August 3, 2023
16 minutes (audio)
Erin: Welcome to the ON Parliament Podcast, where we help spread the word on Parliament. We’re back again this month with another exciting episode!
David: I can’t wait to see what you have in store for us this time Erin.
Erin: Well, this month I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at some of the more interesting and seemingly bizarre details on the outside of the building. The curiosities of Queen’s Park might be one name for them.
David: Oh, sounds intriguing! I can think of a couple already!
Erin: All in due time David. First, I have a different kind of activity to get us warmed up. No trivia this time. I know you must be sad about that.
David: Sad about not having any trick questions thrown my way? I’m not so sure about that… But I have to admit, I have developed a fondness for your tricky little games.
Erin: Good to know! I’ll be sure to come up with an especially tricky game for next time! But today, I thought we’d keep it light, and I would ask you for your top three favourite carvings in or on the Legislative Building.
David: Hmm there are so many carvings I’m not sure if I can pick only three!
Erin: I have faith in you David!
David: That makes one of us… I guess my favourite carving would have to be the allegorical frieze on the front façade, followed by the faces carved in the Chamber, and last but not least I think I would say the dragons in the cast iron pillars on the first floor.
Erin: Oooh those are all really good ones! I thought you might have mentioned the carving of the Royal Coat of Arms. That’s one of my favourites because it has a unicorn in it.
David: That’s a good one too. But you did give me a strict limit of only three.
Erin: Fair enough. I have one more top three list for you. Are you ready?
David: Oh, go on then.
Erin: Alright, what are your top three favourite representations of animals in Ontario’s Parliament?
David: I keep waiting for a trick question to pop up.
Erin: No tricks this time. I’ll save them all for next month instead.
David: Hmm if you say so… I guess if I had to limit my answer to my top three favourite animals in the building, I would have to go with the eagle and owl carvings in the Chamber. Those are some of my favourites because of their symbolism. And I guess my last one would be the pelican in the Chamber too.
Erin: Pelican? What pelican? That’s a new one for me!
David: Ha! I was able to stump you this time around! Yes, there’s a carving resembling a pelican in the Chamber woodwork!
Erin: Who knew!
David: Seeing it always reminds me of a funny saying that used to make me chuckle during my youth. Here goes...Erin, you know what they say about pelicans…
Erin: What’s that?
David: Their beaks can hold more than their belly can...
Erin: Ha! You’re full of surprises today, David. But that was a good one. And all great animal choices too. I think we’ll be talking more about the eagle and the owl in a future episode. So, stay tuned for that one!
David: I love it! Maybe we’ll have to do a whole episode on the creatures of Queen’s Park!
Erin: Never say never David! Now I bet you’re wondering what my favourite animal featured on the building is right?
David: But of course, Erin.
Erin: So glad you asked. I would have to say that my favourite is actually a matching pair. These little guys are furry and love the water and have become synonymous with representing Canada. You can also find them on the Canadian five cent coin.
David: Are you perhaps referring to the carvings of two beavers that appear on the front of the building next to two very important dates?
Erin: Indeed, I am David. And they also happen to be our first curiosity of the day as well.
David: It’s actually the dates that are of more importance in the carving. On the left side of the main entrance doors to the building you will see the date 1792 and on the right-hand side, 1892.
Erin: It was in 1792 when the Parliament of Upper Canada met for the very first time, not on the site of our current Legislative Building, but in Newark, today known as Niagara-on-the-Lake.
David: Fun fact: Originally named simply “Niagara,” the “on-the-lake” suffix was added in the late 19th century to avoid confusion with the city of Niagara Falls.
Erin: The second date, 1892, represents the centennial anniversary of that first meeting as well as a lesser-known ceremony that took place at our current building.
David: On September 17, 1892, exactly 100 years after the first session of the Parliament of Upper Canada, the Legislative Building was formally opened at Queen’s Park. Although the construction wasn’t fully complete, the public was allowed to tour the hallways and offices for the first time.
Erin: It’s a little confusing since the “official” opening of the building wasn’t until April of the next year, but in order to highlight the progress of the new building project along with celebrating the 100th anniversary of the opening of that earlier Parliament of Upper Canada, there was a fairly rousing parade and ceremony.
