January 7, 2021
Proudly Manitoban: Government House
Government House is Manitoba’s house. The location has changed over the past 150 years but the sentiment has remained the same, it is a place where Manitobans are celebrated. It has rose from humble beginnings to become a historic mansion, standing the test of time as an enduring symbol of our province. All walks of life have been welcomed through its graceful doors, with the generous hospitality experienced inside leaving a lasting impression. Functioning both as an official residence, place of work and an event space, many a Manitobans have fond memories of it, from passing it on the street to attending the annual New Year’s Levée. The House we know today has fallen in and out of fashion, has been endlessly reimagined, connects the past to the present, and is always firm in its purpose. It is an adaptive and resilient home at the heart of Manitoba, a testament to the people of the prairies who endure hardship and heartbreak but always rise again, shining brightly under the warm gaze of the Golden Boy.
Government House is the home of the Lieutenant Governor in Manitoba. The position of Lieutenant Governor was established in 1870 with Manitoba’s entrance into confederation, tasked with ensuring the responsibility of government and signing off on all legislation before it becomes law. Until the early 20th century the Lieutenant Governor “exercised significant political authority over the provincial government” (MHS), but later adopted a more honorary role as a figurehead. Along with official functions, today’s Lieutenant Governor works hard to connect with the people throughout Manitoba, celebrating, encouraging and championing all good things, great and small. Through various award programs and as Chancellor of the Order of Manitoba, the Lieutenant Governor acknowledges the wonderful accomplishments of people throughout the province. The Honourable Sir Adam George Archibald was Manitoba’s first Lieutenant Governor, with the current Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, The Honourable Janice C. Filmon, C.M., O.M., appointed June 19, 2015, being the 25th. In addition to being the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor, there are a variety of other creatures that call Government House home, including cats, turtles and goldfish.
The Lieutenant Governor is the representative of Her Majesty, The Queen of Canada in the Province of Manitoba, and as such, takes precedence over everyone in the province, except the Sovereign. The Lieutenant Governor is appointed by the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada, for a period of not less than five years.
The 2020 holiday greeting from the current Lieutenant Governor, The Honourable Janice C. Filmon, C.M., O.M.
When Archibald became Manitoba’s first Lieutenant Governor in 1870, a house known as Silver Heights had already been prepared for William McDougall, the intended first Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba, who never arrived. Built in 1856 by John Rowand, the house was five miles from the city, located on a slight hill and surrounded by silver poplars, hence the name Silver Heights. The house was deemed to be unsuitable by Lieutenant Governor Archibald, being far removed from the bustling city which had sprung up around the Hudson’s Bay Company’s (HBC) Upper Fort Garry (UFG). Additionally, the low ceilings and a small size would not accommodate the furniture sent by McDougall, which was left to furnish the house. After initially staying at UFG when he arrived in Manitoba in September of 1870, Lieutenant Governor Archibald did eventually take up residence in Silver Heights. And so Silver Heights became the first Government House in Manitoba!
Lieutenant Governor Archibald understood the importance of being near to and connecting with the community, hosting an initial public reception at UFG on September 6, 1870, only a few days after arriving in Manitoba. Months later on January 2, 1871, he followed it up with a New Year’s Levée at UFG. A levée is a French tradition, started by King Louis XIV in the 17th century, which eventually spread to North America after gaining popularity in Europe. First held in Canada on January 1st, 1646 in Quebec, those involved in the fur trade came from far and wide to pay their respects to the government and hear news from the old country. The French custom was later adopted by the British Government in Canada, being traditionally held on New Years Day, with the Monarch’s representative as host.
The Levee at the Government House yesterday was well attended and some hundreds of our prominent citizens paid their respects to the Lieut.-Governor.
-Winnipeg Free Press, January 2, 1875, page 5
Not a fan of commuting, especially in the cold Winnipeg winter, Lieutenant Governor Archibald was likely happy to leave Silver Heights when a lawyer representing the deceased Rowan’s late wife, demanded ownership of the house. Ousted, Lieutenant Governor Archibald made haste for the familiar UFG. The creation of the Province of Manitoba and the decline of the fur trade meant UFG was no longer an important hub of government and commerce, and so the HBC had mostly left it to decay. Lieutenant Governor Archibald’s arrival in 1872 breathed new life into the decaying structure, with the federal government renting out what would be the second Government House in Manitoba for $2000 a year. The two and a half storey wooden house, which was built during an expansion of UFG in 1852-1854, looked on to a beautiful ornamental garden. Built as the Governor’s House, it had been occupied by the President of the Provisional Government of the Red River, Louis Riel, from 1869 to 1870, and was the last residence of the Governor of Rupert’s Land. With a third story added, it was not the best residence in the city, with next Lieutenant Governor, The Honourable Alexander Morris calling it an “old rambling apology for a Government House”. It remained Manitoba’s Government House for over a decade, until the HBC began dismantling UFG in the early 1880s, motivating the federal government to build new facilities elsewhere. The house and northern half of UFG were maintained until a new Government House was finished, at which point it was left to decay. Several years later Manitoba’s second Government House was sold for $100 to Mr. Marion, who torn it down for firewood.
