By Tom Court
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
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
permission from the author and Legacy Magazine.