Ep. 15: Hiding in Plain Sight



May 26, 2022 18 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast. Where we help spread the word on Parliament.



David: Hi Erin. As usual, it’s great to be back! Erin, do you know what year this is?



Erin: Mmm, nothing really comes to mind, David…



David: Well, this year, Ontario’s Legislative Building is celebrating 129 years young.



Erin: That’s right! And it’s looking pretty good for its age if I do say so myself.



David: I think so too. Today I have a surprise for you. I have a new game for you to try!



Erin: Oh boy. Well, I do love our podcast games. I think I’m ready. Whatcha got for me?



David: Today we’re going to play… Name that decade!



Erin: Haha. That sounds a little intense.



David: I have every confidence in your abilities with this one. Now, I’m going to describe something that took place in the Parliament building and you’re going to have to tell me when it took place by giving me the correct decade.



Erin: Well, in the immortal words of Blondie: One way or another, I’m gonna win this game.



David: Oh, I see what you did there. More song lyric puns. I love that one!



Erin: Well, when you see an opportunity as good as that, you gotta take it.



David: I can’t deny a good song reference moment. Well done! And I also have your first question ready. One of the more recent major changes to be brought to Queen’s Park was the installation of television lights and cameras in the Chamber. What decade did these changes come to the Legislature?



Erin: That’s an easy one. It was the 1980s – 1986 to be exact.



David: All right show-off. Let’s see how you do with this next one. Before the advent of microphones, some Members found it hard to hear one another in the Legislative Chamber. During which decade did they modify the seating in the Chamber to be in a horseshoe shape? And bonus question – when did they revert it back?



Erin: Hmm well, I think it may have been in the 1930s when they changed it to be in the horseshoe shape. And as far as I know it didn’t last too long so I’m going to go with the 1940s for when they changed it back to what we know today.



David: Correct on both points!



Erin: Nice!



David: But there’s one last question.



Erin: Well, this has been pretty easy! So, pretty sure I’ve got this.



David: Luckily, I saved the hardest one for last! As you know, each Speaker used to be able to keep their chair as a gift when they were finished in their role.



Erin: If you’re going to ask when the tradition stopped it was the 1940s – that’s super easy.



David: Actually, I was going to ask what decade the chair currently used in the Chamber dates back to.



Erin: Hmm. You know. I think you finally got me on that one. I know it’s old, but I really don’t know how old.



David: If you had to guess, what would you say…



Erin: Well, If I absolutely, positively had to guess, I guess I would say the 1890s since that’s when the building first opened.



David: That’s a great guess. And you’re not too far off. The current chair actually dates back to 1874 and once belonged to former Speaker Rupert Wells. It was later returned to the Legislature by his family.



Erin: So close! But I do have a fun fact about Speaker Wells!



David: I do love our fun fact moments.



Erin: Well, then get ready for a good one! Fun fact: While he was a Member of Provincial Parliament, Rupert Wells sat on the Standing Committee on Railways – a permanent committee that existed from the 2nd Parliament to the 20th Parliament.



David: Wow! I have to say, I didn’t know that we ever had a Standing Committee on Railways.



Erin: Always happy to share a good fun fact with you David. And that was a great game too!



David: Oh, thanks. I thought it went pretty well with our theme for today: hiding in plain sight.



Erin: It certainly does! So, without further ado, let’s get to our first hidden treasure.



David: I couldn’t agree more, Erin. Over the years, I’ve noticed that when visitors come to the building, they often comment on the size of the Legislative Chamber and in particular its height.



Erin: And for good reason too. The Legislative Chamber spans a whopping 14 metres from floor to ceiling – that’s roughly 50 feet!



David: Now imagine that you had to get all the way up to the ceiling to be able to do your job. That’s exactly what restorers had to deal with when they began work to uncover the original Chamber ceiling back in the 1990s.



Erin: I think maybe we should explain why people would have to be working up that high to begin with. When the building first opened in 1893, photography was still a relatively new technology – it had only been around for about maybe 50 or 60 years. Couple that with some kinda tricky lighting in the building and it equals us having precious few photographs of the Legislative Building from that time. But we do have one beautiful shot of the Chamber. It shows the distinctive arched openings, the tiered seating on the floor and one other feature: a lavishly decorated ceiling.



David: Now that photo is particularly important when I tell you that when I first started working at the building, the ceiling of the Chamber was white. There were no decorative paintings to speak of.



Erin: So, what happened? Well, it turns out that during the planning and construction of the building, an artist named Gustav Hahn was asked to design a mural for the ceiling of the Chamber. A well-known artist in his time, Hahn helped pioneer the art nouveau style in Canada. Fun fact: his brother, Emanuel Hahn, was also involved in the arts. A well-known sculptor, he designed the caribou that can be seen on Canada’s 25 cent coin.



David: Based on the photograph, we knew that there had been an intricate mural of maple leaves done in Mr. Hahn’s distinctive style across the ceiling, but no one had seen it for close to a century.



