Ep. 04: A House for Ontario: the Architectural History of the Legislative Building




April 22, 2021  24 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast. I’m Erin and I’m here with Stephanie. As always, here at ON Parliament, we help spread the word on parliament.



Stephanie: Guess what Erin?



Erin: What?



Stephanie: A really important birthday just happened!



Erin: Whose? I didn’t miss your birthday, did I?



Stephanie: No, you’re good on that front. And it’s not a who but a what! The Legislative Building just turned 128 years old on April 4th.



Erin: Sounds to me like a perfect time to talk about the building and hear more about its history since it’s such a celebrated architectural landmark and the centre of parliamentary democracy in Ontario.



Stephanie: Today we’re going to get into the nitty gritty of its history, design, architectural features and some of the many changes and transformations it has gone through over the years.



Erin: So, sit back and get ready for a well-structured episode.



Stephanie: Oh boy. Is there anything you can’t find a pun for?



Erin: I haven't found anything yet.



Stephanie: Great... Now you may remember if you tuned in to our first episode, that the Legislative Building at Queen’s Park isn’t our first parliament building for the province.



Erin: That’s right. We had several leading up to 1880 which is when our current building’s story begins. That’s when Mr. Tully, the Architect and Engineer for the Department of Public Works at the time, filed a report on the unsafe conditions of the parliament building, which was located near today’s Front and Simcoe Streets in Toronto.



Stephanie: About a month later, Christopher Findlay Fraser, the Minister of Public Works, presented nine resolutions before the House, the first of which recommended the construction of a new parliament building. The government of the day acquired the site at Queen’s Park from the University of Toronto shortly thereafter.



Erin: In the Spring of 1880, Minister Fraser published an extensive document laying out the rules for an international competition to design the new parliament building for Ontario. His document stated that the proposed design must use mostly local materials from the province and he stressed that each design had to be as fireproof as possible.



Stephanie: But the most important part of this declaration was the price. The budget was set at a maximum of $500,000.



Erin: Now that may seem like an arbitrary amount but there was some method to his madness – the $500,000 budget came from an estimate that Minister Fraser had received for the value of the Front Street property.



Stephanie: The competition started to heat up, and Mr. Fraser couldn’t assess the submissions alone. So, a three-person jury was created to judge the submissions fairly. The panel consisted of Alexander Mackenzie (the federal commissioner of public works), Toronto-based architect W.G. Storm and British-born architect Richard Waite.



Erin: By the end of the year, the jury presented their findings on over a dozen entries to the Minister. They used a 6-category system to evaluate the entries. Some of the categories included: architectural merit, use of natural lighting, heating and ventilation, and, of course, cost.



Stephanie: Using this system, the jury awarded first place to the architectural firm of Darling and Curry. They also awarded a second and third place to the firms of Gordon and Helliwell, and Smith and Gemmell.



Erin: Now you’re probably thinking, that’s great the jury picked a winner; end of story. But in fact, that's really only the beginning of our building's story.



Stephanie: You’re right. Despite picking first, second and third place winners for the competition, the jury ultimately declared that they couldn’t recommend building any of the designs because of defects in heating, lighting and ventilation. Also, no contractor could provide an estimate for any of the top three designs that would come in under the $500,000 budget.



Erin: Fast-forward to February of 1881 – the top two firms were asked to submit modified plans to again try to stay within the ever-elusive budget. And this time they came pretty close – one came in at a projected cost of $542,000 while the other came in at $612,000.



Stephanie: Now this is where the story starts to get a little bit confusing and lost in time.



Erin: We found some evidence that suggests that there may have been a second design competition likely in 1882. But nothing concrete.



Stephanie: Again, with the building puns.



Erin: This one was actually accidental; I promise ha-ha.



Stephanie: Sure... anyway what we do know for sure is that in 1882, the Government decided to increase the budget for the building to a whopping $750,000.



Erin: Now at this point, one of the members of the panel, Richard Waite, was asked to review the top two plans again with this new budget in mind. But he still deemed both “unsuitable” - mostly for a continued lack of lighting and ventilation.



