Historicist: Legislators in Fairyland

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Historicist: Legislators in Fairyland

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Ontario Legislature nearing the end of construction, March 1891, from Wikimedia Commons.


On April 5, 1893, The Empire‘s headline, “Legislators in Fairyland,” reflected the jubilant atmosphere that greeted the opening of the province’s handsome new Parliament Building in Queen’s Park. As throngs crowded in to explore the building’s corridors and gaze at its ornamental carvings, few likely noticed initials carved into a stone above the columns on the right side of the main entrance. Belonging to Christopher Finlay Fraser, the initials were “fitting tribute,” according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, to a man whose role over a twenty-five year political career remained similarly invisible to the public. As the long-time Commissioner of Public Works, Fraser had overseen the erection of the Parliament Building from conception to completion over the course of twelve years. While the monumental project never succumbed to the financial scandals seen in the construction of legislative buildings in Quebec or Manitoba, Fraser’s project was not without its controversies.


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Christopher Finlay Fraser from Frank Yeigh, Ontario’s Parliament Buildings: Or, A Century of Legislation, 1792-1892 (Toronto: The Williamson Book Company, 1893)

Fraser was a successful lawyer and businessman from Brockville who served in the provincial assembly from 1872 until 1894. In the Chamber, Fraser was an impressive speaker and deft in the maneuvering of parliamentary procedures. As a prominent Catholic, Fraser quietly acted as a broker between Premier Sir Oliver Mowat and church authorities such as Archbishop Lynch. Playing this role made him indispensable and, by 1889, he had risen to become Mowat’s top lieutenant. First appointed to cabinet as Provincial Secretary in late 1873, Fraser was promoted to become Commissioner of Public Works five months later. Although in charge of the key spending portfolio—awarding contracts for the construction of bridges, dams, provincial buildings, and roadways—in an era rife with political intrigue and patronage, Fraser quickly earned “a reputation as a sound administrator and as ‘an enemy of waste and extravagance,'” according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. The construction of the new Parliament Building at Queen’s Park would prove to be the greatest challenge to his reputation.
In early 1880, provincial architect Kivas Tully drew attention to the “delapidated and dangerous condition” of the old parliamentary precincts on Front Street and mobilized political support for the erection of a landmark new legislature. That April, the government announced that it would grant $500,000 for a new building with the design to be selected through an international competition. To adjudicate the competition, Fraser assembled a seemingly ideal jury composed of Alexander Mackenzie—who, as a politician and the federal public works commissioner, brought an intimate knowledge of the design necessities for a functional parliamentary building—highly respected Toronto-based architect W.G. Storm, and Richard A. Waite, a British-born, Buffalo-based architect.

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Parliament Buildings, Queen’s Park, under construction, 1891. Archives of Ontario, RG 15-74-0-1.2, S 2920.

The jury decided, however, that none of the thirteen design submissions were worthy of the site, located on the old King’s College grounds at the crest of University Avenue. According to Jonathan Vance in Building Canada (Penguin, 2006), the jurors thought each entry showed “a grievous lack of…distinctive character in design.” Nevertheless, they rather unenthusiastically selected three finalists. Fraser called upon the top two entrants—Darling & Curry and Gordon & Helliwell, two Toronto architectural firms—to resubmit modified designs with the construction costs more fully detailed. Neither was able to meet the $500,000 target, but the government decided it needed to pronounce a winner. As Mackenzie was no architect and Storm had personal connections to the local firms and contractors, Fraser quite naturally called upon Waite, who was believed to be the most impartial, to give his personal opinion on the two proposals. Waite, however, remained stubborn. Damning each with faint praise, he refused to endorse either entry. Even the best of the two, the Darling & Curry design—which is, in fact, the only entry in the design competition that has survived—was deemed “unsuitable and defective.” Both Tully and Fraser agreed with Waite’s appraisal.

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Parliament Buildings, Queen’s Park, under construction, 1891. Archives of Ontario,RG 15-74-0-1.3.

