The Old Supreme Court Building

11 September 1956

Few Canadians are likely to be aware that there used to be another major building on Parliament Hill besides the Centre Block, home of the House of Commons and the Senate, and the East and West Blocks. (Starting in the Fall of 2018, the West Block will become the temporary home of the House of Commons while the Centre Block is restored and renovated, a process that is expected to take ten years.) That other structure was the old Supreme Court building located just inside the western gates of the Parliamentary Precinct, with its entrance on Bank Street. Bizarre and horrific as it might sound to history and architecture buffs, the building was torn down in the mid-1950s and replaced by a parking lot.

The story begins back before Confederation. During the early 1860s, the three iconic Parliamentary Buildings were constructed on what was then called Barrack Hill in the neo-Gothic style popular at that time. By 1865, the construction of the East and West Blocks were sufficiently advanced to permit civil servants to finally decamp from Quebec City to Ottawa, the new capital of the then Province of Canada. The following year, the Centre Block was ready for the opening of Parliament in June, though work on the Victoria Tower and the Library continued until 1873 and 1877, respectively.

Supreme Court-Topley StudioLAC-PA-008389

Old Supreme Court Building, with the West Block in the background,  late 19th century, Topley Studio/Library and Archives Canada, PA-008389.

The same year the Tower was finished, work began on a two-story structure constructed of the same stone as that used to build the Parliament buildings at the base of the western side of Parliament Hill. Designed by the Chief Dominion Architect, Thomas Seaton Scott, the building was erected to house government workshops whose purpose was to construct and repair government furnishings, such as bookcases and cabinets. Previously, such work had been conducted in the basement of the West Block but the rooms used were too cramped and too dark. The new workshops were completed in 1874. It’s likely that the interior fittings for the Parliamentary Library were made there. Contrary to later folklore, there is little evidence to suggest that the workshops building was ever used as a stable.

An 1875 article entitled “The Workshops of the Board of Works” in the Ottawa Citizen gives a fascinating account of the building shortly after its opening.  Although the Citizen’s reporter didn’t care for the building’s architecture, claiming that it didn’t present “any great claims to beauty of style” and looked “unfinished,” he highly recommended tourists visiting the two-storey, mansard-roofed structure. Apparently, its director, Mr. Pruneau, proud of his domain, was ever ready to provide tours to visitors. The journalist opined that the workshops’ interior was “admirably arranged” with a 25-horse power engine in the basement that powered the machinery located above, and a boiler. He was also impressed that the building was heated by steam, and was consequently very comfortable to work in.

On the workshops’ ground floor were offices, including that of Mr. Pruneau, and storerooms filled with cupboards and drawers. There were also a machine shop and a turning shop used for making furniture. A variety of specialist wood-working tools were on hand, including a morticing machine, and lathes used to make table and chair legs. All were driven by steam. Upstairs was the carpenters’ shop containing twelve double benches, circular saws, and other tools. Next door was the cabinet makers’ shop. At the time of the visit from the Citizen’s journalist, a handsome black walnut bookcase was being readied to go to the finishing room for its final varnishing and polishing. The journalist’s opinion was the workshops were among the finest in the Dominion, and were a credit to all who worked in them.

But the government workshops were not to last. In July 1881, their fittings, tools and stock were sold off at auction. Either there was insufficient work to keep them fully employed following the completion of the Parliamentary Library, or in-house production of furnishing was not cost-effective. Instead, the building was renovated to house the new Supreme and Exchequer Courts of Canada. (The Exchequer Court became the Federal Court of Canada in 1971.)

The Supreme and Exchequer Courts came into existence in early January 1876. There were initially six Supreme Court Justices who at that time also sat on the Exchequer Court bench. The Justices were temporarily allocated four rooms in the Centre Block on Parliament Hill close to the House of Commons chamber. A reading room was used as a court room, while three nearby offices were used for the judges’ consulting room, office space for staff, and a room for counsel. No space was allocated for offices for the six Justices.

Plans were drawn up to build an extension onto the West Block to permanently house the two courts but with an economic recession underway in 1876, the $120,000 price tag was too much for the Liberal Government of Alexander Mackenzie. It didn’t help that the Supreme Court did not have the prestige that it has today. It wasn’t even the highest court of the land. That honour went to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London. So, the Justices had to make do with their temporary offices in the Centre Block until the government workshops building was fitted out for them. They moved in during the spring of 1882.

$12,500 was allocated to convert the workshops into a court room and suitable offices. The outside of the building was improved and made more elaborate. Gabled windows were added to provide better lighting into the upstairs courtroom. On the ground floor were offices of the registrar and his clerks, and the précis writer. Upstairs, in addition to the courtroom, were six private rooms for the Justices, a conference room, a barristers’ room, a consulting room and a waiting room. The only thing the building lacked was a law library. The Justices and staff had to go to the Parliamentary Library at the top of Parliament Hill if they wanted to consult a legal tome. The National Gallery was also given space in the renovated building, occupying part of the ground floor to the rear with a staircase to another room on the second floor. This led to a lot of grumbling from the Justices who wanted that space for their Library.

Supreme Court 1890 interior James Topley-LAC-PA-027195

Interior of the old Supreme Court, 1890, James Topley/Library and Archives Canada, PA-027195.

