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Today, it’s hard to imagine Lansdowne Park without the ethereal majesty of the silver-topped Aberdeen Pavilion and its gracefully curved roof.
But such was not always the case.
For two decades, beginning in the 1970s, the fate of the Victorian-era exhibition building — the last of its kind in Canada — was a hotly-debated question, one tied to the murky future of Lansdowne Park.
During that time, no fewer than 35 votes were taken at Ottawa city council on what should be done with the pavilion, alternatively deemed an expensive eyesore and a national treasure. Some considered the building an impractical waste of money; others insisted there was untold beauty — and value — beneath its battered exterior.
What everyone agreed upon was that the Aberdeen was in a desperate state.
Most of its windows were broken; its corrugated metal roof was tarnished and dull. The building itself was home mostly to pigeons whose guano slicked the floor; the roof was full of holes from people trying to shoot them. Plastic bags caught the leaking rainwater.
By the mid-80s, the pavilion had to be inspected before every public event. In 1986, it was condemned: the building was no longer safe for man or beast. Engineers said the roof was in danger of collapse.
Something had to be done.
An ambitious $80 million plan to remake Lansdowne Park and refurbish the pavilion was tabled at city hall, but failed to gain the requisite support. Instead, on Aug. 7, 1991, council voted to demolish the Aberdeen Pavilion, a national historic site.
“This is nothing more than a sponge that will absorb all of the money every council wants to put into it,” warned Coun. Jacquelin Holzman, who voted in favour of the motion.
Fern Graham, acting president of Heritage Ottawa, vowed to mount a renewed campaign to save the building after years of fighting for it: “We will not leave anything undone,” she said.
Saving the Aberdeen was a year-long drama during which conservationists, councillors, bureaucrats and architects all took turns upon the stage. It is a story of politics and persistence, fortuitous timing and strategic foot-dragging.
It is a story that Mayor Jim Watson now points to — exactly 30 years later — as among his finest hours in politics.
It is a story with a lesson.
The Aberdeen Pavilion was built in 1898 to enhance the Central Canada Exhibition, a showcase of the region’s agricultural bounty and its manufactured goods. The event was a highlight of the annual social calendar in Ottawa: residents flocked to Lansdowne by streetcar and canal paddleboat to enjoy food, games, prizes, rides, circus acts and modern marvels. (The electric light bulb was demonstrated in 1889.)
The popularity of the exhibition was such that it was in constant of new space, so the city invested the then princely sum of $75,000 in a new pavilion.
A promising local architect, Moses C. Edey, was hired to design it.
Born in Wyman, Quebec, in the Outaouais, Edey was the studious son of a lumberman. As a boy, he devoted himself to woodworking and drawing, and at the age of 21, he moved to Toronto to pursue his dream of becoming an architect.
Edey apprenticed at a Toronto firm and at another in Moravia, N.Y.: It was then the only way to learn the trade since architecture schools did not yet exist in Canada. In 1872, he moved to Ottawa, found a business partner, and opened a building and furniture company.
He studied architectural geometry and industrial design at the Ontario School of Art, and finally launched his own architectural firm at the age of 40. Based on Sparks Street, Edey quickly made a name for himself as a designer of homes, banks, schools and office buildings in Renfrew, Shawville, Pembroke and Ottawa.
The Aberdeen Pavilion was his largest commission. Drawing inspiration from the pavilions built for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Edey used steel trusses, mounted on concrete pads and connected at the base by underground tensor rods, to construct the building’s skeleton; he then sheathed it in pressed metal cladding and a corrugated metal roof. The lightweight materials obviated the need for internal columns.
The result was that, inside, the pavilion offered a large, bright field of space — 94 metres long, 40 metres wide, and 22 metres high — without a column in sight.
Outside, the pavilion commanded attention. “Like the Chicago Fair building, it has superficial Renaissance ornament, corner pavilions, cupolas, a dome, and other fairground folly applied symmetrically to all four corners of its elevations,” Stan White, a Public Works Canada architect, once wrote of the Aberdeen. It was the kind of building, he said, “designed to stand alone in a park.”
The pavilion was put together with astonishing speed — in just two months — and was dedicated in September 1898 by its namesake, Lord Aberdeen, Canada’s seventh governor general.
Although some doubted whether the fine-boned structure could withstand Ottawa winters, the Aberdeen Pavilion won broad public acclaim, and earned Edey a series of important new commissions. He went on to design the downtown Garland Building, the Rideau Canoe Club, and the Daly Building, the city’s first department store.
The Daly Building, a designated heritage site, was the last of the three landmarks to fall. It was authorized for demolition by the National Capital Commission, amid a storm of controversy, in September 1991 — just one month after the Aberdeen Pavilion was voted out of existence.
