At the time this article was
written Stephen Delroy was Curator of the House of Commons and Audrey Dubé was
Document and Reference Curator.
The operation of a legislature
not only demands a chamber but also halls, offices and special rooms.
Similarly, political factors affect the size, location style and embellishment
of special rooms. Not surprisingly, changes in political operations and
attitudes lead to changes in the use and, therefore, the art, furnishing and
architecture of special rooms. Thus on September 30, 1990 the former
Parliamentary Reading Room was converted to a committee room. This article
outlines the historical evolultion of one corner of Canada's Parliament
The tradition of a reading room for
the House of Commons and for the Senate predates Confederation. Before
Confederation, the Parliament of the united Province of Canada moved from one
city to another. Between August 1852 and February 1854, it met at the Hôtel du
Parlement in Quebec City. On the ground floor besides a committee room, a
conference room and a library, two large reading rooms were reserved for
members of the Legislative Assembly and for members of the Legislative Council.1
In 1859 the architects Thomas
Fuller and Chilion Jones submitted their plans for the Parliament buildings in
Ottawa. These plans included a reading room at the north end of each house.2
However, it was not until 1882 that the reading room of the House of Commons
was moved into a larger place occupied previously by the Supreme Court and by
the Library of Parliament. This large room (35 ft. x 70 ft.), designed
originally as the Picture Gallery, afforded a good reading room for the members
of the House of Commons and at the same time served as an addition to the
overcrowded library.3 Filled with newspapers, periodicals and with a
collection of 20,000 books in its upper gallery, this was the starting place of
the fire that destroyed the Centre Block in 1916.
At its first meeting, the Joint
Committee on the Reconstruction of Parliament Building examined three sets of
plans. Each one gave appropriate space and strategic locations to the reading
The new reading room (40 ft. x 65
ft.) of the House of Commons designed by architects John A. Pearson and Jean O.
Marchand, was larger that the Senate reading room since there would be more
members in the Commons.
For seventy years this room
provided parliamentarians, staff, and members of the press gallery with an extensive
collection of Canadian and foreign newspapers and periodicals including
numerous local weekly papers.
After its creation, the reading
room fell under the jurisdiction of the Clerk of the House of Commons who
reported directly to the Speaker. In 1954, following a recommendation put
forward by the Internal Economy Committee, it was placed under the authority of
the Library of Parliament.5 The Joint Committee on the Library was
also ready to accept the responsibility for the Senate reading room but the Upper
House declined the offer. To emphasize that it was accessible to all
Parliamentarians, the House of Commons Reading Room became known as the
Parliamentary Reading Room.
This change of jurisdiction took
place during the restoration of the Library of Parliament, after the 1952 fire.
For four years part of the Reading Room was assigned to the Library of
Parliament, as a central office where they assembled a collection of books and
documents to give members a quick reference service.6
During the same period, the library
stored part of its collection, in a smaller room that connected the first floor
of the House of Commons with the Library.7 This would become the new
Parliamentary Reading Room (134-N) after September 1990.
The size and strategic location of
the Reading Room in 1920 reflected the growing size and importance of the House
compared to the Senate. Similarly the recent rise in the importance of House
committees has resulted in its conversion as a committee room close to the Commons
Chamber. Other special rooms have also been affected by changing needs. The
Commonwealth Room next door used to be a Smoking Room. The new committee room
will also give the public freer access to one of Parliament's most elegant
heritage rooms. This is part of the political process of making Parliament more
accessible to the Canadian public.
The architects, particularly
Pearson gave considerable thought and particular attention to the embellishment
of the structure and were very concerned with the finishing of the interior
decoration. The work had to be "carried out to his own design and under
Numerous additions and changes to
the original scheme of the interior finish were put before the Joint Committee
on Reconstruction of the Parliament Building by Pearson and approved in most
cases. These changes were intended to make the rooms more distinctive in
character and to add to their value and beauty.
It was said of Pearson that he
would not hesitate to spend time working on all the innumerable perfections of
constructional and architectural details to produce masterpieces.9
The edifice offers not only a diversity of gothic decor but also rooms clothed
with a touch of classicism. The Reading Room was one of the largest Special
rooms and received a more elaborate architectural treatment and decoration than
its counterpart the Railway Committee Room.
