Ep. 24: From East Block to Whitney Block



July 6, 2023

15 minutes (audio)



Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast, where we help spread the word on Parliament. Today we’re back with another historical episode.



David: You know, I have a soft spot for our history episodes.



Erin: I’d be surprised if you didn’t David, especially since you’re the unofficial historian in our branch.



David: You’ve got me there Erin. I have been called the resident historian on occasion.



Erin: Well today’s episode should be right up your alley then!



David: Looking forward to it.



Erin: But you know the drill by now, it wouldn’t feel like one of our episodes if we didn’t start it off with a game!



David: I think your real goal is to try to stump me every month…



Erin: That’s just a fun perk of the job! Now for today’s game, I thought we would play… Name that Premier!



David: Sounds… daunting. How does this crazy game of yours work this time?



Erin: Well, I’m going to give you a description of one of Ontario’s historical Premiers, and you’re going to have to tell me which Premier I’m describing.



David: I swear your games keep getting harder on purpose.



Erin: …Maybe… But enough chit chat, let’s get on to the game!



David: Oh all right. What’s the first question?



Erin: This Premier was elected in the riding of Victoria and served for just over three terms. He was an avid history buff, served in the army during the First World War, and his nickname was “The Silver Fox”. Name that Premier.



David: Hmm… you know, I thought you had stumped me, but you gave it away with your last clue. I’m going to go with Leslie Frost, Ontario’s sixteenth Premier.



Erin: Correct! I guess I’ll just have to make the next one even harder. Here we go. Representing the electoral district of Sault Ste. Marie, this Premier was the first to be elected from a northern riding and has a town and street named after him.



David: I actually do know this one Erin, because I know of the town. You must be referring to William Howard Hearst, Ontario’s seventh Premier.



Erin: Correct again! I don’t think I’m going to be able to stump you this time around. Although I do have one more question for you. Are you ready?



David: Bring it on Erin!



Erin: Okay, you asked for it! Name the Premier who later became Lieutenant Governor of Ontario and who appears in an episode of the beloved Canadian television show, Murdoch Mysteries.



David: I think you made that one easy on purpose. It’s Sir Oliver Mowat, Ontario’s third Premier and eighth Lieutenant Governor.



Erin: I couldn’t stump you today David. You got all of them right. Nicely done!



David: Thanks Erin. But you know, I think I figured out our theme for today – does it have to do with the name of another former Premier and the names of some of the buildings surrounding the main Legislative Building?



Erin: Indeed, it does David. Today we’re going to be talking about the Whitney Block; its history, how it came to be, some of its materials, and of course its namesake.



David: The Whitney Block is located across the street from the Legislative Building on the east side of Queen’s Park Crescent. It spans from Wellesley Street on the north to Grosvenor Street on the south.



Erin: What many people don’t realize is that the first few floors of the Whitney Block actually make up part of the legislative precinct. Which means that they are a part of the Legislative Building in terms of services and upkeep.



David: Exactly right Erin. The upper floors house some of the offices of different Ministries and employees of the Ontario Public Service, but the first 3 floors are home to various branches within the Assembly, like Human Resources, Procedural Services, and Legislative Research.



Erin: It might seem strange to have some of these branches across the street, but it comes down to an issue of space. And this isn’t exactly a new issue for the Legislative Assembly either.



David: Too true Erin. As far back as the 1920s, they were running out of space in the main building. So in 1923, the province acquired the land that today houses the Whitney Block, specifically as a site to hold a new expansion building for the Legislature.



Erin: The building project was overseen by Francis Heakes, the provincial architect at the time, as well as George Henry, the Minister of Highways and Public Works. Fun fact: Francis Heakes occupied the role of provincial architect for 35 years and oversaw the construction of the Mining Building at the University of Toronto, the Superior Court of Justice in Thunder Bay, as well as the now gone Government House or Chorley Park, the former official residence of the Lieutenant Governor.



David: The design for the new “East Block” as the structure was being called at the time, was quite innovative as it was designed in such a way that additions and expansions could be added seamlessly, should the need arise. The building was constructed with 3 wings running east-west, connected by a hallway running north-south.



Erin: Because of its placement within the site, there was enough space to duplicate the east-west wings, if necessary, to ultimately have 6 wings of almost identical office space.



David: Construction began in 1925, with Minister George Henry laying the cornerstone on July 30 of that same year. Fun fact: George Henry later became the tenth Premier of Ontario, but while still a Minister, he began a roadwork project that would later become the QEW Highway or Queen Elizabeth Way, connecting Niagara Falls to Toronto. He also featured the East Block in his Premier’s portrait that hangs in the main Legislative Building.



Erin: The 1920s saw a steep decline in employment rates, leading up to the Great Depression. The East Block construction project provided a great opportunity for the province to create more jobs, while keeping materials and labour local.



David: The foundation of the building was dug by hand by day labourers, and the government prioritized Ontario materials whenever possible. Most notably in the stonework.



Erin: The Gothic art-deco style of the building favoured a smooth-cut, lighter stone for the exterior. But it had to be a soft enough stone to allow for intricate hand-carved designs. They settled on Queenston blue dolomite or limestone since it was claimed to have the durability of granite and the workability of limestone.



David: Fun fact: It’s called “Queenston blue” because the stone has a distinctive blueish cast when it’s freshly quarried. Although it turns grey after being weathered by the elements.



Erin: The East Block was the first instance where Queenston limestone had been used with a smooth surface. In the past, it had only ever been used with a rough-hewn look. But the architects seemed pleased with its durability and texture to allow cleaner cutting and the ability to have finer details in the decorative carvings.



