026: Rising from the Ashes
February 3, 2016
Listen Now [22.1 MB, length: 27:32]
On February 3rd, 1916 at 8:37 p.m., the alarm was raised on Parliament Hill that a fire had broken out in Centre Block. By the next morning, the building had been reduced to a smoking ruin, encrusted in ice. The exact cause of the fire was never determined. In this episode Johanna Mizgala, curator for the House of Commons, takes us back to that chilling night in Canada’s history. She also discusses the bold vision of the architects charged with the task of rebuilding parliament.
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Rising from the Ashes
Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
On February 3rd, 1916 at 8:37 p.m., the alarm was raised on Parliament Hill that a fire had broken out in Centre Block. By the next morning, the building had been reduced to a smoking ruin, encrusted in ice. The exact cause of the fire was never determined.
With Canada fully immersed in the First World War and the 50th anniversary of Confederation rapidly approaching, it was imperative that parliament be rebuilt immediately to engender a sense of enduring strength and continuity in the hearts and minds of Canadians. In this episode Johanna Mizgala, curator for the House of Commons, takes us back to that chilling night in Canada’s history. She also discusses the bold vision of the architects charged with the task of rebuilding parliament.
If you are interested in viewing images associated with this podcast, you can follow along by viewing our Flickr gallery. You can access a direct link at
Johanna Mizgala: The fire began in the evening. At that time the House did sit until quite late in the evening and people did stay overnight in the building. So for instance the Speaker at the time, Speaker Sévigny’s wife and three children and some of their friends were in the Speaker’s apartment when the fire broke out. So what we know is that the fire started late in the evening in the reading room. It’s not 100 percent known what the cause was, but the most likely culprit was a lit cigar in a wastepaper basket, and the reading room was a wood-panelled room and the wood had just been oiled and varnished, and in those days newspapers were kept on long curtain rods in the space, so there was paper everywhere. So even when the smoke began down low on the floor and people were alerted that there was a fire, when one of the guards went out to try and get the fire extinguisher to put it out, they blew embers from the fire and those just, you know, it was like a little tinderbox. So this is late at night in February in the middle of the Great War, the First World War, and they’re sitting and the fire spreads very very quickly. So around 9 p.m. there is a knock on the door of the Chamber and they are told without much ceremony that there’s a fire, you all have to get out. At the time the hallway between the Library and the Chamber was lined with sort of cubby holes where they could put their coats and hat boxes, and of course all of this was fuel for the fire, so the fire spread really really quickly. The wind blew the fire up on the rooftops and then over to the other side. At that time the building was designed to have a number of inner courtyards, so the fire was spreading really quickly from one floor to another and then up onto the roof outside into these courtyards because windows were open. Wind—just the right conditions for the fire to spread. The one piece of the historic building to survive, of course, is the Library and that is because it had been designed with iron fire doors. So as soon as the fire was really out of control, they were able to close the doors. A quick-thinking librarian—we owe the Library of Parliament to a quick-thinking librarian, who closed the fire doors. So the Library did survive the blaze. As soon as the word spread that there was a fire, everybody who could ran to the Hill to either help get people out or to help with any salvaging. As a matter of fact, the 77th Battalion of the CEF [Canadian Expeditionary Force] was training in Ottawa and Sam Hughes was having dinner over at the Chateau Laurier and so they brought members of the 77th over and they helped form the perimeter to help the firefighters put out the fire. Also, you know, they were giving people water and soup throughout the night and they were trying to put out the fire throughout the night. And Prime Minister Borden’s diaries note that even though the fire continued late through the night, the clock kept sounding the hours. So at 9 o’clock, at 10 o’clock, at 11 o’clock—but this is sort of right out of a novel—so it didn’t quite strike 12 and then the bell from the tower crashed down to the ground. And the bell was restored a couple of years ago and it is actually out on the lawn of parliament, behind on the bluff.
JO: OK, so that was the original parliament bell?
JM: That was the original bell from the original tower.
