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Stately House on the Hill

By Tom Court

Alberta's Government House, intended to serve as the official residence of the Province's Lieutenant Governor, was designed in 1910 by A.M. Jeffers, Chief Architect, and R.P. Blakey of the Alberta Department of Public Works. Situated on a high promontory overlooking the North Saskatchewan River, with a grand view of the city of Edmonton to the east, this magnificent residence was completed in 1913. A mansion built entirely of native sandstone, all of it quarried from south of Calgary, it cost $350,000 to construct.

During the 1940s and 1950s, the house and large gardens (presently about 3.5 acres) were secluded and almost hidden from view behind a six foot high hedge surrounding the two exposed sides of the property bounded by 102 Ave and 130 St. Although more visible and accessible now, during its early history very few Albertans knew of its purpose and even fewer had ever been inside. The house, along with the new sandstone Alberta Legislature Building, were intended to provide an impression of European permanence amidst the somewhat ephemeral wooden buildings typical of Alberta's early trading, farming, and mining economy.

Despite its grandeur, in the economic aftermath of the First World War and the Depression of the 1930s, Government House was a prime irritant to opposition members of the Alberta legislature. Details of the costs of furnishings and maintenance of Government House, all tabled in the legislature, only served to deepen suspicions that a 'privileged few' were wining and dining at public expense. Such abuses of privilege and class were echoes of what many Albertans had come to Canada to escape, and the Alberta newspapers of the period were filled with arguments for and against closure of Government House. This debate culminated in a decision by Premier William Aberhart (reflecting his fiscal policies for the province) to close Government House in March 1938, a decision that forced the Lieutenant Governor of the day, John Campbell Bowen, to move to an Edmonton hotel suite.

After official closure, the gates to Government House grounds were locked and the house stood empty. In subsequent months, there were many suggestions as to how best to make use of the empty mansion, perhaps as a sanitarium or even a museum. However, the outbreak of the Second World War forced a dramatic decision. During the early years of the war, the building was leased to Northwest Airlines. IN 1942 the United States Army Corps of Engineers arrived in Edmonton, charged with the urgent need to begin building the Alaska Highway. At the time, this massive undertaking was seen to be a crucial defense requirement for North America. The corps needed a headquarters for offices and U.S. pilots in transit also required a residence; Government House was accepted as the temporary solution for both until a more suitable building could be constructed.

The utilitarian purpose of the government mansion during war years resulted in the loss of the original furnishings. On October 21, 1942, a three-day public auction was held on the grounds to disperse the furniture and contents. Some 800 lots of furnishings, that had originally cost $300,000 in 1912, were sold for only $19,642 by auction. By the end of the war, Government House was empty.

In 1951, the house was purchased by the federal government for $350,000, intended as a veterans' home for wounded personnel returning from the battlefields of Europe. Many alterations were made to the interior of the buildng to accommodate the requirements of a convalescent hospital. An elevator large enough to take hospital beds and gurneys was installed, and an unsightly steel fire escape bolted to the north side of the building. The ornate 8 x 8 ft burrowed-daylight shaft, that passed through each of the upstairs floors from the glazed section of the main roof, was boarded over to give more floor space. Other changes were made by partitioning various areas of the house.

The veteran's hospital was moved eventually to the University of Alberta Hospital and Government House again fell into disuse. In 1964 the Social Credit government decided to renovate it to house the caucus. Also, a portionof the grounds was selected as the future site of the Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta. The hasty renovation of Government House at this time by Alberta Public Works did little to improve the advanced deterioration of the building's interior.

Because the house was built before the use of wall and ceiling insulation and vapour barriers, any moisture inside tended to escape up the interior of the walls to the roof. In winter, frost built up inside the roof and walls, weakening the roof rafters and the stone wall heads. Eventually, some renovations were completed and the house served ceremonial government functions such as swearing in of the Lieutenant Governors and executive council members.

In 1975, the election of Peter Lougheed's Progressive Conservative government resulted in even more use of Government House. The interior was altered, but the historic appearance and character was maintained. Custom-manufactured steel spandrels were slid in the roof from south wall to north wall, adding much-needed support and the roof was repaired and tiled.

Next, a large section of the west-side sandstone wall was carefully dismantled to install new heating, plumbing, wiring, and air conditioning, and a new wide stairway to all floors to comply with fire regulations. The west wall and foundation were also extended to the west by 18 feet. During the renovation, new sandstone was carefully matched to the original, and the steel fire escape on the north side, an eyesore since installation, was removed. Sadly, no effort was expended to replace the original glass conservatory on the west side dismantled many years before.

On the interior, most of the original entranceway woodwork, the cloakrooms, foyer, office, library and music room were preserved as original. The plaster work on the walls and ceilings of the long drawing room/dining room was extensively and beautifully repaired. Ornate cast plaster ceiling roundels and frieze work were installed, all featuring Alberta's theme of wheat and the Alberta rose. The main stairway was preserved and a smaller, modern elevator replaced the hospital one from the 1940s.

Second floor rooms were maintained as original and named after Alberta's Vice-regals. Modern washrooms were installed and the original service stairway was renovated. The most dramatic changes to the house were made to the third floor rooms. Today, most of this area is now completely open from wall to wall. The original ceiling was opened to the attic to create a huge, domed space. Two concentric doughnut-shaped oak and brass tables were installed for conference or caucus meetings. There is also an anteroom and a small room equipped to provide simultaneous language translations. Surely the original architects would never have dreamed of such an evolution!

For present and future generations of Albertans, Government House represents a beautiful and important part of Alberta's heritage.

Tom Court is a member of the Government House Foundation Board.

For information about Government House, write to:
Government House Foundation Board
c/o 12845 102 Avenue
Edmonton, AB T5N 0M8

Reproduced with permission from the author and Legacy Magazine.

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