David: Not to be outdone by the exterior, the interior of the building also had to be made of an Ontario stone of equal quality.



Erin: After much searching, they settled on marble mined in Bancroft for the interior hallways. But there was one small problem. The quarries in Bancroft had been closed for many years. So what to do?



David: Why, open the quarries up again of course!



Erin: Of course!



David: Keep in mind, that isn’t a small task. The quarries had been filled up with water by then so the first thing they had to do was empty it all out. Then they had to build a whole new plant and bring in the proper machinery to actually excavate the marble.



Erin: While there are many different colours of marble found in the Bancroft area, they were only interested in the light grey coloured pieces. Fun fact: the Federal Parliament Buildings in Ottawa also contain Bancroft marble.



David: Last but not least, we have Ontario granite, mined in Coe Hill, a hamlet near Bancroft. As if 2 different stones weren’t enough, the architects chose to use granite for the steps leading up to the exterior doors of the East Block.



Erin: Although not as evident today, there was also a lot of decorative wooden features inside the building. These were made primarily from yellow birch and included cabinetry, desks, and even a now extinct bowling alley in the basement. I mean come on. How cool would that have been to see? A full-sized bowling alley right here at Queen’s Park.



David: Strike! It certainly is one of the more interesting curiosities to have been built here over the years, that’s for sure! And when the first phase of the building was completed in 1928, it also included an underground tunnel that connected it to the Legislative Building across the street.



Erin: In addition to all of the wood and stone, the cement, gravel and other filler materials were all manufactured in the province. It’s estimated that about 99% of the materials within the East Block were produced within the province of Ontario.



David: 99%? Then where did that leftover 1% of the materials come from?



Erin: I had a feeling you might ask that, David! Actually, the remaining material was sourced from Montreal, Quebec and was primarily linoleum used in the floors.



David: Ah ha! Well, at least it was still Canadian! The project stayed within its allotted timeframe and within a few years, Cabinet had approved an expansion.



Erin: Unfortunately, Francis Heakes, the architect, passed away in 1930 and never saw the completion of the building. But the new provincial architect, George White, quickly took over.



David: George White is credited with having integrated a new wing with a sixteen-storey tower to the building – an element that was never in Heakes’ original plans.



Erin: The tower was meant to add even more much-needed office space for the ever-growing government departments that no longer fit inside the main Legislative Building. Fun fact: when it was constructed, the East Block was the province’s first purpose-built structure meant to house government departments.



David: The great irony though, is that the tower has been empty since 1968 as the design doesn’t allow for enough fire exits.



Erin: Despite the tower not being functional, the carvings that adorn its façade are very impressive. There are four 8-foot allegorical statues of Justice, Tolerance, Wisdom and Power – the cardinal virtues - that anchor the corners at the top of the building. Eight more figures are found around a lower tier, each representing a different government department housed within the building, such as mining and forestry. They were sculpted by Canadian artist Charles Adamson.



David: The 1950s saw the government making plans to complete the remaining wings on the East Block. They bought and demolished two Victorian houses adjacent to the site in anticipation of the construction.



Erin: The new plans were drawn up in November of 1958 and show a new hybrid look to the building. George N. Williams, the new, new provincial architect, had planned for the lower floors to match Heakes’ original design but had included more modern architectural elements on the middle floors to compliment the postwar aesthetics appearing throughout the city.



David: Spandrels, the decorative corner spaces on the outside of the arched windows, made of fluted stainless steel along with a curving annex to connect the East Block with the newly constructed Frost building were planned for the expansion.



Erin: But it never happened. By the 1960s, the government had realized that even with the planned expansion of the East Block, there would never be enough space for all of the newly appearing Ministries and offices within the Ontario Public Service. As a result, they scrapped the idea for the final expansion of the East Block and instead, created a park in its place.



David: The massive Macdonald Block complex was conceived soon after and built throughout the 1960s. Today, although currently under refurbishment, it remains home to many of the individuals who work within the Ontario Public Service.



Erin: Now we started out this episode by talking about the Whitney Block but then spent the entire time telling you all about the East Block. So what gives?



David: Well they’re one and the same! The East Block was the original name given to the structure that we know as the Whitney Block today. It was called the East Block all the way up until 1966 when the name of the building was officially changed to the Whitney Block.



Erin: It was about time too, since the building had been called the Whitney Block by most of the folks who worked there and by much of the population at the time of its construction. So called after Ontario’s sixth Premier.



David: Sir James Pliny Whitney was Premier from 1905 to 1914. He was quite popular at the time and had tragically died in office after winning his fourth term as Premier.



Erin: Fun fact: Premier Whitney is the only Premier to have died in office in Ontario and is only one of four individuals to have lain in state at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.



David: Today, the name Sir James Whitney may not mean as much to most people, but the Whitney Block that bears his name still houses the offices of many of the Ministers who walk the halls of Queen’s Park.



Erin: Despite it never being fully completed, the Whitney Block remains an integral part of Ontario’s Legislative precinct. Without it, the many staff and Members wouldn’t be able to complete their jobs to help keep Ontario’s Parliament running.



David: I think that about wraps up the episode for today don’t you think Erin? And what a towering achievement it was, just like the Whitney Block tower!



Erin: I’d say so David. We certainly went on quite a journey through the history of the East Block, its materials, and its purpose today.



David: That means that all we have left to do is count our fun facts for today!



Erin: Your favourite part of every episode, I know David. And today, we had a grand total of… 6 fun facts!



David: Tune in next time, to learn more fun facts about Ontario’s Parliament.



Erin: 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: Bye for now!



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.