A house fit for a king, a queen or the closest thing
Government House celebrates centenary with free tours
By: Scott Hayes
| Posted: Saturday, Mar 23, 2013 06:00 am
See Inside the House
Every Saturday, Sunday and holiday Monday, the Government House Foundation is offering free public tours of the building between 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
For more information, call 780-427-2281 or visit www.governmenthousefoundation.ca.
The site is located at 12845 102 Avenue, right in front of the Royal Alberta Museum. Free parking is available.
Anyone who has ever visited the Royal Museum of Alberta must certainly have noticed the stately mansion right in front of it. It’s a big place, stylish and well kept too. It could be the Hotel MacDonald’s little brother.
Somehow it escapes most people’s attention.
John Hanson calls the place “Edmonton’s hidden mansion. It’s hidden in plain sight.”
“People who walk up and down 124 Street … do they know that there’s a national historic site just a short walk away? When you do an Internet search for activities in Edmonton, you will hardly find any reference to Government House,” Hanson says.
Now celebrating its 100th anniversary, Government House is situated a few kilometres away from the legislature building along Edmonton’s scenic river valley. Despite the distance, the two have always been connected through time and purpose. They were both opened in 1913, one serving as the stronghold of government in the province and the other with a somewhat more provincial purpose.
This house was the official residence for the lieutenant-governor, the province’s vice-regal representative of the Canadian monarch. That title gives its bearer the closest thing to the power of veto, an iota of royal influence that rarely gets used in this position which is now considered largely a figurehead, not a force.
Marianne Fedori, one of Hanson’s cohorts on the board of the Government House Foundation, calls it “our regal place, our most formal place.”
Now, it’s more of a citizens’ gathering place that mostly gets used for various government functions, meetings, announcements and photo opportunities.
Long ago the building became a pawn in a political chess match. Since then it fell out of the collective consciousness. History buffs like Hanson and Fedori hope to return it to its former glory although there is nothing about it – inside or out – that doesn’t smack of glory.
Today, it still stands as a monument to Alberta’s history, a tribute to our gilded past and a symbol of something much more. The very fact that it’s still standing is something. Ontario, at one time, had four different Government Houses. Now there are none, a consequence of budget cuts and lack of public interest.
The house of culture
Government House was designed by provincial architect Richard P. Blakey and construction started in 1911. The three-storey brick and sandstone Jacobean Revival house is a substantial residence.
“It is architecturally leading edge,” Fedori offers.
It’s hard to imagine that early on it even had a Tudor Revival style carriage house and a greenhouse attached to it as well.
Now, only the house remains. It seems cold and authoritative from the outside but inside it is warm and inviting. The walls are covered with artwork from Sylvain Voyer, A.Y. Jackson, William Kurelek and Nicholas de Grandmaison. There are a lot of fine wood features and a magnificent staircase. The doors are heavy.
As a bureaucratic gesture of tribute to its significance, the Alberta government designated it as a Provincial Historic Resource almost 30 years ago. To commemorate its centennial anniversary, the federal government gave the house its due back in January.
Peter Kent, Canada’s minister responsible for Parks Canada, announced that the designation of National Historic Resource was the least they could do for a place that was so significant to the province and to the people of Alberta in the first decades of the 20th century.
“The designation of Government House in Edmonton commemorates the important social and political roles served by this building and the surrounding grounds since 1913,” he commented in a press release for the occasion. “This distinctive architectural landmark and centre of public life is a worthy addition to Alberta’s list of national significant places, people and events.”
Hanson says that these won’t do much to help the foundation acquire new financial resources to maintain and promote the House. All that it adds is profile “and a plaque.”
“Its profile as a historic resource is really underappreciated, I think,” he states. “One of the reasons I wanted to get involved with the foundation was to help raise the public awareness and let people know what an interesting place it is.”
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the House is hidden, just as the structure itself seems almost invisible to plain sight.
For its first 25 years, Government House served as the official residence of the province’s lieutenant-governors. One might wonder why current Lt.-Gov. Donald S. Ethell doesn’t reside there now.
In 1937, then Lt.-Gov. John Bowen declined to give royal assent to three proposed pieces of legislation by then-premier William Aberhart. The first two were intended to put the province’s banks under the province’s control.
The third, the Accurate News and Information Act, was an Orwellian piece of legislation that was designed to force newspapers to print government rebuttals to anything that the Aberhart government deemed inaccurate. It would also force newspapers to reveal the names and addresses of the sources of the offensive information. Refusing to do so would incur a fine of $1,000 per day and a publication ban.
Bowen refused to give assent to these laws. He even threatened to dismiss Alberta’s government, an act that would have been an extraordinary exercise of his regal reserve powers.
Aberhart’s response was telling. He turned off the gas and utilities to Government House. He locked the gates. He kicked Bowen out to the street. No lieutenant-governor has lived there since.
Bowen was eventually vindicated when the Supreme Court decided that those three laws would have been unconstitutional.
Because of this interesting turn of events, St. Albert once featured a de facto Government House during Lois Hole’s tenure as the vice-regal representative.
“By definition, Government House is any house that the lieutenant-governor lives in,” Hanson averred.
Rather than be left vacant, other uses were found for Government House. It was first leased to North West Airlines before being turned into a convalescent home for wounded veterans of the Second World War and later a permanent residence for them.
The provincial government bought it back from the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1964, refurbished and refurnished it before formally opening its doors again in 1976.
The annual New Year’s Day Levee is a time when anyone can stop by and meet Lt.-Gov. Ethell. The site also hosts two semi-annual High Teas, one in the spring and one in the fall. Tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis. These three events are among the few occasions that are open to the public.
There are also two exhibits in the house that show photographs and tell the larger story of 100 years in the life of Alberta’s Government House.
After the fiasco between Bowen and Aberhart, all of the original furnishings of Government House were sold during a three-day auction in 1942. The Government House Foundation has striven to turn back time, and repatriate as many of those lost artifacts as possible. Next weekend, Hanson will even host a booth at the Wildrose Antique Collectors Society annual show and exhibit at the Edmonton Expo Centre.
The foundation is also hoping to compile people’s stories documenting their personal connections to the building. They hope to publish a new history of the house sometime this year. Call the foundation at 780-427-2281 to offer your story.