1952, however, an electrical fire in the domed ceiling badly damaged the Library’s interior. The Library was closed for nearly four years for restoration. The wood panelling was carefully dismantled, then sent to Montréal for cleaning and fireproofing. A replica of the cherry, oak and walnut parquet floor was installed.

By the late 1990s, the Library had lost some of its original lustre and function as a reading room. The once multicoloured ironwork was now a uniform black and the original light-filtering glass floors of the galleries had been removed. The interior was now a cluttered open office space.

After careful planning, the Library closed again between 2002 and 2006. The work restored the Library to its original Victorian splendor and upgraded the infrastructure to meet modern standards. 

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