Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

The Library of Parliament, High Victorian Gothic Elegance in Canada

Under the direction of Fuller and Jones, Ottawa’s beautiful Library of Parliament opened in 1876, rich in carvings and beautiful, classic architecture.


Crates of books, maps, papers and important records were packed and unpacked with each move of the United Province of Canada’s parliament. Containing the business of government from the Legislatures of Upper Canada and Lower Canada, the crates passed between the temporary capitals of Canada: Kingston in 1841, on to Montreal in 1844 and then bouncing between Toronto and Quebec City. Queen Victoria selected Ottawa, Ontario as the permanent seat of the government in 1856. New buildings were needed, including a large library.

Architects Fuller and Jones

Holding a competition for the construction of the new parliament buildings, the government examined the tenders of fifteen architects. While not the lowest-priced, the entry of partners Thomas Fuller and Chilion Jones was accepted. Their High Victorian Gothic design consisted “of a pair of symmetrical pavilioned wings flanking a central tower, with a circular library at the rear,” said Christopher A. Thomas in “Fuller, Thomas” in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.

The library “was modelled on a monastic chapter house or kitchen.” (According to the University of Pittsburgh’s Glossary of Medieval Art and Architecture, a chapter house is a meeting place for the governing body of a monastery or a cathedral.) Atop the round stone structure, a circular lantern provided an extra touch of elegance.

The setting for the Library, considered exceptionally scenic, demanded an equally magnificent structure. “With its massive flying buttresses and rough exterior of Nepean sandstone,” noted the Parliament of Canada in “The Library of Parliament,” the library looks as if it were hewn from the craggy bluff separating it from the Ottawa River.”

Carved Flowers, Masks and Beasts

Creating an exquisite interior of the Library, “thousands of flowers, masks and mythical beasts have been carved into the white pine panelling,” according to the Parliament of Canada. A statue of a youthful Queen Victoria sculpted of white marble in 1871 holds court in the centre of the main room. On the advice of the Parliamentary Librarian, Alpheus Todd, the architects added iron doors in the corridor leading to the parliamentary Centre Block.

The protective doors were put to the test in 1916 when a blaze destroyed the Centre Block. A staff member wisely shut the doors to the narrow hallway. With quick action of firefighters and the closed iron doors, the Library was spared.

Alpheus Todd, Parliamentary Librarian

Dedicated to the Library and its books of knowledge, Alpheus Todd worked his way up from staff member of the Library of the House of Assembly of Upper Canada in 1835 to the lofty post of head of the Library of Parliament. On the loss of nearly all of the library collection in the 1849 fire in Montreal, Todd was sent with a meagre budget on a book-buying excursion to Europe. Receiving hundreds of volumes from the governments of England and France, the librarian also “bought thousands of books on the market. He returned to Quebec with over 17,000 volumes,” said Bruce W. Hodgins’ entry of “Todd, Alpheus” in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. By 1865, Todd amassed a collection of over 55,000 books for the government library.

Todd was appointed to the prestigious post of head librarian of the Parliamentary Library of the Dominion of Canada on Confederation – July 1, 1867. A Catholic Apostolic minister and also a writer of parliamentary procedures and processes, Alpheus Todd was recognized for his service with an Honorary Doctorate of Laws from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario in 1881. “An industrious man,” lawyer William McDougall wrote in 1889, Todd was known to have a “gentle, unassuming, patient manner towards those who approached him, French or English, Grit or Tory, government or Opposition were alike to him when in the quest of information,” said Hodgins.

Library of Parliament opened in 1876

Opened in 1876, the Library of Parliament suffered a fire in the cupola in 1952. While the flames did not hurt the precious book collection, water and smoke caused extensive damage. “The Library’s wood panelling had to be dismantled, sent to Montreal for cleaning and fireproofing, and reinstalled,” stated the Parliament of Canada. In 2002, the beautiful High Victorian Gothic Library was closed for upgrading and conservation. It re-opened at the end of May, 2006.

Modernized, the Library of Parliament and its branches have three hundred employees. Computer and technology systems, periodicals, magazines and over 600,000 books are available to help with the in-depth research the busy Canadian government needs for daily operation. Located on Parliament Hill, the Library is open to the public with varying seasonal hours.


This article first appeared on in 2011.  Copyright Susanna McLeod


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