It’s Time to Consider Federal Expropriation of the Chateau
When Larco Investments purchased the Chateau Laurier in 2013 they assured the public that no major changes would be made, only refurbishments, and the structure would be preserved.[i] This was, after all, an historic Canadian treasure, part of the national Parliamentary precinct. Politicians, celebrities, wedding parties and citizens from across the globe come to the “castle hotel” because of the way it looks, as much as for its central location beside Parliament Hill and above the historic Rideau canal.
The Chateau, Parliament and a family of buildings along Wellington Street share greening copper roofs, turrets and much history. They represent a range of architectural styles, from Beaux-Arts (Union Station, Wellington Building) to Gothic Revival (Parliament, Justice and Confederation Buildings), Second Empire (Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council) Modern Classicism with Chateau features (Supreme Court) to French Gothic Revival Chateauesque (in the case of the Chateau Laurier).
Despite its placement within this rich architectural heritage, the owners of The Chateau have proposed to attach a series of contemporary designs – the most recent one being very close in appearance to the rejected first proposal.
A range of people has been involved in trying to block Larco’s apparent obsession with a boxy addition to the hotel. We have included prominent architects, heritage organizations, academics, celebrities, politicians, half of Ottawa City Council, columnists – and many thousands of Ottawans and other citizens across Canada.
Heritage Ottawa engaged in a legal process out of which came an agreement between that organization and the owners. While this agreement has no legal basis beyond Heritage Ottawa and Larco, unfortunately it has effectively muzzled many heritage advocates in Ottawa. For that reason, a group of supporters of the Chateau Laurier has stepped forward with a refreshed campaign — to build support to place ownership of the hotel in federal government hands until heritage legislation is established to protect the iconic building.
Heritage Guidelines are not Regulations
A core argument has been that any Chateau Laurier addition must be “compatible” with, but also “distinguishable” from, the original structure — two words with ambiguous meanings. These terms are excerpted from the “Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada” which is a guidance document, and not a set of mandatory regulations.
The purpose of this document is to help “create a culture of conservation to preserve Canada’s unique and irreplaceable heritage for successive generations.” The language was not designed to offer arguments for building new structures onto historic buildings, but to preserve our heritage. In fact, the guidance document also states unambiguously that: “The construction of an exterior addition in an historic place may seem essential for a proposed new use, but the Guidelines emphasize that such new additions should be avoided, if possible, and considered only after it is determined that those needs cannot be met on another site …”
But further: “Any addition should be designed so that the heritage value of the historic place is not impaired, and its character-defining elements are not obscured, damaged or destroyed.”
Unfortunately, this effort by Parks Canada to preserve and protect is being mis-used to disqualify two clear options that are consistent with preservation and conservation, and that are also the most popular ones: Either a replica addition (something in the Chateauesque style), or no addition at all (leave the hotel alone, as is.)
The guidelines state that a new addition to an historic place should “conserve the heritage value and character-defining elements” and be “physically and visually compatible with, subordinate to and distinguishable from the historic place.”
Advocates of a new boxy “contemporary” addition have focused on the word “distinguishable” because (they argue) this implies that any new addition must not look like the existing building.
The purpose of conservation (as the guidelines make clear) is to preserve, rehabilitate or restore. In the case of the Chateau Laurier, through “rehabilitation” the owner is seeking to increase revenue through expansion, even if that harms the “character-defining elements”. The guidelines define rehabilitation as “the action or process of making possible a continuing or compatible contemporary use of an historic place, or an individual component, while protecting its heritage value”
But here are the contexts provided by the guidelines: “Rehabilitation can revitalize historical relationships and settings and is therefore more appropriate when heritage values related to the context of the historic place dominate.”
Additional Standard #11 addresses a new addition to the Chateau Laurier, which clarifies that any addition must
- not obscure, radically change or have a negative impact on character-defining materials, forms, uses or spatial configurations.
- [show] physical compatibility with the historic place.
- be visually compatible with, yet distinguishable from, the historic place. To accomplish this, an appropriate balance must be struck between mere imitation of the existing form and pointed contrast, thus complementing the historic place in a manner that respects its heritage value.
- be subordinate to the historic place. This is best understood to mean that the addition must not detract from the historic place or impair its heritage value.
The guidelines, in other words, recommend (they do not legislate) that an addition should neither “merely imitate” nor strongly “contrast”, but it should be somewhere in-between. By any normal reading, that means we should be able to tell the new from the old but the new should not significantly differ from the old, (as would a contemporary structure against a heritage structure), and cannot have a negative impact nor diminish heritage values.
Two options that would best fit that guidance would be:
- A close replica addition in the “chateau” style; or
- No addition at all.
What Do Most People Want?
While no scientific poll has been done, we do have credible evidence from online responses within heritage webpages, from the names assigned to a petition, and by radio talk-show messaging. Comments on Facebook sites such as Lost Ottawa and Ottawa Pics – Past and Present (with a combined membership of 65,000 people, mostly from the National Capital Region) significantly skew in the direction of dismissing Larco’s proposed additions. The online petition to protect the Chateau Laurier has more than 13,500 signatures. Radio talk show host Dahlia Kurtz informed us that never had their radio station received more calls on any subject in its history than for the Chateau controversy, with all call-ins save one being opposed to the Larco proposal.
