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Rideau Hall And Its Gardens

Yearbook 2000 page 19

By: Linda Dicaire, BSc., BLA, MA (MOALA, MCSLA) From a Talk Given to the OHS November 1999 print friendly version

Rideau Hall is a vice-regal residence, associated by many with British tradition. However, its landscape is uniquely Canadian and represents our own interpretation of the traditional estate villa. It is our native soil that has been consistently molded, despite the occasional departure, to achieve a clear design intent. As a nation, we can and should, therefore, cherish the buildings and grounds of Rideau Hall as an expression of our cultural identity and its path of evolution.

The grounds of Rideau Hall are a designed landscape. We may refer to them as a cultural landscape because of their history and design, and also because of their associations with successive generations of governors general and their spouses.

The design principles which influenced governors general for more than 100 years with respect to the treatment of the grounds are rooted in ideas belonging to the Natural style. This landscape style gained momentum in 18th Century England and subsequently spread like wildfire through Europe for reasons of philosophy, economy and fashion. The Natural style sought to reinstate Nature in designed landscapes, in contrast to the highly formal, geometric landscapes created in earlier periods, for example in contrast to Versailles, the masterpiece which designer Andre LeNôtre had created for Louis XIV.

Sweeping lawns, pastoral settings, sinuous drives, distant views, classical temples, follies and other carefully positioned eye catchers, irregular lakes or serpentine rivers (some further improved with bridges or islands), illusions of elysian fields, wildernesses and the ubiquitous, strategically located Lombardy poplar were used in endless combinations to achieve the Natural style. The more successful landscapes clearly reflected an ideological program, at Stowe for example, and design prowess, epitomised at Stourhead.

The Natural style found early expression in the North American landscape, for example, Bedford Basin in Nova Scotia, Inverarden House in Cornwall, and Cataraqui in Quebec. Our virginal landscape was abundant in all essential components of plant material, meadow, forest, and stream. This meant that with relatively little effort there could be equal experience of the Sublime, with its rushing waters and towering mountains, or the Beautiful, with its gentle streams and rolling hills. The siting of buildings, to take advantage of the characteristics afforded by nature, was key in the Canadian context.

The grounds of Rideau Hall contain the essential Natural style ingredients of sweeping lawns, open parkland and forest. As for water, it was historically provided by the connection, visual and physical, to the Ottawa River. Along with its man-made and natural setting, the landscape of Rideau Hall has also enjoyed the unique qualities wrought by Canadian seasons, with winter bringing to the grounds special beauty, charm and, of course, opportunity for the occupants and their guests to engage in winter sports.

At Rideau Hall, as with all estates of significance, the main building is the principal focal point to the original (MacKay) and subsequent (Monck) drive, indeed to the entire grounds. Other buildings, like the entrance lodge, cricket pavilion, dairy and Dome building, have also been designed with special architectural characteristics, in order to fill the role of eyecatcher, rhythmically punctuating the landscape to give delight and interest.

Key to the use of eyecatchers is judicious placement, inferring that there be not too many, preferably not more than one within a viewshed, and that they be positioned sequentially in the landscape giving the eye opportunity to rest between punctuations

It is important to understand the aesthetic and functional layout of the grounds. Just as the residence is divided into rooms, so are the grounds divided into distinct areas each with their own characteristics, predominant qualities, and role. These areas are:

  • the wooded entrance park (trees, groundcover, daffodils and lawn);
  • the open parkland (open meadow);
  • the sugar bush;
  • the ornamental gardens (flower gardens); and
  • the farm (buildings, Rideau cottage, and open area).

These areas have characterised Rideau Hall virtually since its inception and have supported the residential and ceremonial vocation of the estate. They are essential, therefore, to understanding Rideau Hall as a vice-regal estate and as a document to Canadian landscape history. Special areas, such as those devoted to the new rose garden and the expanding visitor centre, can perhaps be considered as << rooms within rooms >> that require sensitive integration.

It is also important to acknowledge historical connections between Rideau Hall and Rockcliffe Park. Rideau Hall and Rockcliffe Park (park and village) were all part of the original 1,100 acre estate purchased by Thomas MacKay. Later, when the estate was subdivided and Rideau Hall redefined as an 87 acre tract of land devoted to the vice-regal residence, Rideau Hall remained functionally connected to the park.

The Royal shanty was erected on adjacent Pine Hill, cross-country skiing was introduced to Canada in the park by its vice-regal patrons, and daring toboggan rides took flight from the man-made knoll in the sugar bush at Rideau Hall, swung under the road way and, from darkness into light, emerged onto the Ottawa River, adjacent to the park shores. That historical inter-relationship has not been nurtured in recent years. However, it is not impossible to reinstate it.

From its inception to the present day, the principal quality of the grounds of Rideau Hall has rested on the dominance of soft landscape (lawn, meadow, trees, shrubs, flower gardens) over hard landscape (buildings, roads, paths, structures). We refer to this particular quality as character-defining. Countless photographs, historic and contemporary, attest to this essential characteristic of Rideau Hall.

When evaluating the success of a proposed or existing feature, it is useful to ask if it respects this characteristic, if it maintains the strength of the soft landscape. It is also important to ensure that new interventions are compatible with the essential quality of the landscape zones mentioned above, and that they communicate the symbolism of Rideau Hall as the residence of the Governor General where important ceremonies and events unfold as reflections of our Canadian culture and traditions.

Please contact the OHS or the author if you wish to republish these articles. Ottawa Horticultural Society

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