Ep. 21: 130 Years of Ontario’s Parliament



April 6, 2023

12 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast, where we help spread the word on Parliament. April is a very special month for us here at the Legislature.



David: Yes indeed Erin. It was on April 4, 1893 that Ontario’s Parliament Building opened its doors for the first time. That means that this April 4 marks the building’s 130th anniversary.



Erin: To mark this momentous occasion, I thought we could focus on the Legislative Building, specifically some of it’s more enduring and fascinating features.



David: That’s a great idea Erin!



Erin: I’m so glad you like it! And to kick off this month’s episode, in true ON Parliament fashion, I have another game for you David.



David: Let’s see what you’ve cooked up this time!



Erin: I decided to go back to a classic, true or false. But with a twist. I’m going to give you some facts about the opening day at the building and you’re going to have to tell me whether or not they’re true.



David: I know I’ve worked at the building for a few years now, but how old do you think I am?



Erin: Ha! I didn’t mean that you would know the answer from personal experience. I just thought it would be fun for you to guess…



David: I guess that’s fair enough. What’s the first question?



Erin: In 1893, there were only 89 elected Members. True or False.



David: I’m going to go with true on this one.



Erin: And you would be correct! Fun fact: with only a population of 2.2 million people in the province of Ontario, that meant that each Member represented approximately 25,000 citizens.



David: We’re getting into the fun facts early today! I like it!



Erin: I thought you would. Next question. True or false, there were 7 Cabinet Ministers in the Parliament when the building first opened.



David: Hmm…That number seems shockingly low compared to the almost 30 Ministers we have today. But I guess with the lower number of Members overall it could be plausible…



Erin: So what is your answer?



David: I guess I will have to go with… true.



Erin: Actually, the answer is false!



David: I knew it was too good to be true to keep this winning streak going.



Erin: You had a good run. And honestly it was a bit of a trick question. There were actually 8 Ministers in the Parliament of 1893.



David: That’s so close!



Erin: Close but no cigar. I have one last question for you. Today the public galleries are open to everyone to come and watch the sessions of parliament. True or False, in 1893 one of the galleries was reserved for men and one was reserved for women.



David: You know, I’m pretty sure the answer to that one is true!



Erin: You got your groove back David. You are absolutely correct, the east gallery was originally named the “Ladies’ Gallery’.



David: I have a fun fact about that gallery too!



Erin: By all means, David, let’s hear it!



David: Fun fact: Premier Whitney, had screens installed along the railings in the ladies’ gallery to apparently prevent the Members on the floor from being distracted by the exposed legs of the ladies watching.



Erin: Quelle scandale!



David: It may not seem so to us these days but I’m sure it was quite avant-garde for the time to have a dedicated ladies’ gallery at all in the Parliament Building.



Erin: Very true David. And speaking of avant garde, the Legislative Building has been ahead of its time in many ways since it opened. One of the first pieces of innovative technology that shocked and awed visitors was the presence of electricity and all of the extra features that could be installed because of it.



David: The electric current wasn’t hooked up until October of 1892, mere months before the grand opening in April 1893.



Erin: With the addition of electricity, the lighting fixtures could be upgraded to accommodate the new technology as the original fixtures were only meant to be powered by gas. Fun fact: the four largest light fixtures in the Chamber were originally fitted for gas lights. The large sphere in the middle of each chandelier originally held the gas.



David: Some of the original fixtures remain in the rest of the building as well. The chandeliers in the main lobby as well as the sconces in the first floor of the east hall were some of the modified brass fixtures that were added to accommodate the electric current. Each fixture has two different glass orbs. The one that looks more like a bowl, would have been for the gas lights. And the one that is shaped like an oblong light bulb would have housed the electric filaments.



Erin: Since electricity was still such a new technology, it wasn’t as reliable as it is today. The ability to switch back and forth between the two types of lighting was crucial for the time.



David: Another exciting feature that was added thanks to the late addition of electricity were the elevators. It’s hard to imagine in this day and age a time before having some of these conveniences, but for the people of 1893, elevators were the epitome of high tech.



Erin: Fun fact: people rode the elevators up and down so many times on the first day, that one of them broke and they all had to be shut down for safety reasons.



