A controversial design being proposed for an addition to the Château Laurier hotel in Ottawa – the fifth that has now been floated for approval – is meeting stiff resistance yet again on a number of fronts.
One of the opponents, Heritage Ottawa, is calling on the owner and architectural design team to go back to the drawing board and embrace, rather than pay lip service to the heritage of the hotel.
In essence, the organization argues that the proposed building will be too boxy and the esthetics won’t fit in with the historical significance of the area.
“We’ve tried to engage with the proponents all along the process, but what we’re seeing is a design that, while it’s a nice building, it will be a nice building somewhere else,” said Leslie Maitland, a board member and past-president of the organization.
“It’s not compatible with the Château Laurier historic architecture and it is not compatible with what is Canada’s most significant landscape.”
Owner of the building, Larco Investments, wants to build a seven-storey, 147-room addition with an underground parking garage. The company says the addition will offer a “modern interpretation” of the heritage character of the Château with Indiana limestone, glass and copper.
The design, which would include two pavilions anchoring the corners of the site, has been bounced back and forth several times in the past three years and was downsized from the original plan of 218 rooms. The proposed addition is now shorter and has about half the original floor space.
Larco is seeking to start work on the project before the end of the year and maintains that the design will honour the existing hotel by using similar materials.
The two separated wings on the proposed addition, massing and setback upper floors would be compatible with the Château’s existing roofscape silhouette and provide a “dignified and deferential response” to the iconic building, the company statement notes. The existing hotel wouldn’t be altered.
The blueprint has incited the ire of heritage experts, politicians and others, including Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson. Nearly 2,500 people have filed comments with the city, demonstrating their concern.
The issue came to a head at a lengthy heritage subcommittee meeting recently when representatives of the landmark hotel made it clear they have no intention of making substantial changes to the latest version, despite the outcry.
Rideau-Vanier Coun. Mathieu Fleury issued a tersely worded statement indicating that the proposal should be turned down.
“As the Château Laurier is Ottawa’s most iconic building within the Parliamentary Precinct, any modern addition, despite all of the height, connectivity and material changes, still does not fit the prominence for this location,” he said.
“Therefore, I am recommending that committee and council reject this proposal.”
Heritage Ottawa, which consists of volunteers who champion the protection and stewardship of the city’s built heritage, says it intends to continue fighting the latest proposal as it remains “fundamentally unsympathetic” and “incompatible in form” with the hotel and its majestic setting.
The blowback they’re getting is that this is their legacy and they’ve got to get it right,
— Leslie Maitland
“When you see it from the Quebec side, you’re looking at Parliament Hill and the National Gallery and the Château Laurier and then in the middle of this it’s going to be this little box,” said Maitland. “It doesn’t work.”
Maitland, who worked 30 years for Parks Canada and then in the private sector as a heritage consultant, said the group understands the need of the hotel owner to expand and modernize but there are many examples in Canada where it has been done harmoniously with heritage values.
“It’s a great institution, it’s a great business and we want to see them succeed and thrive and they should be able to put on an addition, for sure.”
Everything else about the owner’s plan is fine, she said, it’s the aesthetics that are bothersome.
“To us, this design is not compatible and it’s too bad because there are many examples of where additions have been made to historic properties that are compatible and brilliant.”
Maitland said people in the city have wedding receptions and other events at the hotel and want it to remain a historical landmark.
“When you look at the Château Laurier it’s all turrets and angles and smooth stone walls and it is a romantic picturesque building. When you go there, and your daughter’s getting married there, she’s going for that ambiance. I don’t think your daughter’s going to buy into the ambiance of the box.”
Someone who’s taking wedding photos, for example, at the hotel will have the addition in the background, she said.
Maitland said the City of Ottawa is merely following standards and guidelines that were adopted by the federal government which states that an addition to a heritage building must be compatible.
She isn’t overly optimistic that the owner will go back to the drawing board, as it’s now on tweak number five.
“I don’t think any more tweaking is going to happen.”
During the last term of council, the designers were told that they had to break up the boxiness, have more limestone on the façade and make it more compatible with the historic structure of the hotel.
“They didn’t do it so what we’re saying to the planning committee is, ‘They didn’t do what you told them to do so you rescind their heritage permit and tell them to go back to the drawing board.’”
The matter is now in the hands of the city’s planning committee.
“The blowback they’re getting is that this is their legacy and they’ve got to get it right,” Maitland said.
“I’m hawkeyed optimistic. You never know.”