Description of Historic Place
Victoria Memorial Museum is a large Tudor Gothic-style Tyndall-stone building located near downtown Ottawa. It sits alone, prominently sited on a city block surrounded by green space and parking areas. The building and its property terminate the south end of Metcalfe Street, which runs north to south from Parliament Hill to the Museum. The designation refers to the building and the property on which it is located.
Victoria Memorial Museum was designated a national historic site of Canada in 1990, because of its prominent and early place in the development of museology in Canada and because of its architecture.
The construction of the Victoria Memorial Museum in 1905-11 coincided with the pre-World War I boom in the building of encyclopaedic museums in most major cities in Europe and North America. As the first purpose-built federal museum in Canada, its construction was the culmination of decades of effort by Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada staff and by Canadian scientists to house Canada’s natural history and human history collections in a suitable building. When completed in 1911, the structure housed the National Gallery, the Geological and Natural History of Canada Survey collections, and some of the Survey’s offices. From its earliest days, the museum was a leader in new exhibit techniques, and it was the home-base for notable Canadian museologists and anthropologists including Charles Sternberg, Diamond Jenness, and Edward Sapir. The success of the building, its expanding collections and the work of its scientists led to the creation in 1927 of the National Museum of Canada as a body apart from the Geological Survey of Canada. The museum continued to occupy the building until 1950. The Canadian Museum of Man and Nature became the sole occupant in 1959. In 1988 the institution was divided into the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Canadian Museum of Nature, with the latter institution remaining in the Victoria Memorial Museum.
Authorized in 1901, the Victoria Memorial Museum was the most ambitious of five buildings designed for the capital in the Tudor Gothic style by David Ewart, Chief Architect of the Department of Public Works. The architectural quality, scale and location of the five buildings did much to solidify the image of Ottawa as a capital city. The Victoria Memorial Museum was built by local contractor George Goodwin to plans by Ewart.
The museum was built for the Geological Survey of Canada on a discrete, landscaped parcel of land at the south end of Metcalfe Street. Its location, visibility from Parliament Hill, grand scale, public function and park-like setting were particularly appropriate responses to Laurier’s vision for the capital. The design of the building and its orientation on the site were based on Beaux-Arts principles. The detailing of the building, inside and out, was drawn from a Tudor-Gothic vocabulary. Its towered entrance, in the centre of its highly symmetrical main elevation, was a focal point of its design. Due to unstable soil conditions, however, the tower was substantially reduced in height five years after the building opened. In 2004-2005, the museum underwent a large-scale rehabilitation which added a new glass tower to its façade and undertook major interior modifications.
The Victoria Memorial Museum building also served as the home of the Parliament of Canada from 1916 to 1920 after fire destroyed the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings.
Sources: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, February 1990; Commemorative Integrity Statement, July 2003.
Key elements which relate to the heritage value of the Victoria Memorial Museum include:
Those elements illustrating its Tudor Gothic design using Beaux-Art principles, notably:
- its symmetrically organized façade with original central (truncated) tower;
- its original entrance contained within a set of triple arches elaborate with neo-gothic tracery;
- the strong horizontality expressed through rectangular massing accented by string courses;
- the rock-faced limestone walls laid in broken course;
- the use of Nepean sandstone detailing for quoins, lintels, trefoils and tracery;
- the use of pointed arch window openings;
- decorative buttresses;
- the continuity- inside and out - of a decorative vocabulary;
- its hierarchical organization of interior spaces and axial layout centred on a formal hall from which the entire layout of the building is evident and from which all of its man spaces are accessible;
- the sequencing and circulation moving from the formal doors through the vestibule into the hall, thence by way of substantial open stair;
- its use of modern construction materials and technologies, including steel framing and reinforced concrete with stone exterior cladding;
- its park-like setting.
Those elements that relate to its construction as Canada’s first federal museum, notably, its extensive use of Canadian-inspired decoration, including:
- carved stone panels above the exterior doors and windows depicting Canadian flora and fauna;
- its highly embellished interior, including carved wood and bronze balustrades, decorative plaster-work, mosaic floors, marble detailing, and stained glass windows;
- its consistency with hierarchical principles followed by museums of the period in the sequencing of spaces, horizontally and vertically.
Those elements that relate to its physical context within the capital, including:
- its relationship to the Parliament Buildings, created by its careful siting on axis at the terminus of Metcalfe Street;
- its location on a discrete parcel of land intended to serve as a park-like setting for the building.