David: From the documentation we have, we know that the elevators were done in a filigree pattern and had an operator inside to run them up and down. Another fun fact about the elevators.



Erin: Ooh double fun facts are my absolute favourite!



David: I can see why. They’re pretty rare. But back to my double fun fact: next time you’re in an elevator take a look for a number above the panel with the buttons. The numbers there indicate the order in which the elevators were installed. In the Legislative Building, we have the ninth elevator ever installed in the province of Ontario.



Erin: I have to say David, that is one of my all time favourite pieces of weird trivia about the building.



David: I think one of my favourite facts has to do with the ceiling in the Chamber. Above the fancy chandeliers we mentioned earlier, the ceiling in the Chamber is a strange mix of blank space and beautifully painted murals.



Erin: The part that you can’t see from the floor is that all of the white squares are quite think and are made up of lots and lots of layers of different sound dampening material like canvas, paint, and most interestingly: horse hair.



David: That’s right Erin. The layers of horse hair were added to help reduce an echo in the Chamber shortly after the building opened. It was a real shame to cover up the hand-painted murals that adorned the ceiling. But the piece that we didn’t know for some time was that the original coverings were also meant to be decorative.



Erin: We have a few photos that prove that the fabric ceiling was covered in different patterned designs.



David: Speaking of photos, an event that we have a remarkable collection of photos of is the devastating fire of 1909. Since we talked about the fire extensively in a previous episode, we won’t spend very much time on it today. But the aftermath of the fire led to more innovative pieces of technology that can still be seen in the building today.



Erin: One of the biggest – and I truly mean biggest - and yet least noticed elements are the fire doors that were added at the entrance to the newly designed west wing.



David: The massive fire doors use a simple yet effective method to slam shut in case of a fire. The doors themselves are made out of thick steel and have a very high melting point. But, near the tops of the doors, there are thin bands that look like they are holding the doors open.



Erin: These bands are made of a much softer metal that has a very low melting point and are located close to the ceiling so that if there were ever another fire, the rising heat would melt the bands quickly and force the doors to close sealing off the fire from the rest of the building.



David: Another fireproofing measure that was added to the North wing of the building following the fire, were special metal shutters on all of the windows. Since the North Wing was designed to house the Legislative Library following the fire, the metal shutters were particularly important for helping to protect the books and documents from any more fire damage. Similar to the fire doors, they shutter when the heat gets too high.



Erin: While not technically an architectural feature, the composite photographs located on the second floor of the east hallways utilize a very innovative technology for the time. Since photography was also a new technology to emerge in the 19th century, taking a large group photo was nearly impossible.



David: Cameras from that time required subjects to stay still for a long period of time to maximize the exposure. Something that was very difficult to accomplish with a large group.



Erin: To overcome this, composite photos were born. Composites are produced by photographing each person in a studio, cutting the figures out of the prints, and then pasting them on a painted background. Then copies can be made and distributed to everyone in the group photo.



David: Fun fact: The Notman Photographic Studio was started by William Notman, the first famous Canadian photographer. They were responsible for creating the composite photos of the first few parliaments in Ontario. By 1893, they had abandoned the idea of a group composition and had moved to individual photos of each Member, a tradition we continue to this day.



Erin: While technology has no doubt come a long way since 1893, it’s interesting to think of some of the elements that still exist in the Legislative Building that we take for granted, allowing us to examine some of their humble beginnings.



David: I agree Erin. Simple things like taking a picture, using an elevator to go upstairs, or turning on a light seem like such commonplace and timeless parts of every day life, that it’s strange to think of a time when these things would have been ground-breaking to people.



Erin: The Legislative Building truly is a testament to the past, present, and future of not only Ontario’s Parliament, but to all of the people who have brought and continue to bring innovation through its doors.



David: I couldn’t have said it better myself Erin. And speaking of innovation, did we finally manage to break our fun fact record?



Erin: You know David, I’m not sure if we broke the record but this was definitely a good episode for fun facts. Today we had a grand total of… six.



David: I’m still proud of six and especially my double fun fact.



Erin: As you should be David! Double fun facts are like rare unicorns. Thanks for listening to the ON Parliament podcast, where we help spread the word on Parliament. But we’ve got to go, I think I hear the bells.



David: See you next time!



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.