Approaching the cafeteria wing from the south

Ottawa Hospital looks for ways to salvage heritage at Sir John Carling site

Unless The Ottawa Hospital can build a new Civic campus around the old cafeteria at the Sir John Carling Building, the historic structure the government saved when it dynamited the rest of the old office tower is doomed, under the terms of the hospital’s new lease.

The federal government is letting the hospital use the property that used to hold Agriculture Canada’s headquarters, just northwest of Dow’s Lake, to build a new hospital and replace the century-old Civic building a few blocks west on Carling Avenue. They signed a lease for the land 10 days ago and, after a week of delay, released almost all the terms late Friday.

Who cares about a government cafeteria, right? Well, this one’s unusual. Hidden away in the trees on the bluff, the “west annex” to the Sir John Carling Building opened in 1967, in an era when we built government stuff really nicely.

Like the rest of the razed complex, the cafeteria building was designed by Hart Massey, a prominent architect and son of Vincent Massey the governor general. The cafeteria was a huge open space without supports breaking it up, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the grounds — “vast expanses of glass,” in the words of a heritage study the government finished last December.

The government saved the cafeteria on purpose when the rest of the building was demolished in 2014, intending to turn it into a visitor centre for the Agriculture Canada and Central Experimental Farm property. The $4.8-million “deconstruction” was done so carefully that the only damage to the cafeteria was a broken window.

“Though its visual impact may have been greater as a part of the complex, its significance as a structure is not diminished by its current state as an individual building,” the heritage study says. It’s a “recognized” heritage building on the federal government’s register, albeit by a whisker, and it can’t just be torn down at will.

It’s also loaded with asbestos and lead paint and probably polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), oils and coolants have leaked all over the place since the rest of the Sir John Carling Building was knocked down, and the place is bursting with mould. Staff moved out of the building in 2009, it wasn’t in great shape then, and it’s been disused for almost a decade.

“Given the age and condition of the building (previously unheated, exposed to exterior elements in select areas, unoccupied) significant mould growth was identified throughout all floors of the building, in varying quantities, density, and number of materials impacted,” according to a hazardous-materials survey included in the lease so the hospital knows just what it’s getting. Mould is in insulation, on pipes and ceiling tiles and drywall and cinder blocks, in ducts, and all over basement bathrooms.

A mechanical-room floor is covered in something vivid green that’s probably spilled glycol, though there’s a non-zero chance it’s been growing by the week and consuming racoons.

“It would need a fair chunk of work to make it safe, especially when you’re talking about a hospital environment,” said Cameron Love, the Ottawa Hospital’s chief operating officer. “The annex as it exists today, there’s no way that it could be used.”

Turning the annex into a working building again is obviously an expensive prospect but the hospital’s lease says its architect has to at least try. Only if he or she declares it impossible will the hospital and federal government co-operate to demolish it, at the feds’ expense.

The first design concepts the hospital showed off for the new Civic at the end of January talked about preserving trees and open spaces on the property but didn’t mention the cafeteria building. Love said that’s not definitive, though — there’s at least a year of talking to come between the hospital and the provincial government to decide what programs and services the new hospital will have, and the final design will depend on how those discussions play out.

“Given that it is plunk in the middle of the site, I can see how that might be a challenge, if in fact impossible,” said Leslie Maitland, the president of Heritage Ottawa. “But Heritage Ottawa would appreciate the tenant’s architect following the spirit of the lease’s requirement and seeing if it can be accomplished.”

If it can’t, incorporating some element of the Sir John Carling Building in the new design would be a proper gesture, she said.

Maitland said a huge mural from the building, by Order of Canada artist Takao Tanabe, has been rescued from the site and is being kept at the nearby K.W. Neatby Building, the red one close to Carling Avenue bristling with little chimneys. Tanabe painted it for Agriculture Canada but displaying it in the hospital might be one way of honouring the past.

Love said that’s definitely a possibility. Architectural features could be copied into the new design and building materials could be re-used.

“When you have a building of that type of history and heritage, there are lots of ways to figure out how you keep components of it or keep elements,” he said.

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