Vice-Regal Mansions in Canada
IT HAS LONG BEEN CONSIDERED NECESSARY to lodge rulers and leaders in specially designated buildings. These places play an important role in governance and the protocols of state. From the late eighteenth century onwards in Canada, governors (serving as royal representatives and federal legislators) understood the need for buildings that would function both publicly and privately. Given the character of colonial governance in British North America, with the monarch’s representative sitting at the centre of the political and social structure, appropriate housing of governors and lieutenant governors was both of symbolic and practical importance. Accordingly, the history of vice-regal mansions in Canada encapsulates the repeated but distinct processes of town planning and the translation of prevailing architectural thinking into tangible form. Even the most cursory look at the functions of government houses across time and places mirrors the settlement of the country, the work of constitutionally driven nation building and shifting ideas about style, economy, and culture. In British Columbia, for example, three houses have stood on the same lot in the traditional territories of the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations. The Gothic revival Cary Castle served as the official residence from 1859 to 1899 when it burned to the ground. It was replaced by a stylistically hybrid Gothic and Queen Anne building designed by local architects Francis Rattenbury and Samuel McClure. This second government house stood at the site until 1957, when it, too, was destroyed by fire except for the porte cochère. Its replacement is a hulking midtwentieth- century reimagining of the exterior volumes and the careful re-creation of the interiors of its immediate predecessor, perpetuating the idea of an official building operating as the “ceremonial home of all British Columbians.”
In Saskatchewan, two buildings constructed in the course of a decade also served as the residences of the territory. The first, built in 1883 out of wood and typical of frontier Georgian vernacular architecture, housed the Lieutenant-Governor. The second was Italianate in form and constructed out of brick with masonry elements. In 1901, the Duke and Duchess of York visited the residence to much fanfare. It functioned as the centrepiece of official culture in the province until 1944 when newly elected Premier Tommy Douglas, following on the example set by Ontario, closed the house for economic reasons. It sat empty for some forty years, until an active campaign was begun in the mid-1970s that led to its restoration and reopening in 1984.
In Ontario, between 1791 and 1938, four different structures served as the residence of the province’s monarchical representative. The fates of these structures say much about the tensions in the province between the protocols of fealty and the forces of history. While John Graves Simcoe, the ostensible founder of Upper Canada, started his tenure as the monarch’s representative in a tent and moved to a log cabin, the colony’s first official residence was a single-storey U-shaped building on the grounds of Fort York (later Toronto). Designed by Captain Robert Pilkington in 1800, it was destroyed in 1813—in the early days of the War of 1812—when a powder magazine exploded. The second, Elmsley House, was a 1798 Georgian vernacular mansion that was purchased by the Crown in 1815. It served a number of official functions and was destroyed by fire in 1862. In 1868, the architectural firm of Gundry and Langley presented plans for the province’s third vice-regal mansion. Located in downtown Toronto, the three-storey Second Empire-style building, with its central tower, mansard roof, lake views, and enormous garden was imposing, impressive, and expensive. It cost $105,000 and remained in use until the rapid industrialization of the lakefront rendered it unfeasible as a vice-regal mansion. The CPR purchased the property in 1912 and demolished it in 1915. In the same year, the magnificent Renaissance revival Chorley Park, located in Toronto’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood, was officially opened. It served seven vice-regal occupants and operated for only 22 years. The fiscal crisis of the 1930s and the populist election promises of Liberal Mitchell Hepburn (elected to the premiership in 1937) resulted in Chorley being mothballed. It was used in a variety of ways (war hospital in the early 1940s, and home for Cold War political refugees) up until 1960 when Toronto Mayor Nathan Phillips engineered its purchase by the city so that it could be demolished and the site turned into a pubic park.
THE TENSIONS BETWEEN the material responsibilities of regal protocol and the costs to the public purse of the same have long marked what can be called the architecture of constitutionalism in an egalitarian Canada. Two examples are telling. The experiences in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick around the ambitious building programs for the governors’ residences and the subsequent events of history say much about the particular character of Canada: monarchical and modest. In different ways, the histories of these vice-regal mansions—arguably among the finest Georgian buildings in Canada—say much about the forces that shaped the country in the decades after the American Revolution and the reconstitution of the British Empire in North America, and how parliamentary governance (the mixed constitution and the tangible workings of the monarchy) meant that choices had to be made about its material articulation.
