Description of Historic Place
The Former Geological Survey of Canada Building is a relatively plain three-storey, stone building located on a prominent corner in Ottawa’s Byward market area. The designation refers to the building on its urban lot.
The Former Geological Survey of Canada Building was designated a national historic site in 1955 because it is one of the oldest remaining buildings erected in the capital and it was the home, at various times, of public services and cultural institutions.
The heritage value of this site resides in its associations with official Ottawa as illustrated by its location, form, materials and massing. The former Geological Survey Building was created in the 1860s from three attached structures have been used individually or as a group as a hotel, army barracks, museum, government offices, commercial offices and shops. The oldest part of the building was constructed in 1863 by a local businessman, James Skead, for the expansion of what was then the British Hotel. Almost as soon as this expansion was completed as the Clarendon Hotel, the owners tried to sell the property, leasing it to the Crown as military barracks from 1864 to 1871. In 1874 it was remodelled once again as a hotel. In 1879 the federal government purchased the property.
As a Crown-owned building, 541 Sussex Drive was first used as the Ottawa home of the Geological Survey of Canada, originally established in Montréal in 1842 by the Province of the United Canadas. In 1877 a new act concerning the Survey, made it a branch of the federal government under the Minister of the Interior. In 1879 the simultaneous decisions were made to purchase the Clarendon Hotel and retrofit it as the offices and museum of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada. In addition to the Survey’s important work in supporting the discovery and exploitation of Canada’s vast mineral wealth, its museum collection became the foundation of Canada’s national museums.
Before the Survey moved into the former hotel, the building was used to host the inaugural exhibit of the Canadian Academy of Arts. The works from this exhibit formed the initial collection of the National Gallery of Canada.
The Survey provided services for those interested in geology and natural history for professional, scholarly and business reasons and for the general public. As a consequence, its headquarters at 541 Sussex Street included museum exhibits, a library, a mapping office and laboratories for preparing natural history specimens, analyzing geological materials, and drawing and copying maps. Its museum occupied all three floors of the George Street wing of the building, which was renovated several times, including with funds from the Survey’s founder, William Logan. The Sussex Drive section was rebuilt by a prominent local builder, Thomas Askwith, on its original footprint in 1881 by the Department of Public Works for Survey offices. The Survey, under the Direction of Dr. Alfred Selwyn from 1869 to 1894, remained at 541 Sussex Drive until 1911 when it moved to its new home, the Victoria Memorial Museum.
After the museum and the survey offices moved, 541 Sussex Street was renovated for the Department of Mines. In 1917 a laboratory was added on the east side of the George Street wing.
Source: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minute, December 1955.
Key elements which relate to the heritage value of the Former Geological Survey of Canada Building include:
-Its location in the oldest commercial area of Ottawa on the corner of Sussex Drive;
-Its siting, flush to the sidewalks;
-elements that testify to its commercial origins, including its organization around an interior courtyard, its slight setback from Sussex Drive due to its construction on the footprint of an earlier structure, the clear distinction between the formal treatment on the street elevations and the informal treatment on the elevations facing the interior courtyard;
-elements associated with vernacular examples of classicism for commercial buildings of the period, including the regular placement of openings, its modest classically inspired ornamentation including semi-arched window lintels, keystones, broad stone stringcourses, stone quoins;
-elements that relate to the renovation of the structure for government purposes, including the consistency in the treatment of the George Street elevation across the two parts older parts of the building, the continuation of limestone masonry for all cladding and trim, including the one-and-a-half-storey laboratory extension, and the stone construction of the extension;
-elements associated with its use as a museum, including the symmetrical rows of large, rectangular windows along the north and south elevations of its George Street wing, its use of double-hung sash windows, and surviving finishes dating from the building’s use as a museum;
-elements that articulate its construction in three parts, including the use of a hipped roof on the Sussex Street section and a gabled roof on the George Street wing and the distinctive, round-arched window treatment of the laboratory extension;
- its relationship to the interior courtyard and to the building on the north side of the courtyard that served as the stable for the hotel.