Erin: By the 1990s, there had been a little damage sustained to the Chamber ceiling. As a result, staff were able to confirm that Gustav Hahn’s beautiful murals remained intact underneath thick layers of horsehair, canvas, and paint. And after several attempts to dampen the echo in the Chamber, this drastic measure was taken to improve the acoustics in the cavernous space.



David: Get ready for a fun fact: the padding that was added to the ceiling measured 7.5 cm thick and some panels were as large as 12 square metres!



Erin: Needless to say, it was quite the project to remove some of those panels – especially being up 50 feet in the air!



David: Indeed, it was Erin. They had to build scaffolding right up to the ceiling. I had the good fortune of being able to go up and see some of the work they were doing first-hand.



Erin: Oh wow. How was that?



David: It was ….unique to say the least, especially since the scaffolding was just a little bit wobbly! It was safe but wobbly. Once up near the ceiling we watched as the art restorers cleaned and touched up the original designs. The restorers indicated that the work was in very good condition, and only a minimal amount of restoration work needed to be done to bring the paint colours back to their original vibrancy.



Erin: That sounds like quite the experience!



David: It really was. What was also fascinating was seeing the graffiti on the ceiling!



Erin: What?! Graffiti??



David: As it turns out, the workers who were applying the materials across the original ceiling signed some of their names up there as a legacy of their work! There’s at least a half dozen names signed up there!



Erin: Wow! That would be quite a legacy I would imagine. And, although not quite as interesting as that, I was actually here for one of the more recent developments with the Chamber ceiling too. Although I definitely didn’t get the same up-close view you had David. It was the beginning of 2019, and some of the panels above the public galleries had begun to sag just a little bit. Because of this, a new ceiling project was launched to investigate the cause and see what was underneath. You see, that original photo of the Chamber I mentioned earlier only gave one really small view of the room.



David: That’s true Erin. We didn’t have any photographic evidence of any paintings in the public galleries since the angle of the picture didn’t quite show that area. After some very careful work, the team discovered something unexpected.



Erin: It turns out that the ceilings in the public galleries were covered in a very similar mural to the rest of the ceiling although in a slightly different colour-scheme – and they proved to be in pretty good shape too! Fun fact: when the building first opened, the public galleries had assigned seating – one was for men and one for women.



David: There is one other ceiling that has been hiding in plain sight. It’s the ceiling above the grand staircase. Now this one was more of a mystery. Former staff had talked about a “starry night sky” above the stairs for many years. But I certainly don’t remember ever seeing anything that fit that description anywhere in the building.



Erin: Me neither. But just this past year, restorers were able to again build some pretty crazy scaffolding all the way to that ceiling too and lo and behold – they discovered a different intricately painted mural that seems to reside over the grand staircase in the lobby of the legislative building.



David: The sample that was revealed is quite small, but it does look like there are stars on a dark blue background – hence the reference from former staff members over the years. But there was another design revealed as well. It’s much harder to tell what it could be, but it looks like it might be part of a coat of arms or another symbol-based image.



Erin: And the grand staircase itself actually gives access to our next hidden treasure too: the Legislative Library.



David: The Library has a very interesting history – maybe we could do an episode all about its fascinating story. What do you think Erin?



Erin: You know what David? I think that’s a great idea! Stay tuned for that one for sure.



David: Without revealing too much so as not to ruin our future episode, the Legislative Library was originally located in the West Wing of the building. But it was destroyed in the devastating fire of 1909.



Erin: To be fair, it was an accidental fire. It was started unintentionally by workers who had been using a charcoal burner up on the roof. An errant spark caught fire and destroyed most of the West Wing – including the beloved library.



David: Following the fire, the West Wing was rebuilt but the library found a new home in another new addition to the building: the North Wing. Designed by Toronto-based architect George Gouinlock, the North Wing addition had been in the works before the fire as a much-needed addition with more office space for the expanding Parliament.



Erin: The fire meant that the library could be relocated now too, and many more fire-proofing methods were taken into account when designing both the West and North Wings of the building this time around. Fire doors, interior steel reinforcements, and marble being some of the prevalent fire-proofing methods for the time. But they still had to find a way to incorporate the new wing into the old building.



David: That’s where a bit of ingenuity was needed. And where things for current staff get a little confusing. The North Wing connects to the main building via the grand staircase – a huge hole was cut in the north-facing wall which became the main hallway to the new addition.



Erin: In doing so, they weren’t able to match up all of the levels to the original floors, so the corresponding floors of the original building don’t exactly match up to the same floor numbers in the North Wing – hence all the confusion. Fun fact: there were originally 2 large windows at the top of the grand staircase, but both were covered over from the inside. Today, they can only be seen from the exterior of the building.



David: On the topic of floors and fires, a glass panel was inserted in the floor outside of the Chamber showing some previous fire damage. It’s one of the places that visitors like to stop and inspect on tours but there’s a common misconception about where it came from.



