Senate of Canada Building: History and design

The Senate of Canada Building, formerly known as the Government Conference Centre, was recently restored and modernized. It will serve as the interim home of the Senate while the Centre Block building is closed for rehabilitation.

Built as a train station and then used as a conference centre for the federal government, the building has borne witness to Canadian history. The first Canadian soldiers going off to the First World War passed through its doors, and the deliberations leading to the patriation of Canada’s Constitution took place behind them. But after a century of public service, the building was at the end of its life and needed a complete overhaul.

The need to house the Senate of Canada during much-needed renovation of the Centre Block provided the opportunity for the building’s rehabilitation.

Learn about restoring and modernizing the Senate of Canada Building.

The building was designated a Classified Federal Heritage Building in 1989. It received this designation because of its:

  • history
  • architectural value
  • role as a landmark


The Senate of Canada Building was originally Ottawa’s Union Station. Built between 1909 and 1912, it served as a train station until 1966. After the Ottawa Union Station closed in 1966, the building was slated for demolition. However, public pressure to save the building resulted in it being used as a visitor centre during Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967. After the outpouring of affection for the building, the government decided to convert it into a conference centre rather than tear it down.

The building was converted to the Government Conference Centre in 1968, with work completed in 1973. In advance of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in 1973, the south addition was built as a new entrance and some interior renovations were completed.

However, the building was sorely in need of renovations by the time the restoration and modernization project began in 2014. That work was completed in 2018. The Government Conference Centre was then renamed the Senate of Canada Building in December 2018. The Senate will begin sitting in the building starting in January 2019.

Historical meetings

The Government Conference Centre was the scene of many important events.

Examples are:

  • the constitutional talks in November 1981, which led to the repatriation of the Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms being entrenched in the Constitution in 1982
  • the "Open Skies" Conference in February 1990, which contributed to the reunification of Germany
  • the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, known as the Ottawa Treaty, which was signed in December 1997 and led to a program to remove land mines from former conflict zones around the world
  • the G20 Conference in November 2001, which was the first opportunity for the international community to meet and discuss the response to the events of September 11, 2001


The building was designed in the Beaux-Arts style by New York-based architect Bradford Lee Gilbert. The design work was then taken over by Ross and MacFarlane, a renowned Montréal-based firm that was responsible for many Canadian architectural treasures.

The former Union Station is a rare Canadian example of a building inspired by the City Beautiful urban planning movement. The design embodies the aesthetic qualities of the best examples of train stations built before the First World War.

The building's interior is a grand space that was inspired by classical Roman baths. This is especially visible in the general waiting room, with its elegant barrel-vaulted ceiling patterned with decorative coffers.

The original building consisted of four distinct blocks built as part of the original train station:

  • the main entrance block
  • the general waiting room
  • the ticketing block
  • the concourse

The original train sheds, which used to be located at the southern end of the building, were demolished in the 1960s. In 1973, a new entrance was built in that area, which is known as the south addition.

Interesting facts

There are some interesting things to know about the building, such as the following:

  • the general waiting room is a smaller-scale replica of the waiting room in the former Pennsylvania Station in New York City, which was torn down in the 1960s
  • the interior appears to be made of travertine stone, which was used in ancient Roman monuments, but the finish is in fact faux and the brick and terra cotta walls are actually covered with plaster, which is textured and painted to imitate travertine stone
  • the four columns in the general waiting room are not load bearing; the plaster ceiling is supported entirely by the steel truss structure above it

More information


View enlarged image of the exterior of the Government Conference Centre
View enlarged image of the Ceiling of the Government Conference Centre before the restoration and modernization project began.
View enlarged image of a historical photo of a train station concourse with a coffered ceiling.
View enlarged image of a historical photo of a train station waiting area. People are sitting on benches.
View enlarged image of a black and white photo of a train station with Union Jack flags hung for decoration.
View enlarged image of a large room with columns and a vaulted ceiling. Additions on the walls have wood paneling and tinted windows.
View enlarged image of a large room with columns and a vaulted ceiling. A staircase is visible, and there is a committee room on either side of the stairs.

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