JO: From the Victoria Tower?
JM: From the Victoria Tower, which was a little smaller than the current Peace Tower, and of course didn’t have a carillon, but did have a belfry and it did have a clock.
JO: Is it true that a number of women tried to get their fur coats before leaving the building?
JM: This is a story that is true. These were guests of the Speaker, so as I said the Speaker’s wife and his children, including very young children sleeping in the nursery were present that night. The Speaker went to rouse them and to get them out of the building and it is said that some of the women who were part of that party decided that they wanted to go back and get their coats. Now it may just have been because it was the middle of the night in February, not specifically because they were fur coats, but it’s tragic because they perished as a result of that decision and they were eulogized in the Chamber the next day when they talked about those who had died. And one of them was a young mother of, I believe about five children, so it is a very sad story.
JO: Were there other casualties as well?
JM: There were seven people who died altogether, including one MP and he had left the Chamber to go make a long-distance phone call. At the time they used to have phone booths within the building and his body actually wasn’t discovered until much later. So people weren’t sure who had gotten out and who had been present that evening. So it was much later that they determined that Bowman Law had died and eventually there was a memorial plaque in his honour that was put up in the Hall of Honour of the new building and later on the names of the other six people who died who were not MPs, but nonetheless associated with the fire, their names were included as well.
JO: I also heard that there was a lot of rumours about what caused the fire because it was a time of war.
JM: Yeah, because it was something so unexpected and it happened in the middle of the night. There was a lot of confusion and a lot of contradicting reports, though there was an inquiry later to find out sort of what had happened, and there were conflicting stories. Some members who had been in the reading room mentioned seeing people that they didn’t recognize and the police chief at the time also mentioned that during the blaze he heard the sound of gunfire. But again, it’s hard to know sort of what was happening, and because it was the time of war, it was something that was on people’s minds at the time—was this an act of sabotage?
JO: So Canada is fully engrossed in the First World War and we’ve just lost our parliament and its actually coming up to the 50th anniversary of Confederation, this was an incredibly challenging time, so what were the next steps for the government?
JM: So this was part of the reason why it was so important that construction begin, even if we were in the midst of a war effort and most of our industry was going to ensuring that those overseas had what they needed to be able to do the work that we had sent them to do. So immediately that evening, well late into the early morning, they convened at the Chateau Laurier to decide what it was that they were going to do and to come up with series of options. And the option that was proposed and accepted was that the House would sit in the Victoria Memorial Museum. So they had to borrow the mace from the Senate, because the mace of the House of Commons was lost in the fire. And they set to work and they met the next day. So it was incredibly important that there be continuity of government, particularly because we were in the middle of a war effort; it had to be seen that this would not deter the order of good government. So they met in the Victoria Memorial Museum and they continued to meet there for the next four years, and almost immediately plans were put forth to—at first they thought they could perhaps restore the old building. But once they really saw the full devastation—there was some of the stone that could be salvaged from the exterior, but really the interior had been completely lost. And also since it had been constructed, Canada had grown considerably; new provinces had become part of Canada and already they were kind of expanding at their borders and there wasn’t enough space for all of the offices that were required, so a plan was put afoot to have a new building constructed. And this contract was awarded to John Pearson from Toronto and Omer Marchand from Montréal, and the two of them had never met, but they came together and they conceived of this building. So, to Marchand we owe the floorplan that we know today—that is very much a Beaux-Arts floorplan—and to Pearson, we owe the sort of overall conception of the building—how it would relate to the other two standing buildings on the parliamentary precinct and then the order of design all the way down to the furniture that is used in each of the spaces.
JO: Ok, so it was thoroughly planned out, every single little bit?