In the wake of two failed competitions, many politicians would’ve been discouraged. But Fraser wasn’t about to give up on his dream for a new parliament building. After convincing the government to grant an additional $250,000 towards the construction project in 1885—as well as a further $300,000 in 1887—Fraser decided to simply appoint an architect to the project. And his chosen candidate was none other than Richard Waite. Despite very strict limitations on the contract imposed by Fraser, Waite accepted the commission on January 8, 1886.
The local firms involved in the competition raised a ruckus, alleging that Waite had purposely torpedoed them for his own benefit. There is no evidence Waite had expressed any interest in the lucrative contract until invited by Fraser. And his design proved popular with the public and the press. But the controversy over his appointment never really disappeared as the building was constructed over the next six years.
Rather than a soaring gothic structure, as proposed by Darling & Curry, Waite’s squat, asymmetrical design introduced American architect H.H. Richardson’s Romanesque style to Canada with all its heavy stonework, rounded arches, and boldly carved ornamentation. The main walls were constructed with reddish brown sandstone from the Credit Valley. And, as Frank Yeigh recounted in Ontario’s Parliament Buildings (Williamson Book Company, 1893), convict labour at the Central Prison made the ten million bricks needed for the inner structure. The windows were the largest hitherto attempted in Toronto, and the wood framing of the roof was likened by many to a trestle bridge. Lionel Yorke was contracted as builder for the masonry, brick, stone, and excavations—later succeeded by the firm of Carrol & Vick upon Yorke’s death—and numerous local sub-contractors bid low just so they could be involved with this important building.

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Parliament Buildings, Queen’s Park, under construction, 1891. Archives of Ontario,RG 15-74-0-1.2, S 2925.

Unfortunately, some sub-contractors—specifically those responsible for the foundations, plastering, and painting—had underestimated their costs and went bankrupt when they discovered Fraser was unbending in his refusal to pay for cost overruns. He was a stickler for staying on budget and as the project’s costs climbed, eventually reaching nearly $1.4 million, Fraser’s relationship with Waite deteriorated. At the time, the Commissioner of Public Works was regarded as such a dedicated, workaholic public servant that his health had suffered and was therefore credited for having completed a project of such magnitude in only six years of time. Meanwhile, Waite was pilloried in the press for having been chosen ahead of Darling & Curry and blamed for the escalating costs. However, in From Front Street to Queen’s Park (McClelland and Stewart, 1979), Eric Arthur offered an alternative version of events. He argued that Fraser continuously meddled in Waite’s work, either unaware of professional ethics or choosing to ignore them. In the end, Waite was never even paid what he was owed by the government. His remuneration was to be 5% of the contract cost. The government interpreted this as meaning the original contract cost, or a maximum of $37,500, while Waite thought it should mean the final cost. Already paid $36,000, Waite tried in vain for years to receive an additional $38,039.72 and even refused to cash a cheque for $1,500 for fear it would imply his agreement to the government’s terms. He eventually gave up on the money he was owed.
Although the building’s east and west wings were still being finalized and the dry and dusty grounds hadn’t been sodded yet, the official opening of the legislature, on April 4, 1893, was a grand occasion attended by everyone who was anyone in Toronto society. Lieutenant-Governor Kirkpatrick and military officers mingled with judges, businessmen, and women wearing their finest dresses. The public, eager to finally get inside the building they’d seen take shape over the course of years, wandered the corridors. They examined the elaborate carvings found at every turn, perused the thirteen fireproof vaults for the government’s records, and enjoyed the novelty of riding the electric elevators up and down. The Globe‘s reporter noted that he heard nothing but exclamations of “admiration and delight.” Not even the sudden uprising of a spring gale strong enough to break a window could dampen the crowd’s spirits. The pageantry would continue into the evening with revellers dancing in the main hallway to the accompaniment of two military bands while enjoying non-alcoholic beverages.

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Queen’s Park and OntarioLegislative Assembly Building by James Ricalton, circa 1890. From WikimediaCommons.


Although tickets were required for the afternoon’s official ceremony, every corner of the Chamber was packed from the floor to the galleries, and politicians gave up their seats to the ladies in attendance. In a scene “of surpassing grandeur” that had “never been equaled on any state occasion in the history of this province,” as the Globe put it, the ceremony got underway promptly at three. The highlight was the speech given by Mowat, who was entering the twenty-first year of his premiership. He recalled how much Toronto had changed over the course of his long life, from a fledgling township to a booming industrial centre. The new Parliament Building, in Vance’s words, would symbolize “the strength and stability of the province.” The premier paid particular tribute to his Public Works Commissioner. The Parliament Building, he said, “will, as long as the building stands, be a monument of his administrative ability, his energy and his economy.” The following day, the Globe added that, having earned the gratitude of the province, Fraser’s “name will hereafter be associated with scrupulous, clean-handed expenditure of public moneys.”
Suffering declining health throughout the 1880s—due at least in part, some argued, to overwork—Fraser had offered his resignation to Mowat in 1891 and 1893. Not wanting to lose such a valuable colleague, Mowat repeatedly refused and convinced Fraser to remain in cabinet to oversee the completion of the parliamentary building. The following May, he resigned from the public works portfolio but continued working as the inspector of registry offices. His refusal to slow his pace eventually caught up with Fraser, who suffered a heart attack in his office and died on August 24, 1894.

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