Located in a strategic place, it is
accessible through the Hall of Honour, the north corridor and the Commonwealth
Room. The small corridor leading to the room displays a groined vault ornated
with bosses at the intersection of its ribs, and with corbels representing ten
outstanding parliamentary correspondents. This project initiated by Public
Works in 1949 and completed in 1950 was meant to echo the role of the room and
to honor past journalists who had made their mark as founders and editorial
writers of Canadian newspapers. Most of them also became involved in politics.
Grattan O'Leary, who was one of the first journalists to comment on the rare
combination of comfort and beauty of the design of the new reading room after
its completion, probably never thought that he might later be a subject of the
parliamentary stone carver Cleophas Soucy.
As one enters the room, one is
struck by the elegance of the decor, its proportions, and its materials all in
keeping with the Beaux-Arts monumental interpretation of classical forms.
The lower half of the room is
panelled with oak tinted reddish-brown. The woodwork, executed by T.H. Hancock
was started in January 1920 and completed in time for the opening of Parliament
the following month.10 The whole installation was supervised by the
general contractor P. Lyall and Sons.
The upper portion consists of
flattened pilasters infilled with painted panels and with 9-pane windows on the
long sides, which provide clerestory lighting. The walls of imitation Bath
stone are provided with decorative elements such as swags, masks and pilasters
crowned with corinthian capitals. These decorative elements elegantly frame the
In March 1920, Pearson explained to
the Joint Committee on Reconstruction his scheme to decorate the Reading Room
with mural paintings. It is interesting to note that the blueprint of 1919
giving specifications for the room had indicated "tapestry" rather
than painted panels.11 He requested the authority to expend the sum
of $19,000.00 and engage the "Canadian artist", Arthur Crisp to carry
out the decorative scheme.
Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1881,
Crisp went south to live and to further his studies at the Art Student's League
of New York. Mural decoration was his medium. When Pearson hired him, Crisp was
well known in his field through commissions for theaters, hotels, public
buildings, schools, and private residences and had won many awards. Aside from
murals he did portrait, and landscape painting, and even won distinction as a
In July 1921, Crisp brought some of
the panels to the site (they were shipped from New York) and installed them;
the large panels were completed by him during his visit.12 The
entire project consisting of 17 panels was finished in March 1922. The most
prominent of the paintings are the ones on the south and north walls.
The warm colors (earth tones along
with shades of green, ochre, and turquoise) play a key role in creating the
atmosphere of the room. When the murals were installed, critics described them
as typical of Crisp's bold and colorful style.13
Two panels celebrate the art of
printing. The dominant one capped with a pediment above the fireplace is entitled
"The Spirit of the Printed Word". It is an admirable symbolic sketch
representing the diffusion of knowledge. The symbolic figure holds up the torch
of knowledge, and a mirror reflecting the news of the world. "The boys
represent mechanical phases; the globes show the British Empire picked out in
red. The dove represents good news; the messenger pigeon, transmission of news;
the raven, disastrous news". 14
Across the room is "The
Printed Word", a more literal companion panel that expresses the purpose
of a reading room devoted to Canadian newspapers. This painting celebrates the
achievements of the press. Pictured is a circa-1920 press with a group of
pressmen examining a proof-sheet. This represents the printing industry in
Canada and the dissemination of information concerning the affairs of the
Four other murals portraying
epochal development of Canada are located in the corners of the room. They
East – the movement of grain, fruit and fish through Canadian seaports
illustrates commercial activity in this region.
South – the agricultural activity is depicted by fertile fruit farms and
grain fields. The panel was created at a time when grain fields symbolized
Ontario rather than the Prairies.
West – the lumber industry is represented by a typical British Columbia
North – voyageurs and fur trappers represent exploration and hunting
The ceiling of the Reading Room was
temporarily decorated for the opening of Parliament. In May 1919, Pearson
received permission to employ a sculptor to make the models for the ornaments
of the ceilings in the House of Commons Chamber, the Reading Room, the
Commonwealth room, Parliamentary Restaurant and the private dining rooms.15
Enrico F. Cerracchio was hired by
Pearson for the sum of $3,000.00 and a further commission ($8,000.00) was added
to this first contract on December of the same year to decorate other rooms.16
The artist, born in Italy in 1880, emigrated to the United States in 1900. His
principal works include statues, busts and commemorative monuments.
