Description of Historic Place
The Commissariat Building, also known as the Bytown Museum, is an imposing three-storey, rough-coursed masonry structure that features three bays, a gable roof, supply doors on all three levels of the building, and a regular fenestration pattern. The Commissariat Building is located on the west side of the locks at the Ottawa Lockstation, at the lower end of Colonel By Valley, in the heart of Ottawa. As part of the Rideau Canal National Historic Site of Canada, it is the northernmost station along the Rideau Canal and is the oldest remaining stone building in Ottawa. The designation is confined to the footprint of the building.
The Commissariat Building is a Classified Federal Heritage Building because of its historical associations, and its architectural and environmental values.
The Commissariat Building is one of the best examples of the national theme of the military defence strategy for Upper and Lower Canada in the 1820s and the evolution of that strategy over time. Located adjacent to the northern terminus of the Rideau Canal and near the heart of Ottawa’s commercial district, the building served as a depot for supplying bulk provisions to many of the construction sites along the northern section of the Rideau Canal, housed offices for Commissariat officials, and provided residential accommodation. Colonel By’s decision to commence construction of the canal at this site was the major impetus behind the founding and settlement of Bytown (now called Ottawa). As the only extant structure on the site dating from the period of construction of the Rideau Canal and having served as a depot for supplying the many construction sites along the Rideau Canal, the Commissariat Building is directly associated with the military origin and subsequent development of the Rideau waterway and the City of Ottawa.
The Commissariat Building is a very good example of a commercial or industrial building from the pre-Confederation era, erected in the British military traditions of the day. The building’s balanced proportions and symmetrical elevations lend it a particularly imposing presence, which is strengthened by the visual weight and texture of the masonry walls. The design of the building combines the functional requirements of a commissariat with a finely balanced composition of window and door openings, testifying to the superior design ability of the Corps of Royal Engineers. The high level of craftsmanship displayed in the masonry walls, constructed by the prominent Montreal contractor Thomas MacKay, reflects the importance placed on the construction of this building on the frontier of Upper Canada.
Along with the other elements of the lockstation, including the locks and lockmaster’s building, and due to its imposing character, design and location within the Colonel By Valley, the Commissariat Building reinforces the historic military character of its park-like setting. Its prominent sitting at the centre of Ottawa’s tourist area visible from the Ottawa River, as well as its visibility and accessibility as an historical museum make the Commissariat Building a well-known neighbourhood landmark. The building has also been popularized in innumerable paintings, photographs and souvenir items.
Sources: Marilyn E. Armstrong-Reynolds, Eleven Buildings, Northern Area, Rideau Canal, Ontario, Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office Report 91-131 to 91-175; Commissariat Building, Ottawa Lockstation, Ottawa, Ontario, Heritage Character Statement 91-134.
The following character-defining elements of the Commissariat Building should be respected.
Its highly functional and very good aesthetic design, which displays a distinctly pre-Confederation commercial and industrial character, as manifested in:
- the imposing scale and balanced proportions of the rectangular mass;
- the symmetrical elevations with window and door openings that form a balanced composition, enhanced by stone voussoirs;
- the cross gable roof with its cedar shingle cladding, replicating the original roofing material;
- the concentration of large supply doors on the east and south elevations, which illustrate its original storage functions;
- the fenestration pattern on the north elevation, which illustrates its original administrative and residential functions, and maximizes light levels and views of the Ottawa River;
- the reproduction doors and windows finished with period hardware, which recall the building’s 1840s appearance and contribute pattern and texture to the elevations;
- the interior layout, which has proven highly adaptable and as undergone only marginal changes, and the evidence it retains of the combined storage, administrative and residential uses, as can be seen in the differently sized spaces.
Its high-quality craftsmanship and materials, which reflect the building’s importance, for example:
- the rough coursed and textured masonry walls, with their well-executed masonry detailing, still in excellent condition and which testify to the skill of its builders;
- the interior detailing such as the wainscoting in the former residential section at the north end, the fireplace in the reading room on the third floor and a post and spindle staircase linking the second and third floors;
- the stone floors and walls of the interior.
The Commissariat Building’s visual prominence, contribution to the historic military character of its park-like setting, and landmark status, as evidenced in:
- its imposing position within the Colonel By Valley, facing the Rideau Canal and overlooking its northern entrance;
- its direct relationship to the other elements of the Ottawa Lockstation, including the locks proper and Lockmaster’s Building, and to the site’s 19th century circulation patterns, reinstated in the 1990s;
- its public function as an historical museum, which allows it to remain highly accessible.