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Manitoba History: Review: Marilyn Baker, Symbol in Stone: The Art and Politics of a Public Building

by Randy R. Rostecki
Historic Resources Branch, Winnipeg

Manitoba History, Number 14, Autumn 1987

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Symbol in Stone: The Art and Politics of a Public Building. Marilyn Baker. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1986. 176 pp., ill. ISBN 0-920534-26-0.

This handsomely illustrated and well-written volume is the direct descendant of Thomas W. Leslie’s The Legislative Building of Manitoba, first published in 1925 and which ran through several editions before it was supplanted by less artistic government efforts. While Leslie’s work was written along the lines of the aesthetic, almost in a conscious effort to cloak the innuendo and scandal of the previous decade, Baker’s book is what its title suggests — an exposition of the art and politics of building such a structure. Baker’s volume benefits well from the passage of sixty or seventy years since the Roblin-Kelly affair rocked Manitoba politics and society. What was only spoken of in whispers or away from polite society in 1925 can be examined in perspective now that the emotions have cooled, and the participants have joined the just majority. And clearly, Baker’s volume is timely, for it is about time, and has been for several years, that the legends of the Legislative Buildings were replaced by facts.

Professor Baker’s volume demonstrates to Manitobans that despite the dirty politics of the first Roblin era, the province has come to possess a stone symbol which is second to none for Neo-Classical beauty in Canada. She has also taken the Legislative Building out of its microcosmic Manitoba context to place it into its more proper world context, for the designers and artists whose work adorn its walls and halls were world-class in reputation. Names such as Augustus Vincent Tack, the Piccarelli Brothers, Frank Brangwyn, Albert Hodge and Georges Gardet were no small names in the world of 1913 when construction work began on the Legislative Building. The presence of work by these notables should have done much to dispel the long memory of the scandal which has haunted many Manitobans into believing that their legislative temple is second-rate in some way. One constantly hears the phrase, “Yes, it is a fine building, but it was scandal-ridden,” as if this were some fault of the edifice in question.

Baker seems to say “So What?” to the scandal, for the participants have long ago paid the price for their dishonesty. The scandal is old and dead news. Therefore, why keep harping upon it when one can enjoy the beauty of the place? Indeed, public works scandals are not unique to Manitoba and have been around since the first crooked politician could be bought.

Professor Baker’s book begins with a good history of earlier Manitoba legislative buildings, beginning with the usage of Andrew Bannatyne’s Main Street house through to the resplendent Second-Empire structure on Kennedy Street. One small error appears in this chapter, and that is in the illustration of Bannatyne’s house. This view is in reality a reversed image of William Drever’s house at Portage and Main. This error is not the fault of Professor Baker, however, for it represents shoddy historical work in the 1920s by some unnamed party. In all likelihood that individual, thinking that all Red River houses looked the same, and lacking a proper illustration of Bannatyne’s house, seized upon an old view looking north up Main, blew up the hazy image of Drever’s house and reversed it in order to appear as though it stood on the east side of Main, and retouched said photo to reduce the chances of later detection. Since that time, it has been discovered that Bannatyne’s house was photographed by Hime in 1858, and that it was that structure that may have been used by the legislature. If that is the case, then it was a meaner, ruder dwelling than anyone has supposed. Aside from this minor point, the chapter is a good historical exposition.

A. G. B. Bannatyne’s house with Mr. and Mrs. Bannatyne, photographed by H. L. Hime, 1858.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The remainder of the book represents the first well-researched, scholarly attempt to objectively deal with what has hitherto been a thorny theme in Manitoba’s past. Indeed, there are still many in governmental circles who will not publicly speak of the Scandal. Though tight-lipped participants are now gone, their documents have now become available through the collections of the Manitoba Archives. These speak through Professor Baker and finally tell a tale which has so long been over-shadowed by the taint of scandal. On the positive side, Manitobans wound up with a truly artistic building worthy of the best efforts of Architect Simon. Positively also, Manitobans were no longer complacent about their political masters and became somewhat watchful of doings on “the Hill.” The Roblin Scandal was to usher in a reform administration and ultimately the victory of Bracken’s Progressives over the old line parties. Though bland and colourless in comparison to politicians of the Rodmond Roblin stripe, the reformers gave Manitobans many years of competent stewardship. The Legislative Building did not collapse in 1926, as some thoughtful per-son observed it would ten years earlier. Thomas Kelly did not incorporate legislative stone into his 1906 Assiniboine Avenue mansion as some experts have claimed. But Professor Baker’s book with its good exposition, fine insights, quality illustrations and well-researched vignettes of the participants is to be recommended to all Manitobans who take an interest in history, politics, art and architecture, and is well-worth its modest purchase price.

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