Blowing the lid off Lansdowne
Construction unearths blasts from the past
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.