How often do you find a farm in the middle of a city? The Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa is a unique example of a farm in the centre of an urban area. It wasn’t always this way. In 1886 when the Central Experimental Farm was established, the site was a rural location well outside the noise and traffic of the city.
The site comprised over 400 hectares and was used as a working farm, but more importantly, it was a research centre where new farming practices and crops were developed that would benefit farmers across Canada. Today, the Central Experimental Farm is a National Historic Site of Canada.
CSV Architects were invited by Project Managers Brookfield GIS and Natural Resources Canada to carry out heritage conservation and adaptive re-use of Observatory House, located on the Experimental Farm. The renovated building will serve as a centre for the ‘Circle of Nations’, a meeting place for First Nations, Inuit and Metis people.
The Dominion Observatory
When a location was being sought in 1902 for the construction of the Dominion Observatory, the farm was considered far enough away that city lights would not interfere with the equatorial telescope’s view of the night sky. The Dominion Observatory has been designated as a Classified Federal Heritage Building, the highest level of heritage recognition.
History of Observatory House
Following completion of the Observatory, the official residence of the Dominion Chief Astronomer was constructed in 1909. The first Chief astronomer was William Frederick King, who resided in the house with his wife, two sons and a daughter. King lived in the house until his death in 1916.
Little is known about how the house was used when it served as a residence. One thing we do know is that the kitchen was located in the basement with a separate stair to the ground floor. This indicates that the Astronomer’s family had a cook and servants, who would bring the meals up from the kitchen to be served in the dining room. The rest of the basement was served by a separate back stair and was inaccessible from the kitchen. The back stair continues up to connect all floors including the third-floor attic. Since this third floor was only accessible from a narrow winding stair, it may be assumed that the rooms on this floor were for the household staff, or farm employees. The Astronomer’s family lived comfortably on the ground and second floor, in well-appointed rooms with five fireplaces and large windows.
At some point in the house’s history, a laboratory was established in the basement for research work. This was most likely at a time when the house was no longer used as a residence. In recent years, the house has been used as office space for federal government departments.
Character Defining Elements
Observatory House is a two and a half storey red brick structure with a limestone faced, poured concrete foundation. The house is constructed of brick bearing wall with wood framing for the interiors, floors and roof. Character Defining Elements of the house include Queen Anne style elements: seen in the shingled gables, and Classical style elements: seen in the round porch columns, with their decorative capitals and bases. A wrap-around verandah surrounds the north and west facades and supports a second-floor enclosed porch, possibly used as a sleeping porch. A two-storey square bay window with deep interior window seats is located on the south façade. On the north façade, a pair of French doors with leaded glass windows and sidelights, leads from the verandah into the ground floor. A monumental window on the west façade is located above the stair landing in a two-storey entrance hall.
Importance of Observatory House
Observatory House has been designated as a Recognized Federal Heritage Building. The house has been designated because of its historical value including associations with important people and events, architectural value and environmental value including the picturesque character of its landscaped setting. Together with the Photo Equatorial building and the South Azimuth Building, Observatory House is one of three heritage buildings associated with the Dominion Observatory. This ensemble of buildings played an important role in Astronomy and development of the Geodetic Survey. They also stand as a record of the scientific work in Astronomy that took place in one small corner of Ottawa’s ‘farm with in a city’.
CSV Project Team
Peter Simister, Principal-in-charge
Camille Lewis, Project Architect
Mark Cardeal, Technologist