Alberta legislature still holding up after 100 years
Albertans gather to celebrate legislature building's centennial
By: By Ryan Tumilty
| Posted: Saturday, Sep 01, 2012 06:00 am
Party of the Century
On Sunday, Albertans will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the provincial legislature building.
The festivities kick off at 10 a.m. with a family fun fair. At 7 p.m. a concert featuring Big Sugar, Paul Brandt and Brett Kissel will take the stage and at 10:30 fireworks will light up the night.
She carries the years well. The structure is still strong and the face still shines and the overhauls have been regular and extensive, but in the end there’s no hiding the fact that the Alberta Legislature is 100 years old.
Festivities for Alberta’s latest centenarian will take place Sunday and will aim to capture the same joy and energy that accompanied the building’s opening.
Coming at a time of prosperity and optimism in Edmonton, the building first opened its doors to a lot of excitement 100 years ago.
“They were building things everywhere, so this was probably the grandest building of many grand buildings that were being put up at the time,” says City of Edmonton historian laureate Shirley Lowe.
Having recently completed a merger with Strathcona and the construction of the High Level Bridge, Edmonton was moving from frontier community to full-fledged city and the people were in a mood to put down permanent roots.
“The temporary buildings that had lined Jasper or Whyte Avenue or any of the main streets were being replaced with brick or stone buildings,” says Lowe. “There was construction everywhere.”
Construction of the legislature would cost the province $2.4 million in 1912 dollars. The land was purchased for $4,000 an acre from the Hudson’s Bay Company and construction required vast amounts of marble and steel.
Lowe said people would have expected a legislature that looked to have a serious purpose.
“Public buildings have always taken on the look of permanence and reliability and solidity and you had to believe in these people,” she says.
The cost aside, citizens at the time expected a building that looked to serve its purpose.
“Bringing in materials – the sandstone and marble – would have been expected,” she said. “That told people that you had arrived.”
University of Alberta professor Rod Macleod said the expense for the legislature, while significant, was fairly modest compared to what other provinces had spent and that reflected where Alberta was at the time.
“It is much less grandiose and that reflects the fact that in 1912 Manitoba was by far the richest and most populous province of the prairies,” he said. “People have a hard time getting their mind around the fact that in the early part of the 20th century Alberta is the poor cousin, even compared to Saskatchewan.”
The expense probably didn’t attract a lot of criticism, Lowe said, because Edmonton had been named the capital city in 1905 when Alberta became a province and the city’s residents would have wanted something to show this status.
“It meant a lot to the people who lived here and the business people to finally have a permanent structure that identified this city as the capital city,” she said.
The awarding of capital status to Edmonton was surrounded by controversy, Macleod said, which brought a lingering sense of unease.
“Until they actually started building the capital building in town, Edmontonians were a little nervous it might get yanked from them,” he said.
With all the boom activities that were going on, Edmonton would have wanted to appear ready for a big international stage, Lowe said.
“It is a status piece and people had lived some pretty hard lives establishing a community in the wilderness basically,” she said. “They would have seen themselves as much more cosmopolitan, and frankly, cities have done worse things to paint themselves as sophisticated.”
She said the big aspirations of the people then served the province well, because the legislature has held onto its grandeur and majesty.
“It is 100 years old and it is not going anywhere.”
For those who’ve worked and, during long house sittings, have come close to living in the legislature building, the place has a special feeling.
Ken Kowalski, the now retired speaker of the legislature, worked there even before he was elected. He says over 38 years he never forgot the building’s central purpose.
“It is the number one building. It has the greatest historic value of any building in Alberta and it is the seat of our democracy and 829 individuals earned their right to get in there,” he said.
Kowalski said it is a building that reflects its promise and purpose.
“When I drove up to that building every day for 38 years, I felt humbled, awed. I felt inspired,” he said. “I felt like this was a place where I really wanted to work.”
Kowalski said he worked as speaker to make the building open and welcoming to people, something he expects will continue.
“It is the people’s building and it will be maintained that way,” he said.
When the wading pools in front of the building first opened, the public was kept out, but that was quickly changed.
“They quickly got rid of that concept,” Kowalski said. “Couldn’t tell mommy and all of her children they couldn’t go into a wading pool.”
Spruce Grove-St. Albert MLA Doug Horner does not have quite the same number of years in the building as Kowalski, but has been going since his father Hugh’s term as an MLA in the early 1970s.
“You are always kind of in awe of a building that stands for something and the provincial legislature has always stood for all of the great things that Alberta and Albertans is,” said Horner, a four-term MLA.
He agreed with Kowalski that the building still feels like a gathering place.
“It truly is a building and grounds of the people. The pool out front and the grounds out back, it is a place where you will always see people,” he said.
Horner said the legislative assembly itself has a special feeling, because speaking there is something only a small handful of people have been able to do.
“There have been less than a thousand people, in a hundred years that have stood in that assembly to represent Albertans,” he said.
New MLAs Stephen Khan and Maureen Kubinec, elected this spring in St. Albert and Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock, respectively, both say walking to the building is a sobering experience.
“Every time you step into that building it is an honour. The building itself feels like it has a presence,” says Khan. “It is like a living, breathing museum, almost like a time capsule.”
Kubinec said the grandeur of the place and the scale of it both impress her, but the way the grounds act as a constant gathering place is also important to her.
“This is a public space that really truly is used by the public. If you go there almost any time of year, that area north of the building with the pools and the fountain is full of people,” she said. “It sounds like a beach without the sand.”
Khan said the building generates a constant feeling in people that it’s something more than the sum of its parts.
“Those original feelings that you felt, whether you are going on a tour, or sitting in the gallery or listening to a throne speech, a part of that sensation doesn’t go away,” he said.
Having survived 100 years, the building has an immense sense of history that is hard to ignore, he added.
“My office was actually the office that Alison Redford had when she was attorney general, so you feel that, and you have those moments where that history seeps in.”
Kubinec said down on the legislature floor there is a different feeling. Over time that starts to wear off a little, but it never really goes away, she insists.
“The very first time or two you are absolutely in awe, but after it becomes your work space, it does change a little bit, but you still have a lot of respect for the place,” she said. “You think about the history that has gone in there, it’s a pretty amazing place.”