Monday, September 16, 2019

Meet John Pearson, the genius architect of Parliament’s Centre Block

architect john pearsonHis influence towers over Ottawa — literally — and is seen around the world as a symbol of Canada, yet few people today recognize the name of John Andrew Pearson.

Pearson was chief architect of the Peace Tower and Parliament’s rebuilt Centre Block, creating a masterpiece in place of the ashes and rubble left by the devastating fire of 1916.

His hand was in every step of the design, from the grand rotunda of Confederation Hall to the teak and ebony floor of the House of Commons, to the carved phoenix symbolizing Parliament rising from the ashes above the prime minister’s office.

“It’s all designed to remind parliamentarians where they come from, why they’re here and the job they have to do,” said Johanna Mizgala, curator of the House of Commons. “That they’re called to serve the country. They’re given a role, their role is special and by consequence they’re given this special, beautiful space in which to conduct the business of the country.”

Long overlooked, Pearson is again starting to get his due. His official portrait has been retrieved from storage, spruced up and now hangs in the Speaker’s office. Mizgala can barely contain her enthusiasm as she leads a tour of Centre Block, pointing out the grand symbolism and tiny flourishes of Pearson’s work.

“Maybe you can tell. I have this big intellectual crush on John Pearson,” she says.

Pearson was born in Chesterfield, England on June 22, 1867 — a fitting birth year for a man who would contribute so much to Canada. He emigrated to New York in 1888 and shortly afterward arrived in Toronto where he partnered with Frank Darling, designing many of that city’s iconic bank buildings and the grand architecture of the University of Toronto.

For all his accomplishments, we know very little of Pearson the man. A fire destroyed his personal papers and correspondence. He had no children. There is no biography.

“Unlike many talented people, he didn’t write about himself,” said David Monaghan, Mizgalla’s predecessor at curator of the House of Commons, who retired in 2014. “There are very few interviews with him and a lot of comments made about the building seem to come from journalists he knew — almost like he was feeding them information so he wouldn’t be quoted.”

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