Carved in stone: How restoration of the West Block is helping revive an ancient trade in Canada
Written by ELIZABETH PAYNE, OTTAWA CITIZEN
June 17, 2014
Canada was not yet a country when, in 1860, stone carvers, stone masons, carpenters and other tradesmen flocked to Ottawa to begin a nation-defining building project.
The construction site — on what was then called Barrack Hill — “was a mess of excavations, carpenters, blacksmiths and stonecutters’ shops; the old barrack buildings had been turned into offices for the contractors,” the Ottawa Citizen reported on April 17, 1860.
It was also a mess of stone, much of it Nepean sandstone pulled from nearby quarries and delivered to the site by horse-drawn wagon. Those stones, thousands of tonnes of them, would become the building blocks of Canada’s most iconic structures, perched on what we now know as Parliament Hill.
The world has changed radically since the Parliament Buildings were completed; the country has endured war and depression, has seen massive growth and development and has been transformed by technology. And the stone buildings, although repaired over the years, are beginning to deteriorate.
One hundred and fifty four years after work began there, stone cutters, carvers and masons have again flocked to Parliament Hill, this time to work on the West Block restoration, the biggest project of its kind in Canadian history.
The world might have changed, but in the world of stone masonry, it is as if time has stood still — almost.
Today, the men and women restoring the West Block are using many of the same kinds of tools used by those who first toiled on the project. Restorers and carvers have even rediscovered one nearly-forgotten tool — called a Crandall hammer — that played a role in creating the rugged exterior “fabric” of the buildings.
“We are probably using every kind of traditional methodology on this project that haven’t changed a lot in the last 1,000 years,” said Bobby Watt, president of RJW-Gem Campbell Stonemasons Inc., the stone masonry contractor on the project.
By the mid 1900s, stonemasons — whose numbers included Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie — were a dying breed in this country.
In fact, the trade began to disappear not long after the Parliament Buildings were completed. Many young stonemasons went off to fight in the First World War and never returned.
Those who did came home to discover their trade was no longer in demand as construction had shifted to concrete and brick. The loss of knowledge about stone masonry meant some of the restoration work done in Canada during the ’60s and ’70s actually damaged buildings instead.
But today, with historic stone buildings across the country in need of repair, the trade is experiencing a renaissance. And nowhere is that more visible than on Parliament Hill.
The massive $863-million West Block Restoration Project is just one of several projects — including Centre Block and the East Block — that will require the skills of stonemasons until 2030. The entire parliamentary precinct facelift is expected to cost in the range of $5 billion.
With high-profile work on the horizon for years to come, the trade is beginning to attract young people, many of whom came to it by accident. Some working on the West Block were drawn by the tradition and culture that surrounds the trade. Others caught the bug at Algonquin College’s heritage stone masonry program, which is taught at the school’s Perth campus and is the only program of its kind in North America. At a time when many trades are desperate for young recruits, the interest in stonemasonry created by the West Block project is enviable.
The passion many bring to the craft will be on display this summer at the Ottawa Stone Carving Festival (Aug. 23 and 24 at Wellington and O’Connor streets, across from Parliament Hill). It will help give people a better understanding of what is going on behind the tarps and scaffolding hiding the West Block restoration from public view, says John-Philippe Smith who, with his business partner Danny Barber, organizes the festival.
At their headquarters — Smith and Barber Sculpture and Atelier Inc. — in a neighbourhood of warehouses and businesses in Ottawa’s east end, blocks of stone are being carved into arches, decorative carvings are being repaired, and the fine details of the building are being remade and restored by hand. Their team’s work includes repairing and replacing everything from gargoyles to architectural trim.
While the stone carvers do the fancier work, the stonemasons employed by Watt are doing the work of repairing, cleaning and replacing the components of the building’s structure, also largely by hand.
Watt, who was born and raised on the Isle of Arran in Scotland, grew up steeped in the craft. He came to Canada after a headhunting company looking for stonemasons sought him out. But when he began restoration work at Queen’s Park, Watt found there were few, if any, Canadian stonemasons. He has dedicated his career to helping to change that.
Finding the manpower to work the massive restoration projects can be a bigger challenge than sourcing the correct stone. Watt’s decades of connections have helped. The scope and visibility of the work on Parliament Hill and the development of Algonquin’s program has helped would-be stonemasons learn about the craft and get a foot in the door.
Watt is on the board of directors of Algonquin Perth. Many of its graduates have gone on to work on the West Block, others are working farther afield. Watt hopes one day to see a union apprentice program combined with the Algonquin program to create an apprenticeship with more emphasis on stone masonry than currently exists. Watt gave up the trade for a while and worked as a police diver, but stone masonry drew him back.
“It’s a very enveloping thing. Once you get involved with it, you can’t get away.”
Stone carver Smith, 38, began his career 12 years ago after he found himself unhappily working in hotel sales from a small office cubicle in downtown Toronto. “I wanted to do something with my hands.” After some research, Smith discovered Algonquin’s stonemasonry program and, from there, began a career that included a stint learning the craft in France.
