Historicist: A House Fit for a Lieutenant-Governor
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Historicist: A House Fit for a Lieutenant-Governor

Before there was Chorley Park, there was Government House on Simcoe Street.

Government House, looking northwest, ca. 1897. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

When Toronto was declared the capital of the new province of Ontario in 1867, the provincial government was able to re-use the old parliament building at Front and Simcoe Streets, which had been built several decades earlier, back when the town of York had been the capital of Upper Canada. The capital city lacked, however, an official building to serve as the provincial Government House, home of Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor.

In earlier years, when York (later Toronto) had served as the capital of Upper Canada, and intermittently as the capital of the united Province of Canada, several buildings had been used as the local Government House. Following the War of 1812, the government purchased Elmsley House, near the site of today’s Roy Thomson Hall, and used it as the official Lieutenant Governor’s residence. Elmsley House served a variety of other uses in the years when the capital was located elsewhere, and was in the possession of the army in early 1862 when it was destroyed by fire.

Lithograph by Lucius Richard O’Brien showing Elmsley House in 1854. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

When Canadian confederation necessitated a new government house in the city, the former site of Elmsley House emerged as the logical location; not only was the site already associated in the public mind with government use, but it was only one block north of the legislature. The site was also attractive, as it was already government owned, which would help keep expenses low; indeed, from its very beginnings, the Simcoe Street Government House was seen by many as a drain on the public coffers. During the building’s construction, the Globe ran numerous editorials critical of the expense, expressing the belief that the building was unnecessarily large and extravagant for its purpose. Historian William Dendy, who wrote several pieces about the building, claims that “once the designs had been finished it was necessary to act with utmost speed to get the house built because there was definite opposition to the basic idea in the legislature.”

Work on Government House commenced in earnest in 1868, making it one of the first official public buildings to be constructed by the new Province of Ontario. For their design, architects Gundry and Langley opted for a style which was hitherto generally unknown in Canada: a French style known today as ‘Second Empire,’ characterized by distinctive mansard roofs and details such as iron cresting. Architect Henry Langley, describing the building as it was nearing completion, notes that “it is designed in the modern French style of architecture which has been adopted largely in American cities, and is rapidly getting into favour in England.”

Looking north at Government House in 1909. The conservatory can be seen at left. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 3035.

“The building, designed in the modern French style of architecture, is of red brick, relieved with Ohio cut-stone dressings and galvanized iron strings and cornices, painted and sanded to imitate stone,” wrote the Canadian Illustrated News in March 1870, shortly before Government House was ready for occupation. “The frontage of the building towards Simcoe Street is about 80 feet, and in the centre of it rises a tower 70 feet high, finished with a handsome wrought iron railing.” In Langley’s description of his own design, the “effect was sought to be obtained by grouping, by large simple treatment of the openings and contrast of colour, rather than by elaborateness of detail.”

In a 1980 Parks Canada publication on Second Empire architecture in Canada, Christina Cameron and Janet Wright acknowledge that while some elements of Second Empire can be seen in earlier Canadian buildings, Ontario’s new Government House appears to be have been one of the first “full-blown” examples of the style in the country, and had a major influence on Canadian architecture in the 1870s. “With this building, one could say that the Second Empire style was truly launched in Canada. The fact that this was the residence of the provincial head of state and the centre of Toronto society in a sense put the official seal of approval on this new fashion. In Toronto its impact was immediately felt as is evidenced by the numerous ‘French style’ mansions which appeared in the early 1870s in the fashionable residential suburbs.” Over the next decade many residential, commercial, and government buildings were built in the Second Empire style in Toronto (and indeed across much of Canada), including the Adelaide Street Post Office and the Custom House at Front and Yonge.

Looking at Government House across Simcoe Street, 1908. Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN 3259394.

The interior of the building included not only the requisite living quarters, but numerous rooms intended for the purpose of conducting the official business of the lieutenant-governor’s office, including receiving important guests. All three floors featured spacious central main halls, from which doors led to other rooms including offices, multiple dining rooms, a billiard room, and a sizeable conservatory. Between the kitchens and the conservatory lay the ballroom, measuring 65 x 28 feet. William Dendy, describing the building in a 1977 article for Canadian Collector, observes that “the ballroom was in fact the key to the formal and ceremonial arrangements of Government House, for not only was it used for large state dinners but its location was planned to allow the large numbers of guests to circulate through the house with ease.”

