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Building the first Centre Block. Colourized by Ashley Newall.

Capital History: Building the first Centre Block

By Ashley Newall on June 22, 2021

Building the first Centre Block. Colourized by Ashley Newall.

The first Parliament Hill Centre Block was the “Coke Classic” of Centre Blocks. Now, that’s not to say the present-day iteration is the “New Coke”—it’s an incredible building but, as has been said, by whom I can’t recall: ain’t nothing like the real thing (er, baby).

Among the earliest photos of Ottawa are those of the construction of our Parliament Buildings. (The first known photos of Ottawa were taken in 1857—more on that in a future article, surely.) Montreal’s William Notman was Canada’s first photographer of world renown, and his apprentice William Topley was Ottawa’s most prolific early shutterbug. But before Topley came to the fore there was Elihu Spencer, best known for his photo of Parliament Hill on Confederation Day (July 1, 1867), and the lesser-known (completely forgotten?!) Samuel McLaughlin, both of whom photographed the construction of Parliament Hill.

Ottawa City and Carleton Country Directory, 1864–65.

Of the two men, I find the quality of McLaughlin’s photos to be superior, or at the very least much easier for me to colourize, which is clearly the most important determining factor. Hence, for the purposes of the photo essay below, McLaughlin takes on the starring role.

Irish-born Samuel McLaughlin (1826-1914) issued Canada’s first publication of photographs, “The Photographic Portfolio” (between 1858 and 1860), which was “a monthly view of Canadian scenes and scenery” comprised of his photos of Quebec City and surrounding area and showcasing a single photo per edition. (Before that, in 1855, he’d published “Quebec and Environs Illustrated.” That appears, however, to have consisted of illustrations likely based on photos, rather than the photos themselves.) Prior to becoming a full-time photographer, he’d published Quebec City directories and had been a watchmaker. In 1861 he was named the first official photographer for the “Province of Canada.”

Working for the Department of Public Works (later shifting to the Department of Railways and Canals), he soon made his home in Ottawa, living on present-day Laurier Avenue, first near Metcalfe Street and then near King Edward Avenue.

Elihu Spencer (1818–1898) also called Ottawa home during this period, living on Slater Street near Metcalfe, and operating his business—the first successful commercial photography operation in town—on Sparks Street near Elgin.

As we know, the original Centre Block burned down in 1916 during World War I. Many blame careless smoking, but—in spite of a formal commission arriving at that very conclusion–I still say it was the Kaiser’s henchmen!

Anyhoo, below is a collection of colourized photos capturing moments in the evolution of our first Centre Block, plus several snapshots of our nascent city taken during the construction. Before the Peace Tower, there was the Victoria Tower which, in the 1870s, was topped off with a “hat,” as it were. I’m going to stick to the 1860s though and keep it “auld school.”

“Department Buildings, front view. Facade of the building, construction work, brick foundations in the foreground, stones and materials,” ca. 1863. Original photo by Samuel McLaughlin via Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. Colourized by Ashley Newall.

 

“Parliament Buildings. Main front. View from Sparks Street.” Original photo via Library and Archives Canada. Colourized by Ashley Newall.

While the above photo is unattributed on the Library and Archives Canada website, it must have been taken from Spencer’s “Daguerreian Saloon” (i.e. his studio on Sparks). Multiple other photos from this exact vantage point are attributed to Elihu Spencer, including his Confederation Day photo, making it almost certainly his work. And while no date is given, the progress of the build points to circa 1863.

“View towards east from Parliament Hill, Parliament Buildings – Construction,” ca. 1861. Original photo by Samuel McLaughlin via Wikipedia (caption is from Library and Archives Canada version).  Colourized by Ashley Newall.

Of note, the little white building on the northeast corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive (centre left in the above photo) was Howell Groceries. (Wikipedia erroneously has Howell’s at Rideau and Dalhousie St.) The original Court House can be seen on the southeast corner of Daly Avenue at Nicholas Street (upper centre, slightly left)–more on that in a minute. And the bridge is Sappers’ Bridge, connecting Sparks to Rideau Street—the Dufferin (Wellington Street) Bridge had yet to be built.


“View of Main Front and Entrance Towers, Parliament Buildings,” August–September 1863. Original photo by Samuel Mclaughlin via Library and Archives Canada.  Colourized by Ashley Newall.

 

“Looking West from Court House to Parliament Hill,” ca. 1867. Original photo by Samuel McLaughlin via Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. Colourized by Ashley Newall.

The above photo is approximately 50 times better than another taken by Samuel J. Jarvis—a very fine Ottawa photographer—of the same scene from the same location a quarter-century later, even though photography progressed significantly in the interim. Note the Library of Parliament and West Block’s signature Mackenzie Tower are incomplete. (West Block’s tower was part of an addition started in 1876 and completed in 1878.) Also, the crane is still atop the Victoria Tower. The original Court House was built by New Edinburgh founder Thomas McKay in 1842 and burned down in 1870. Its replacement, built in 1870–1871, still stands in the same spot, now housing the aptly named Arts Court.

“Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, ON,” ca. 1869. Original photo by Alexander Henderson via Library and Archives Canada. Colourized by Ashley Newall.

By Victoria Day 1868, phase one of the Victoria Tower had been completed (ie. sans “hat,” as above). Our Parliament Buildings officially opened on June 6, 1866, and the first session of the First Parliament of Canada met there on November 6, 1867.

“Parliament Buildings – construction. Centre Block showing northwest section and the buttresses of the Library,” ca. 1868. Original photo by Samuel McLaughlin via Library and Archives Canada. Colourized by Ashley Newall.

(West Block is background right in the above photo, and the Library of Parliament was incomplete.)

And finally, the pièce de resistance, since this has turned into an ode to McLaughlin: his photo (below) viewing westerly from Parliament Hill. It overlooks Uppertown (long-lost yin to Lowertown’s yang), Lebreton Flats, and the Chaudière (lumber) District.

LeBreton Flats, seen from Parliament Hill, 1865–70. Original photo by Samuel McLaughlin via Wikipedia. Colourized by Ashley Newall.

In 1876, the Victoria Tower’s decorative peak was capped, and the Library of Parliament was completed, wrapping construction that had begun with the breaking of ground on December 20, 1859. As we know, the Library is the lone remaining portion of the original Centre Block (and its ornate, 19th-century interior décor reveals this fact).

Samuel McLaughlin, ca. 1910. Photo via ancestry.ca.

As for McLaughlin, portraiture aside (since that doesn’t appear to have been his forte), I believe he was actually in a league with the great Notman (inherently, as a fellow leading pioneer, and also talent-wise). Following his retirement from government photography in the early 1890s, McLaughlin settled in Los Angeles, but still visited Ottawa frequently. Of his nine surviving children, only son Daniel had stayed in O-town, following in his father’s footsteps and becoming Canada’s chief government photographer.


Thanks to the Bytown Museum for biographical info on Elihu Spencer, and for providing the date of the first known photos of Ottawa.

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