Manitoba History: Through the Architect’s Eyes: F. W. Simon Surveys his Masterwork - The Manitoba Legislative Building
by Hubert G. Mayes
According to a French saying, Le hasard fait bien les choses—“Chance arranges things well.” The truth of this maxim was illustrated for me during a recent foray into the Legislative Library of Manitoba. While searching for material relating to a very specific feature of the provincial Legislative Building, I stumbled on an article that made me more elated than if I had found what I was looking for.
The article—actually a short memoir—was published in the Winnipeg Free Press on 11 March 1935. The author, W. J. Healy, who was Provincial Librarian at the time, was writing with humour and perceptiveness about a meeting with F. W. Simon, the architect of the Legislative Building. The meeting had occurred (by chance) fifteen years earlier, in July 1920. I felt that if the article were reprinted with a few explanatory notes, it could still inform and amuse readers of today.
The events described by Mr. Healy probably took place a few days after the official opening of the Legislative Building on 15 July. The memoir is entitled “Bison under the Dome” and begins as follows:
Mr. Healy assumed that his readers would know who the Rev. C. W. Gordon was and would understand his references to the “sky pilot” and Ralph Connor. He was right, because the man in question was a very prominent Manitoban. Dr. Gordon, a minister first of the Presbyterian, then the United Church, had been one of the most famous authors in the British Empire in the first decades of the 20th century. Writing under the pen name Ralph Connor he published 25 novels, one of which was entitled The Sky Pilot, as well as his autobiography Postscript to Adventure. He served as a chaplain in the first World War, was a fervent advocate of social reform and chairman of the Joint Council of Industry, a board created by the provincial government to improve labor relations after the Winnipeg General Strike. He was a tireless public speaker for good causes and the holder of honorary degrees from Glasgow and Queen’s Universities. When he died in 1937, the vogue for his novels of adventure and Christian uplift had passed, but he was still a well known and highly esteemed member of the Winnipeg community.
What is one to think of his criticism of the Golden Boy statue? It seems at the least somewhat tactless to tell a distinguished architect that the piece of statuary he had chosen to crown his greatest artistic achievement was seriously flawed. One would like to think that Dr. Gordon was simply having a bad day.
The Healy article continues:
One can understand Simon’s irritation on being told that the “buffaloes” were not a fitting symbol for Manitoba. However, his acerbic choice of the unicorn as an example of what not to use as a provincial symbol has an ironic ring today: the province’s new coat of arms (1992) has a unicorn rampant on the left-hand side of the shield. According to the official description, “this complex, fascinating and graceful mythical creature is one of two supporters in the Royal Arms of Canada, in turn inherited from the Arms of Great Britain and ultimately from Scotland, homeland of many of the first Europeans who came to Manitoba.” One suspects that not many Manitobans of Scottish descent realize that their contribution to the province is recognized by an animal that was one of the supporters on the royal arms of Scotland.
The bison still occupies the central position on our coat of arms, as he has done since the insignia was authorized in 1905, but his appearance has undergone some interesting transformations. In a brochure entitled The Story of Manitoba’s Legislative Building published by the Department of Industry and Commerce (no date), the following passage appears:
The bison depicted in the brochure does indeed have a human profile. In recent times, however, the bison shown on most government documents is an extremely simple, stylized representation. But what form does the animal assume on the new coat of arms? It no longer has a human face (an undisputable improvement), but the artist has somehow contrived to change its shape so that it now appears to be the victim of an emaciating illness. In addition, the artist has the less-than-noble beast perched on a sharply outlined mountain crag. Our bison of the plains and northern woods looks strangely uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the nature of coats of arms to have a faint air of absurdity. This premise is confirmed by a glance at the top of our own. There, crouched on the golden helmet signifying co-sovereign status in Confederation is a disgruntled-looking beaver. He has reason to look unhappy, because resting on his back is a royal crown as large as he is. He is bracing himself with his tail—a tail which seems to be growing out of his back legs. However, in spite of his undignified pose, he dutifully holds up in his right front foot a huge prairie crocus, the Province’s floral emblem.
I would like to think that Mr. Healy would have forgiven this digression on the beaver because he was obviously interested in symbols and amused by incongruity, but we must get back to his story. Simon has just reacted to the American woman’s claim that “buffaloes are not English.” It has been recorded already that to hear the buffaloes spoken of as buffaloes displeased him. He called them always North American bison. Frank Worthington Simon, to give him his full name, was English, unlike the buffaloes.