Manitoba’s third and current Government House was completed in 1883, located at 10 Kennedy Street. Tucked behind the current Manitoba Legislative Building, the house sits on its beautiful grounds on the the north shore of the Assiniboine River. The land had been part of a 20 hectare government reserve, appropriated from the HBC Reserve in 1827. The eastern half of the government reserve was set aside for the provincial government in 1874, with the province’s first legislative building on the northern end and Government House on the southern end. The House was designed in a simple Second Empire style, as prescribed by the federal government who provided both the funding and the plans for the House. Thomas Seaton Scott is sometimes credited as the architect, as he was the head of the federal Department of Public Works Chief Architect’s Office, which drafted the design of the House.
Scott was a modestly skilled architect from England, who landed many commissions through family connections, having married Mary Mackenzie, the daughter of the Grand Trunk Railway’s locomotive manager. Designing mainly in the Gothic Revival style with touches of Italianate and Second Empire, Scott became the Chief Architect for the Department of Public works in February 1872. Having never worked for the federal government before joining the department in 1871 and never achieving a level of success in his profession which could account for such a prestigious appointment, it is likely that powerful friends secured the position for Scott. The federal government had settled on a simplified Second Empire style to unify government buildings across the country prior to Scott’s arrival, which seems to have left him with little ambition to express any creativity. As such Scott primarily worked in an administrative capacity aside from designing the extension of the West Block of the Parliamentary Complex in Ottawa. Scott’s apathy seems to have rubbed off on his department, which produced plans that made accommodations for local conditions but showed no flair for design. Unfortunately, it is under Scott that both Manitoba’s third Government House and neighboring 1884 Manitoba Legislative Building were drafted, although it is unlikely that Scott personally had anything to do with the designing the buildings.
The popularity of the Second Empire style was already fading by the time it reached Winnipeg in the 1880s, resulting in few buildings being designed in the style and even less surviving through the years. Seen as an expression of wealth and culture, the style is easily recognized by its Mansard roof, square floor plan and decorative cresting. Government House also featured a central tower, which was a nod to the older Italianate style. Joseph Williams and F.J. Bowles of Selkirk won the contract for building Government House with a tender of $23,995 and started work in September of 1882. Recognizing the instability of the clay soils, the house was built on a solid and attractive foundation of oak piles driven nine meters into the ground, on which was poured concrete footings, followed by a Stony Mountain rubble stone, and finally capped with limestone slabs above the ground level. The facade was constructed of the highest quality locally sourced white brick with limestone accents. The three story building had 23 rooms containing 20,000 square feet, with most spaces finished when Lieutenant Governor James Cox Aikins officially took up residence in September of 1883.
Inside the heavy oak doors of Government House were all the things the Lieutenant Governor could need to live, work and entertain, including live in staff members. The basement had a kitchen, dumbwaiter, storage and mechanical rooms. The first floor featured the Lieutenant Governor’s office and a dining room, drawing room, breakfast room and library that could all be opened up to create one large entertaining space. Upstairs there were bedrooms, dressing rooms and a billiard room in the attic. After some modifications to the original plans, the house ended up having a staggering 11 bathrooms! Interestingly, both the staircases in the home were built in the opposite direction as to what as prescribed in the original design. The House was heated by fireplaces and lit with the latest technology of the time – gas lighting. It was also one of the first residences in the province to have a phone, which only cost $26.70 a year! Water from the Winnipeg Water Works would flow through newly installed pipes just a few weeks after the House was complete. In addition to the house there were also two outside buildings, a nearby wash house/ice house/woodshed and a further away stable, as to not smell the horses from the House.
Manitoba’s third Government House was originally owned by the Government of Canada, who paid for its construction, but sold to the Government of Manitoba in 1885 for the staggering price of $1.00! A condition of the sale was the House could only by used as a residence for the Lieutenant Governor. And it has been well used, with the 22 most recent Lieutenant Governors of Manitoba calling it home. Even though it is Manitoba’s third Government House, it is still the fourth oldest home of a Lieutenant Governor and the fifth oldest Government House in Canada. With an old house comes old traditions, including the New Year’s Levée. Manitoba’s fourth Lieutenant Governor, The Honourable James Cox Aikins, hosted the first New Year’s Levée at the third Government House in 1884. Distinguished guests and the public gathered at 4:00 pm to celebrate, dine and ring in the new year together!