Before its long decline into decrepitude, the Aberdeen Pavilion enjoyed an eclectic career as an exhibition hall, livestock showcase, hockey rink and military asset. Sometimes known as the Manufacturers’ Building, it accommodated everything from religious revivals to broomball tournaments.
It played host to history. In 1902, the Ottawa Hockey Club, also known as the Silver Seven, built a rink inside the pavilion after the team’s home rink, Dey’s Arena, was flattened in a windstorm. The team played some of its games there during the next three years, and in 1904, the Silver Seven hoisted the Stanley Cup inside the Aberdeen.
During the Boer War, Lord Strathcona’s Horse, a Canadian military regiment, used it for riding exercises before leaving for South Africa. In the First World War, the pavilion served as a recruiting centre for Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, while in the Second World War, it was used for troop mobilization and basic training.
The pavilion resumed its role as an exhibit hall two years after the war’s end when the Central Canada Exhibition returned to Lansdowne. In 1972, the pavilion became home to the exhibition’s animal showcase, from which it earned the title of “Cattle Castle.”
One year later, the city took over the neglected pavilion from the exhibition, but its destiny was bundled up in the Gordian knot known as Lansdowne Park, the future of which was debated again and again and again.
In June 1983, the pavilion was designated as a national historic site. Ideas about what to do with it abounded: The Minto Skating Club proposed turning it into a central skating facility. Others called for it to be converted into a trade centre exhibition site, a flea market, a butterfly farm.
In 1987, then-mayor Jim Durrell recommended the pavilion be dismantled and stored until there was money to refurbish it. The building could then be moved to the Experimental Farm, he argued, which he called “the logical place for it.”
Writing in the Citizen in November 1990, columnist Claire Hoy encouraged politicians to “send in the bulldozers” and not spend millions fixing what he derided as an ugly barn. “It’s not worth it, not this tumbledown shack,” he said.
Months later, in 1991, an ambitious new plan to convert Lansdowne Park into a trade show complex was tabled at city hall; it included $10 million for renovations to the Aberdeen Pavilion.
But when council rejected the plan due to its exorbitant price tag, local politicians said it was the end of the line for the Cattle Castle, too.
They voted 10-6 to demolish the heritage building and rid themselves of the troublesome pavilion once and for all.
The Aberdeen Pavilion might never have had the chance to be saved if not for the epic foot-dragging of bureaucrat Dave O’Brien, the city’s chief administrative officer.
“His stalling saved it,” Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says today.
O’Brien, a veteran administrator who had previously held the same position in Sudbury and Gloucester, waited months to act on council’s vote to demolish the pavilion.
He didn’t put the job out to tender. He wanted to allow time, O’Brien later admitted, for a non-profit group, Historic Ottawa Development Inc., to finalize a proposal to convert the pavilion into a farmers’ market. “I think it would be irresponsible to demolish the building immediately,” O’Brien said.
Coun. Jacquelin Holzman, running for mayor on a platform that promised to keep a lid on taxes, accused O’Brien of thwarting the will of council. “As far as I’m concerned, council has made a decision and council’s decision should be acted upon,” she said.
O’Brien ultimately apologized for overruling the city’s elected representatives. But his act of insubordination bought the Aberdeen a reprieve and gave Ottawa voters the chance to weigh in on the building’s death sentence during the November 1991 municipal election.
Voters sent 10 newcomers to city hall, including a fresh-faced Capital Ward councillor named Jim Watson, who had pledged to save the Aberdeen. He considered it an essential part of the city’s history.
“The question was how do we get money to do what we wanted to do,” remembers Watson, “because that was the big concern: that we were just putting good money after bad.”
He cast around for allies, and found one in Alta Vista councilor Peter Hume, a fellow rookie, and another in council veteran Joan O’Neill. Although she had voted in favour of demolition, O’Neill was open to a new approach on Aberdeen.
“I wanted to save the building — but economically,” remembers O’Neill.
O’Neill gave the two young councillors added credibility, and together the three hammered out a “no-frills” plan to save the pavilion by returning it to its original state, nothing more. No insulation, heating or cooling system. No skating rink or farmers’ market.
“No one gave us much hope of doing anything because everything had been tried,” says Watson.
But the triumvirate steadily collected allies. “He (Watson) believed you had to build a coalition,” Hume says. “He was and still is very good at that.” O’Neill said Watson did not act like a city hall novice: “He was very self-assured.”
In April 1992, the city’s community services committee endorsed the compromise plan, but it still faced two major hurdles.
First, there was the issue of financing. The $5.3 million compromise plan put together by Watson, Hume and O’Neill patched together funding: $2.8 million from the Central Canada Exhibition Association (CCEA), $1.7 million from federal and provincial governments; and $720,000 from money earmarked for the building’s demolition.
