The Aberdeen Pavilion
The smell is immediate, the noise constant, the apprehension and exhilaration almost palpable. City boys and farmers, schoolboys and fathers, merchants and machinists and ministers. They drill, they pray, they pack and repack kits, they write letters to loved ones from whom they already are more distant than they've ever been. Dice are rolled, checkers jumped, cards dealt. And the pigeons circle.


Sergeants bark their way through the onlookers. Necks crane, eyes lift to silently applaud the puff of feathers, the neat circle of holes in the roof high above. Needles of sunlight pierce the hanging dust to point accusing fingers at a clutch of red-faced, laughing privates.

Ottawa has its share of old public buildings. Museums. Meeting Halls. The Hill.

We preserve them. We sandblast their stonework, we carpet their marble hallways, we plexiglass their murals. And, thankfully, we keep them alive by opening their doors each day to admit the same sorts of people with the same sorts of problems, intentions and expectations as were admitted 40, 80, 100 years ago.

Because these buildings are alive, we can stand at their thresholds and, with a little imagination, see not baseball caps and noserings but saddle shoes and crew-cuts, spats and cloches, top hats and bustles. We preserve not just the buildings but a sense of the lives which have passed through them, the times which have swirled around them.

Once in a while, we almost let one slip through our fingers. By accident, due to bureaucratic bungling, for economic reasons.

One such building was the Cattle Castle.

Aberdeen Pavilion exteriorThe Aberdeen Pavilion—its original and current name— was raised in the summer of 1895 and dedicated by the Governor General, the Earl of Aberdeen.

It was intended to be a much-needed expansion of the 11-year-old Central Canada Exhibition facilities in Lansdowne Park. Patterned after the innovative steel construction of the Crystal Palace, an exhibition hall built in London in 1861, the Pavilion was the first Canadian building of its size to rely on a steel arch and tensor beam skeleton with no supporting columns. Its components were forged in Québec by Leblanc and brought by barge to Ottawa.

The assembly took only two months. Crowds watched daily as the arches were closed with tensor beams, raised in tandem and linked with more beams. The sporting types in the crowd bet first that it would never go up and then that it would never stay up.

They lost.

More civilized pursuits

The Pavilion became a center of activity in Ottawa, used by athletic clubs, livestock displays and trade shows of all kinds. In 1902, with a nod to the foremost preoccupation of the new century, the Pavilion was renamed the Manufacturers' Building.

The hit of the 1903 season was Tom Tarnover's Travelling Pentecostal Revival. Unfortunately, the crowds were so unruly that the city fathers ruled to restrict future use of the Pavilion to more civilized pursuits.

The Ottawa Silver Sevens played there in 1905, defeating the Dawson City (Yukon) Nuggets to capture the Stanley Cup. Ottawa's One-Eyed Frank Magee scored 14 goals in the second game, prompting the Yukon boys to withdraw their complaint that steam rising from the crowd was restricting their vision. Sweeter still, though, the Silver Sevens trounced their league rivals from Hogtown twice in the same season.

Other things have changed, too. Traffic was not a problem. There was no seating so the fans stood. There were no "facilities", but flasks were passed anyway; the game comprised two 45-minute periods of play separated by a rush to the canal for relief. The Toronto boys complained that there were no change rooms, that their play was hampered by salt spread surreptitiously on the ice at half-time – some things never change.

The Pavilion has been witness to endeavours of a more serious nature.
It was a staging area for combatants during the South African War, a practice range for First World War riflemen and a shelter for Canadian soldiers during both World Wars.

In the autumn of 1916, so the story goes, the messing of one-too-many military bedrolls by one-too-many pigeons gave rise to a lasting tradition: pigeon-shooting became the most popular of unscheduled events to be held in the Pavilion down through the years. As recently as 1988, police still occasionally netted pickled sportsmen, there to try their luck in the wee hours.

Cattle Castle landscape columnIn later years, the Pavilion hosted monster truck displays, sports booster rallies and various fund-raising events. It served as a track and field training facility, a film studio and, still, a showplace for livestock – so much so that in 1976 it was officially renamed what the community had been calling it for years: the Cattle Castle.

Those many years of constant and varied use were also years of misuse and neglect. Architectural priorities and preferences changed, community events relocated to newer, better-equipped venues in the suburbs and Lansdowne Park was in the red.

And the Pavilion suffered. Paint peeled, metal fittings rusted and the floor became an unsavoury stew of gasoline, oil and dung. The exterior tin cladding was split and rolled back by cars and snow-ploughs. Graffiti abounded; the most enigmatic was "Students are revolting", sprayed in 1969 – but by whom?

The jewel of Lansdowne Park had become an eyesore.

Worthy of restoration

In 1983, the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated the Aberdeen Pavilion as being of national, architectural and historical significance. That triple-barrelled designation laid to rest any ideas of razing the building, and paved the way for two provincial government grants with which to begin the restoration process.

