• The exterior of 50 Sussex Drive, formerly the Canada and the World Pavilion

    The exterior of 50 Sussex Drive, formerly the Canada and the World Pavilion and soon to be Canada's Centre for Geography and Exploration. (Photo courtesy National Capital Commission/Commission de la capitale nationale)

On October 24, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the National Capital Commission announced that the vacant building at 50 Sussex Drive in Ottawa will be transformed into Canada's Centre for Geography and Exploration. The refurbished facility, set to open in two stages — for exhibitions in 2017, then fully in 2018 — will serve as the headquarters of the RCGS and a public centre for geographic education and discovery. Here are five things to know about the history and significance of this landmark building.

It was built to showcase Canada's accomplishments on the world stage

Visitors explore an exhibit at the Canada and the World Pavilion

Visitors explore an exhibit at the Canada and the World Pavilion, a museum housed at 50 Sussex Drive from 2000 to 2005. (Photo courtesy National Capital Commission/Commission de la capitale nationale)

50 Sussex was built by the National Capital Commission in 2000 to house the Canada and the World Pavilion, a forum where visitors could learn about the contributions of Canadians to international diplomacy, peacekeeping, aid, science, technology, art and sport. It was closed in 2005 due to declining attendance and financial constraints, but its vast indoor and outdoor spaces mean it's well-equipped to help fulfill The Royal Canadian Geographical Society's mandate of making Canada better known to Canadians and the world. 

It's actually two buildings in one

The John Street labs of the National Research Council circa 1937

The John Street Labs of the National Research Council circa 1937. (Photo courtesy National Research Council of Canada archives)

Decades before the Pavilion was built, the site was home to a laboratory of the National Research Council, portions of which still comprise the basement and lower levels of the building. Post-war interest in scientific research meant that in the 1920s, the fledgling NRC received increased government funding and moved from a few rooms on Parliament Hill to improvised facilities in an old pulp and paper mill at Rideau Falls. Known at that time as the John Street Laboratory, the building eventually housed the NRC's first full-time researchers and its earliest specialized facilities, which included a wind tunnel and an anti-chemical warfare plant for gas masks. 

It has some very important neighbours

Map of the area surrounding 50 Sussex Drive

50 Sussex is located near the top of Sussex Drive, an important ceremonial route in the nation's capital and the home of some of the most famous addresses in the country. Among the building's closest neighbours are the Embassy of France, the South African High Commission, and 24 Sussex, the official residence of the Prime Minister. The Governor General's residence is a short walk away. 

Its geographic location is symbolic

The Rideau Falls

The Rideau Falls. (Photo: Kevin Collins/Can Geo Photo Club)

It's only fitting that a hub for exploration and geographic education in Canada should be situated at the confluence of two historic rivers. The Rideau Falls mark where the eponymous river joins the Ottawa River, which forms the border between Canada’s two largest provinces — a symbolic connection between English- and French-speaking Canadians. Prior to confederation, the Ottawa River and its tributaries supported indigenous peoples and served as important trade routes, and were later explored by famed adventurers including Cartier, Brûlé and Champlain. Champlain described the Rideau Falls in his 1613 expedition, which resulted in some of the very first maps of Canada.

It puts the RCGS on par with other geographical organizations around the world

The headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society and the National Geographic Society

Left: Lowther Lodge, the London, U.K. headquarters of the Royal Geographical Society. Right: Hubbard Hall, the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the National Geographic Society. (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

Both The Royal Geographical Society and The National Geographic Society, the philosophical cousins of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, are headquartered in flagship buildings that are as historic and visually striking as they are functional. The Royal Geographical Society is housed in Lowther Lodge, a stately 19th century red brick manor in London's tony Kensington neighbourhood, while Hubbard Hall, the Washington, D.C. administration building of The National Geographic Society was designed by the American architect Arthur B. Heaton in a classical style.