The original 1838 structure was relatively small; only two storeys tall with a full-height, central, curved bay, and an accordingly curved pediment on top, the villa was designed by Thomas McKay (who had also designed and built Earnscliffe) in a Regency style, inspired by the work of architect Sir John Soane, who had himself designed a never realised government house for the then capital of Upper Canada, York, in 1818. Unlike the present arrangement, the rooms of the McKay villa for entertaining, sleeping, and service were dispersed throughout the two floors of the structure, with the main parlour located on the second level, in an oval room behind the curved, south bay. The main entrance to the house was on the west side and opened into a hall with stairs to the upper floor directly ahead. Along the south front were a library, a dining room, and a boudoir, all with French doors opening onto a narrow balcony; the dining room was served by three of these doors, one of which now opens into the Tent Room's antechamber, one into the Long Gallery, and one that still opens to the outside. The French door originally opening from the boudoir is today the window of the Pauline Vanier Room.
Initially rented from the McKay family as a temporary accommodation for the Canadian viceroy, the house has since been expanded numerous times. The Viscount Monck oversaw the first addition to the villa: a long wing extending to the east and built in a style that, while attempting to be harmonious with the original, was intended to resemble the governor general's residence in Quebec, Spencer Wood, which Monck greatly preferred over Rideau Hall. The extension was thus done in an overall Norman style of design that was typical in Quebec at the time, and had a similar long, covered verandah, a cross hall, and a new staircase capped by an ornate stained glass lantern.
In 1872, during the tenure of the Earl of Dufferin, the indoor tennis court and the ballroom were added to the western end of the house, arranged to the south and north, respectively, of the main entrance. Then, when the Earl of Minto arrived in 1898 with his large family and household, the Minto Wing was constructed on the east end of Rideau Hall and was completed in the following year, though this was again intended to only be a temporary measure until a proper government house could be built. Minto's successor, the Earl Grey, added the governor general's study to the far east end of the Monck Wing, thus symmetrically balancing out the curved bay and pediment of the original McKay villa to the west.
One of the greatest alterations to the form of Rideau Hall came in 1913, with the construction of the Mappin Block as a link between the ballroom and Tent Room, along with a re-facing of the two latter structures to harmonise their windows, cornice heights, and cladding (in a limestone ashlar), all in an "adapted Florentine architectural style" designed by Chief Dominion Architect David Ewart. The block is three stories in height, and its front is divided by pilasters into five bays, with the central one slightly wider than the equal other four. The windows on the main floor are each surrounded by smaller pilasters beneath a triangular pediment formed by keel moulding geisons, while the second level windows are each simply framed by astragal moulding broken at the top by a keystone. A heavy entablature separates the second and third levels, atop which sits less pronounced pilasters and simply framed windows, with the entire facade capped by a narrow cornice and a pediment with a tympanum that bears a bas relief of the Royal Arms of the United Kingdom (believed to be the largest rendition in the Commonwealth). For formal arrivals, this addition also included a porte-cochere with three arched openings, the centre one topped with a carved stone rendition of the shield of the Royal Arms of Canada as it appeared between 1868 and 1921. All the arches were later fitted with permanent fanlights, under which glass doors are installed during the winter to provide an enclosed space in which to exit cars. Further projects that were completed by 1914 were the addition in 1912 of the Long Gallery to the east of the Tent Room, and the enlargement of the State Dining Room.
Over the summer of 2007, the main facade of Rideau Hall underwent a major renovation by the National Capital Commission, that saw the masonry treated and restored, the original sash windows rehabilitated and stripped of their lead paint, and the copper roof of the Mappin Wing repaired. This was the first time any considerable work had been done on the front façade since the 1960s. A project began in 2012 to replace the building's climate control system—consisting of three large external chillers and multiple window-mounted air conditioners—with a geothermal heating and cooling system, expected to supply approximately half of the building's heating requirements during winter, until the geothermal system is expanded in future.
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