At the time this article was
written Alan Hodgson was a Victoria Architect who had been in private practice
since 1960. He was the consulting architect in charge of the restorations and
renovations of the Legislative Buildings of British Columbia
The British Columbia
Parliamentary Buildings were designed by architect Francis Mawson Rattenbury
and were officially opened on February 10, 1898. The "Marble Palace"
as it was nicknamed quickly won unqualified respect from all who gazed upon it.
But over the next seven decades many changes occurred to the Province of
British Columbia in general and to the Parliament Buildings in particular. The
population of the province (estimated at 100,000 in 1898) multiplied many fold.
The number of government ministries grew from four in 1898, to eighteen in
1972; most of which were still based within these same buildings or in the
immediate vicinity. By 1972 a shortage of office space prevented some cabinet
members from having their offices in the Rattenbury complex. This lack of
physical proximity interfered with the day to day communication among various
Even the executive council room
was no longer adequate for cabinet meetings. Overcrowding of the Parliament
Buildings created frustration for all levels of government. There were also
general health and safety problems. Many of the working spaces were damp and had
poor ventilation while others lacked any natural light. Over time, the mix in
the work force had changed which by 1972 had resulted in a chronic lack of
facilities for the female staff. Then too modern office demands had pushed
dated electrical and mechanical systems to their limit. Years of endeavour to
meet the growing demands for space and modern office requirements resulted in
many changes being superimposed over the original building fabric in an ad hoc
and far from aesthetic manner. In short, the Parliament Buildings cried out for
renovation. This article outlines how the "Marble Palace" was
restored to its former grandeur. In August 1991 the CPA Regional Conference
will be held in Victoria.
Francis Rattenbury was only
twenty-five years old and a resident of Canada for less than a year when he won
the commission of a lifetime. He responded to the challenge of the competition
by designing a group of three buildings; the most significant being the cross
shaped central block containing the Legislative chamber and the great majority
of the office space, together with two detached buildings which originally
contained a land registry office and a government printing office. All three
buildings were aligned on their northern elevation and connected by colonnades.
The five hundred foot length of
this northern elevation make the building appear as one, when viewed from the
front. The grand dome of the central block, which features the gilded Captain
Vancouver holding the Union Jack 165 feet above the ground dominates this
In appearance it is a design full
of emotional resonance. In style it has been described as "free
Classic", so termed because of its liberal interpretation of Renaissance
forms, in themselves, a rejection of a classical revival.
As for the interior planning space
arrangement, Rattenbury strove for the aesthetically functional. Even the
elaborate Domical hall with all its restrained opulence was aimed at serving
what the architectural mind considered a practical function: namely, a central
and visible location for the public to enter the buildings and find their way
to the various sections of Government.
In the design of the Domical hall
and the Legislative chamber, Rattenbury used the grandeur of shapes, colours
and lighting to stress the role of the parliamentary process in the provision
of good Government and in its importance to the welfare of those fortunate
enough to find themselves basking in the sun of the British Empire.
The various government offices were
placed in the wings of the central block in a subsidiary position to the
Legislative chamber. The Domical hall, located on the axis of the cross shaped
central block, is positioned to represent the crossroads of power which flows
out of the Legislative chamber and is dispersed among the various ministries
located down corridors leading away from the Domical hall.
Over the years the Buildings'
physical decline and its resulting change in character did not go unnoticed.
James K. Nesbitt, a newspaper columnist who took pride in British Columbia's
history, was one of the first to speak out about the sorry state of the
Buildings. In 1961 his acerbic pen was directed toward the replacement of
certain ceramic tiles with linoleum – "cheap, horrible, barbershop
oilcloth". His commitment to preserving the true character of the
Buildings and protesting against a perceived depredation extended to taking his
sleeping bag there and threatening the workmen with a rifle once used by
Governor Richard Blanshard.
Following the 1961 episode, Nesbitt's
supporters, who included the provincial archivist, Willard Ireland, were
instrumental in convincing the Victoria branch of the B.C. Historical Society
to pass a resolution urging the government to set up a legislative committee
that would have to be consulted before public buildings could be altered –
"particularly the Parliament Buildings..." And some years later,
Nesbitt again did battle and saved the mosaic tiles in the centre of the
Domical hall. This time, he and provincial Liberal leader David Anderson
initiated a public letter writing campaign that convinced the government to
retain the tiles and to rope them off from further pedestrian traffic.