JM: Yeah, and the building is an amalgam, in the sense that the exterior is a Neo-Gothic building so that it echoes the original parliament building, but it was greatly expanded. It now contains six floors. The previous building was much smaller; it was a bit of a rabbit’s warren with a lot of interior courtyards. The Beaux-Arts plan is very clear, very orderly, and then with complete distinctions between the Senate side and the House side. And of course they wanted to attach the remnant of the historic building—attach the Library to the new building—so that’s why it has a very clear central corridor in the Hall of Honour. So the building was begun right away and then four years later they were able to have the House meet in the building even though it wasn’t completely finished. And then by the end of the War, of course there was news of the exact nature of the devastating loss that Canada had suffered and a desire for the Peace Tower to be constructed. So the Peace Tower was a separate piece. The building is really, if you think about it, is really three separate spaces that are pulled together as one with the Hall of Honour as the main corridor. So the Peace Tower was begun in 1919 and it opened to the public in 1927.
[Excerpt of Governor General Freeman Freeman-Thomas’ speech at Canada’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration of Confederation, July 1, 1927]
Today my people of Canada unite to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation and on such a day they may well look with a just pride on the achievements of the past and with a confident hope for the promise of the future. In sixty years, the boundaries of confederation have extended ten-fold and its governments are now responsible for the welfare of nearly 10 million inhabitants. By labour, creed, and sacrifice of war, Canada has become a mighty nation.
JO: What was their vision for the new building?
JM: Well because this was a building conceived in the early 20th century, there was a distinct desire to incorporate those modern ideals in terms of the ways in which government would function and how the building would serve as an encapsulation of those ideals. So as I said, although the exterior is really a Neo-Gothic structure, they were using modern technology to build the building. So the building has steel reinforcement, all of the arches and vaults are purely decorative, that vault isn’t holding up…
JO: It’s not a functional vault…
JM: Not at all, it’s decorative. And in terms of Beaux-Arts, this was a style that could really suit this notion of a modern function for the building. So Beaux-Arts is characterized by having a very clear and distinct plan, so as you come in the building there is an immediate sense of where you are in the grandeur of the space and then a distinct organization in terms of where you have to go. So in Centre Block for instance, everything related to the House of Commons is on the left side of the building and everything related to the Senate is on the right side of the building. There is also a notion of hierarchy in terms of the design, so the highest appointed spaces in terms of architectural detail belong to the Senate as the senior house of government and then of course to the House. And what people don’t necessarily realize is that the two Speakers’ offices are much more elaborately decorated than the Prime Minister’s office for example, or the office of the Official Opposition. And as you go up the building and higher up on the floors it gradually looks like any other early 20th century building; so there is a primacy of place and a hierarchy with relation to what we call the highest and best use of the spaces within the building. Another characteristic of Beaux-Arts is decoration, and decoration that has a distinct story-telling feature. So throughout the entire building there are signs and symbols that relate to Canada in terms of flora and fauna of the country but also the origins of the country in terms of its government. So you’ll see English roses, you’ll see the shamrock, the thistle, and the fleur-de-lys; they appear everywhere as do lions and unicorns—I mean that’s dating back to the emblems of England, but also the Canadian emblem as well.
JO: Yeah. Was it just Pearson who had this obsession with symbolism?
JM: Because Pearson was the lead architect, we know more about Pearson. Although it’s a real tragedy, the architectural papers and correspondence, the business records of Pearson and Darling were destroyed in a fire. So there is an enormous amount of conjecture based on the space and what we do know from the little correspondence there is. And Pearson, he did not consider himself a man of words, even though his letters are incredibly eloquent, he preferred to kind of tell influential people about things that he wanted and then they would tend to start to use his words, so it was Pearson’s idea that the Peace Tower be called the Peace Tower, and it was his idea that it be called the Memorial Chamber and he was very interested in the sort of play of words and the relationship of those spaces, and he had a kind of delicate way of getting what he wanted.
JO: Ok, interesting.