David: Starting at the site of the previous Parliament Building located at today’s Front and Simcoe Streets in Toronto, a procession of dignitaries – both local and federal – made their way towards Queen’s Park to the fanfare of marching bands. A choir of local school children and a military guard received the group at the new building before the assembled crowd heard speeches, sang songs, and finally were welcomed inside.
Erin: Fun fact: the opening ceremony on September 17 was reported to have had a crowd of roughly 4,000 people compared to the 20,000 people who attended the official opening ceremony in April 1893.
David: Another feature that has often led to a few scratched heads is located above the 1892 carving on the east side of the building; a space known today as the “Mystery Room.”
Erin: Sounds spooky…
David: Not exactly spooky, although that does give me an idea for another future episode maybe more in line with your spooktacular theme.
Erin: I think I know what you mean David. There may be a ghost of a chance for that one.
David: Excellent! But back to the not so scary mystery room. Located at the top of the southeast tower, this open-air portico is known as a “loggia” in architectural terms. A loggia is any open-air space, usually on an upper floor, that has at least 1 open wall and arches.
Erin: With its arched openings, copper floors, magnificent views, and decorative iron screens, it’s a beautiful space. But what’s its purpose?
David: Well, that’s the thing – we don’t actually know. We call it the “mystery room” because, we don’t know what its original purpose was meant to be, other than decorative.
Erin: The architect never recorded his intentions for the space in the original plans. Hence its nickname: the “mystery room.”
David: It may have had to do more with symmetry than anything else since there is a southwest tower as well that was planned to have a specific purpose, although it would be a bit difficult to determine that today.
Erin: The opposite tower was meant to hold the face of a large clock like the one in the Parliament Building in London, England. But, most likely due to time and budget issues, the face of the clock was never made. Instead, the tower is home to two rose windows.
David: However, the space around the rose windows is our next curiosity. One of the most distinctive elements of the Legislative Building are its intricate carvings; and the carvings around the rose window are second to none.
Erin: Each of the twelve signs of the zodiac are carved around the space that would have held the clock face. It might seem strange to see the signs of the zodiac near a clock, but there is some pretty cool history behind it.
David: Back in 14th century Europe, it was actually fairly common to have clocks and astrological symbols near one another since both were used to measure the passing of time. By tracking constellations in the sky just like hours in a day, people were able to tell the time of year. This was particularly important to farmers.
Erin: Astronomical clocks became all the rage because they combined all this information into one device. Typically, astronomical clocks are used to tell the time along with either the relative positions of the sun or moon, or sometimes the positions of the major planets and constellations related to the zodiac.
David: Fun fact: one of the most well-known astronomical clocks is the one located in Prague. It dates back to 1410 and is the oldest such clock still in operation.
Erin: Although our clock never got made, it’s neat to think that it was most likely inspired by others like the one in Prague.
David: Absolutely! Working our way further around the west side of the building, our next curiosity is a set of stairs.
Erin: Now I know that might not sound too interesting, but I promise it is!
David: The Legislative Building is home to more than just the Chamber and some offices, it’s also home to the Lieutenant Governor’s Suite.
Erin: Many people think that the term “suite” must mean that the Monarch’s representative lives in the building, but that’s not actually true. The suite of the Lieutenant Governor is simply a set of reception and meeting rooms. But the stairs leading up to it from the outside are quite curious.
David: The carved stone staircase is supported by a set of pillars. But what makes them interesting is that each pillar boasts a unique and entirely different design than the one before.
Erin: The capital and base on each column are decorated with designs ranging from faces of creatures to curling leaves to Celtic symbols. Some have a combination of all three, but none are the same.
David: The whimsical quality of the designs fit with some of the other details designed by the architect Richard Waite, like the skull or monkey carvings hidden on the front façade.
Erin: Fun fact: Many notable individuals have climbed these stairs including Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip.
David: On the opposite corner is another set of even more curious stairs; nicknamed the “staircase to nowhere.”
Erin: At one time, the staircase led to a door to the Ontario Department of Immigration offices. Although a federal responsibility today, immigration was a joint portfolio between the federal and provincial governments in the decades following Confederation.
David: The Ontario government established a new Department of Immigration in 1874 with the dual purpose of encouraging emigration to the province and assisting newly arrived immigrants. But, by the 1900s, this office was replaced by the Bureau of Colonization – a branch of the Department of Crown Lands that already had office space in the building.
