A new roots activist group “Protect the Chateau Laurier (PTCL)”, founded by former City of Ottawa councilman Peter Harris and built heritage advocate Robin Collins, are spearheading a movement to have the historic landmark Chateau Laurier hotel adjacent Parliament Hill in Ottawa brought back into the Crown portfolio.
In June of 2019 the City of Ottawa Built Heritage Sub-Committee approved a Heritage Permit for a building addition to the Chateau.
Mayor Watson wanted the project to proceed; despite its’ abject failure to protect heritage attributes as required by the Ontario Heritage Act (OHA) – the Chateau was Designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1980 – and in the face of considerable public opposition.
The proposed addition immediately became known disparagingly in public discourse as “The Radiator” because… well, it sort of looked like a radiator. Designed by Toronto condominium architect Peter Clewes, its’ design DNA seemed to come from the 1970’s, not dissimilar to Manulife Tower at 220 Laurier Avenue West (completed in 1975). While Manulife Tower is not an unattractive structure; it is an office building, not a National Treasure. The standards are different. Clewes defended his design by saying that it bridged the cultural divide between past and future… but few outside City Hall were buying it.
The Chateau owners Capital Hotel LP; a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Larco Investments, were not prepared to consider further design changes.
Larco investments is owned by the billionaire Lalji family, who came to Canada as refugees from Uganda during the 1970’s. Larco is the same company that acquired seven Crown-owned office buildings for $1.4 billion in a 2007 Conservative Budget deficit yard-sale lease-back deal.
Prominent Ottawa heritage architect Barry Padolsky addressed an open letter to Prime Minister Trudeau, pleading for intervention and describing the proposed addition as “visual vandalism”. He requested Federal action to demand a revised design and suggested a national design competition befitting a Canadian heritage landmark.
Tom Axworthy, former Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Secretary General of the InterAction Council wrote an open letter calling upon “…all those in a position to influence or decide the issue of how best to improve the Château Laurier hotel, to respect that patrimony by making heritage preservation the precondition of any plan or design. Our predecessors did so; and we must be the stewards of that precious gift.”
Navigator Limited Media Relations Director John Fenton refused to either confirm or deny the rumour that Larco had retained its’ services in connection with the Chateau Laurier debacle. Navigator specializes in Crisis Management services.
This eventually led to a civil lawsuit against Larco by Heritage Ottawa, to oppose the addition, funded by donations of $150,000 by a concerned public. Heritage Ottawa retained Michael Polowin of Gowling WLG and co-council Marc Denhez, to act on its’ behalf. The lawsuit would oppose the requisite Minor Variance related to Heritage Overlay, and seek to overturn Larcos’ Heritage Permit on the basis that it failed to conform to the requirements of the OHA.
Now Heritage Ottawa and Larco have reached an agreement on a new design.
Heritage Ottawa announced, “The proposed new addition is not a historical replica, which Heritage Ottawa never advocated, but it is more compatible with the hotel’s composition and irregular silhouette. In the end, we have a new work that meets the important guideline that it be ‘physically and visually compatible with, subordinate to and distinguishable from the historic place.’”
This is a key point in the Chateau battle. Design parameters for additions to heritage buildings in Canada are guided by a Parks Canada publication, “Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada” – which requires that additions must be compatible… but “distinguishable from the historic place”.
Therein the latest Chateau furor is birthed. Any addition conforming to the Parks Canada guidelines will likely be unacceptable to those who want to maintain its’ Chateauesque architectural style, in that a Chateauesque-style addition would probably not be “distinguishable”.
Consider the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec, heralded as the most photographed hotel in the world, it is most famous tourist attraction (worldwide) in the city. Built in 1893, it has had numerous additions over the years, all of which appear somewhat homogenous (to the untrained eye) with the original architecture. Although hugely popular, it could be argued that it doesn’t really conform with the prescribed Parks Canada guidelines.
Comparing the proposed Chateau Laurier addition with the Chateau Frontenac, some feel that Minister Wilkinson should give the guidelines a re-think.
Another player in the Chateau storey is UNESCO, which designated the adjacent Rideau Canal as a World Heritage Site.
In February it was reported that UNESCO had requested a reassessment of the project in a letter from Mechtild Rössler, director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre. UNESCO warned that the proposed Chateau addition “could have a significantly negative impact on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and should not proceed until their full impacts have been assessed”, based upon a technical evaluation by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).
PTCL are unhappy with the new design concept, and want the City of Ottawa to put a hold on the project pending a decision by the federal government to nationalize the Chateau and place it within the NCC portfolio. While the Heritage Ottawa agreement with Larco has effectively muzzled the heritage community, PTCL question its’ legality. Since Heritage Ottawa doesn’t have a mandate to represent the public, the agreement has no force beyond Heritage Ottawa and Larco.
A petition started by Collins to “protect the Chateau Laurier’s classic look” has 13,666 signatures as of December 4th.
The PTCL Facebook site provides contact details for members of government, and requests Canadians to “tell your M.P. you want the federal government to intervene and protect the Chateau Laurier. Phone the office of Justin Trudeau.”
The new proposed design will now require approval by LPAT and the City of Ottawa. The City is currently requesting public and technical comments on the new design proposal by December 23rd.
PTCL urges every Canadian to respond.
Harris has a message for Prime Minister Trudeau, “Your father showed vision of Ottawa as a world class capital that resulted in the National Art Gallery and Museum of Canadian History? in the shadow of Parliament Hill. Share his vision Justin. Protect the Chateau Laurier.”