From these first few starts of
public input to the democratic process, came a gradual widening and
strengthening of attitude toward accepting history's valuable contribution to
enhancing the general quality of society.
By 1972, the much needed
revitalization effort was finally launched by an all-party committee of the
Legislature. The two Premiers, under whose leadership this project developed,
both endorsed the effort. Former Premier David Barrett, whose government
initiated this restoration, declared: "this is our heritage, this
building...it is so important in terms of continuity."
This sentiment was echoed by
Premier William Bennett, who stated that the building, and the faith that it
represents for this province, "...is a faith that we must renew
constantly." The restoration program began with a development plan
embracing a clear set of objectives.
The highest priority of these
restorative and renovative efforts was to retain the same vision that had given
birth to this reality seven decades earlier, and to take it with confidence
into the next century. In order to meet these stated objectives, certain
control methods over the renovations were recommended in order to ensure the
continuity of spirit. The design guidelines were as follows:
The restriction of the range of building materials to those that are in
evidence as having been used in the existing building.
Alterations would only be tolerated where it was technically impossible
for the original architect to foresee the present standard of physical or
The preservation of the character of specific areas of the Legislature
which are inheritably significant, should not be violated.
When these objective guidelines
were applied to the massive restoration and renovation efforts, a pervasive
sense of harmony and order was maintained. But even more significant was the
ability to maintain Rattenbury's original vision in the spirit of the
revitalized buildings. Rattenbury's plan and decorative details can be labelled
as "grand design". The success of the present renovation lies in the
honesty, purity and liveliness of the representation of that design.
The building renovations program
included the relocation away from the Legislative Precinct, of all government
employees who were not directly connected to the process of law making.This
move provided the space that was necessary to house expanded Ministers' suites,
each having their attendant staff and advisors. In addition, there are now
committee rooms and washrooms servicing the expanded needs of this area.
Offices for MLA's are spread
throughout these buildings. The West Annex (formerly the Queen's printer) is
given over the Premier's Office, while the East Annex (formerly the Museum,
originally the Land Registry Office) has been converted to house the Leader of
For political and economic reasons
it was a part of the understanding between Rattenbury and the government, that
most of the materials used for the construction of the Legislative Buildings
would originate in the Province of British Columbia. With some notable
exceptions such as marbles of both rich and subtle hues imported from Italy and
the United States and steel from Ontario, most of these building materials were
local. There was stained glass from New Westminster, Nelson Island granite and
slate from Jervis Inlet, locally kilned brick and lime, British Columbia woods
such as Douglas fir, cedar, oak and maple – as well as the fine grained light
grey coloured sandstone from Haddington Island.
Although the buildings had suffered
many years of neglect, the splendour and dignity of existing materials were
still able to impart a sense of purpose to the restoration effort. Similar to
the monumental endeavour of seven decades earlier, all who worked on these
restorations became captives of the effort to match the spirit of the original
By erecting a legislative seat of
such epic proportions, they expressed a heroic conception of the province's
future. This vision continues to serve the residents of British Columbia even
One manifestation of neglect, and a
source of extreme offense to all who loved the buildings and the cultural
symbolism which they were meant to reflect, was the insensitive way in which
the interiors were maintained. Rattenbury's sensitive colour scheme was one of
the first victims of this neglect. The distinguished slate-grey baseboards found
in all the corridors for example, were masked by a brick red that drained the
vitality from the ceramic floor tiles. In turn, many of these tiled corridors
had been ripped apart and replaced with the inelegance of vinyl linoleum, or
with rubber tiles installed in a hapless attempt to imitate carpet.
Similarly, the dadoes, the walls
and ceilings had given way to utilitarian creams and whites; while silver and
gold leaf was painted out in certain ceremonial spaces. This was quite a change
from the elegance of Rattenbury's original design; he who had always exhibited
the true artist's touch in his choices of materials and colour. His colour
choices of marble columns serve as a marvellous example: Rattenbury has chosen
a muted green colour of marble for the main columns, complete with beautifully
scrolled gilded ionic capitals. The architect mounted these columns on a
lighter shade of square green marble blocks with white rounded bases; all of
which he set off with a pedestal of heavy black marble.
