Built as Canada’s first federally owned, purpose-built museum building, the Victoria Memorial Building holds a unique place in Canadian history – both in the programs it has housed and in the architectural style it was built in.

The Birthplace of Canadian Museums

The building has long been considered the birthplace of Canada’s well-regarded museum infrastructure, serving as the initial home to the nascent National Gallery, the Geological and Natural History Survey collections (what would later become the Canadian Museum of Nature), and the Museum of Man (later to be known as the Museum of Civilization and now Canadian Museum of History). It even held the role of parliament, hosting both the House of Commons and the Senate after a fire destroyed the Centre Block in 1916.

What makes a building “Canadian”?

While most of the building’s architectural vocabulary is borrowed from European examples and precedents, the museum was one of the first buildings in Canada to incorporate Canadian flora and fauna into its ornamentation – like the two moose that guard the entrance of the museum! This was all part of David Ewart’s efforts as Chief Dominion Architect – a position that ceased to exist in the post WW2 era – to establish a unique Canadian Architecture reflective of the young nation. The building’s exterior is also dominated by stones from different regions of Canada – including Nepean sandstone from Ottawa, Wallace sandstone from Nova Scotia and Stanstead granite from Quebec. Despite these efforts to make the building as Canadian as possible, the building required bringing stonemasons from Scotland to carve the blocks and decorations since this skilled trade had limited presence in Canada at the time.

Renovation and Redemption

In 2004, the museum underwent a massive renovation, restoration and expansion project to modernize the museum, conserve its heritage features and provide space to the growing collection. Among the many elements of this multiyear project was a new glass lantern at the museum entrance. The glass and steel lantern is a redemption piece, occupying the space where an elaborate masonry tower once stood. The original tower had to be taken down in 1915, after it began to structurally fail due to poor soil conditions underneath.

In addition to a new tower, the museum’s renovation and expansion included restoring many of the original heritage features of the building – including mosaics and stone carvings – as well as restoring the garden, installing a new steel frame inside the existing stone walls as seismic retrofitting, new HVAC and lighting systems, additional gallery spaces, and a 25,0000 square foot underground extension for storage, mechanical and loading facilities.

This post forms part of our World Architecture Day Queen’s Park Picks 2017 series in which we asked Ontario’s Members of Provincial Parliament to nominate a prominent building, past or present, in their riding for a chance to learn more about it. Check out the rest of the series to learn more about Ontario’s great architecture

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