The effective cove ceiling in the
renaissance tradition enhances the beauty of this classical decor. Cartouches
framed with figures and rich mouldings displaying motifs such as scrolls and
palmettes are painted with soft tones. The fluorescent fixtures installed in
1947 have been an unfortunate addition. The figures in the tympan made of compo
over the main entrance door harmonize with the style of the ceiling.
The mantle of the fireplace of
black and gold marble with inlaid bands of sienna marble was provided by
Mariotti Marble Company of Montreal.17 It was impossible to use the
fireplace, since the flue was used as a fresh air duct. Recently, a gas fixture
was installed. The andirons as well as the club fender with upholstery seats
and brass insertions were executed by the iron master Paul Beau in 1925.18
Crafted into forms of grotesque, winged griffins and decorated with repoussé
designs, the huge andirons are resting on wide iron bars hammered into volutes.
The massive quality of these ornate pieces with the use of large rivets give
the ironwork a medieval appearance appropriate to the building.19
Originally the fireplace had all its accessories including an oak wood box with
beaten iron mounts. They were designed by John A. Pearson and L.S. Lemasne.
The elaboration of embellishment
here and elsewhere in the Parliamentary precinct was meant to symbolize the
dignity of Parliament as an institution.
The drawings, layouts and orders
for the furnishing of this room were made directly by the architect Pearson.
During 1990, a parquet of oak,
walnut and maple in a palace pattern replaced the linoleum flooring. The border
running around the room lacks a reddish tint which might have created a link
with the wall panelling.
The influence of politics on room
decoration is clear. The former Reading Room was the archetypical special room
and the architect devoted considerable personal attention to ensure that its
decoration echoed its reference function and yet symbolized the country as a
whole. Throughout the building, Canada is represented by groups of provincial
symbols to emphasize the confederate nature of the country.
Just as the historical and political
importance of railways are indicated by the very name of the Railway Committee
room across the Hall of Honour, so too the importance of journalism in the
political process is commemorated in the sculptured heads of the entrance way
to the Reading Room.
Parliament is both an historical
and a living institution. As a result both tradition and current use are
continually reflected in its art, artifacts and architecture.
1. Desgagnés, Michel. Les
édifices parlementaires depuis 1792. 2nd ed. Québec, Assemblée nationale du
Québec. 1979. p. 41.
2. Fuller and Jones. Parliament
Buildings, Ottawa: ground plan. In National Archives of Canada.
Cartographic and Architectural Archives Division, NMC 23174.
3. Annual Report of the Minister
of Public Works. Sessional Paper 1882, no. 7, p. X1V.
4. National Archives of Canada.
Cartographic and Architectural Archives Division, RG11 M, 87803/24 no. 1-32.
5. House of Commons Journals.
June 23, 1954. p. 801.
6. Annual Report of the Library of
Parliament. In House of Commons Journals. November 12, 1953. p.
8. National Archives. RG11, v.2671,
f. 1575-56A. Letter John A. Pearson to Dr. J.H. King. April 24, 1924.
9. Sullivan, Alan. John A. Pearson,
master builder. The Year Book of Canadian Art, 1913, p. 259.
10. National Archives. RG11,
v.2662, f. 1575-25B6. Reconstruction of Parliament Building. Contracts.
11. Pearson, John A. Commons
Reading Room. 1919. Public Works Canada. Records Preservation and Disposal.
Parliament Buildings drawing no. 7529A.
12. National Archives. RG11,
v.2658, f. 1575-25A9. Pearson, John A. Monthly Report, July 1921.
13. New mural paintings in the
Canadian House of Parliament are shown for the first time. Saturday Night
January 20, 1923.
15. National Archives. RG11, v.2656,
f. 1575-25A7. Pearson John A. Weekly Report, May 8, 1919.
16. National Archives. RG11,
v.2656, f. 1575-25A7. Pearson John A. Weekly Report, December 26, 1919.
17. Pearson, John A. Marble
mantle, Commons Reading Room. 1919. Public Works Canada. Records
Preservation and Disposal. Parliament Buildings drawing no. 5550.
18. Annual report of the Deputy
Minister of Public Works, 1925-1926. p. 6.
19. Pepall, Rosalind. Paul Beau
(1871-1949). Montréal, Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal, 1982. p. 13.