On the other hand, aside from a minority band of opinion tied to support for a “contemporary” addition, there is no evidence of broad support for any proposals Larco’s architects have put forward. Even marginal support for the last proposal was based primarily on minor improvements over the preceding proposal — the “prison wall” structure which blocked off the inner court, and that was universally condemned.
Based on hundreds of comments online and attached to the petition, a compatible, replica-like addition would be popular (as would no addition to the current building at all.) There are many examples of Canadian railway and other iconic hotels where extensions were added that replicated or mimicked the original architectural style. Five examples appear in the appendix: The Royal York (Toronto), The Lord Elgin (Ottawa), The Fairmont Lake Louise, The Fairmont Empress (Victoria) and The Hotel Frontenac (Quebec City).
The position that only something entirely different, modernist and brash, could be a suitable gesture to the original Chateau Laurier architecture, is a narrow interpretation and not a widely held point of view. Indeed, the guidelines (which are not regulations) do not prohibit replica-like additions to the Chateau Laurier as some are suggesting. Unfortunately, Heritage Ottawa’s President stated in support of the last Larco proposal in August 2020: “From the beginning we have called for an appropriate contemporary architecture that respects the heritage characteristics of the hotel, and we are pleased with this result.”
Perhaps worse, the heritage organization further clarified: “The proposed new addition is not a historical replica, which Heritage Ottawa never advocated, but it is more compatible [than previous proposals] with the hotel’s composition and irregular silhouette.” It is not clear by what decision process the historical replica option was discarded outright, for that resolute statement seems in conflict with a heritage mandate.
While successful in achieving the goal of stopping the penultimate design Larco put forward (i.e. “the wall”), Heritage Ottawa also appears to have excluded the two options most (not all, but most) citizens prefer: a near replica in the French Chateau-style; or no addition at all.
There have been admirable contemporary additions to other Ottawa heritage buildings that many believe have been successful, including to Union Station, to the Bank of Canada building, and to the National Arts Centre. But these are not the Chateau Laurier, nor do they share the unique French Gothic Revival Chateauesque features of the iconic Canadian railway hotels that Ottawans want protected.
Beyond a particular ideological fascination that favours only contemporary (e.g. modernist) additions to iconic buildings, there is no compelling logic nor obligation to ignore what most people want while protecting their heritage buildings. Quite the opposite.
So, Now What?
It’s taken several years so far to shuffle through a series of undesirable proposals from Larco Investments, the current owners of the Chateau Laurier.
Therefore, let’s take another pause to allow time for the federal government and its heritage authorities to consider other options.
One option that we strongly favour, is that the federal government purchase the Chateau Laurier property (through expropriation at going rates). This is not a new proposal. It was suggested earlier by our colleague Ken Grafton who wrote in 2019: “Few could argue that saving the Chateau Laurier is not in the public interest.”[ii] What is needed now, however, is political will. “Sometimes political will is created by public pressure,” Grafton pointed out.[iii]
Several prominent individuals have been supportive of expropriation, including former Liberal cabinet member David Collenette, Senator Jim Munson, Thomas Axworthy (in a letter he signed along with twenty others) and Carleton University professor and historian Randy Boswell.
Most see expropriation as a “last resort” option and this is appropriate. But we appear to have entered the phase of last resort, given Larco’s recoil from their original purchase promise not to significantly alter the building, and after efforts through other avenues to block their unloved proposals. (It should be mentioned that the last proposal was eerily similar to the first rejected proposal, making clear that Larco’s architects do not intend to change course.)
Part of our dilemma, however, rests in the absence of real regulations that protect Canadian heritage properties (whether private or public.) This underlying problem needs quick and effective resolution through legislation.
The “Political Problem” of Expropriation
We should acknowledge at the outset that expropriation of private property, while not unusual in Canada, nor in Ottawa, is not a popular government action in some circles. This is particularly true at a time of deep deficits due to COVID19. Therefore, any federally-mandated purchase should be undertaken only after other measures to protect the structure fail, as is the current situation.
To further assuage concerns, the federal government could guarantee up front that the process would sequence as follows: Purchase, Protect, Sell/Co-Manage. Expropriation would be followed by the swift establishment of clear regulations that would protect the Chateau Laurier so that no “contemporary” addition can ever in future be stapled onto the building. Then, if desired, the Chateau could be re-sold, or the running of the hotel would be contracted out to a management company (in fact, Fairmont currently manages the Chateau Laurier on behalf of Larco.) There are other options as well. [iv]
We believe that this is a reasonable and coherent way to protect the Chateau Laurier far into the future, so her iconic architecture, history and vistas can be treasured and shared for many more generations.
[i] “The new owners have said they would not make any visible changes to the hotel, though they would refurbish the building over time.” https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/ottawa-s-iconic-fairmont-ch%C3%A2teau-laurier-hotel-sold-1.2335695
[ii] See Andrew Duffy’s Ottawa Citizen article, August 6, 2019 “Should the Chateau Laurier be nationalized?”
[iii] A recent op-ed by Grafton, “Protect the Chateau Laurier Group Fronting Effort to Nationalize Historic Canadian Landmark” can be found here: https://www.nationalnewswatch.com/2020/12/05/protect-the-chateau-laurier-group-fronting-effort-to-nationalize-historic-canadian-landmark/#.X9ED1dj0mMo
[iv] Other options include: Acquisition by the Crown Corporation PSP Investments; Expropriation of the rear portion of property; Swapping for other properties managed by Canada Lands.
Appendix: Familiar Replica-like Additions