Christ Church Cathedral, Ottawa – Cathedral Deanery

By on September 1, 2023

Familiar yet undated

Christ Church Cathedral looks timeless and certainly familiar in this undated photograph. Doubtless architect King Arnoldi intended it to be when he was handed the commission in 1872 to build a new much larger Christ Church “in conformity with recent improvements in the City of Ottawa.”

The old Christ Church, first built at the western limits of Bytown back in 1832, and continuously expanded to seat more people as the city grew, had now become an embarrassment to the young capital. The Hand-Book to the Parliamentary and Departmental Buildings just four years earlier had gone so far as to declare, “Ottawa is somewhat behind in Ecclesiastical Architecture,” and in a deliberate swipe at Christ Church, opined, “from some cause or other there is no English Episcopal Church worthy of the place, nor any present prospect of so desirable an addition to Ottawa’s Ecclesiastical Buildings.”

So Arnoldi must have been alternately pleased with this commission to build a landmark new church, yet at the same time frustrated by the phrasing that it be “in conformity with recent improvements.” He had already proven himself with the design of Saint-Alban-the-Martyr in Sandy Hill. What an architect wants to do is produce a design that will stand out, not one that is in conformity with the work of others. Even if that other was his own mentor, Thomas Fuller.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Despite the best efforts of the parish building committee, most of Arnoldi’s crafty design passed muster. Although they pared down his chancel to one quarter the size he proposed, sixty years later the larger structure was finally built, albeit to a less robust design. Although they managed to cut down the size of the west window to half the size he envisioned, he framed it with a Gothic arch and drip mouldings on the outer wall against the day that a larger aperture might be desired.

Conformity? It could be seen in the same hue of Nepean sandstone used in the parliament buildings. Conformity? It was apparent outside in the sloping sill of the west window, borrowed directly from the tower of the East Block of the parliament buildings. Conformity? It was evident in the buttresses and finials that were appropriated from the design proposed for the parliamentary library whose walls would soon start rising. Conformity? It could not be missed in the daring slender columns inside the new Christ Church that were copied directly from those in the House of Commons designed by Arnoldi’s mentor, Thomas Fuller.

But clever King Arnoldi made sure that Christ Church stood out as a distinctive building. The tall broach spire made sure of that, reaching higher into the skyline of the capital than that on any other church in the city. Perhaps the single feature that caused the large new church to stand out were the step gables on the front and rear gables and above the chancel arch. The latter two would disappear when the 1872 chancel was torn down in 1932, but the front step gable remains a defining feature on the Ottawa landscape, despite recent intrusions on either side.

We can only regret that Arnoldi’s plans on paper did not survive. By the time the Diocesan Archives was created 72 years later, the plans had disappeared. By contrast, plans for the 1958 Cathedral Hall, seen here, are preserved in the Cathedral collection at the Archives.

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