Over the years Government House has seen many changes and updates, with additions coming and going, and the functions of rooms being altered. The house seems to have had some defects from the onset, but only received work when a royal visit was scheduled or something had fallen apart. By the mid 1890s it was in a sorry state of repair, “barely habitable” with much of the heating and plumbing systems in disarray. In 1880 a conservatory was added, followed by the large wrap around veranda in 1901. With an impending visit by the couple who would become King George V and Queen Mary, the Lieutenant Governor at the time, Sir Daniel Hunter McMillan, spent his own money in 1901 to add a ballroom to the House. This ballroom was subsequently torn down and replaced in 1960. A fashionable palm room was added in 1908 and later converted into the State Dining Room, and the front porch with its delicate gingerbread trim was closed in. A garage replaced the stables in 1926, which was then replaced with a larger three car garage in the 1960s. A new kitchen wing was added in 1946 while the rest of the house received a major update in the 1950s. The updates included painting the exterior of the House white, and were completed just in time for the visit of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in July of 1959. The 1960s saw the addition of a greenhouse, code upgrades and the underpinning of the foundation to stabilize the building. A fire alarm system installed in 1967 resulting from numerous mishaps, with false alarms interrupting honoured guests at all hours and ringing so loud that the screws holding up the drapery rods were shaken out of the walls. A surprising addition in the 1960s was that of a street address, 10 Kennedy Street, which had not existed up until that point. Another late upgrade to the House was air conditioning, which finally allowed for summer events to take place inside when it was installed on the first floor in 2000.
Filled with artwork by talented local artists past and present, Government House is a showpiece that has hosted everything from quiet meetings, garden parties, state dinners, fancy balls to visiting dignitaries. King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, Margaret Laurence and Mother Teresa have all visited Government house, with the official Royal Bedroom having last been used by Princess Anne in 1982. King George VI was at the House during a cross country tour on May 24th, 1939, when he paused to address the entire British Empire over the radio. The King sat at a desk in the library, broadcasting words of encouragement and reassurance during a turbulent time. The film The King’s Speech, which celebrates King George VI finally overcoming a stammer in time to address his people on September 3rd, 1939, seems to have forgotten to include this important event in Winnipeg. Perhaps this is because the “magnificent” King’s speech given in Winnipeg, which the visibly pleased King described as “successful”, predated the film’s speech by three months and would have detracted from the cinematic climax? Regardless, the desk the King sat at in 1939 can still be found in Government House over 80 years later.
Life is a great adventure, and every one of you can be a pioneer, blazing by thought and service a trail to better things. Hold fast to all that is just and of good report in the heritage which your fathers have left you, but strive also to improve and equalize that heritage for all men and women in the years to come. Remember too that the key to all true progress lies in faith, hope and love. May God give you their support, and may God help them to prevail.
-The end of the King George VI’s Winnipeg speech given on May 24, 1939
Another thing that has not changed at Government House over the years is the New Year’s Levée. As the levée has fallen out of fashion elsewhere in the world, the tradition is still going strong in Canada, celebrated by Governor Generals, Lieutenant Governors and the military. Once a formal affair only open to men, the Levée has evolved to be more inclusive, with refreshments and festivities, while remaining an opportunity to reconnect with old friends and share well wishes for the new year. The gaily decorated Government House has welcomed a mix of distinguished guests and excited Manitobans for the annual afternoon celebration. By the 1970s the New Year’s Levée had become so popular, Government House was no longer large enough to accommodate it. The event was moved next door to the Manitoba Legislative Building, where the Lieutenant Governor continues to celebrate with the community. For two years, 2008 and 2009, Winnipeg’s levée was moved to the spring so it could be an outdoor event, but has since returned to an indoor event in January. There are also additional levées held throughout the years in rural Manitoba so everyone throughout the province has the opportunity to take part. The year 2021 will be yet another blip in the Levée’s tradition, as it could not be held on account of the global pandemic.
Manitoba’s third Government House has always been an underdog, designed in a style that was falling out of fashion by a department that did not put their heart into their work. It suffered from defects and maintenance was always a struggle to keep up with. When Frank Lewis Worthington Simon designed Manitoba’s current Legislative Building which started construction in 1913, he included plans for a new Government House. But the plans never came to fruition, with the grand new Legislative Building leaving Government House in its shadow. In the 1950s the House was described as “jarring” next to the Manitoba Legislative Building, an “unpretending looking structure, of nondescript architecture and with no outside ornamentation”. Yet Government House did not shrink in the face of criticism, standing firm until the heritage movement gained momentum in the 1970s, and its irreplaceable historical architecture could be truly appreciated! Work undertaken on the House won it a conservation award at Heritage Winnipeg’s 2002 Annual Preservation Awards. It has also been a long standing participant of Heritage Winnipeg’s Doors Open Winnipeg, and guests have always spoken enthusiastically about their stay. Its style now helps it stand out from the crowd and win a place in your heart, reminding us of what we have overcome and of the rewards the future holds. Government House is truly a unique place that all Manitobans can be proud to call home.
HAPPY NEW YEAR FROM EVERYONE AT HERITAGE WINNIPEG!
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Written by Cheryl Mann on behalf of Heritage Winnipeg.
Winnipeg Evening Tribune | The King's Speech - May 24, 1939