Stephanie: At this point, the Government of the day had 2 choices: they could launch yet another design competition, or they could ask someone they trusted to submit a design instead. They opted to go for the latter.



Erin: Now who do you suppose they asked to submit a design? Why their favourite judge and architect of course, Richard Waite!



Stephanie: Mr. Waite was officially commissioned to design the new Parliament Building on January 8, 1886.



Erin: He was of course given the new budget of $750,000 to work with but soon found that it wouldn’t be enough for the building he had planned.



Stephanie: After more than 6 years of construction and coming in at over $1.3million, Ontario’s newly built Parliament Building first opened its doors to the public on April 4th, 1893.



Erin: It would have been pretty amazing to have been there that day don't you think?



Stephanie: Absolutely. Especially riding the elevators. Can you imagine how exciting that must have been for the people back then? 



Erin: I honestly can't. Especially considering it was one of the first public buildings in the province to actually have elevators so it must have been truly exciting. And the people did end up riding them up and down so many times that one of them actually got stuck and they shut the rest of them down for safety.



Stephanie: The building was also so large, that the Premier at the time, Sir Oliver Mowat, was heard wondering how they would ever manage to fill all of the offices with people.



Erin: Fun fact: the building was full within less than a decade.



Stephanie: Now we know that this is an audio only podcast, but how could we talk about the building without describing some of its architectural details?



Erin: Too true. Richard Waite used a pink sandstone for the exterior of the building. True to the conditions of the contract, he sourced the stone from a quarry in Orangeville. And the reason he went with sandstone was because it’s a soft stone which makes carving intricate details a little easier – something that was vital to his design of the building.



Stephanie: Absolutely, the carvings are some of the first things you notice while walking around. I love looking at all of the grotesques around the building. Each one is so different; some look more like animals and mythical creatures while others have almost a human like appearance. Fun fact: Grotesques originated in medieval times when mythology was a powerful force in people’s lives and these figures were thought to have the power to scare off and protect from evil or harmful spirits.



Erin: I think my favourite carving is the frieze on the front façade. Its over 20 metres long but it's hard to tell its actual size from the ground since it is so high up. The allegorical figures are meant to represent different aspects of society and government like architecture! No matter what part of the building you're looking at though, it's hard to deny the beauty of the stonework.



Stephanie: The building also gets one of its many nicknames, the Pink Palace, from that dusty rose-coloured stone. The palace moniker comes from the architectural style Waite used in his design. The Legislative Building is made in a Richardsonian Romanesque style. But what does that mean?



Erin: Named after architect Henry Hobson Richardson who pioneered the Romanesque revival style, buildings that are made in this architectural style typically incorporate 11th and 12th century southern French, Spanish, and Italian Romanesque characteristics like heavy stonework with intricate carvings, the use of curved archways in windows and doors and sometimes cylindrical towers. In short – they're all very castle-like from the outside. But what about the inside? Does it fit with its castle-like exterior?



Stephanie: It definitely does. Inside, Waite continued his theme of using rich, dense-looking materials interspersed with delicate, intricate carvings. The hallways of the building are done in white oak – from the quarter-cut flooring to the rich paneling on the walls, no detail was overlooked. And to enhance the castle-like vibe, we even have our very own dragons hiding throughout the carvings in the building.



Erin: But perhaps one of the most striking interior details, is the beautiful stained-glass ceiling in the East Wing. Designed using yellow and orange glass, the abstract design was an innovative technique by Waite to ensure that there would be adequate lighting throughout the inner halls. Fun fact: many people think that the stained-glass ceiling is a skylight but it’s actually a laylight.



Stephanie: What’s the difference between the two you ask? Great question. A skylight separates the outside from the inside and is installed directly into the roof whereas a laylight is horizontal and almost acts as a decorative false ceiling and is solely inside of a building.



Erin: Lighting was a particular concern for Waite, seeing as it was one of the elements that came under scrutiny during the design competition. Since he couldn't rely on the laylight alone to light the building, he incorporated both gas and electric fixtures into his overall design. Fun fact: some of these original light fixtures can still be seen today, obviously though, they are no longer gas powered.