In 1887, a report was compiled listing the complaints of the building’s occupants. In addition to the lack of a library, there was a bad smell, the roof leaked, and there was insufficient storage space. The Justices also complained about a lack of privacy owing to the public going to and fro in front of their offices to look at the paintings in the National Gallery. To ease the congestion and address some of the concerns, the Gallery moved out later that year. But the freed-up space was needed for the Exchequer Court that had been split off from the Supreme Court and consequently needed its own staff and accommodations. The building was finally extended to the north in 1890, nearly doubling its size, at a cost of $30,457. The Justices moved into the new wing with their old offices converted into a law library. A private entrance was also built. No longer did the Justices have to mix with the general public when going to and leaving work. Most complaints ended.

By the late 1930s, the Supreme Court building was showing its age. In May 1939, during the Royal Visit just before the outbreak of World War II, Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI, laid the cornerstone of a new Supreme Court building on Wellington Street. It would be seven years, however, before the Supreme Court Justices managed to move into their new quarters. Their building, once finished, was temporarily used to house civil servants required to operate the bureaucratic war machine. It wasn’t until the end of 1945 did the Income Tax and National War Services Departments moved out to allow the Justices to move in.

For the next few years, the increasingly dilapidated old Supreme Court building continued to be used for government offices, first for Government Economy Control, then for the Government Travel Bureau. In 1954, it was briefly the stage for a television movie being made by CBC starring Lloyd Bridges, directed by the Hollywood director Victor Stoloff. (The film, to be one of a series of thirteen shows based on real life RCMP cases, subsequently disappeared off of the radar screen though a similar series was made for CBC television in 1959 by Ottawa’s Crawley Films.)

In the spring of 1956, the word came that the old building was to be demolished in phase one of a plan by the Federal District Commission (FDC), the forerunner of the National Capital Commission, to build a grand mall from the West Block on Parliament Hill to the new National Library. The plan called for the western slope of Parliament Hill to be terraced with the mall running from that point, behind the Confederation and Justice buildings where Vittoria Street is located, and in front of the new Supreme Court building. (Earlier plans had also called for the demolition of the West Block and its replacement with a modern concrete building. Thankfully, this idea was dropped.) The site of the old Supreme Court would be used temporarily as a parking lot to relieve parking congestion on the Hill until work started on later phases of the plan.

In the House of Commons, Conservative opposition leader John G. Diefenbaker and George Nowlan, another senior Conservative, were appalled. They pleaded with the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent to save the old building, the home of more than fifty years of Canadian judicial history. Ottawa’s mayor Charlotte Whitton launched a “Save-the-Old-Supreme-Court” campaign. She also tried to put forward a motion at a meeting of the FDC to find other possibilities for the area that didn’t involve tearing down the old building. All was for naught. On 11 September 1956, workmen started stripping off the slate roof as the first step in demolishing the old building.

Supreme Court site Googe streetview august 2017

Site of old Supreme Court, Google Streetview, August 2017

Within a few short weeks the building was gone—“an act of engineering barbarism by the utilitarians” according to R. A. “Dick” Bell, later the Conservative Member of Parliament for Carleton. On the other hand, the Ottawa Journal opined that the old building was “not an embellishment to Parliament Hill from a landscaping or architectural standpoint.” It thought that the “national capital must grow even though among the growing pains are regrets that some of the old must necessarily be replaced.” In 1958, a commemorative plaque was affixed to a low wall made of salvaged stone that separates the parking lot from the sidewalk. Some of the stones from the building were also used to make a pond on the 14th hole of the Rivermead Golf Club in Gatineau, Quebec.

The public outcry from the demolition of the building apparently rattled the government. Future plans for the area were put on the backburner, and were shelved for good with the election of Diefenbaker’s conservatives in 1957.

The site of the old Supreme Court remains a parking lot.

 

Sources:

Globe (The), 1881. “Dominion Estimates: The Proposed Expenditures for the Year 1881-82,” 16 February.

—————, 1881. “Notes From the Capital,” 28 July.

Nowlan, George, 1956. House of Commons Debates, 22nd Parliament, 3rd Session, Vol. 4, p. 3377.

Ottawa Citizen (The), 1875. “The Workshops of The Board of Works,” 23 March.

Ottawa Journal (The), 1946. “Eminent Judges Move Into Wellington Street Building,” 3 January.

———————–, 1949. “Diefenbaker Both Right and Wrong About Old Supreme Court history,” 24 December.

————————, 1954. “Ottawa Actors Face Camera, Start Shooting Mountie Film,” 25 January.

————————, 1955. “Build Sweeping Mall From Hill To New National Library Site,” 30 December.

————————, 1956. “Fails to Get Fate of Old Supreme Court Building Before House,” 4 May.

————————, 1956. ‘Mayor Unable to Save Old Supreme Court.” 7 July.

————————, 1956. “Old Supreme Court Being Demolished,” 11 September.

————————, 1956. “West Block Reconstruction Shelved,” 15 October.

————————, 1956. “Built Pond on 14th Hole at Rivermead,” 8 November.

————————, 1958. “A Plaque for the Old Court,” 29 March.

————————, 1958. “Bell Expects Early Action on Capital,” 23 May.

————————, 1979. “Gov’t studying future of ‘parliamentary precinct,’ 17 September.

Snell, James G. and Vaughan, Frederick, The Supreme Court of Canada: History of the Institution, Toronto: The Osgoode Society, 1985.

Urbsite, 2013. Workshops, The Old Supreme Court, 24 June, http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2013/06/workshops-old-supreme-court.html.

 

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