At the time this article was written Bob
Phillip's book on the East Block, first published in 1967, was about to be
Aside from the Library of Parliament, the
East Block is the only original parliament building to survive in its original
form. The cabinet met here for over one hundred years. All government
departments were originally housed in its historic rooms. In 1981, after four
years of an ambitious restoration and renovation project, the East Block was
reopened for use by members of parliament and parliamentary staff. The Canadian
Parliamentary Review does not, as a rule, reprint material. However, too strict
adherence to that principle would deprive our readers of the odd pearl to be
found in the most unusual places. This article originally appeared in The
Review, published by Imperial Oil Limited. It is reprinted with permission.
What is the most historic building in
Canada? The oldest? The reconstructed splinters of some ancient structure built
at the trailing edge of history? Or is it the place where the greatest part of
our history was unravelled?
That claim belongs to Parliament Hill in
Ottawa: not to the Centre Block, where the House of Commons and Senate sit
beneath the Peace Tower, but to a Victorian Gothic pile officially named the
Eastern Departmental Building.
In the rooms of the East Block, Canada was
shaped during the century that followed Confederation. Its corridors were the
corridors of power. Its stairways were worn by the footsteps of Canadian
history. "I had heard about the famous East Block before 1 went to work
there in 1949," Prime Minister Trudeau recalls, "and 1 wondered if
the legends about it were true. Years later, after working there as prime
minister, 1 still wondered."
This year the East Block emerges from the
most ambitious historic restoration Canada has ever undertaken. For those who
search, ghosts of our uncertain beginnings hover in the Privy Council chamber,
where the vision of a Canadian nation was once discussed by dreamers. The
offices of Sir John A. Macdonald and the prime ministers who succeeded him have
paused in time at 1872. The quarters where the vice-regal presence long made
itself grandly felt have been rescued from the flotsam and later bureaucracy.
The East Block is one of four buildings that
once stood on Parliament Hill. It is the only one that survives in recognizable
form. The Centre Block was destroyed by fire in 1916. The interior of the West
Block was gutted by misguided renovators 20 years ago.
The Supreme Court Building was levelled half
a dozen years earlier to create another parking lot for bureaucrats. The East
Block, showing signs of senile decay, was occasionally threatened with
demolition or at least modernization. Then good sense prevailed to create a
remarkably successful combination of national political shrine and efficient
The East Block was the offspring of a bold
generation. Canada's new seat of government was planned on a remarkably
ambitious scale. In a roistering frontier lumber town was created the most
grandiose cathedral to parliamentary democracy ever built outside Westminster.
In today's terms, it would be like constructing our largest national structure
in northernmost Manitoba.
There was nothing pusillanimous or slow
about those early planners. The news that Queen Victoria had selected Ottawa as
the capital of united Canada was received in the colony, with a mixture of
wonder and disbelief, in 1858. By May 1859 advertisements were inviting
architects to submit plans for a "plain, substantial style of
At breakneck speed, the department of public
works awarded a contract to Jones, Haycock and Clarke for 5278,8 10. The first
sod was turned before Christmas; work began in earnest the following spring. On
a notoriously difficult site, there had been no test borings, no exploration of
the fissures or cavities. Four years of mounting costs, mismanagement and
scandal were to follow. Finally, in 1864, the government itself took over
construction, and on June 8, 1866, Parliament sat for the first time in the
By now the East Block was four years behind
schedule, but at the end of 1866 the last workman departed. Once estimated at
$150,000, the bill had climbed to $706,549 for an L-shaped structure. In 19 10
a new wing costing $359,121 filled in the present rectangle. Since then various
other alterations have been made, almost all of them bad.
While architecture is singularly vulnerable
to changing fashions, it is difficult to comprehend the cheerful vandalism of
successive generations. The biggest changes came after World War 11, when the
bureaucracy was exploding.
The main entranceway, under the Southwest
Tower, was gutted and fitted with oak doorways styled after fashionable
suburbia. The elegant cage elevator was torn out for the modern grace of
concrete block walls. The governor general's entrance was cemented up to
accommodate a bureaucrat in suitable splendour. The prime minister's entrance
received a new inner doorway slashing across a fine stained-glass window. The
main corridor, terminating in a Gothic window, was blocked off for an office.
