It's an architectural masterpiece preserved by a chorus of mostly unsung Canadian heroes. Visitors to the newly refurbished Library of Parliament will certainly hear of Connie MacCormac, the quick-thinking library clerk who ordered a set of iron doors slammed shut while fire gutted the rest of Parliament's Centre Block on Feb. 3, 1916.
The story of MacCormac's great save, which helped to preserve the lone remaining piece of the original federal Parliament, has an established place in Canadian lore.
But he wasn't alone. Scores of Ottawa residents arrived to help save the library collection after another fire in 1952.
Water damage from firefighters' battle against that blaze seeped into the book collection and threatened to transform its literary treasures into mouldy mush.
"[Citizens]actually came out to help save the collection," said Lynn Brodie, a director general at the library. "There are photographs showing the books with Popsicle sticks separating the pages, with the books lying out in the sun to dry. There are pictures of Girl Guides, Boy Scouts coming to help out."
Canadians can now appreciate the parliamentary library in all its splendour after a $136-million renovation. Just last month, the building behind the Peace Tower opened its celebrated, fire-thwarting doors to visitors for the first time since 2002.
In addition to improving the building's air circulation and electrical wiring, the renovations helped to restore the library's appearance to that of its 1876 opening.
Layers of magnificent glass floors, which surrounded the library's 16-sided room before being replaced by solid colours in the 1950s, have been reinstalled. The translucent floors allow light to spill unimpeded into the room from its newly refurbished dome.
A new copper roof was added outside the majestic cupola, and its interior was repainted in brilliant white, pastel blue and gold in a throwback to the original tones that had been replaced by monochromatic white after the 1952 fire.
Workers also recreated the look of the original parquet floor with a multi-toned oak, cherry and walnut finish that replaced the herringbone pattern in place since the fifties.
They even gave Queen Victoria a good scrubbing. The soot-stained marble statue of Canada's original sovereign, in the centre of the room, has been restored to a gleaming white.
The results are breathtaking. A tourism magazine recently named the library one of Canada's top 10 tourist attractions for 2006.
"I think it's the most beautiful room in the country," Brodie said. "Certainly it's the most beautiful room in Ottawa. . . . It really demonstrates the talent, and the pride Canadians should have, in this country's early artisans."
The library has traditionally been the highlight of any tour of the parliamentary precinct.
The wood-and-plaster Victorian Gothic structure modelled on the British Library reading room is unique on Parliament Hill. Everything around it was rebuilt in limestone after the 1916 fire.
But the place is no mere architectural museum. It's a working library, with books specifically geared to help members of Parliament and senators with their research.
Public visitors must take an entire tour of Parliament's Centre Block to be allowed into the library.
"There's always the balance between having a working legislature and a very historic, culturally beautiful building," said Dianne Brydon, director of parliamentary public programs. "We have to balance both of those purposes."
The library doesn't compete for collector pieces with Library and Archives Canada, which holds such priceless items as explorer Samuel de Champlain's personal diaries.
The Library of Parliament does, however, hold some old items. The oldest is a 1558 French book called Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique, based on André Thevet's interviews with explorers who had seen the New World.
Perhaps the most valuable item is a personal copy of John James Audubon's historic Birds of America. A regular edition of the leather-bound collection from the 1840s recently sold at auction for $8.8-million.
This particular set, donated by Audubon's widow, Lucy, has the famed ornithologist's personal notes scribbled into the margins. She offered up the encyclopedic set upon hearing that the library's copy had been lost in yet another fire -- one that destroyed the pre-Confederation Parliament in Montreal in 1849.
The works of Audubon and Thevet will be stored with other valuables in the basement beneath the library. Other subterranean floors were added during the renovations and fitted with state-of-the-art temperature- and humidity-control devices.
Those excavations were no easy task. Since dynamiting the land beneath Canada's Parliament is a big no-no, a mining crew from Sudbury was called in to hack away at the limestone mass under the building.
If you can't make it to Ottawa this summer, there's an easier way to see the library. Look at an old $20 bill or a new $10 one.
"I don't know that most Canadians realize it -- but they're carrying around a photo of the Library of Parliament probably on a daily basis," Brodie said.
Parliament of Canada: 1-866-599-4999; .