The Domical hall is another example
of Rattenbury's deliberate attention to colour detail; detail found especially
in the most ceremonial areas of this building. The second floor level of the
Domical hall is infinitely more impressive than the lower level because of its
huge vertical space superbly adorned and bathed with natural light. The dome
high above is the focal point, but the wealth of coloured marble vies with it
for attention. There is also the mosaic marble floor and the ring of dark
Tennessee marble around the central columns which in turn, support a light
coloured marble balustrade. Rattenbury could not have selected any richer hued
marble than this Tennessee product. Handsome capitals, now highlighted with
gold leaf, make the square marble columns all the more striking. The new choice
of a light blue colour theme in the higher levels of this Domical hall
compliment the gold leaf and enlivens this space.
Rattenbury made use of the grandeur
of shapes colours and materials to highlight the role of the parliamentary
process. An example worth noting is the circular theme in the chamber,
comprising for example, windows, column caps, and light fixtures. This is the
only place where it is used in the buildings.
This circular theme picks up from
the shapes of the great dome and its oculus in the Domical hall, possibly to
symbolize the fact that those two ceremonial places form the most significant
spaces in the entire complex.
The restoration architect used this
cue for his own colour selection; reserving the use of a blue colour theme in
support of Rattenbury's hierarchy of space. A visitor to these Legislative
Buildings will now observe that the blue colour scheme is evident only in the
Public and Ceremonial areas.
The general downgrading of light
quality and fixtures was another result of seven decades of neglect. Many of
the original lights that had shone so gracefully, had long since been trashed
or stored away in dusty obscurity. Those were replaced with every conceivable
type of contemporary fixture on the market; not any of which were as
appropriate as the originals.
One of the greatest tasks in
bringing some coherence to the restoration efforts was to locate and retrofit
the original fixtures. To upgrade those fixtures to required levels of safety
and illumination was laborious business but it was clearly the best alternative
in the effort to maintain Rattenbury's original spirit.
The issue concerning original light
fixtures used in the Legislative chamber, is a notable example of the kind of
work which had befallen the restoration architect. Through the benefit of an
early newspaper photograph, archival research led to the discovery that the
original fixtures on the ceiling of the Chamber were of a globular, pendent
style. Since the existing ones were of a hexagonal box type pendent style, it
was obvious that at some point, the original fixtures were replaced. Except for
the archival photograph there was no longer any record of the fixtures.
When further research focused on
Rattenbury's notable use of circular design theme for only the Chamber and
Domical hall in his desire to emphasize the significance of these spaces, the
original global type fixtures took on greater meaning. Using only the existing
photographic record, the restoration architect had copies of the original light
fixtures reproduced and reinstalled over the Legislative Assembly.
Besides providing the obvious
benefits of natural light and fresh air, windows serve to animate the exterior
facades of buildings, particularly in the classical design style of these
buildings. Considerations for proportions, rhythms and scale of exterior
elevations take precedence over other benefits such as natural light, view and
fresh air. It is therefore significant to note, that all of the windows located
on the exterior facades of these Parliament buildings, have shapes, sizes and
locations that were primarily determined by aesthetic concerns.
The placing of new windows or
removal of old ones would have had such an unwarranted impact on the overall
aesthetic design that the renovation program never considered this option. In
the odd case of relocated stairs or new room uses, that did not require
windows, the renovations made use of either opaque glazing or darkened panels.
A similar concern was extended to the way subdivisions of room interiors were
handled. New wall locations, were, in part, determined by the position of
It is interesting to note
Rattenbury's use of certain windows to denote important spaces or occasions.
His use of round or semi-circular shapes were notably reserved only for use in
the Domical hall, the Legislative chamber and the library annex. These windows
were presumably a tribute to the spirit, the body of knowledge or the
civilizing role of the spaces inside.
