Episode 1 is part of Listening Through the Archives, Stories from the CDCC.
By Meredith Boerchers
When Carleton University acquired Dominion-Chalmers United Church in 2018 the university received far more than just an empty shell. The walls of this heritage structure tell stories from Canadian history and reflect the passion of the Ottawa community. Join us in an exploration into the home of Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre.
The CDCC’s building started with a land purchase by Bank Street Presbyterian Church in 1909. As Ottawa’s growing population moved further away from the downtown area, Bank Street Church decided to sell their building at the corner of Bank and Slater streets and move to a more accessible location. The congregation bought three and a half lots on the northwest corner of Cooper, O’Connor, and Lisgar Streets for a total of $36 000, the equivalent of about $850 000 today.
In 1912, Mr. Alexander Cowper Hutchison was chosen to design and build a church large enough to accommodate the growing congregation. A trained stonemason and self-taught architect, Hutchison had a hand in creating many of the monumental structures in Montreal and Ottawa. His resumé includes supervising the cut-stonework on Montreal’s Christ Church Cathedral and the East Block of the Parliament Buildings, in addition to designing many of the architectural treasures of Victorian Montreal. He gained international fame after designing the first ice palace for Montreal’s Winter Carnival. The renowned architect’s brother, William Hutchison, was one of the Elders of Bank Street Church.
According to a letter written by Alexander Hutchison, the architect proposed to build a structure after the “Romanesque Architecture of Southern France adapted to modern requirements.” Now known as the Romanesque Revival or Richardson Romanesque style, Hutchison’s design for the building’s exterior showcases many features of this style, including rounded arches and a square campanile tower. The heavy masonry of the walls exemplify a local take on the international fashion: the street-facing walls feature hammer-dressed Nepean sandstone, the same material used on the Canadian Museum of Nature and Centre Block of Parliament Hill.
The “modern requirements” of Hutchison’s plan lay embedded within the walls themselves. Hutchison combined traditional masonry walls with an innovative use of steel frameworks to create the soaring space of the interior. Styled after Neo-Byzantine architecture, the sanctuary is shaped by eight intricately capped columns that support a window-pierced dome. Beautiful in its own right, this open shape of the building contributes to its excellent acoustics. The site continues to be a popular choice for musicians to this day – Ottawa Symphony Orchestra, Ottawa Chamberfest, and Music and Beyond all regularly perform in the sanctuary.
The community has lovingly cared for Hutchison’s designs through the century since the structure was built. The plaster stenciling above the balcony archways and the woodwork in the sanctuary are all original. Restorations to the building’s stonework, glass windows, and interior paint have recently been completed to reflect descriptions of the sanctuary’s original colours. Though the building has been tested by fire and flood through the years, all reparations and renovations have prioritized the original building’s character. The large-scale additions to the building 2000 to 2005 in particular have a compatible yet subordinate aesthetic, holding true to the original colourful stonework while subtly transitioning to a flat roof and rectangular windows. For this commitment to the heritage and aesthetic integrity of the original 1912 building, Dominion-Chalmers United Church was awarded the Ottawa Architectural Conservation Award of Excellence in 2005/2006.
Today, the care for Dominion Chalmers has switched into the hands of Carleton University. Following the outstanding example set by the generations of families dedicated to maintaining and improving the building, in 2019 Carleton initiated an Architectural Renewal Plan to continue to care for this architectural jewel.
- Bray, Garth. 2012. Dominion-Chalmers United Church. Ottawa: self-published.
- Dominion-Chalmers United Church. 2002. 40th Amalgamation Anniversary 1962-2002. Ottawa: self-published.
- Rathwell, Natalie Anderson. 2012. “Heritage Value in Ottawa’s Dominion-Chalmers United Church: History, Community, Sight and Sound.” Journal of the Society for the Study of Architecture in Canada 43, no. 1: 47-56.
- Gersovitz, Julia. 2015.. “Alexander Cowper Hutchison”. In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada.
Photo Credit: Fangliang Xu and Meredith Boerchers