Blow­ing the lid off Lans­downe

Con­struc­tion un­earths blasts from the past

Ottawa Citizen - - SPORTS - KELLY EGAN

They’re cut­ting a big chunk from the roof on the north-side grand­stand at Frank Clair Sta­dium, ex­pos­ing old, rusty bones. So we pick through them. There is some­thing grav­i­ty­de­fy­ing about the roof, an­gled like some gi­ant trap door, mouth wide open, about to slam shut and swal­low 15,000 peo­ple in the stands.

It is one of the more dis­tinc­tive features of our sky­line and, come to think, there aren’t many cities in Canada that com­bine a 10,000-seat hockey arena with the main stand for foot­ball or soc­cer or con­certs.

(In an era of sin­gle-use sta­di­ums, it was prob­a­bly a wise use of pub­lic money, roughly $9.5 mil­lion for the whole works, built in 1966-67.)

The de­sign came from a prom­i­nent B.C. ar­chi­tect, Ger­ald Hamil­ton, who told the Cit­i­zen in 1968 that he’d ac­tu­ally done the con­cept draw­ing on the back of a place­mat at a restau­rant. Orig­i­nally, it was for a com­bined arena and sta­dium in Burn­aby, B.C. that never came to pass.

Hamil­ton, who died in 1999, called the build­ing a “world­first” and de­scribed it as “plas­tic, con­tem­po­rary” ar­chi­tec­ture. A fan of so-called New For­mal­ism, he also de­signed the plan­e­tar­ium in Van­cou­ver and many other land­marks on the West Coast.

The gird­ers, we all have seen, are not only mas­sive but fas­tened at a freaky an­gle, es­ti­mated to be 170 de­grees, as though about to fall from the sky. The pieces were from Do­min­ion Bridge Ltd., so big they had to come from Mon­treal via the Ot­tawa River and the Rideau Canal on a fleet of barges.

The gird­ers weighed as much as 55 tons each, with the to­tal amount of steel in the struc­ture re­ported to be 4,000 tons.

It went up in two big stages: seven weeks in the fall of 1966 and 10 weeks from De­cem­ber through to Fe­bru­ary 1967.

The barge trip was, only in hind­sight, an amus­ing de­liv­ery.

The Cit­i­zen re­ported in Au­gust 1966 that the locks by the Château Lau­rier — ac­cord­ing to plans — could ac­com­mo­date a barge 33 feet wide. But there may have been some shift­ing since Col. John By’s time. When the barge ar­rived, it was six inches too wide, forc­ing a last-minute ad­just­ment to squeeze through.

The Civic Cen­tre was part of a city cen­ten­nial project and, as hap­pens with too many cooks, much was done at the last minute to mark an oc­ca­sion we had 100 years to get ready for. The tone dur­ing con­struc­tion, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, was one of con­trolled panic.

Con­sider that the first hockey game was Dec. 29, 1967, just barely un­der the wire to make it a “cen­ten­nial” event. The Ot­tawa 67s lost 4-2 to the Mon­treal Ju­nior Cana­di­ens be­fore 9,000 fans.

There was the odd hic­cup. As many as 1,000 fans had nowhere to sit be­cause seat in­stal­la­tion was not com­plete. Por­ta­ble chairs were toted over from an­other build­ing on the grounds. Owner Howard Dar­win even turned away a stand­ing room rush, not want­ing to add to first-night chaos.

But peo­ple made do. The open­ing, gen­er­ally speak­ing, was judged a tri­umph.

In as much as it looks like an im­mov­able hulk, some pa­trons have no­ticed the sta­dium ac­tu­ally sways a lit­tle. A con­cert by the Ti­juana Brass in 1967 had cus­tomers won­der­ing about the vi­bra­tions they could feel in their seats.

No wor­ries, said the builders: blame the sound waves.

There was the usual hand-wring­ing and flip-flop­ping at city coun­cil. Mayor Don Reid had to squeeze $1 mil­lion from the feds, thanks to a pitch to Prime Min­is­ter Lester Pear­son, who was keen on a re­spectable 100th birth­day in the cap­i­tal.

(Ot­tawa also got the Grey Cup that year and 31,358 fans at­tended the game on Dec. 2 at Lans­downe, won by Hamil­ton, 24-1 over Saskatchewan.)

The politi­cians, of course, were wor­ried about risk. There was pes­simism about whether the build­ing would be fin­ished on time, on bud­get and whether the op­er­at­ing costs would crip­ple the tax­pay­ers. Sound fa­mil­iar?

Some com­fort was drawn by bring­ing in lo­cal ar­chi­tects James Craig and Michael Kohler to su­per­vise con­struc­tion and keep the trains run­ning on time.

As so of­ten hap­pens with big projects, there were sideshows along the way. The roof leaked, for one thing. Craig and Kohler were sued for li­bel by an un­happy en­gi­neer who had done the orig­i­nal de­sign for the steel. A jury first awarded a record set­tle­ment, but this was even­tu­ally over­turned at the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 45 years, there is much water un­der the bridge.

So shorten the roof, bring on the rain. Or did no one think of such a thing?

The mas­sive steel sup­ports for the Ot­tawa Civic Cen­tre were so large they had to come from Mon­treal via the Ot­tawa River and the Rideau Canal on a fleet of barges.

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