The Blackburn Building

PCO employees work in several recognized heritage buildings

Location: 85 Sparks Street

Image: Blackburn Building built between 1911 and 1913
Blackburn Building
Built between 1911 and 1913

One of Ottawa's first high-rises, the Blackburn Building has been home to various federal departments – including the Privy Council Office – for almost a century.

Built between 1911 and 1913, this elegant, 10-storey ‘skyscraper' symbolized a new era of business development in Ottawa's downtown core. At the time, it was the tallest building outside of Parliament Hill.

The new complex combined the safety and modern amenities of steel frame construction with the Neo-classical architecture of the Beaux Arts style.

The building was originally named the Union Bank Building, after its first major tenant. However, it soon began to carry the name of the Blackburn family – prominent, local entrepreneurs who promoted their vision for the building and paid for its development.

The Blackburn Building was named a Recognized Federal Heritage Building in 1986.


Photo: Blackburn Building 2002
Blackburn Building 2002
Photo by Céline Legault

The earliest plans for the Blackburn Building date back to 1907. At that time, Robert and Russell Blackburn commissioned Ottawa architect W.E. Noffke to design a seven-storey hotel for the corner of Metcalfe and Sparks Streets.

By 1910, the concept for the project had expanded. This time, the Blackburns were ready to go ahead and asked Noffke to come up with plans for a 10-storey combination hotel, office and retail block.

Construction of the Blackburn Building took place in three phases. The imprint of the building's staged construction can be seen in the building's exterior features:

  • Phase I – a seven-storey, 45-foot wide section on Metcalfe Street
  • Phase II – the base storey along Sparks Street
  • Phase III – the top three storeys on Metcalfe Street and the remaining Sparks Street section

Once completed, the new complex provided the Sparks Street business district with a hotel, restaurant, several ground-floor shops and access to extensive, modern office space.

The building's top floor was designed as a ballroom and offered an excellent view of Parliament Hill during social gatherings.


Photo: Blackburn Building 2002
Blackburn Building 2002
Photo by Céline Legault

The Blackburn Building is a typical example of early skyscraper construction in Canada.

Key features included:

  • Steel and concrete frame technology
  • A Neo-classical façade made of Stanstead granite and Bedford stone
  • A three-part composition with decorative subcornices defining each section
  • Modernized columns alternated by large expanses of glass
  • Bronze window frames and balconies
  • Ornamental stonework on the fretwork, cornices and crown of the building
  • Decorative tile and marble work in the ground floor lobby and hallways
  • Modern elevators, waste paper chutes and concealed wiring for telephones and telegraphs
  • Size: 132 ft. by 91 ft.

Alterations over the years have taken away some of the building's original grandeur. While the bronze window frames are still visible on the ground level, the rest have been replaced by aluminium. A new fascia and upper cornice led to the removal of the lion-head medallions that lined the original top cornice.

In 1977, a plexiglass bridge was built to connect the building to the Langevin Block. A year later, the ceilings were raised on the top floor ballroom to enable the creation of an 11th floor.

The Architect

W.F. Noffke was a distinguished Ottawa-area architect who designed several prestigious commercial buildings and Ottawa homes in the early 20th century. These included the:

  • Lansdowne Park Dairy Building (1905) and grandstand (1909)
  • Ogilvy Store (1906)
  • Central Post Office (1939)

He also collaborated with Moses C. Edey on the Aberdeen Pavilion (1898) and the Daly Building (1905).

The Developers

Photo: Blackburn Building 2002
Blackburn Building 2002
Photo by Céline Legault

Robert and Russell Blackburn were members of a prominent Ottawa business family.

Several generations of Blackburns were known throughout the region for their lumber, mining and real estate interests. The brothers' father, Robert Blackburn Sr., was an accomplished businessmen and politician:

  • Reeve of Gloucester Township (1864)
  • Liberal Member of Parliament (Russell, 1874 to 1878)
  • Founding director and first vice-president of the Bank of Ottawa
  • Lead role in developing Centretown (south of Laurier Ave and north of the Glebe)
  • Founder of Blackburn Hamlet, to the east of Ottawa

The Blackburn name brought prestige to the building.

Key Links

Federal Heritage Buildings Review Office