Stephanie: You certainly can’t argue over the beauty of the Legislative Building, however you may remember that another critical component was that the building was meant to be fireproof – or at least as fireproof as a structure built in the late 19th century could be.



Erin: If you haven’t guessed it already, there may have been a small incident that involved a very large fire.



Stephanie: On September 1st, 1909, the roof of the Legislative Building was undergoing a series of repairs. A group of tinsmiths were using a charcoal burner to heat their tools when an errant spark landed on the roof. According to reports, it was a particularly windy day and a fire broke out on the roof of the West Wing.



Erin: The alarm was raised by an elevator attendant sprinting through the West Wing corridor, yelling “FIRE”, and not long after a burning beam came crashing through the laylight and quickly spread the fire to the entire West Wing. In a bid to save as much of the building as they could, including the Legislative Chamber, volunteers formed a bucket brigade, dousing the rest of the building to keep it from catching alight.



Stephanie: Assembly staff and MPPs, including Premier Whitney, were involved in the fight to save the building and its contents. Despite their tireless efforts, the library and over 100,000 books and documents were lost to the flames. Though the rest of the structure and most importantly the Legislative Chamber, were saved from damage.



Erin: While the fire triggered the need to rebuild the West Wing, talks had been underway for some time to expand the building. Mowat’s prediction that Queen’s Park would never be full proved to be untrue and a plan to construct a new North Wing at the rear of the structure was already being discussed prior to the fire.



Stephanie: North Wing construction started that same year. Since the primarily wooden construction of the building had created the perfect conditions for the fire to spread, new strategies had to be undertaken to avert future disasters.



Erin: Toronto architect George Gouinlock, with the help of the Legislative Librarian of the time, Avern Pardoe, used several innovative and fireproof designs to transform the newly constructed North Wing to house the library that we know today.



Stephanie: You can still see many of the ingenious design choices: including fire doors, metal bookstacks and staircases, marble flooring and steel window shutters.



Erin: Not only that, but the design itself was also meant to help protect against fires; originally designed with the bookshelves running along the outside walls of the room, the new library used an all-metal, central design meant to keep the books safe by surrounding them with inflammable materials like marble and steel. Fun fact: it only took about 10 years to grow the collection of the library back up to its former glory of around 100,000 books!



Stephanie: The reconstruction of the West Wing was assigned to another Toronto architect – E.J. Lennox. Fun fact: if you've been to Toronto, you may be familiar with some of Lennox' other buildings since he also designed Toronto’s Old City Hall and Casa Loma.



Erin: In contrast to the original mandate to use local materials, Lennox was able to incorporate other elements into his design. The most striking example of this is the gleaming white Carrera marble from Italy he used in the West Wing. Another distinctive aspect is the detailed mosaic floor, with each individual piece being cut and laid by hand. Fun fact: the mosaic floor in the West Wing took over one year to complete!



Stephanie: In keeping with the need for more space, the West Wing was also expanded to include additional offices. This dramatically altered the symmetry of the design, and looking at the building today you’ll notice that the rooflines of the East and West Wings no longer match as Waite had intended.



Erin: One element that was carried over from Waite’s original plan was the incorporation of a new laylight – this time even more detailed as it featured the new Coat of Arms for the Province of Ontario which received Royal Proclamation in 1909.



Stephanie: With the North and West Wing constructions completed by 1913, the Legislative Building saw little to no significant changes to its overall design until the late 80s.



Erin: That’s not entirely true... who could forget when they rolled out the red carpet (literally) in the swinging sixties!



Stephanie: Honestly, I try and forget that that red carpet choice ever happened but unfortunately, we have the pictures...



Erin: I feel like most people want to try to forget their carpet choices from the sixties. I mean, can you say shag?...



Stephanie: Well, it wasn’t that extreme! The carpet in the Chamber and the rest of the building was definitely bright but luckily no shag...



Erin: Thankfully, that bright carpeting was swapped out for something much closer to how the Chamber would have originally looked when the building opened.



Stephanie: Since 1893, the Chamber has been the focal point of the Legislative Building, and Richard Waite paid particular attention to its design and location.



