The Langevin Block from Yesterday to Today

PCO employees work in several recognized heritage buildings

Location: 80 Wellington Street

The Langevin Block is best known to Canadians as the working headquarters of the Prime Minister's Office and Privy Council Office.

Built between 1884 and 1889, the elegance of the Langevin Block reflected the ambitions of a young and growing Canada.

Located across from Parliament Hill, the building was the first federal government office built outside of the Parliamentary Precinct. It was named for Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, the Public Works Minister who oversaw its construction.

The Langevin Block is a designated National Historic Site. It is considered one of the finest surviving examples of the work of its architect – Thomas Fuller.

The building is owned by Public Works and Government Services Canada.

History

Photograph: Langevin Block ca.1890

The Langevin Block was built to solve the federal government's first office-space crunch.

Canada was growing in the 1880s and more workspace was needed for more Members of Parliament and civil servants. Every inch of the buildings on Parliament Hill was in use – even the basements and attics were squeezed full of offices!

In 1883, the Public Works minister suggested the construction of a new office building on Wellington Street. A new building located off of Parliament Hill would avoid the expense of having to conform to the existing Gothic-style buildings.

Its first occupants included the:

  • Department of the Interior and Indian Affairs (stayed until 1965)
  • Department of Agriculture
  • Patent Office and Model Rooms

Design Controversy and Construction Delays

The contract for the building was awarded in 1883 to Alphonse Charlebois of Hull. His bid was for $295,000, but the final costs for the building were over $700,000. The completion date was delayed several times. The Langevin Block finally opened its doors in 1889.

The choice of sandstone for the outside walls was a major point of frustration.

The architect, Thomas Fuller, was determined that the contractor use sandstone from Curryville, New Brunswick for the exterior of the building. The contractor objected to the expense and proposed local and regional sources of stone.

Architect and contractor struggled back and forth over the choice of stone for months. This caused further construction delays. Finally, the two men agreed on a warm olive-coloured sandstone from the Green and Fish quarry in New Brunswick.

In the end, the stone's unusual colour added to the distinctiveness of the building. Its durability and fine grain also made possible the superb carvings on the building's exterior.

Recent History

In 1975, the Prime Minister's Office and the Privy Council Office moved into the building. They have been the sole occupants ever since.

Fire threatened the Langevin Block in 1979. West winds carried sparks from a fire at the nearby Rideau Club and the building's roof caught fire.

While firefighters battled the blaze, a fleet of vans stood ready to remove documents from the Prime Minister's and Privy Council Offices.

Architecture

The Langevin Block's design is a variation of the Second Empire style. This type of building was popular in Canada in the 1870s and early 1880s.

Second Empire style public buildings were usually several storeys high and fairly long. Their facades were symmetrical and organized around a series of projecting portions or ‘pavilions.' They usually featured a steeply pitched mansard roof.

The design of the Langevin Block complemented the nearby Second Empire-style Post Office (later removed). It also fit well commercial and institutional structures that lined Wellington Street at the time.

The building's key features included:

Photograph: Carved chimney

  • Renaissance-Second Empire style design
  • Olive sandstone façade
  • Three pavilions and two symmetrical bays
  • Round-headed windows flanked with pink granite columns
  • Elaborately-decorated gabled dormers
  • Prominent cornices
  • Carved chimneys
  • Copper-clad mansard roof
  • Central entrance porch with rich ornamentation
  • Sweeping interior central staircase with wrought-iron balustrades
  • Large central corridors
  • Iron, brick and stone fireproof-constructionPhotograph: Cornice
  • Sub-basement, basement, three main floors and two-storey attic
  • An open top floor for the Patent Office's Model Room
  • Four elevators
  • Gas illumination, replaced by electricity in 1898
  • Size: 280 ft x 110 ft (99 ft on Metcalfe)

The building also featured large office spaces on each floor. This was intended to support modern concepts of office design at the time.

The Government wanted to arrange its clerks in a large office space so employees could collaborate on work matters more easily than if they were in separate offices. It was also thought this would make it easier for the head officer to supervise the clerks.

The Langevin Block was listed by the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada as one of Canada's top 500 buildings in its “Millennium Celebration of Canadian Architecture.”

Restoration Work

The Langevin Block has gone through various alterations over the years to adapt to changing tenant's needs. Major renovations have included:

  • 1938 – addition of a stone bridge to the Central Post Office
  • 1974/75 – updating of the mechanical and electrical systems (including air conditioning)
  • 1977 – addition of a metal-framed, plexiglass bridge to the Blackburn Building
  • 1992-94 – exterior restoration (including new copper roof, repairs of sandstone masonry, reconditioning of windows)

Every attempt was made during these renovations to maintain the building's heritage character.

The Architect

Image: Thomas Fuller

Thomas Fuller was one of Canada's most influential architects of the 19th century. Originally, from Bath, England, he immigrated to Canada in 1857. He initially set up a practice in Toronto where he gained recognition for his Gothic revival designs.

His best known works (in collaboration with Chilion Jones) included the:

  • Parliament Buildings and Library of Parliament in Ottawa (1859)
  • New York State Capitol in Albany, New York (1867)

Fuller developed an international reputation for his designs for public buildings in Canada and the United States.

He served as Canada's Dominion Chief Architect from 1881 to 1896. During that time he helped established a ‘federal style' with the design of over 140 federal government buildings in communities across the country.

Sir Hector-Louis Langevin

Photograph: Sir Hector Langevin

Sir Hector-Louis Langevin is best known as one of Canada's ‘Fathers of Confederation.'

A Québec journalist, lawyer and politician, he held a number of senior positions in the cabinets of Sir John A. Macdonald between 1867 and 1891. Among them:

  • Minister of the Interior and Indian Affairs
  • Postmaster General
  • Minister of Public Works

As Minister of Public Works he watched over countless building and infrastructure projects across the country. Many of these were important to the creation of Canada as a new nation.

The Langevin Block was one of his flagship projects. Originally known as the Southwest Departmental Building, it later came to bear his name.

Key Links

National Historic Sites

Public Works and Government Services Canada

Bibliography