Liverpool was his home. When the Government of Manitoba, in December, 1911, decided upon a Legislative building, designs were asked for and the competition thrown open to all architects in the British Empire. Sixty-seven designs came in. Of those it was decided that two were of outstanding excellence. One was the design submitted by the firm of Maxwell Brothers of Montreal, who had designed the Legislative buildings for the two new Provinces between Manitoba and the Rockies and supervised their construction. The other was Mr. Simon’s. It was decided to leave the choice to Leonard Stoke, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He did not know whose the plans were. He gave the award to Mr. Simon’s. And it is only the plain truth to say that we have an incomparably finer building here than the one at Regina or the one at Edmonton. Mr. Simon had studied at Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts at Paris, he had designed the buildings of the Edinburgh International Exhibition, the Cotton Exchange building in Liverpool, and the buildings of the Liverpool University, to name no others. Two years before he died he became president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Simon’s death occurred on 19 May 1933 in Menton on the French Riviera. I did not know this when one day in the spring of 1990, while walking through the Trabuquet cemetery in Menton, I was startled to see a tombstone (actually a columbarium slab) inscribed simply with these words: “In loving memory of Frank Lewis Worthington Simon—Born 31 March 1862—Died 19 May 1933.” Writing later about this chance occurrence, I surmised that Simon had chosen to spend his last years in the beautiful surroundings and gentle climate of Menton. Still later, I discovered from newspaper and magazine obituaries in the Legislative Library that Simon had indeed lived “for the past eight or ten years” in France. It is an interesting coincidence that two Britons who played important roles in Manitoba’s history—Simon and Lord Selkirk—are both buried in southern France.
Mr. Healy again:
Was Simon won over by Healy’s ingenious defence of the “one-way” bison—or did the architect simply decide that the expense of changing half of the escutcheons could not be justified? We can only conjecture. Certainly no effort was made in the following decades to rectify the mistake, and any visitor to the Chamber can verify (as I did recently) that the bison still advance in single file from right to left. Should any reader decide to do this while sharing my original uncertainty about what an escutcheon actually is, I shall simplify that person’s task by noting that, according to Webster, an escutcheon is “a protective or ornamental plate or flange (as around a keyhole).”
Before reading Mr. Healy’s concluding paragraph we should pay tribute to him by setting down a few facts about his life. He was born in Belleville, Ontario in 1867, spent his childhood in Toronto, and graduated from the University of Toronto in 1890. He spent a number of years in the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, and nineteen years as associate editor of the Winnipeg Free Press (1899-1918). He became provincial librarian in 1920 and continued in this position until 1937. His Women of Red River, and several other books on Manitoba’s history, were published in the nineteen twenties. He died in 1950.
And now the final paragraph of his reminiscence:
The four statues were the work of the Piccirilli Brothers of New York. They were a long established firm with a reputation for work of high quality. The choice of famous personages to occupy the four important locations must have been Simon’s, but he no doubt received advice from Manitobans who were familiar with the history of their province. It is obvious that they would recommend La Verendrye and Selkirk, but why Wolfe and Dufferin? Wolfe was of course the “dauntless hero” of the British conquest, and Dufferin was the first Governor General to visit Manitoba, but one cannot help feeling that all the statues should have represented persons who played an important role in the development of the province. The pioneer missionary Provencher and his successor Archbishop Taché might have been considered, and the first inhabitants of the province could have been honoured with a statue of Chief Peguis. And why not at least one woman? This might have been and archetypal pioneer woman, or one of the women who led the fight for female suffrage just a few years before.
But the most important question of all, from a contemporary point of view, has to be “Why was the founder of the province, Louis Riel, completely ignored?” The answer is simple: in 1920, and for many years thereafter, Riel was generally regarded as a murderer and a traitor, at least among the Anglo-Celtic majority. The erection of a statue in his honour would have been out of the question.
The way in which the statues were placed in position sounds like an interesting story. Did Mr. Healy ever get around to recording it? Perhaps someone will attempt to find the answer. Or perhaps there is someone who kept a scrapbook of Mr. Healy’s historical articles, and that some individual, or a descendant, may some day supply the missing information. And of course it may just turn up like “Bison under the Dome.” Souvent le hasard fait bien les choses.
Page revised: 19 August 2017