Chateau Laurier addition is an affront to property’s heritage

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Raymond De SouzaArchitecture, even of privately-held buildings, is never entirely a private affair. What’s built affects not only those who live and work in the buildings, but passersby from the neighbourhood and, in the case of downtown Ottawa, from across the country.

Even more is it the case with Ottawa’s grand dame of Wellington Street – the Chateau Laurier. Due to proximity, history and architectural grandeur, it’s often, thought to be part of the parliamentary precinct itself.

Given the prominent events that have taken place there – Jean Chretien literally cooked up the 1982 Constitution Act during a late-night meeting in the kitchen – it has been referred to as the “third chamber” of Parliament.

Many Canadians will have heard that the Chateau Laurier wants to expand, adding 127 rooms on the back. The proposed addition looks like a giant air conditioner or shipping container. Everyone, save for those on the payroll of the owners and those officially charged with preserving our heritage buildings, thinks it ugly and entirely out of place.

It beggars belief that the Chateau Laurier is proposing exactly what its sister Fairmont property, the Hotel MacDonald in Edmonton, went through.

When the first oil boom hit, the hotel struggled to keep up with demand, and so affixed to the side of the MacDonald in 1953 was a 200-room extension. Widely criticized, it came to be known as the “box” in which the Hotel MacDonald came in. In the 1980s, the monstrosity was torn down.

One doesn’t want to wait 30 years for the Chateau Laurier “box” to meet the same deserved fate.

When discussing a hotel chain that dates to the time Victoria ruled as queen and empress, it’s impossible to resist a reference to the emperor’s new clothes. Experts tell us that what’s proposed is sound according to enlightened principles of design. Ordinary people can be cowed by experts, but eventually see they’re being fed a load of nonsense. Except that, in this case, the nonsense was so apparent that ordinary Ottawa residents balked from the beginning.

Larco Investments, which owns the Chateau Laurier, hired a former Ottawa city planner to shepherd its proposal. He knew the people and the process. Dismissing those who wanted the extension built in the same “Chateau style” as desiring a “Disneyland copy,” Larco managed to get city planners to give the okay.

All across the country, owners of heritage properties who have to fight with heritage committees over replacing aging windows or railings will be astonished that the Chateau Laurier got a heritage permit for the ghastly extension.

The blame doesn’t lie entirely with city staff. City council, which could have blocked the project early on, approved it last summer with final plans unseen, leaving adjustments of those plans to city staff. Parks Canada and the National Capital Commission also could have weighed in at an early stage, but vacated the field, claiming it’s a municipal matter.

A last-ditch effort to get Ottawa city council to withdraw the heritage permit for the project is not expected to proceed. Larco has promised “costly litigation” if the permit is withdrawn at this late stage.

“It is their property, no matter how much you dislike [the design],” said Coun. Rick Chiarelli.

Yes and no. It’s their property until they attempt to permit smoking inside, refuse to have disabled parking spaces or any one of a thousand regulations.

While Larco owns the Chateau Laurier, it doesn’t belong exclusively to them, as they knew when they bought it. Indeed, it’s likely they bought it in part because it belongs to the entire history and human geography of Ottawa. Which means that Larco is not merely an owner, but a steward.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around – Parks Canada, National Capital Commission, city council – the primary blame for this assault on the Chateau Laurier belongs with its owner, Larco.

It’s still vandalism if you do it to your own house.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium and a Cardus senior fellow.

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Cardus is a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture. It works to enrich and challenge public debate through research, events, and publications.

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