Fireplaces were eliminated with jackhammers. Washbasins, which once gave a near
godliness to the offices of senior officials, were yanked out; a couple were
saved when, according to legend, the occupants chained themselves to the
plumbing. Wires festooned the corridors and fluorescent fixtures dangled
everywhere. It was the spirit of an age that created its own bright blossoms
with no sense of roots.
The vandalism was checked, and in 1966 Prime
Minister Pearson was persuaded that the East Block was a national treasure and
authorized some limited restoration. The Privy Council chamber was shorn of
many of its later embellishments to reveal the beauty of its earlier days.
Although the governor-general's office and the vice-regal entrance were
apparently beyond recovery, the stately stairway connecting them was restored,
along with the offices of Sir John A. Macdonald and the prime minister. A book
on the history of the building was published.
Most important, the public was allowed
entry. for the first time since Confederation. It was a small and hard-won
victory. Visitors were permitted entry for only a few hours on weekends, but
even this was fought by a bureaucracy that found comfort in its unassailable
walls. Now the public was discovering its past. The department of public works,
long an archvandal, was being transformed into one of the most historically
sensitive landlords in Canada.
In the early, days there seemed to be
infinite space inside the East Block. All departments of government were housed
in it and in the West Block across the hill. Emblems such as wheat sheaves were
carved in stone to indicate the various departments, as though they would never
change. The architecture of each office reflected the hierarchy. Ministers
rated a large office with a marble or stone fireplace, marble basin and
ceilings with rows of richly decorated molding. Senior bureaucrats might claim
decorated cornices, but without coloured floral patterns. A clerk might have
only machine made woodwork, possibly with a concrete fireplace. The planners
assumed that the civil service would never expand. They were wrong.
In the early days life was gracious. On
Thursday afternoons the wives of ministers and senior officials called for tea
by the fireplace. It is also told that in a less hurried era the clerk of the
Privy Council and his secretary regularly Sat by the open fireplace playing
double solitaire. Working hours were ten to four, with two hours for lunch.
It was gracious but chilly. The main source
of heat was to be an elaborate hot air system with a primitive form of air
conditioning. When it was tested on completion, a report noted with
satisfaction that by burning four cords of wood a day, in cold weather a
temperature of 50 degrees could generally be maintained. Even this modest
standard could not be counted on, and the occupants suffered miserably in
winter. Summer was better, but, alas, the air ducts on the side of Parliament
Hill were closed off during World War 1 for fear that German spies, with
nothing better to do, might enter them.
In many ways the East Block was a model of
the modern technology of its time. It had a system of electric bells for
communication. Its sanitary, ventilating and even heating arrangements were
said to be unsurpassed in North America.
The first telephone came to the East Block
in 1882, but it travelled a rocky path. Five years before, the first commercial
telephone in Canada was installed between the office of Alexander Mackenzie
(the only prime minister to use the West Block) and Rideau Hall. Mackenzie
became frustrated with the newfangled gadget and ordered it removed forever.
Exercising a governor-general's prerogative much more potent in those days,
Lord Dufferin countermanded the order because his wife liked to have Captain
Goudreau of the marine department sing to her from Mackenzie's office, while
she accompanied him on a vice-regal piano.
Despite the meticulously planned
architecture to accommodate persons of every rank and station, no office was
created for the prime minister. It was assumed that this would be a part-time
function of someone already holding a portfolio and therefore an office. Sir
John A. Macdonald, as minister of justice and attorney general, worked at the
southwest corner of the second floor. The room was used by successive cabinet
ministers, including Lester Pearson and the secretaries of state for external
affairs who succeeded him.
At the northern end of this west wing is the
office first used by Georges Etienne Cartier and later by every prime minister
from Laurier to Trudeau. Mackenzie King had the longest tenancy. It was his
habit to disappear to a nearby room for a box lunch and a nap. Because
supplicants might collar the prime minister on his considerable walk to a
washroom, it was proposed that plumbing be installed adjacent to his office.
King bridled at the large expense of putting pipes through two feet of masonry
walls. After long delay the prime minister finally gave way to human frailty.
