From the Parliament Buildings, politicians strained their eyes to see a beautiful “castle” emerging in the distance. Royalty was in mind as Dominion of Canada’s chief architect David Ewart made drawings for Ottawa’s Victoria Memorial Museum. The design reflected his passion for Tudor Gothic-style buildings with regal presence. The dramatic plans were altered when unstable ground presented significant challenges.
Purpose-built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, the national museum was the centre of debate about location. A parcel of land dubbed “Stewarton” was chosen, “in direct line and level with Centre Block,” according to Historical Society of Ottawa. The property with a stone home called Appin Place was purchased for $73,500 at a sheriff’s sale between 1903-1904.
Architect Ewart and staff produced plans for cohesive building construction across the country. Known for his design skills, Ewart created the drawings for Dominion Archives, the Royal Mint, the Connaught Building, and Victoria Memorial Museum.
Situated on Metcalfe Street, “the design of the building and its orientation on the site were based on Beaux-Arts principles,” stated Canada’s Historic Places. With Tudor-Gothic flavour, “its towered entrance, in the centre of its highly symmetrical main elevation, was a focal point of its design.”
The government awarded the project to local contractor George Goodwin. His bid of $950,000 did not include heating or electrical work, nor furnishings. An experienced contractor, Goodwin “previously worked on other public works projects, including the construction of the Trent Valley and Soulonges Canals,” said the Society.
Ewart’s plans were for 131 m by 51.5 m (430 ft x 169 ft) building with a central tower reaching 29.5 m (97 ft). The design was “a symbol of Canada’s aspirations to be understood as a nation that excelled in learning, the sciences and art,” according to Halsall Associates in “Victoria Memorial Museum Rehabilitation Project,” Canadian Consulting Engineer Magazine, May 8, 2012
Canadian-only stone was used, much hand-carved to fit onsite: rough rock-faced limestone walls; Nepean brown stone from Campbell Quarry for quoins, lintels, and symbolic trefoils; Nova Scotia red stone for trim; and Credit Valley stone, too. Steel beams and terra cotta covered by concrete made for fireproofed flooring and enamelled brick lined basement walls.
Launched in April 1905, the museum contractor was assigned four years for construction. Delays, accidents, and problems added two more years to the build. A labourer fell, perhaps by losing his footing when 21.3 m up on girders, and died in hospital. “By 1911,” added the Society, “six stone cutters who had worked on the building had died from ‘stone cutters’ lung disease’—an illness, now called silicosis, caused by the inhalation of dust…”
Completed in 1910 except for some interior work, the building began to resemble a museum with the setup of nature, rock, and fossil displays. The next year, the National Gallery of Canada moved artwork onto the fourth floor.
The building came to life with distinctive sandstone carvings and stained-glass. Twenty-one trefoil windows with bright floral images enhanced the mezzanine, and among other works, stone carvings of a fox with acorns, a beaver, and two moose captured the visitor’s eye.
Alarming cracks appeared in and near the front tower in 1911. Plastering provided only temporary cover. A substantial problem emerged as cracks redeveloped.
Sitting “on a 30-metre-deep deposit of Leda clay, a silty marine material… the original entrance tower failed, pulling away from the main building, cracks of up to 300 mm wide occurred,” said Halsall Associates. “In addition, the ground floor underwent significant differential settlements with corresponding distress.”
The castle-like tower was dangerous. Goodwin evidently “said that he had tried to warn the government about problems with the building’s specifications but his concerns had been brushed aside,” mentioned the Society. In 1912, the museum welcomed visitors, and the Fossil Gallery opened to the delight of dinosaur fans, featuring the Hadrosaur Edmontosaurus regalis.
Debating the museum’s future, some thought the whole building should be demolished. Engineers agreed that a less drastic measure would do. “In 1915, 24 metres (80 ft.) of the museum’s tower is removed because the foundation cannot hold the weight,” said Canadian Museum of Nature’s Historical Timeline.
Contractor Goodwin suffered financial disaster with his museum project. His bid was too low—the cost was about $1,250,000. George Goodwin died on November 30, 1915.
The museum was transformed to accomodate the Senate and House of Commons in early 1916 when fire destroyed Parliament’s Centre Block. After four years of political tenure, the museum was returned to its intended purpose.
A century on, Victoria Memorial Museum—home of the Canadian Museum of Nature—needed restorative care. A strengthening interior steel skeleton and climate control systems were installed. A stunning glass tower was completed in 2010, affectionately titled “The Queen’s Lantern.”
The majestic Victoria Memorial Museum was designated a National Historic Site in 1990.
© 2020 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History
Fulton, Gordon W., “Ewart, David,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2005. Retrieved from http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/ewart_david_15E.html
“The Victoria Memorial Museum,” Historical Society of Ottawa, Retrieved from
“Victoria Memorial Museum National Historic Site,” Canada’s Historic Places, Retrieved from https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=4483&pid=0
“Victoria Memorial Museum Rehabilitation Project,” Halsall Associates, Canadian Consulting Engineer Magazine, May 8, 2012. Retrieved from https://www.canadianconsultingengineer.com/awards/pdfs/2012/A20_VictoriaMemorialMuseum.pdf
“Historical Timeline,” Canadian Museum of Nature. Retrieved from https://nature.ca/en/about-us/history-buildings/historical-timeline