The main hall of the grand floor, highlighting the central staircase, 1912. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Over the years, Toronto newspapers reported regularly not only on the political affairs of the lieutenant-governor’s office, but on the many social events held at Government House. These events included public garden parties, fancy dress balls, and the traditional New Year’s Day levée, all of which were regularly advertised and described. For one 1882 fancy dress ball, the list of attendees and their costumes took up more than a full page in the Globe. Lieutenant-Governor John Beverley Robinson and his family dressed as courtiers from the time of Louis XIV; his wife Mary’s costume reportedly included “train and bodice of cardinal embossed satin, trimmed with Brussels point lace; petticoat of cream and cardinal satin de Lyon, with frills of lace, edged with pearls; hair poudre, with crescent of diamonds.” Others came in a variety of historical, military, or traditional European attire, including mayor William Barclay McMurrich, who was cryptically reported as having come dressed as “a Mayor of the Olden Time.”

Government House also played host to prominent guests, including numerous governors general and members of the royal family. In the 1870s, such visits led to special exterior gas illuminations around the property. For both Lord Dufferin‘s visit in 1872 and the 1879 visit of the Marquess of Lorne, gas jets were not only used to create fanciful patterns of light, but also to spell out special welcome messages for the visitors over the three front archways.

King George V’s visit to Government House in Toronto, October 11, 1901. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Responsibility for the social duties at Government House usually fell to the wife of the lieutenant-governor, or, in the case of the governorship of Alexander Campbell, his daughter, Marjorie. While many of these social events were clearly for the local and provincial elite, on some occasions the doors were opened for the ordinary taxpayers. In one history of Ontario’s nineteenth-century Lieutenant-Governors, D.B. Read writes that during the term of John Beverley Robinson, “the doors were always open to rich and poor alike. The sympathetic nature of Mrs. Robinson, and his personality, attracted to Government House the classes and masses alike. Mrs. Robinson did not confine her entertainments to those who were rich in this world’s goods, or to a favored few, but was always the genial hostess to guests of whatever class whose respectability gave them a claim upon the attention of the chief lady of the Province.”

In the 42 years that the building served as Government House, three of Ontario’s lieutenant-governors died there: John Willoughby Crawford in 1875, Alexander Campbell in 1892, and Oliver Mowat in 1903. In each instance, the building was opened up to the public, so that the mourning citizens of Ontario could visit and pay their respects. Following Oliver Mowat’s death, the Globe reported that “the body of [Mowat], dressed in the uniform of his office, with the star of his order on his breast, lay in state, in a plain black casket, in the centre of the southeast drawing room. The windows, mirrors, doors, and frieze of the room were draped in black, caught up with white rosettes.”

Lieutenant Governor John Willoughby Crawford’s funeral procession leaving Government House. Canadian Illustrated News, May 29, 1875.

Throughout its existence, however, the cost and maintenance of Government House led to considerable criticism. One 1894 Globe editorial claimed that “it is beyond question that a majority of the people of Ontario are opposed to the maintenance of such ornamental institutions as Government House. Like many of the forms and ceremonies still clinging to the enactment of laws and the dispatch of public business, these institutions have outlived their usefulness.”

The Ontario government frequently considered motions to abolish Government House, but these movements never received adequate political support. It did mean, however, that governments were conscious of cost when maintaining the property, and only minimal upgrades were performed over the years, such as converting the lights from gas to electricity. William Dendy notes that government staff regularly complained to the provincial architect about gas leaks, roof leaks, and other maintenance issues that frequently went unresolved. Dendy also observes from photos taken at the time of its 1912 closure that Government House’s interior still looked largely as it did when it first opened.

Staircase in Government House, 1912. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Writing in 1884, C. Pelham Mulvany wrote favourably of the appearance of Government House, but thought that the building might be put to better use, suggesting that it “would serve admirably for a State Hall or People’s Palace. Still better, it might be converted into a public library and industrial museum.”

