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Photo by Sharon Odell

A tour inside the historic Dominion Observatory

By Brian Carroll on May 15, 2017


A grand structure, the Dominion Observatory, commands high ground at the Central Experimental Farm (CEF) near Carling Avenue. Sharon Odell explains why this building was constructed (1902-5) and how one of the astronomers, Mary Grey, saved the heritage architecture of the building and the scientific instruments it contained.

Ms. Odell presented her Master’s Thesis about the Observatory and Mary Grey at a recent meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). Brian Carroll interviewed Ms. Odell.

Brian Carroll for apt613: The architecture of the Dominion Observatory is far grander than a simple form-follows-function building. Yes, there’s a dome. But there’s a lot more to the building. Why is it such a grand structure?

Ms. Odell: The Dominion Architect was hired to build buildings within the Capital of Ottawa to show independence from Britain.

The reason the architecture is so grand is not only for independence, but for the Observatory to show Canada’s very serious pursuit of science.

From this building, they wanted to visually express that this was where Canada’s time was coming from.

I’ve seen tours of the exterior of the Dominion Observatory and part of the interior. Your presentation is, by far, the best tour of that building I’ve ever seen. Tell our audience what you include in that presentation?

I first began with a viewing of the basement and the foundation. There was a focus, when it was being built, (on) the large pieces of stone work. It goes with the grandeur and the expense, to show a visualization of how permanent the building was. That alludes to how important the science is within it.

The main floor was where the Directors used to sit: Otto Klotz and William King. A lot of people thought the library was an addition, but it was planned from the beginning.

When you first enter, the pier (that supported the telescope) is concrete. That’s why the foundation was photographed in 1902, because of the engineering feats they were going through. They had to make sure there was a sturdy concrete foundation to hold the pier. Then it tapers up to the dome. This was placed in the front entry way, so you as a visitor would be confronted with this. You had to walk around it to get into the rest of the building.

There’s a second floor and then in the dome a third and fourth floor.

The tour isn’t just the exterior and ALL of the interior. There are other views.

Those views take into consideration that the building had space around it. The cultural landscape is key to the Dominion Observatory. David Ewert, the Dominion Architect, also built subsequent buildings: the Chief Astronomer’s home (1907), the Seismology Building (1913-14), the Meridian Observatory and the Azimuth Buildings.

The National Library has the paperwork for the drafts of Ewart’s architectural design of the dome, which they based on the telescope (purchased before the building even began).

Long before the National Research Council (NRC)’s atomic clock, the Dominion Observatory was the clock of the nation. How did it work?

In the Dominion Observatory, the time was told, not by the clock, but by the stars. When they built the Meridian Observatory, they were able to tell time from the measurements of where the Earth turns. The Observatory’s 15-inch telescope could also do that.

This time would be fed back to the main building which had the Time Room. They would telegraph the train stations and the main government buildings.

CBC Radio started in the 1930s. We have lots of recordings in CBC archives of the time from the Dominion Observatory at 1PM.

Every heritage building needs a champion. Who was the Dominion Observatory’s champion?

It’s not just one champion. The torch was passed on to quite a few, beginning with Dr. Beales having the public come in with tours. There were many interviews with the astronomers, with records from television and radio. This was keeping astronomy current and in the public’s eye and ears.

After Beales, there was another director, Mr Hodgson. Mary Grey had been working when Beales was still there. Who championed it then were Miriam Burland, Mary Grey and Hodgson.

There came a point with the Observatory where tough decisions had to be made. There was a conflict between public outreach and the heritage status of the building.

A very controversial decision had to be made with Mary Grey championing the telescopes being removed. There was always a worry that once the time signals were coming from NRC and not from the Dominion Observatory, “What do we have left with astronomy?”

The city was growing around the CEF. There was a worry that the building may not be there. If the equipment was left in it, this history would be lost, not just the equipment, but the building itself.

In order to save the building, why move the telescopes, since public outreach was such an important part of the building?

You can’t have public outreach if you can’t reach the dome, where the telescope is, because of fire code. The fire codes changed in the 1970s. The Dominion Observatory is Romanesque Revival style. They didn’t want to change the look of the architecture.

The architecture would have been changed from the outside. There’s a narrow single-file staircase to the dome. You’d have to have outside winding staircases so, if there was a fire, the public could escape. But that would ruin the outside character and appearance of the architecture.

That’s why we have a collection separate from the building today. That’s why they built a separate educational observatory at the Museum of Science and Technology.

This interview has been edited for length.

You can see Sharon Odell’s 46-minute presentation on YouTube at RASC Ottawa Meeting April 2017.