JM: Yeah, and there was a really lovely letter that he wrote to the Prime Minister where he talks about what he imagines people will feel as they are walking onto Parliament Hill and walking up the stairs into the building and the importance of the dignity of that space and it’s a reflection of the task that is put before members of parliament, that they have to remember that they have been chosen to represent Canadians, and that they have a responsibility to live up to those expectations. So the building is designed to keep that in the presence of mind. The idea of coming into the space, into a circular space in the Confederation Hall, where you look up at the column—there is light coming in through the windows up above you, you walk down this expanse of empty beautiful space in the Hall of Honour that leads you to the Library, which is such an incredibly beautiful space, it’s like a little jewel box. And that would have been where you would have gone to do research, to find out more in preparation for speeches that you would be giving in the Chamber. This is a time period where they’re thinking very seriously about debate, these are men of letters and these are women of conviction and it’s important that they have a space that pays tribute to the importance of the work that they do. And Pearson, he encapsulated that in everything he did. So right down to the particular suites of furniture that could be chosen by different MPs for their office spaces. All of the furniture for the Prime Minister's space, for example, was designed specifically to go in to that space. Pearson worked with artisans of the day, so all of the ironwork, decorative objects that relate to appointing the space properly, and the same thing with the incredible plaster ceiling in the Speaker’s office, the Speaker’s dining room as a space that they would have foreign dignitaries come and be greeted—the Chamber itself which is just this incredibly ornate beautiful design and it’s supposed to create a kind of feeling of awe from those people—remember that when you walk through this building, you have a duty to the country and you have to be cognizant of that duty throughout. And so for an architect who is an artist at heart, the thinking for Pearson was really that all of the space would be a way in which he could subtly, and sometimes very overtly, remind people of what it is that they were doing.
JO: Of their duty.
JM: And some of the spaces are designed to be a little bit whimsical and a little bit surprising and I think sometimes that’s a reflection of a way to release the pressure valve every so often. There is one corridor that if you look up you see the “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil monkeys” [laughing], and they’re not part of any sort of actual design plan within that space; they just appear and there are moments of kind of delight as you look around the walls and you see—you know he incorporated some of the fossils that are present in the stone, so he didn’t try to hide those at all, so as you’re going down a corridor or a stairwell you’ll look and you’ll see—oh, that’s a fern in the wall—and there are these moments of surprise and delight throughout and I think that is about giving people an opportunity to kind of clear their heads every so often.
JO: Are there elements in the Library and Archives Canada collection that pertain to parliament?
JM: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, within LAC’s collection you have the deed to Parliament Hill. So as we know, it was Queen Victoria who determined that Ottawa would be the capital and that parliament would be built here, and so the deed is a part of the collection. Also there are numerous photographs within the collection. Samuel McLaughlin took photographs not only of the historic building, what we know as the old building on Centre Block, but also photographs during and in the aftermath of the fire and then during the construction period following the dismantling of the old building and the construction of the new. So there is quite a lot in terms of photographic material. And then you also have a collection that relates to the House of Commons, so in terms of documentary information this is here as well. And within the Public Works holdings there are floor plans and original blueprints for the Peace Tower and for other structures on Parliament Hill. There’s also correspondence between Pearson and the Prime Minister talking about the plans and what it is he’d like to do and the fact that he wanted to go over to Europe and ask for a series of gifts of stone which would be incorporated into the Memorial Chamber. There was a point during the construction where Pearson actually walked off the job and went on strike and all of that correspondence is detailed within the Public Works documents, so there’s a lot there, and also the transcripts of the inquiry are here as well. So there is a pretty comprehensive amount of material here at LAC.
JO: If you’d like to learn more about the Centre Block fire and the reconstruction of parliament, you can access a direct link to the Canada by Design website on the episode page for this podcast. Please visit bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts and click on the episode. On this page you can also access a link to our Flickr gallery and see about booking a guided tour on Parliament Hill. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the fire,
Resilience: The Fire of 1916 is on display at the Library of Parliament for the remainder of 2016, so make sure to include a trip to the Library on your tour. It features an extraordinary array of archival items related to the fire and the reconstruction, including items from the LAC collection.
Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada”—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guest today, Johanna Mizgala.
For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.