Erin: Work records from the time show that office space in this area of the building was altered to accommodate new washroom facilities which likely led to the permanent closure of the doorway at the top of the staircase.
David: But the stairs remain and can be a fun spot for photos for visitors to the building.
Erin: Continuing on with our theme of curiosities, if you were to walk southeast of the staircase to nowhere you would end up at our next spot: the post one monument.
David: The post one monument was unveiled in 1967 as a provincial initiative to commemorate Canada’s Centennial. The monument serves as a geodetic survey marker, one of a network of similar markers placed across the country to help land surveyors obtain exact measurements.
Erin: Now the monument itself does look a little curious, it’s a raised horizontal plaque with a map of the country listing the locations of various other similar markers. But what makes it really interesting is what’s hiding underneath it.
David: The post one monument is also the home of a time capsule set to be open in time for Canada’s bicentennial in the year 2067.
Erin: The time capsule is said to contain a message written by the Premier of the time, John Robarts, along with microfilms of Toronto newspapers from 1967, maps of the province, current magazines, a selection of coins and photographs, musical compositions, and other items depicting daily life in the 1960s.
David: Fun fact: the top three most popular songs of 1967 in Canada were “The Letter” by the Box Tops, “To Sir with Love” by Lulu, and “All You Need Is Love” by The Beatles.
Erin: I wonder if any of those songs made it into the time capsule?
David: I guess only time will tell Erin.
Erin: Ohh you got me there David! What a timely pun!
David: If we don’t stop now, I think we could make the time puns last forever.
Erin: You’re probably right. But it was too good to pass up!
David: Moving on… The 1990s saw a lot of renovation and restoration work done to the Legislative Building. In part as the building was coming up to its 100th anniversary in 1993.
Erin: To commemorate the momentous occasion, they added another time capsule, but this one is located up on the roof.
David: Two decorative finials can be seen at the very top of the roof of the Legislative Building. Each is in the shape of a flame – similar to that of the Statue of Liberty in New York City.
Erin: A finial is simply a decorative ornament at the highest point of a roof or canopy. The ones on the Legislative Building are exact replicas of the originals that wore away over time due to atmospheric wear and tear, as well as quite a few lightning strikes. They had disappeared by the 1970s.
David: In honour of the 100th anniversary of the building, they decided to put another time capsule - this time with items related to parliament – in one of the new finials on the roof; set to be open in 2093 on the occasion of the building’s bicentennial.
Erin: Inside the time capsule there are centennial souvenirs from the Legislative Gift Shop, Ontario pins, a Hansard transcript from the time, and a 1993 seating plan of the Chamber, among other items. Fun fact: The 35th Parliament was in session at the time the capsule was prepared which means that the seating chart would have displayed 130 Members of Provincial Parliament – the highest number of MPPs we have had to date in Ontario’s history. Today there are 124.
David: Last but not least, we have one of my favourite bits of odd trivia about the building, the star light in the centre attic. Although we discussed it briefly in a previous episode, it had to make the list for today as well.
Erin: The star light is one of my favourites too David. Serving as a type of beacon, the tradition of the star dates back to the 1890s.
David: Back then, the Legislative Building was one of the tallest structures in the city of Toronto. Hard to tell these days with all of the skyscrapers and tall buildings around it, but the star light was used to alert MPPs and the public that the House was meeting at night.
Erin: Fun fact: It is said that the star could be seen from as far away as the Toronto Islands where some MPPs lived at the time.
David: The light is used to this day, although it may be a little trickier to see it with all the additional lights that are in the city these days.
Erin: The light is controlled by a switch inside the Legislative Chamber labelled “Star.”
David: Well, we’ve managed to take a tour around the entire outside of the building in today’s episode Erin. I think that’s a job well done.
Erin: Me too David. And you know, the great thing about all the elements we talked about today is that visitors to the building can see and experience them if they take a walk around the grounds.
David: You’re right! Although you might want to use binoculars for some of the curiosities up on the roof.
Erin: Haha fair enough. But before we go, we have to do a roundup of today’s fun facts! By my count, we managed to squeeze in 7 fun facts!
David: I’m always amazed by the number of fun facts we find.
Erin: Me too David. 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.