Another window of significance is
the Diamond Jubilee window which was originally designed to commemorate the
1897 sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria's accession to the throne. This
window initially illuminated the second landing of the old MLA's staircase on
the south end of the main building. When the Legislative Library building was
added to the south end in 1912-15, this window was removed and then promptly
lost in storage. It was not until these restorations that the Diamond Jubilee
Window was found and returned to a place of honour. The window is now a much
photographed feature of the east wall of the tour assembly area.
Most of the interior windows in the
ceremonial and public sections of the main building are seen to be either stained
glass in geometric patterns, or a combination of stained and painted glass in
various designs or figures. These were the work of the Vancouver firm H.
Bloomfield & Son; and of two London, England firms, James Powell &
Sons, and E.W. Morris & Sons. These windows present such a pleasing quality
of light and colour, that it is difficult to imagine the building's interior
without such works of art.
n. An intriguing features of the
Legislative chamber is the plaster faces looking out at intervals from under
the main ceiling moulding. It is sometimes suggested that these faces are of
Plato, Aristotle and other famous philosophers whose wisdom the architect hoped
would influence the politicians under their watchful gaze. They are now more
likely thought to be anonymous representatives of the people keeping an eye on
the legislators, and may well have been selected arbitrarily by the citizen
craftsmen who decorated the Chamber.
Statues of figures famous in the
history of British Columbia look earnestly out from their niche atop corners of
the Legislative Library's exterior facade. Such legendary figures as the Nootka
chieftain Maquinna, Captain George Vancouver and Captain James Cook, Sir
Francis Drake, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, and Simon Fraser among others, are all
personified here. The statues were the work of Italian classical sculptor
Charles Morega who also fashioned the great writers and philosophers portrayed
on the medallion panels of the same facades: Homer, Dante, Socrates,
Shakespeare, Sophocles and Milton.
Standing atop the Domical hall is a
gilded statue of Captain George Vancouver. Below him, centred above the main
entrance is the Crest of British Columbia with a stag on one side, a mountain
ram on the other and the Imperial lion standing above.
The rotunda of the parliamentary
buildings is the location of four quasi-historical murals. These murals were
painted by the artist Mr. G.H. Southwell, and presented to the Government in
1932 by the the Provincial Secretary at the time.
The subject of these four murals
depict scenes of what the artist called "...historical qualities necessary
for establishment of a civilization:"
Courage: The meeting of Vancouver and Quadra at Nootka Sound in 1792.
Enterprise: The landing of James Douglas on the shores of Vancouver
Island in the enterprise of establishing a British Colony in Victoria.
Labour: The building of Fort Victoria in 1843.
Justice: The establishment of the British style of justice as depicted
of Chief Justice Matthew Baillie Begbie holding court at Clinton during the
Cariboo gold rush.
As a point of interest, these four
murals had been the butt of notable criticism from members of the Indigenous
People. The matter came to light once again during the course of the
restorations. Eventually, the problem was settled to everyone's satisfaction,
when it was decided by the restoration architect to have only the titles
painted out. The art has survived and continues to embellish the Domical hall.
By the time that restorations were
set to begin, a decorating disease, the product of decades of neglect and
thoughtless alterations, had affected virtually every class of furnishings.
Venetian blinds had replaced drapes and roll blinds on the windows; fabric
covered chrome pedestal chairs had made their appearance alongside leather
chairs from the last century; while chunks of red carpet were scrambled into
position replacing exquisitely woven, original carpet of the Legislative
Other than literally scraping away
much of the previous years' layers of offensive detritus, the focus of the
restoration process was directed foremost toward a reiteration of Rattenbury's
grand scheme and design in its relation to the democratic process of
government. This meant an artisan's industry quickly evolved to take care of
the intricate labour involved in painting, papering, tiling, marble mending,
gold leaf application, wood and plaster mouldings to name just a few skills
represented within the Buildings. Within just three intensive years of work,
from 1972 to 1975, the basis was laid for a continuing, widening interest in
the practical aspects of history; a healthy, safe environment was created for
the efficient functioning of government services; and the buildings themselves
have become a tourist mecca as a result of the restoration programme,
favourably contributing to the economic and social conditions of the region.
Above all, the resurrection and continuation of Rattenbury's grand design, has
reinstated the original "genius loci" for all to experience and