Ottawa Is Right on the Fairmont Château Laurier Expansion

July 17, 2019   Robert Gmeiner

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The Fairmont Château Laurier is an aesthetically pleasing, historic hotel in downtown Ottawa, Ontario, Canada adjacent to the Canadian Parliament’s buildings. It overlooks the Ottawa River and is situated above the locks on the Rideau Canal. The hotel is built in the French Gothic Revival style, which is very complementary to the Parliament buildings.

There has been an uproar in the city recently over a plan to expand the hotel. The proposed expansion is in a very different style and is defined by prominent vertical lines, looking not unlike a radiator. As could be expected, many Ottawans fear this will be an eyesore in a historic area. Many are not opposed to the expansion, but want it to be in a style similar to the existing structure. The opposition to the expansion became so intense that there was a movement to revoke the permit for the expansion until a better-liked design was presented. The Ottawa City Council voted down the motion by a margin of 13 to 10.

Rendering of the new design for the Fairmont Château Laurier.

The city council’s decision was supported by Mayor Jim Watson, who pointed out that the hotel is privately owned and said that responsibility for the expansion rested with the owner. Mayor Watson is actually incorrect and the city does have a say in the matter and had intervened over earlier iterations of the proposal for the expansion. Because of the building’s historic status, the city actually had more power than it otherwise would have. This power over changes to historic areas exists in many cities besides Ottawa and not just in Canada.

Now that the city council has voted and the expansion may proceed, many Ottawans are upset. The city could have appeased them and this may be looked at as a political shortcoming. Ottawa did respect property rights, even though it didn’t have to. The mayor was factually inaccurate regarding the city’s power, but was rightly supportive of the hotel owner’s property rights. Government authority can easily be misused for political gain; the Ottawa City Council’s decision is a rare show of restraint in favor of property rights.

As a final note, it should be kept in mind that guidelines (not laws) published by Canada’s government for historic preservation are that additions to historic structures should have a distinct appearance from and be subordinate to the original structure. The proposed expansion does just that, but there were many forms it could have taken. Perhaps some other ideas would have been more palatable to the citizens of Ottawa.

https://www.citylab.com/design/2019/07/ottawa-hotel-chateau-laurier-design-controversy-debate/593950/

https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/pages/standards-normes.aspx