Sir John A. Macdonald Building in Ottawa reopens

exterior of transformed sir john a. macdonald building
exterior of transformed sir john a. macdonald building
This summer, the Sir John A. Macdonald Building on Confederation Boulevard, across from Parliament Hill, reopened. The revitalized banking hall, in the former Bank of Montreal, will serve as large meeting and ceremonial space for official Parliament of Canada receptions. The project—which includes the adaptive reuse of the bank along with a new addition—was completed by NORR Limited with Ottawa-based heritage consultants MTBA.

Reimagining one of Canada’s premiere examples of modern classicism was not an easy endeavour. To change the building’s function from serving bank customers to serving the ceremonial needs of Parliament, innovative approaches and gentle treatment of its heritage character were required.

The original building was constructed at the corner of Wellington and O’Connor Streets, on a site occupied by the Bank of Montreal since 1871. It was a fitting location for the first Ottawa branch of the firm that served as the banker of the government of the Province of Canada in 1863, and then as the banker of the new Dominion government in 1867. Despite the Great Depression, the building was completed in 1932. Ernest Barott of Montreal’s Barott & Blackader was awarded the Gold Medal for architectural excellence from the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada for the building’s design.

ample natural daylight floods the interior
ample natural daylight floods the interior
The Transformation
Although it became a Crown-owned asset under the custodianship of Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) in 1973, the building continued to operate as a bank until 2005. Through the Long Term Vision and Plan (LTVP) for the Parliamentary Precinct, PWGSC began to envision a new use for the traditional temple-style bank.

The building’s future was tied to developments on Parliament Hill. As part of the rehabilitation of the West Block under the LTVP, a space that had served as the parliamentary ceremonial room since the 1960s is now being reverted to much-needed office space, creating the need for a replacement space.

“The Sir John A. Macdonald Building, located steps from the West Block and dominated by the main banking hall, seemed like the perfect fit to fill this need. The challenge would be to restore and repurpose the aging building and make it usable,” says Ezio DiMillo, Director General, Parliamentary Precinct Branch, PWGSC.

The heritage building needed a full restoration, including the replacement of outdated structural, seismic, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and life-safety systems. While the restoration would ensure the preservation of a superior work of architecture, extra space was needed to provide supplementary meeting rooms and essential support functions for the parliamentary facility, including a loading dock, mechanical rooms and food services. These functions could not be accommodated in the heritage building. As a result, a 3,100-square-metre annex was constructed in a parking lot adjacent to the west side of the building.

“We approached the assignment with a high degree of respect for the unique qualities of the heritage building,” explains NORR design principal David Clusiau. “We started with an analysis of its underlying principles and detailed character and used this to inform our approach to the new work. The result is clearly contemporary, but using similar noble materials and a compositional strategy developed from the earlier analysis helped us achieve an overall result that is complementary and harmonious. We would like to think that people will appreciate the old building more by having this new building beside it.”

The Decorative Inspiration
The decorative program in the heritage building includes friezes, cornices and carvings that depict Canadian motifs such as the provincial coats of arms, as well as regional flora and fauna. These elements underwent careful restoration. They also provided inspiration for contemporary decorative elements in the design of the new block. Stone reinforces the hierarchy of spaces in the heritage building as well as demarcating the ceremonial circulation experience in the new block. Carved Canadian Eramosa panels are arranged along this route, cut in striated and fleuri patterns. In the heart of the atrium, stairs spiral around a signature piece of red Cape Breton stone.

The modern decorative layer is further expressed in a bronze grid that runs across the exterior of the addition. “The bronze inlay between the stones and windows was a very subtle thing in the drawings, but it has turned out to be a very convincing, expressive decorative treatment on the building,” says Clusiau.

One of the key aspects of the restoration was the reuse of existing heritage materials. Queenston limestone, salvaged from the demolition of a building wall, was reused to repair the exterior of the heritage building. The Breche Porter marble from the tellers’ counters was reused as countertops in meeting rooms and on benches. And the door to the vault (now a meeting room) was preserved as a reminder of the building’s past.

The Challenges
One of the challenges of repurposing the heritage building was the significant change in its heating and cooling requirements. When functioning as a bank, the grand hall would typically have held 30 to 40 people at a time. As a ceremonial space, it is designed to hold over 500 people. This was addressed by installing a cooling system in the banking hall slab as well as ventilation outlets concealed in custom benches around the perimeter. This minimizes impact on the heritage fabric and employs a strategy where only the first three occupied metres of the 18 metre-high room are controlled. To control acoustics in the hard-surfaced former banking hall, electronic systems and removable acoustic panelling were integrated into the geometry of the space.

The Exemplary Adaptive Reuse
The completion of the Sir John A. Macdonald Building marks a milestone in the ongoing rehabilitation of the buildings within the Parliamentary Precinct. “I can’t imagine another building near Parliament Hill that would be better suited to this adaptive reuse. We were able to provide needed ceremonial space and preserve a heritage building while taking full advantage of its unique character and qualities,” says Mr. DiMillo of PWGSC.

For Jonathan Hughes, executive vice-president at NORR, the melding of the heritage and contemporary aspects of the completed complex is a uniquely appropriate expression of its new use: “As the precursor to the Bank of Canada, the original heritage building is a part of Canadian history. It has been preserved yet transformed into a contemporary new use. Like Canada, its future is embedded and intertwined with its past, and I don’t think you could find a building more perfectly suited to honour Canadians and host our international guests.”

This article was written by Rob Wright, the Assistant Deputy Minister of the Parliamentary Precinct Branch at PWGSC.