The day when Construction House was officially opened
October 17, 1955 was a proud day for the CCA. The association’s own handsome headquarters – Construction House or le Centre de la construction – opened in Ottawa. It was a gala affair, attended by over 200 representatives of official Ottawa and the construction industry.
A civic welcome was extended by Her Worship Dr. Charlotte Whitton, mayor of Ottawa, who expressed appreciation for the related increase in municipal property tax revenues! The Right Honourable C.D. Howe (“Minister of Everything”) was guest speaker. He conveyed the federal government’s congratulations and unveiled a plaque in the lobby. The address by Clark Reilly (CCA general manager 1919 – 1946) was entitled “A Dream Come True”. He particularly paid tribute to the role played by CCA founder president J.P. Anglin and unveiled a portrait of him in the place of honour in the board room / assembly hall.
It was also a historic date for the Canadian construction industry. The CCA represented all sections of the country and all phases of construction activity and had 35 affiliated regional and local construction associations. Its annual meetings had been described as sessions of “Canada’s Construction Parliament”. Now there was a physical reminder of the industry’s importance, situated just six blocks from Parliament Hill.
The CCA had occupied rented offices in Ottawa since 1919. Both the industry and its national voice had grown dramatically during the Second World War. The post-war pent-up demand for construction stimulated further growth and optimism. A proposal that the CCA erect its own headquarters in the nation’s capital was enthusiastically endorsed. Bonds to cover its funding were quickly subscribed by members. Property fronting half a block of O’Connor Street was purchased. The Building Committee chaired by Robert Drummond determined that the structure, although a modest two storeys in size, should reflect the latest and highest quality standards of construction, and be designed to support a further three storeys.
The selection of an architect posed something of a problem. Ottawa’s three leading architects were invited to a meeting and asked to decide which of them (because of interest and availability) would be the project architect. The three retired to discuss the matter and quickly returned to advise that they all wished to be associated as a joint venture. Each was asked to prepare a sketch of their vision of Construction House. The committee chose the one submitted by Watson Balharrie. The other two subsequently made minor design contributions.
The building was the very first “modern” structure built in downtown Ottawa. It featured strong lines, a lot of glazing, striking cladding (polished granite, Queenston limestone and local stone shoddy), corrugated walls in the board room / assembly hall consisting of vertical clear length oak ribs, ash paneling in the library topped by murals by Robert Hyndman, ultra-modern furnishings and, yes, air conditioning throughout! Suffice to say that Construction House was featured on the cover of the Canadian Architect, whereas pictures of that year’s Massey Medal winners for outstanding architectural designs were relegated to inside pages!
The project suffered some initial delays. Firstly, the Korean War led the government of Canada to request the postponement of “non-essential” projects so that men and materials would be available for the war effort. As soon as the war was over, CCA called for tenders. Bidding was close. The lowest tender was submitted by Ross-Meagher Ltd. of Ottawa. Then it was discovered that the site testing engineers had mistakenly shown bedrock six feet higher than was encountered. This required a substantial re-design of the building and the use of piles and almost all the contract’s reserve for contingencies.
Once completed, Construction House functioned very well and economically. The meeting facilities for the members and the working conditions for the staff were excellent. Moreover, it gave the CCA and the construction industry a prominent and prestigious physical identity to all passers-by – a tangible example and reminder of construction expertise. But the land proved to be too valuable. In the mid-1970s what had cost the CCA $3 a frontage foot was sold for $22 a frontage foot to member Pat Gillin. He erected a 26-storey office building on the site, which for many years housed the Export Development Corporation. Current tenants include Public Works Canada and Shopify.
A tangible reminder of Construction House remains in the large anodized aluminum replica of the CCA crest which previously adorned the building’s exterior. It is now displayed in the entrance hall to the association’s offices. And one of the air conditioners installed in the general manager’s office in 1955 still effectively cools the lower storey of our house. Quality pays!