The Parliament Building has never ceased adapting to suit the needs of its occupants. It has been expanded, renovated and even rebuilt. The original Parliament Building wasn’t completed until 1876, nine years after Confederation, and it was hailed worldwide as an architectural and aspirational triumph. When the building was destroyed by fire in 1916, the House of Commons sat in the nearby Victoria Memorial Museum Building, where it remained until 1920, when the new and current Parliament Building was opened.

Original Parliament Building

"I know no modern Gothic,” the English writer Anthony Trollope wrote of Canada’s original Parliament Buildings, “purer of its kind or less sullied with fictitious ornamentation.”

The structure had seemed destined to be built in the larger centres of Montreal or Toronto, until Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of Canada, as it was further from the American border.

On August 29, 1859, it was announced that Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones would be the architects for the original Parliament Building. Their design addressed the need for two legislative chambers, offices, a library, committee rooms, reading rooms, an office for the Clerk, a picture gallery and the Speaker’s apartment.

Thomas Stent and Augustus Laver were awarded the contract for the Eastern and Western Departmental Buildings.

The first stone—locally sourced Nepean sandstone—was laid in the spring of 1860, and materials included red sandstone, Ohio freestone, and grey and green slate. The building was completed in 1876-77, when the new Dominion of Canada was almost a decade old.

As the nation grew so did its seat of government, and various additions were made to the building. Then, on February 3, 1916, a fire consumed the Parliament Building and forced elected and government officials to flee through thick smoke. Only the Library of Parliament, with its fireproof iron doors, survived.

Objects from the collection

Photo gallery for Victoria Memorial Museum Building (1916-1920) photo 1
© LAC-BAC PA-048181

Victoria Memorial Museum Building (1916-1920)

The temporary home of Parliament was the Victoria Memorial Museum Building, at the opposite end of Metcalfe Street from Parliament Hill. It was Canada’s first purpose-built national museum, erected in honour of the recently deceased Queen. Prior to Parliament taking occupancy, it housed the Geological Survey of Canada and the National Gallery of Canada.

The building was designed by David Ewart to mirror the doomed Parliament Building, using the same locally sourced Nepean sandstone. It was built on unstable clay, and the original tower over the front entrance had to be torn down to save the building from sinking and cracking.

In 1919, former Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier laid in state in the interim Chamber, and in1920 government business returned to Parliament Hill.

The building has been home to the Canadian Museum of Nature for many years. A 2010 renovation added a dramatic glass display tower—named the Queens’ Lantern, in honour of Victoria and Elizabeth II—where the original tower had been.

Objects from the collection

New Parliament Building

The new Parliament Building—larger and taller—was built based on lessons learned from the fire that destroyed the original building.

The design by architects John A. Pearson and Omer Marchand was a hybrid of the original neo-Gothic and Beaux-Arts styles. The facade was made of the same Nepean sandstone, but the building frame was steel, the interior was dominated by limestone and marble instead of flammable wood, and corridors and access to exits were much improved.

The north-south Hall of Honour linked the front entrance to the Library of Parliament, with the House of Commons Chamber and the Senate Chamber on an east-west axis at opposite ends of Confederation Hall.

The building opened on February 26, 1920, and though still unfinished, was a grand expression of Canada’s growth and youthful ambition holding a commanding presence over the river below. The country was still grappling with the loss of life despite victory in the First World War. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King designated the Peace Tower as a monument to Canada’s war dead. Seven years later, on July 1, 1927, on the 60th anniversary of Confederation, the bells of the Peace Tower carillon rang out for the first time, heard everywhere in the country’s first coast-to-coast radio broadcast.