Governor-generals, from Viscount Morick to
the Earl of Athlone, also had to let sumptuous decor compensate for
inconvenience. Their washroom was off a public stairway, but there they had a
private bathtub. The governor-general's levee was held in the East Block from
its inception in 1870 until Lord Willingdon moved it in 1928 to the Centre
Block. The governor-general ceased to use the East Block in 1942. By then his
direct role in government had long since dwindled, and some one else wanted the
office space. "As principal secretary to Prime Minister Trudeau,"
Marc Lalonde remembers, I worked in that office. The vice-regal splendor had
long since gone. When I looked at the stacks of papers, But Diefenbaker did
introduce what was perhaps the filing cabinets and telephones, 1 sometimes
thought the greatest break with tradition. "For 90 years," says how
pleasant life must have been for Lord Dufferin."
The historic heart of the East Block is the
Privy Council chamber, where the cabinet met, and the adjoining anteroom. The
chamber is surprisingly small, and it may be that its dimensions influenced
prime ministers in holding down the size of the cabinet, which grew from 10 in
Macdonald's time to more than 30 more recently.
"One of my vivid memories as a minister
was the Privy Council chamber," says George Hees. "It was a museum
where history had been made, but we were still making history there and lively
history it often was. In early times one may infer some conviviality from the
surviving accounts for wines and spirits. Prime Minister Bennett was not
convivial. He exercised the full authority of the chair and even used the
chamber occasionally as an office to which he would summon ministers for
accounting. An aspect of Mackenzie King's austere domination was his refusal to
let anyone smoke in his presence. During long cabinet sessions, heavy smokers
would excuse themselves to consult the statutes lining the walls of the
anteroom. There the air was blue.
At the first cabinet meeting over which he
presided, St. Laurent symbolized his gentler approach to human weakness when he
lit a cigarette. He also had the chamber air conditioned so that no one would
be bothered by, smoke. Bother or not, Diefenbaker tolerated no smoking in his
presence. The anteroom was popular again.
But Diefenbaker did introduce what was
perhaps the greatest break with tradition. "For 90 years," says Ellen
Fairclough, "the Privy Council chamber was the most exclusive men's club
in Canada. As the first woman cabinet minister to enter it, 1 could imagine the
puzzled frowns of those who met in this room nearly a century before.
Fortunately, there was no hint of dismay on the part of my colleagues."
The cabinet met here for 105 years, though
in more recent times it met also in the Centre Block when the House was
sitting. Today it is a room of historic ghosts. In this place, In 1866, the
proposed British North America Act was considered. It was probably in this
room, on July 1, 1867, that Viscount Monck administered the oath of office to
Macdonald and his cabinet before they joined the throngs celebrating
Confederation on the hill. Here the elusive national dream was clutched in
successive crises of transcontinental railway building, and the fateful
decisions were made in response to the Riel uprising. When Canada was mobilized
for two world wars, the government, meeting here, felt the shuddering of the
nation. More cabinet crises were weathered here than history has recorded. Jean
Chrétien remembers walking into the chamber for his first cabinet meeting.
"Here was the room where so many decisions vital to our nation had been
taken, where so many dramas had been played out. And I thought to myself, 'This
is a long way from Shawinigan.' "
The East Block tends to have that awing effect
on some of its inhabitants. "I have never walked in the East Block,"
says Flora Macdonald, "without being overtaken by a sense of history. It
is strange how wood and stone can be so constantly alive with the muted voices
of Sir John A. Macdonald and all the makers of Canada who followed him.
The East Block was traditionally a hotbed
where outstanding young men and women were nurtured for high positions in
public life. J.W. Pickersgill was one. He served as secretary to the prime
minister, secretary to the cabinet and then for many, years was himself a
minister. Attitudes to the building of his day, were less romantic. "Most
of us took the East Block for granted. We saw nothing remarkable about working
in the same offices, sometimes with the same furniture, used by all our leading
statesmen since Confederation. Nor did we stop to reflect that the people we
were working with would themselves someday join that historic company. There is
an attic room where four young men once shared a cramped space below the roof.