Erin: While the fire of 1909 was no doubt devastating, it isn’t the only fire to have occurred at the Legislative Building over the years. There is documented evidence that there was a previous fire in 1904 that seems to have travelled through the floor in parts of the building thanks to the electrical and telegraph lines that were concealed under much of the flooring at the time.



David: Fun fact time: there is documentation from the time which states that the fire in 1904 may have been caused by lightning. There was an electrical storm that night and there are reports that lightning may have struck the building and been carried through the telegraph lines eventually burning out a fuse and starting several small fires – all were put out. But this sub-floor theory would better explain the fire damage that can be seen through the glass panel outside of the Chamber.



Erin: Regardless of which fire caused the damage in the floor, I think it’s pretty remarkable that the Chamber itself was never damaged by any of the fires. Especially when you consider truly how much wood is used throughout the entire building.



David: I couldn’t agree more and that’s good luck.



Erin: Haha. For sure. And as much as I love all of the elements that we’ve talked about so far today, I think that my favourite part of the building is one that is quite literally hiding in plain sight, the fifth floor.



David: Now you may be wondering, what’s so special about the fifth floor? Well first and foremost, when the building first opened it didn’t actually have a fifth floor per se. After the big fire of 1909, the newly constructed West Wing was specifically built to be taller than the original building.



Erin: This was done to provide more office space. Now the fifth floor has a few really neat elements – I guess the first one being its floor, I guess you’d call it?



David: Hmm yes, I guess I’d call it the floor too. The reason it’s hard to define is because in the middle of the floor, there is a giant stained-glass section which provides extra light throughout the space below, but being made of glass and very fragile, you can’t actually walk on it.



Erin: Known as a laylight, the stained-glass feature in the West Wing contains the Coat of Arms of Ontario, which was augmented by royal warrant in 1909. Fun fact: the original coat of arms was granted by Queen Victoria in 1868 but only contained the center shield that can be seen on Ontario’s flag today.



David: In order to highlight the imagery in the stained-glass, luxfer prisms were added to the roof in the West Wing. These prisms refract the sunlight and make it brighter in particularly large or deep spaces, making it a perfect lighting source for the laylight. Fun fact: although luxfer prisms had existed since the late 19th century, the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed and patented many variations on the luxfer prism and helped make them not only functional, but beautiful as well.



Erin: Despite their enhanced lighting abilities, the prisms did have a slight tendency to leak quite badly and so they were covered over with tar for many years to stop the leaking.



David: Haha. Bring an umbrella! Luckily, during the same restoration work that took place in the 1990s, they were able to safely remove the tar and install a glass housing over the prisms to keep them waterproof and allow the natural light to shine through once more.



Erin: Now you may be thinking: if the floor is a giant stained-glass installation, what could this space possibly be used for? And you know what? That is a great question.



David: It is Erin. And in fact, the fifth floor has gone through a few transformations over the years; first as one of the original homes for the Ontario Archives and then later, the space was used by the Board of Censors to screen and rate films for Ontario audiences. A vault space in the sub-basement was also given to the board to house the film since it was highly flammable. The Board of Censors eventually found another home elsewhere.



Erin: For many years, the space sat empty due to a change in the fire safety regulations and was only used as occasional storage until an additional staircase could be added to bring the area up to the current fire code. After that, extensive renovations began to convert the previously unusable space into a beautiful office for our House Publications and Language Services Branch.



David: These are the staff who now occupy the fifth floor who are responsible for preparing, printing, and distributing the daily working papers of the House.



Erin: This includes the Orders and Notices, Votes and Proceedings, and Hansard - which is the official report of the meetings both in the House and in Committees.



David: The space itself is really quite breathtaking and beautiful; exposed brick walls, hardwood flooring, interesting nooks and crannies created by the gables in the roof, and of course, the amazing light given off by the luxfer prisms make this space one of my favourites.



Erin: Me too. And would you look at that David – we started our episode today with the ceiling of the Chamber and ended up right back at the top of the building with Hansard.



David: We’ve done it again. Another episode coming full circle.



Erin: Well, I can’t argue with that sound logic.



David: Well, I lost count of the number of fun facts we had today. Seems like a good time for an official count.



Erin: Agreed. Well, by my count, I’m pretty sure we had a total of 8 fun facts today!



David: Wow. Haha. We’re getting pretty good with our fun fact counts, I’d say.



Erin: Most definitely. Tune in next time for even more fun facts!



David: Thanks again for listening to ON Parliament, where we help spread the word on Parliament.



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



Erin: The ON Parliament podcast is produced by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Social media by Parliamentary Protocol and Public Relations for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Additional research provided by the Table Research Office for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today’s episode, please support the podcast by sharing it with others and subscribing. For more fun facts about Ontario’s parliament, follow us on Twitter and Instagram : @onparleducation. Et en français : @parloneducation . Thanks again and see you next time.