Barber, 44, worked at his family’s monument business in St. Catharines until he was 32 and then decided to turn to something more creative. He took an architectural stone carving course in England and worked in Gloucestershire for three years before he was hired by Watt to work on Parliament Hill. Now Barber and Smith are working for themselves as sub-contractors on the West Block project.
“We are really fortunate to be in this trade at this time in history,” said Barber. “I have met so many amazing people in this craft. It just seems to attract very cool people.”
Not only are Barber and Smith talented carvers, they have immersed themselves in the history of the craft, partly by studying in Europe where stone masonry has remained a vital trade since before the great cathedrals were built in the Middle Ages. Barber even wears a pair of German trousers of the style worn by tradesmen there for hundreds of years and still worn today. Smith has studied the history of the guilds in Europe, including beliefs around some of the “sacred geometry” used in stone carving.
“The more you find out about the history of the trade, the more mind-blowing it is.”
Kevin Tovee is another young Canadian who is discovering the joys of working with stone.
Tovee was a security guard on Parliament Hill, working to put himself through school, when he got to know some of the stonemasons and his plans to become a police officer began to fade.
The stonemasons talked about their work and tried to convince the Carleton University student to join them. “It looked like a lot of fun,” said Tovee, now 27 and an apprentice stonemason looking forward to a long career.
“It’s a really rewarding trade,” he said. “At the end of the day you can stand back and look at what you have done.”
The West Block project, says Public Works and Government Services Canada, is “undoubtedly the most complex endeavour to date” in the Parliamentary precinct. Among other things, it involves the complete dismantling and rebuilding of the Laurier Tower on the building’s northeast corner.
It is scheduled to be finished in 2015, on time and on budget, says Public Works. Once complete, the West Block’s load-bearing stone walls will have been restored and rebuilt. Stone will be replaced where needed. The building will be cleaned, upgraded and renovated and its courtyard will be transformed into a spectacular glass-ceilinged House of Commons chamber to house MPs while Centre Block is restored. In total, the project is expected to employ 5,000 people — a small portion of them stonemasons.
The crew is big enough, though, to make it the biggest mass masonry project in North America.
Tovee’s boss Watt, who apprenticed as a stonemason in Scotland at age 16, says there is enough workspacein Canada to keep stonemasons busy for hundreds of years. Although Watt hired some highly skilled international workers to join his crew, most are Canadian. He is encouraged to see so many young Canadians taking up the trade.
One of Watt’s goals when he came to Canada in 1975 was to help fill the gap left by decades of inadequate training. Before taking on restoration of the Ontario legislature building in Toronto in 1994, he set up a stone masonry techniques program to help train bricklayers in the necessary skills so that he had a crew.
Today, Watt’s company has a crew of 100 stonemasons on the West Block project. It is the largest and, Watt says, the youngest stone masonry crew in Canada — with an average age of 32. He also says there have never been as many women working on such a job site in Canada. His crew includes 15 female stonemasons, and all but two are Canadian.
“That is one of the things people are finding remarkable. Other trades are screaming for people to get involved. Other trades are screaming for women. We are ahead on both counts.”
Stone masonry requires creativity, says Watt, and many stonemasons have other creative outlets. He is among a number of musicians on the crew, some with bands that perform every weekend. Watt has produced a series of artsy videos about stonemasonry and the West Block. Stonemasons are passionate about their work. They “eat and breathe stone” in Tovee’s words. And stonemasons and carvers, like Smith and Barber, often immerse themselves in the history of their trade.
It makes sense, because so much of the work they do has roots that go back centuries.
The West Block, built in Victorian High Gothic style and designed by Thomas Stent and Augustus Laver, was completed in 1865, before the use of steel support beams was introduced to large building projects. The building’s load bearing walls of brick and stone were built in a manner that had changed very little in hundreds of years. Over time, some of those walls have shifted, which is a major focus of the work now being done. Some walls are being dismantled stone by stone and put back together.
Among the restoration work is the addition of anchors, horizontal and vertical, to bring the structure up to building code and seismic regulations. The entire building will also be cleaned using cutting-edge laser technology that does less damage and is less messy than previous cleaning methods.
Some stones are simply being cleaned or repaired. Others must be replaced, which required finding identical — or nearly identical — stone to the original material. In all, just over 2,500 metric tonnes of stone had to be sourced for the project.
The buff-coloured Nepean sandstone that comprises much of the West Block stonework, for example, was originally quarried in what is now urban Ottawa. Those quarries have long since shut down, but stone from the same geological formation was found near Mirabel, Que. The Potsdam sandstone, which has a reddish hue and is used for detailing on the building, came from north of Kingston. The Berea sandstone, from Ohio, can still be found near where it has been quarried for decades. All three were part of the original construction and will be used when replacements are needed.
Parts of the building that have been repaired and cleaned show off the stone the way it originally looked, before decades of pollution darkened and faded the stone and mortar.
“When the stones have been cleaned and new black mortar is put in, it is literally gobsmacking,” says Watt.