All were destined to become ambassadors. Two were to head the department of
external affairs. One became prime minister. "There was nothing of the
traditional foreign office glamour," Pearson recalled. "There were
bats beneath the roof and darkness in the corridors."
With its reopening, the East Block has
rejoined the stream of history. The departments once housed in it are
scattered, and the office of the prime minister is in the restored Langevin
Block across the street. The East Block has become part of Parliament itself,
reserved for the use of ministers, members of Parliament, senators and
Its character has re-emerged. The famous
corridors have been stripped of their modern paint and festoons of wires to
return to the muted tones and handsome woodwork of earlier days. Callously
blocked entrances are open again. 'The concrete block elevator shafts have met
the fate they deserved, to be replaced with modern equipment hidden from the
sometimes exuberant, sometimes brooding Victorian decor. Sunlight again filters
through stained glass onto the great stairways. All the lighting in public
places is an adaptation of the original gas fixtures, with the efficiency and
safety of electricity. The five historic rooms are preserved in a moment of
time, chosen as 1872.
The vandalism of the years left few clues
for the restorers: chips of early paint here, a few inches of original rug
there, early black and white photos of furniture and fixtures. When a sloppy
workman of long ago concealed a sagging floor with a scrap of carpet, he
inadvertently left the only evidence of the pattern, colour and style of the
original rugs, from which new floor coverings could be manufactured. Even the
most historic furniture had, for the most part, been stolen, destroyed or
otherwise lost. Restorers combed Parliament Hill looking for pieces. Their task
was made more difficult by the fact that until recently no detailed, up-to-date
records had been kept on these incalculably valuable furnishings – a situation
that has now been corrected.
The office of the governor-general, lost for
40 years, has re-emerged in startling elegance for public view. The original
desk and chairs, happily kept in Rideau Hall, have been brought back to their
rightful place. The ornate plaster, the fireplace, the windows are as they used
to be, and even the view across Parliament Hill to the West Block is little
changed since the days of Lord Dufferin.
So it is in the office of Sir John A. Macdonald.
The fine blue-grey Arnprior marble fireplace has reappeared from the
cream-coloured latex paint with which one of the last occupants had it coated.
Sir John's furniture, from desk to coal basket, is back. Cartier's office, used
by prime ministers for nearly a century, was constantly losing its furniture.
Now the pieces from the 1870s have been put in place, even to the desk lamp
with its cumbersome umbilical cord reaching up to the gas chandelier.
An authentic reproduction of the original
Privy Council table has been made in the workshops of Upper Canada Village. The
chandelier has been given back the long-lost chains, frills and furbelows and
now dimly lights the oaken chairs where the makers of Canada sat.
The historic rooms and corridors were only a
small part of the effort required to save the East Block and ready it for
another century. Behind the recapture of Victorian moods were massive
engineering and serious dilemmas about the structure itself. More than a
million dollars was needed to repair the basement walls and provide the
drainage specified in the 1859 contract but somehow overlooked. The outer walls
are nearly three feet thick at ground level – they are seven feet thick below
the main tower and the interior partitions. made of brick and rubble stone, are
from one to two feet. In the floors is more than a foot of concrete. All this
made for hard work as miles of heating and air conditioning ducts, electrical
and communications wires. had to be concealed in passages drilled and chipped through
concrete. Fortunately, early lack of economy in the upper floor spacing gave
the engineers as much as four feet of height for utilities without disturbing
the irreplaceable 14-foot ceilings.
There were conflicts and compromises.
Insulation lost to authenticity. Fireproof carpeting in the corridors won over
the original cocoa matting. The magnificent oak and iron handrails on the
stairways are under a cloud because modern building codes say they should have
been higher. There have been two suicides in the East Block, but no one has
fallen over a stairway.
Far from settled is treatment to counteract
the effects of acid rain and salt which have eroded the exterior stone carvings
and saturated the base of the enormous walls. Scientists can analyze and recommend,
but only politicians can stay the ravages of acid rain.
This is riot a museum but a working building
in whose Victorian corners moments of our most intriguing past have been
preserved. It is ready for another century, and it cost no more than a transient
Canadians visiting their capital now have a
rendezvous with history. On Parliament Hill, at last, the past and future are
It is a sign of our maturity. We are the
richer for it.