The end of the Simcoe Street Government House was ultimately precipitated not entirely by cost, but in a change in character of the surrounding neighbourhood. The area around Simcoe and Wellington had grown considerably more commercial and industrial in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and the provincial legislature relocated to the new site at Queen’s Park in the 1890s. The Canadian Pacific Railway had designs on the property, and after several years of speculation in the press, purchased the block in 1912 with the expressed intention of bulldozing the lieutenant-governor’s residence to make way for freight sheds.

On April 29, 1912, Lieutenant-Governor John Morison Gibson and his wife held a farewell dinner and dance at Government House. According to the Globe, the official invitations read that this evening was an opportunity “to meet other descendants and relatives of former Lieutenant-Governors and to bid farewell to the house which has been the official residence of all the Lieutenant-Governors of Ontario since confederation.” (Strictly speaking, this was not quite accurate as the building was not completed until after the term of Henry William Stisted.)

Dancers in the Government House ballroom at the building’s farewell dinner, April 29, 1912. The man seen front and centre appears to be John Ross Robertson. Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library.

Despite some continued concern about expense, Ontario opted to erect a new official Government House, eventually choosing a new site in Rosedale, better known as Chorley Park. Prior to Chorley Park’s completion in 1915, John Morison Gibson resided and conducted business out of Pendarvis House, an 1861 house at the corner of College and St. George. Chorley Park was also seen as extravagant and unduly expensive, and was officially closed in 1937, leaving Ontario without an official lieutenant-governor’s residence.

Canadian Pacific began demolition of the Simcoe Street mansion almost as soon as it was vacated. “The scene in [the] Government House grounds is desolation itself”” reported the Star on June 15, 1912. “The grand old elms and willows that used to line the south side of the estate are nearly all down, and the trunks are being used to fill up the lawn. The lawn itself has been denuded of its covering, which is being used as sod in Queen’s Park, and the scene of so many brilliant garden parties is now a waste of broken bricks and crumbled mortar.”

Additional material from: Christina Cameron and Janet Wright, “Second Empire Style in Canadian Architecture,” in Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History, No. 24 (National Historic Parks Canada, 1980: Ottawa); Canadian Illustrated News, (Vol. 1, No. 8 – March 5, 1870; Vol. 6, No. 16 – October 19, 1872); William Dendy, “Government House Toronto 1866–70,” in Canadian Collector, Vol. 12, No. 5 (September/October 1977); William Dendy, Lost Toronto: Images of the City’s Past (McClelland & Stewart, 1993: Toronto); The Globe (January 13, February 12, 1862; January 19, 1864; June 29, December 19, 1868; January 6, 1869; March 5, December 6, 1870; February 3, 1871; November 13, 1874; May 19, 1875; January 5, 1877; January 2, January 31, September 8, September 11, September 16, 1879; January 19, 1882; May 3, 1886; August 18, 1887; May 26, 1892; March 9, March 15, Jul 25, 1894; April 22, 1903; February 3, February 26, 1910; September 30, 1911; April 27, April 30, June 5, June 17, June 20, 1912); Henry Langley, “Description of the Lieutenant-Governor’s Residence, Toronto,” in Sessional Papers Vol. II: Third Session of the First Parliament of the Province of Ontario (Hunter, Rose & Co., 1869: Toronto); C. Pelham Mulvany, Toronto: Past and Present — A Handbook of the City (W.E. Caiger, 1884: Toronto); D.B. Read, The Lieutenant-Governors of Upper Canada and Ontario, 1792–1889 (William Briggs, 1900: Toronto); J. Ross Robertson, Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto: A Collection of Historical Sketches of the Old Town of York from 1792 until 1833, and of Toronto from 1834 to 1893 (J. Ross Robertson, 1894: Toronto); Toronto Star (March 15, 1894; March 19, 1895; February 12, 1896; November 23, 1904; September 4, 1909; April 29, May 6, May 17, June 15, July 31, November 30, 1912; Frank Yeigh, Ontario’s Parliament Buildings; or, a Century of Legislation, 1792–1892 (Williamson, 1893: Toronto).

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