The City of Ottawa, the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton, the province... all acknowledged that the Pavilion was worthy of restoration, all scrambled to lay claim to tactical proposals and future restoration successes, all deftly side-stepped financial responsibility... government in a nut shell.

The federal government declined direct involvement, thereby validating the old adage that the quickest way to get elected is to miss the meeting. In 1985, it was proposed that the Pavilion be disassembled, stored and "later" reassembled on a new site—Victoria Island, perhaps—to house the Museum of Science and Technology's antique farm implement collection... all of this to be federally funded.

When the hot air cleared, it became apparent that neighbourhood associations, service clubs, merchants, journalists and the management of Lansdowne Park had established a defensive line. They put down a collective foot to say the Aberdeen Pavilion will be restored, right now, right where it is. The community responded favourably; the powers-that-were listened. And acted.

'History on our side'

Warren McCaully, former Project Manager for Lansdowne Park Development, was an enthusiastic supporter of the Pavilion, not just as necessary exhibition space but as a building worthy of respect and good care.

"When I looked at the building three years ago... a long, hard look," Mr. McCaully said in 1996, "I saw a rat-trap, a dirty, run-down monstrosity that needed the business end of a bulldozer. That's what I saw. But my mind's eye saw something else, something more. Here we had a building that was beautifully designed, well built and big enough to accommodate any event we might have here at the Park. It was old and it was a mess, but it was sound. The fact that it was old was a plus: we'd have history on our side. And it's beautiful. I mean, look at that cladding; not there, higher up. And come inside – look at those arches. They're as sound as when they went up..."

McCaully's enthusiasm was unstoppable, and he drew to the project an architect and a contractor who felt the same way. Together, they worked wonders, not only through the excellence of their work, but through their willingness to be vocally supportive of the project.

Throughout the restoration, McCaully led daily tours of the site: high school classes, media, exhibition park managers from across the country. Every group left the site knowing the restoration would be a success: McCaully's competent, good-natured, finger-in-every-pie approach to things—from the budget to the design of the benches for the new garden areas around the base of the building—guaranteed it.

Julian Smith, the project's architect, brought a wealth of experience and a reputation for excellence. He, too, was a little batty about the Pavilion. He climbed up and crawled under and slid down and hung from it daily, often followed by journalists, almost always followed by a worship of design and architecture students.

When asked to talk about the Pavilion, a truly, madly, deeply obsessive glow flared in his eyes.

"Do you want the architectural spiel, the historical spiel or the financial spiel?" he asked, unabashedly eager to deliver any or all three.

Smith diligently maintained the integrity of the building, choosing to repair and restore rather than replace wherever possible. And when the replacement of any piece was deemed unavoidable—always a hard-reached decision—Smith personally ensured that the replacement whatever-it-was was a well-made and authentic reproduction of the original.

Smith was deeply satisfied with the work done, the care taken, by Tristan Contracting's craftsmen.

The Pavilion was in good hands.

arches and tensor beamsThe arches and tensor beams were sound. Some welding of small sections at ground level was necessary, but not much considering the age of the steel. A radiant heating system was installed. A sprinkler system was mounted on the wooden ceiling; with paint, it vanished. That ceiling, the lead window frames, the huge sliding doors and the exterior tin cladding are, for the most part, original components.

A concrete floor was poured over new conduits carrying water or electrical wiring. Putting washrooms into the visually-symetrical interior could have been intrusive, but Smith designed two low-roofed units which, when placed against the east wall and painted, disappeared.

The restoration took only two years, including planning, paperwork and PR. Crowds watched daily as the alignment of the arches was checked, and tensor beams were tightened or loosened accordingly. The sporting types in the crowd bet first that the tensors were frozen and then that the steel would give way.

They lost.

But Ottawa won.

We defeated the passing of time and the passing of the buck, and have in our midst a large and practical exhibition hall that will serve the community for another 100 years. And at a cost considerably less than that of a new building, something to warm the pocketbooks of fiscally centered Ottawans.

Aberdeen Pavilion exteriorThose of us who would rather have our hearts warmed may gaze with wonder and delight at this beautiful embodiment of the Victorian penchant for whimsical excess. That such a building, with its ornate pressed-tin cladding, its corner cupolas and towering central dome, its lacey, lighter-than-air construction, was erected to house farm implements, washing machines and cows boggles the mind.

But it was, and therein lies the greater part of its charm and worth.

Our great-grandparents saw there a new breed of sheep, linoleum, a Model T. Our great-grandchildren will see... who knows?

Perhaps, on a sunny afternoon in an August, they will, just for a moment, catch a glimpse of a gloved hand waving a paper fan, a knickered boy rolling a hoop, a young soldier napping in the shade.

That's why we preserve old buildings.

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