In the late 1790s, Nova Scotia’s Governor John Wentworth launched a campaign to persuade the provincial legislature to allocate funds for the construction of a mansion befitting the role of the Crown and the colony’s prominence in the empire. Drawing attention to his deplorable living conditions in what was technically the second vice-regal mansion—“green wood and rotten timbers” was how he described his home where there was a constant threat of the ground floor falling through—Wentworth managed to secure an expansive property on the outskirts of Halifax and the necessary public monies for a new building. Designed by Yorkshireborn, former Virginia Loyalist architect Isaac Hildrith and indebted to plans and facade studies by George Richardson, construction of the house started in late 1800. Built primarily of local materials (stone from quarries in Antigonish, Bedford Basin, and Cape Breton, among other places; brick manufactured in Dartmouth; pine from the Annapolis Valley and Tatamagouche; mahogany from South America; Scottish slate for the roof; and marble fireplaces from London), the building was the most elegant structure in the province. Given Wentworth’s understanding of the role that the house should play in the life and political functioning of the colony and his own taste for luxury, the vice-regal mansion became the fashionable centre of social life.
Similarly, the governor’s mansion in New Brunswick sought to affirm the constitutional order in the colony and the importance of royal governance to social and cultural life. As one of the two colonies in British North America formed because of the arrival of Loyalists from the United States, New Brunswick was, from its founding, seen to embody the promise of a renewed imperial order in North America. The plans for Government House were wildly ambitious and disproportionately aspirational for a relatively new colony that was thinly populated and economically precarious. Designed by Major John Woolford to replace the governor’s house that had burned in 1825, and situated symbolically on the site of the Acadian Village of Sainte Anne des Pays Bas just north of Fredericton, the capital, construction of the mansion commenced in 1826 and was completed two years later. Generally Palladian in character and in keeping with the provincial trends of Regency architecture, the nine-bay, three-storey structure boasted four small “pavilions” at each corner and a projecting three-bay entrance with a pediment and a semi-circular, fourcolumned porch.
The interior spaces—both public and private—were in keeping with the building’s grand purpose. Thomas Nesbit, the noted Scots-born cabinetmaker working in Saint John, supplied mahogany and walnut furniture for the drawing room, dining room, ballroom, library, hallways, council room, and governor’s office. In 1860, the nineteen-year-old Edward, Prince of Wales, came and stayed for several days as part of his tour of British North America, a visit that precipitated interior refurbishing and the commissioning of additional furniture, including a grand royal bed with a crimson canopy and three-feathered heraldic symbol. By the early 1890s, however, the province found the financial upkeep of Government House to be impossible, and it was closed in 1893. An inventory of the contents of the house was prepared in 1895 and a public auction was held in 1897. Subsequently, the house was used as a province-run school for children with hearing and speech impairments, a veteran’s hospital, and headquarters for the RCMP. It was restored as Government House in the late 1990s and opened to much fanfare in 1999 with the search for original fittings and furniture continuing.
Thus, the history of vice-regal mansions and the homes of chief ministers has been marked by efforts to articulate, in tangible form, the role of the monarchy in the operations of the nation and the challenges—economic and attitudinal—of maintaining such buildings. That the restoration of 24 Sussex Drive has not been championed, nor its replacement through a national architectural competition publicly promoted, says much about how Canadians view the relationship between the position a person holds, the work they are expected to do, and what, if any, perks or trappings of office are deemed essential to the acquittal of duty and responsibility. Whether or not vice-regal mansions and official residences will always matter in the citizenry’s economic, historical, and cultural considerations of the material culture of state remains unknown. The redemption of old government houses might auger well, and perhaps there will be a recognition of the value of the longstanding roles, symbolic and practical, of official residences. Only time will tell.
Michael Prokopow, Ph. D., is a cultural historian and curator. He teaches at OCAD University in Toronto.
Government House, Regina, Saskatchewan
Photograph: Stonedan/Creative Commons
Dining room of Government House, Regina,
Photograph: Masalai/Creative Commons
Government House, Toronto, Ontario,
prior to demolition
Photograph: Archives of Ontario
The official residence of the Prime Minister,
24 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario
Photograph: Alasdair McLellan/