Erin: That’s true! Waite deliberately placed the Chamber at the front of the building; in fact, the three large windows you see on the front façade look directly into the Chamber. But, why did he pick the front like that?



Stephanie: Well, Waite wanted to emphasize the relationship between Parliament and the people of Ontario. By placing the Chamber at the front, looking South, he was aiming to symbolize the accountability of Parliament to its citizens.



Erin: Remind me again why he was so focused on it facing South?



Stephanie: We have to remember that Toronto in 1893 was significantly smaller than it is today. The vast majority of the city’s population, and even structures, would have been located between the Legislative Building and Lake Ontario. You could even probably see the Lake from Queen’s Park! Since the people were mostly to the South of the building, it made sense to have the front façade face that direction.



Erin: That makes sense. Although it may be a little bit of a stretch to say that you could see the lake. You maybe would've had to be on top of the roof to truly see it. Nonetheless though, the Centre Block was a bit of an engineering marvel for the time, with the Chamber ceiling and roof structure being supported by a very intricate system of beams and trusses.



Stephanie: This design allowed the ceiling of the Chamber to reach the staggering height of 50 feet!



Erin: Fun fact: according to Waite’s plans the height of the Chamber is actually only half of the total height of the Centre Block. The roof structure makes up the other half.



Stephanie: Such a grand room called for a dramatic design, this included detailed carvings, elaborate murals both on the walls and the ceiling, and large light fixtures.



Erin: Waite was very detailed in his plans and left extensive instructions. But he actually left the minutia of the carvings up to the discretion of the individual woodworkers and carvers. We most likely have head carver William McCormack to thank for the elaborate carvings that we find in the Chamber.



Stephanie: My favourite carvings in the Chamber are definitely all the Latin phrases; they’re meant to inspire the MPPs as they make decisions for Ontarians.



Erin: For me, it's the Royal Coat of Arms that sits right above the Speaker’s dais at the front of the Chamber. I find it particularly impressive that McCormack was able to carve it out of one single, solid piece of mahogany!



Stephanie: Fun fact: as the head carver, William McCormack was the only carver allowed to sign his work, that we’re aware of, and his signature can be seen at the bottom of the Royal Coat of Arms.



Erin: Another individual who left his mark, quite literally, on the room, was Gustav Hahn who was responsible for the beautiful ceiling and wall murals throughout the Chamber.



Stephanie: Done in the Art Nouveau style, the hand painted murals feature an elaborate maple leaf motif. Hahn also painted four female allegorical figures; power, wisdom, moderation, and tolerance, representing the virtues of good government.



Erin: Unfortunately, all of Hahn’s work was covered over in the early 20th century with horsehair, glue and canvas, in an attempt to improve the acoustics of the Chamber.



Stephanie: This decision wasn’t taken lightly. But the Chamber had a serious echo problem; remember you’re dealing with a cavernous room, with 50-foot ceilings, at a time before microphones. Members had been complaining since the building opened that it was really difficult to hear in the Chamber.



Erin: They did make other attempts to solve the problem before covering the ceiling though. The biggest change was lowering the Press Gallery by several feet, hoping that the lowered gallery would help lessen some of the echo.



Stephanie: All I can say is thank goodness for modern technology! The addition of microphones definitely helped with the sound and allowed for the unveiling of Hahn’s murals.



Erin: Now the work has to be done in stages on that. Not only is it a time consuming and painstaking process to remove the paneling without damaging the murals underneath but we have to remember that our building is also a working Parliament!



Stephanie: Definitely. Since they have to build scaffolding from the floor to the ceiling to complete the work, it's really time consuming. It's also particularly problematic when you have to work around the parliamentary calendar!



Erin: Very true. But while modern technology has been our friend at times, it has also been our foe.



Stephanie: Wow. Dramatic.



Erin: I mean, I have to be a little dramatic. But incorporating technology into a building that was never meant to accommodate it in the beginning, can be particularly challenging. Take lighting for example. While the original fixtures were certainly impressive when the building first opened for their time, their technology eventually became obsolete and had to be replaced. The first step was transitioning all of them from gas to being fully electric.