But the $2.8 million from the CCEA was not guaranteed. The money was being accumulated by the Ex, with the help of the city, to pay for its move from Lansdowne to a new location, and exhibition chairman Dwayne Acres, an Osgoode farmer, was disinclined to hand it over: “It’s money that is not theirs, it’s ours,” he told reporters.
The city offered to extend the Ex’s lease on Lansdowne Park, set to expire in 1993, if it agreed to help save the Aberdeen. But on May 6, 1992, the CCEA voted 17-16 against that idea.
Some believed the compromise plan was finished, but not Watson. He went to the Glebe Community Association in search of support for a new compromise. The association was anxious to see the Ex leave the neighbourhood, but it had also been vocal in its support of the pavilion.
What if saving the Aberdeen meant putting up with the Ex for another decade? Watson asked. The GCA said it could live with that idea.
Meanwhile, O’Neill, Watson and other councillors who sat on the CCEA lobbied the board to support the new plan, which would extend the Ex’s hold on Lansdowne for another decade at $1 a year. The councillors had also discovered that the Ex’s $2.8 million relocation fund would legally revert to the city if the exhibition had not moved by the end of 1993. It gave the city lobbyists a powerful trump card.
With no prospect of finding a new site before the looming deadline, the CCEA agreed to a modified deal.
With the financing in place, the compromise proposal went to city council for a final decision. On July 2, 1992 — exactly 30 years ago today — council voted 10-6 to rescue the Aberdeen Pavilion from oblivion. (As a bonus, it also saved the Horticulture Building from the wrecking ball.)
But there remained one significant question: Could anyone actually fix the dilapidated pavilion for $5.3 million?
Enter architect Julian Smith, a well-known expert in heritage conservation. He met with Watson.
“As soon as we met, we were on the same wavelength,” remembers Smith. “We were both interested in what is the most basic thing we can do to achieve a future for the building.”
Smith arranged to examine the condemned pavilion. He found the building oddly claustrophobic since a low, dropped ceiling had been added; any windows not broken were painted over.
Smith climbed above the temporary ceiling to get a look at the building’s gable roof, and was immediately concerned by sunshine streaming through the holes that pockmarked it.
“You could see these pinpoints of light all around,” remembers Smith, who was worried the holes were caused by rust. “I knew that if the whole building was rusting, it was at the end of its life: It’s all metal work. The city couldn’t possibly afford to do a reproduction of the Aberdeen.”
He found a ladder and climbed into the rafters only to discover the holes were perfectly round, and untouched by rust. (It turned out Ex workers scared the pigeons out of the building every year by taking shots at them.)
Smith was thrilled: “It was evidence,” he says, “that the galvanizing was really good.” At the time, galvanized steel was relatively new, and because there was no advanced process for applying the protective layer of zinc, the pavilion’s metal had been doused with a thick coating, which had protected it through decades of neglect. The building’s metal was still solid.
Further investigation showed the building’s concrete piers, upon which its steel trusses rested, had less than one-inch of variation across the length of the site. “That impressed me because Lansdowne was a bit of a marsh,” he says. The piers would not have to be replaced.
“I realized this is a building that was inherently structurally sound,” Smith remembers. “Most of the building was salvageable the way it was. I realized it could be brought back to life without huge expense…I knew that building would show its value if it was just given a chance.”
Watson says Smith played a critical role in saving Aberdeen: “He was really brilliant in trying to hold the whole thing together and make it affordable because the last thing we wanted was for this thing to go way overboard.”
Says Hume: “We knew at the time that if it wasn’t within the budget, we were lost.”
Smith’s restoration plan meant the construction bids ultimately came in below budget.
Late that year, renovations began. Construction crews wearing hazmat suits cleaned out a one-metre pile of pigeon guano from the pavilion’s dome. The building’s false ceiling was removed, thousands of broken panes of glass were replaced, new rafters put in place, and three layers of paint added.
Watson visited the site constantly. “I was obsessed with seeing the progress made on the site: It was like having a new house built,” he says. “I took a sense of pride: This was something that most people had written off; they said we’d never find a compromise.”
Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn presided over the ceremony to mark the pavilion’s official reopening on June 27, 1994.
The story of the Aberdeen Pavilion holds important lessons. Hume says it demonstrates that politicians need to look both to the past and the future when making decisions. “Municipal government work endures for generations so you have to have the vision to say, ‘Here’s what I think this could be,” he says.
O’Neill says the story speaks to the need for compromise in politics. Watson views it as evidence of the power of broad-based coalitions. “It worked out,” he says. “The building still stands.”
Indeed, more than 120 years after it was built, and exactly 30 years after it was saved, the Aberdeen Pavilion still reigns over Lansdowne Park: a shining beacon when the sun is high and a complex of shadows when its low. The building’s quicksilver beauty knows every time of day, and all seasons.
We are fortunate to still have it.
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