Stephanie: Fun fact: the four central light fixtures that can be seen in the Chamber even today each weigh approximately 900 pounds, and have to be lowered with a pully system whenever you want to change the lightbulbs.



Erin: Eventually though, completely new light fixtures had to be added to the Chamber because another new technology came to town: this time TV.



Stephanie: Cameras were installed in the Chamber in 1986, and allowed for Ontarians across the province to watch Parliament in real time *magic.* The new cameras meant that the old lights were no longer sufficient and 10 new light fixtures were added to ensure that the MPPs were well lit.



Erin: But the Chamber isn’t the only place that we have seen some more recent changes. It wasn’t actually until the building was approaching its one hundredth birthday, that a plan was developed in an attempt to save and maintain the structure.



Stephanie: Extensive research was undertaken to determine the overall condition of the building, and what techniques needed to be used to repair it to its former glory.



Erin: Work began on the outside in 1992 and repairs were made to the roof both inside and out, the masonry, and the decorative carvings.



Stephanie:  It was a massive project and the outside work wasn’t completed until the mid 1990s. Personally, my favourite aspect of the restoration was the recreation of the two decorative copper finials at the very top of the building’s roof. The originals had worn away over time and had completely disappeared by the 1970s. Fun fact: one of the finials actually contains a time capsule that is set to be opened on April 4th, 2093.



Erin: I always forget that it’s in there, fingers crossed I'll be around when they open it one day. But it wasn’t just the outside of the building that underwent major changes.



Stephanie: The Chamber also went through a face-lift, including, thankfully, new carpeting, upholstery as well as returning the room to its original paint colours and the whole Chamber took on a ‘parliamentary’ green colour scheme.



Erin: But work on the inside wasn’t only focused on the Chamber, they were also able to restore the hallways, which in my opinion, is one of the more underrated aspects of the restoration project. The wood floors in the hallways had been covered with a layer of plywood and that infamous carpeting, all of which had to be carefully removed, including the thousands of nails and staples that had been used to hold it in place. The original flooring was then sanded and finished to the beautiful floors that we see today.



Stephanie: Every time I walk through the building, I’m blown away by how much work must have gone into the floors alone!



Erin: I would say that they really nailed it on that one...



Stephanie: Alright you’ve reached your pun quota for the day. That's it.



Erin: Until next time puns! Though the building has gone through extensive restorations and renovations it’s been over 100 years since any new additions have been added to the Legislative Building.



Stephanie: But in late 2019, we broke ground on a dedicated Visitors’ Entrance. The new structure is tucked into the South façade and provides a security screening area that enhances the safety of the building. The addition used materials that were complimentary to the building’s heritage appearance, including limestone and copper.



Erin: Also, wherever possible, local Ontario materials were chosen. Just like in the original design competition all the way back in the 1880s!



Stephanie: What a journey this has been.



Erin: I mean, you don’t turn 128 years old every day, and it was great to go over some of the highlights of such a historic building.



Stephanie: It's so full of heritage and one that we often forget belongs to the province and to all Ontarians. There is one thing though that we need to do before we go, and that's check our Fun Fact Count!



Erin: Wouldn't it have been super cool if we had actually hit 128 fun facts?



Stephanie: We would have been here all day...



Erin: Well, we were pretty close. We only came up 117 short.



Stephanie: Erin, you know I’m bad at math but if I think about it, that means we did 11, right?



Erin: Yeah... so close!



Stephanie: I don’t know if we’ll be able to top that honestly.



Erin: Well, tune in next time to see if we can beat our new fun fact record.



Stephanie: Thanks for listening to ON Parliament, where we spread the word on parliament.



Erin: Got to go, I think I hear the bells.



Stephanie: The ON Parliament podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Erin: Social media by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Stephanie: Additional research provided by the Table Research Office for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



Erin: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please support the podcast by sharing it with others and subscribing.



Stephanie: For more fun facts about Ontario’s parliament, follow us on Twitter (external link) and Instagram (external link): @onparleducation. Et en français sur Twitter (external link): @parloneducation.



Erin: Thanks again, and see you next time.