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Manitoba History: Government House at 125

by the Editors

Number 58, June 2008

The text of this article is based, in part, on a pamphlet by the Manitoba Historic Resources Branch, used here with permission. Editors.

Since 1883, the stately three-storey mansion known as Government House has been the residence of Manitoba’s Lieutenant Governors. Located at 10 Kennedy Street in the heart of downtown Winnipeg, it has housed twenty of the province’s twenty-three federal officers and served as a centre of political and social activity. Over the years its doors have been opened to welcome royalty and dignitaries, artists and scientists, teachers and preachers—the famous and common folk alike.

Government House

Government House was the home of Lieutenant-Governor James Cox Aikins (1823–1904) at the time this photograph was taken by photographer F. V. Bingham, circa 1885.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg-Homes-Government House-31, N5878.

The office of Lieutenant Governor has changed dramatically since Manitoba joined Confederation in 1870. Whereas the incumbent once had the power to reserve bills and to make and unmake ministries, the Lieutenant Governor is now a social leader and political figurehead, whose powers “to warn, to encourage and be consulted” are rarely exercised. Although still legally the federal government’s officer and the sovereign’s representative, the Lieutenant Governor has not exercised significant political authority over the provincial government since early in the twentieth century.

Government House is located on a piece of land which had been appropriated in 1872 as a twenty-hectare government reserve. The property adjoined the western end of the Hudson’s Bay Reserve and ran from the Assiniboine River, north to what is now York Avenue and west from Kennedy Street to present-day Osborne Street North. In 1874 this tract of land was divided down its length and the eastern half, which extended on both sides of Broadway, was designated as a provincial reserve. The southern portion of the reserve was seven hectares. At the northern end of this section the federal government constructed Manitoba’s first provincial Legislative Building (since demolished when the present one was completed, in 1920), and on the south side built Government House. While work on both buildings was to commence in 1881, Government House was completed in 1883, one year before the finishing touches were made to the Legislative Building.

Government House Trivia

Ownership of Government House was transferred to the Province by the federal government for the sum of $1. The Order-in-Council authorizing the transfer stipulated that the house was to be used as the official residence of the Lieutenant- Governor, to which Sir John A. Macdonald added in handwriting, “and for no other purpose.”

Government House had no address until 1960 when it became #10 Kennedy Street.

There are eleven washrooms in Government House.

Two Lieutenant-Governors, Theodore A. Burrows and Roland F. McWilliams, refused to serve liquor at official functions in Government House.

Government House is one of few in Canada that has been used continuously as a residence for Lieutenant Governors. (The only older ones are in Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island.)

The first Manitoba-born resident of Government House was Errick French Willis, our fifteenth Lieutenant-Governor, born at Boissevain. All subsequent Lieutenant-Governors, except Pearl McGonigal—who was born in Melfort, Saskatchewan—have been native Manitobans.

The Royal Bedroom on the second floor has been used by several Royals over the years. Princess Anne was the last member of the royal family to stay at Government House, in 1982.

Government House was one of the first residences in Manitoba to have a telephone. It was installed in 1883, at an annual operating cost of $26.70.

Lieutenant-Governor Harvard hosts an average of 100 special events each year at Government House.

In addition to its human residents, Government House is home to cats, turtles, and numerous goldfish in a greenhouse pool.

A Westminster Eight-Bell grandfather clock at the front entrance was crafted in England in 1870, with ornate pictures on its face that move with the phases of the moon. The clock is wound twice a week. It still keeps good time.

The architectural designs for Government House were drawn up by the Chief Architect’s Office in the federal Department of Public Works. A simplified version of the Second Empire style was chosen to compliment the nearby Legislative Building. Known as Second Empire because of its popularity in France during the Second Napoleonic Empire, this style was introduced to Canada in the 1860s. Its most prominent feature was a flat steep-sided Mansard roof. During the early 1880s, builders in Winnipeg constructed everything from warehouses to private residences in this style. The simple lines of the Second Empire style were understated and dignified, admirable qualities for the home of a Lieutenant Governor. Government House is one of the few remaining examples of Second Empire architecture in Manitoba.

Building tenders were called in 1881 and the two lowest were submitted by A. Charlebois of Montreal ($23,133) and Joseph Williams and F. J. Bowles of Selkirk ($23,995). Although Charlebois’ bid was lower, he would not guarantee his quote unless he also received the contract for the Legislative Building. John R. Lyons of Ottawa had quoted a lower price on the latter and so Charlebois lost out on both fronts. The contract for the Lieutenant Governor’s residence was awarded to Williams and Bowles, and work began in early September 1882. By late December the superstructure and tin roof were finished. The interior and most of the outbuildings were completed during 1883. In March, Bowles had also received the contract for the stables and a combined wash-house, ice-house and woodshed. The stables were located approximately thirty-four metres southwest of the house to keep the “sweet” smell of the horses from drifting towards the residence. The second building was situated closer, some eleven metres from the southwest corner of the house, for the convenience of the servants who stocked the ice box and wood bins. Everything was in readiness by the time Lieutenant Governor James Cox Aikins moved in during the third week of September. The house had already been connected to the telephone exchange, and it was only a few weeks before the pipes were laid to provide fresh water via the Winnipeg Water Works.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee at Government House, 1897

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrated in 1897, brought out revelers to the home of her representative in Manitoba, as seen in this view by Winnipeg photographer Frank D. Blakely. They looked out of its every window, and gathered on its roof. The stout brick stable is visible in the background, as is the iron bridge across the nearby Assiniboine River.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg-Homes-Government House-6.

The residence was located fifty-three metres west of Kennedy Street and offered a pleasant view of the spacious lawns that stretched down towards Broadway. A semi-circular driveway cut its way around to the front of the house, where wooden walkways led up to the stairs. During the 1880s and 1890s, the area around Government House became a fashionable district as professionals and entrepreneurs such as stationer R. D. Richardson, grain merchant Nicholas Bawlf, and builder W. H. Rourke constructed their homes across the street. Government House was twelve metres high and nineteen metres long by eighteen metres wide, with a Mansard-roofed tower, eighteen metres above grade. The best quality local white brick was used to construct the walls, while the above grade foundations, window sills and caps were made of limestone. The foundation below grade rested on oak piles thirty-eight centimetres in diameter driven nine metres into the ground, over which concrete footings were poured. Oak planks were laid on top of the footings, and these “sills” formed the base for the Stony Mountain rubble stone that continued up to ground level. In most private residences the rubble stone ran right up to the brick work, but in many public buildings such as the Eastern Judicial Jail (later the Vaughan Street Detention Centre) and Government House, finely-cut limestone slabs were used above ground. The combined strength of the oak pilings and concrete footings of the foundation were designed to compensate for damage that could have been caused by the surrounding clay soil. Unstable and constantly shifting, the clay was a well-known problem plaguing many of the city’s newer structures.

Six steps led up to the porch and the heavy set of double oak doors which formed the entranceway to Government House. A transom and two sidelights brightened the path of night-time guests as they made their way through the doorway and into the main vestibule. This entrance hall was four by two metres and featured two glass floor openings which threw shafts of light down into the “still room,” a basement chamber where preserves and liqueurs were prepared. The vestibule opened onto an outer hall which led into the Lieutenant Governor’s office, the inner hall, and the drawing room.

Most guests would have been led directly into the inner hall, where an oak staircase curved its way up to the second floor. Three storeys overhead was a rooftop lantern-light which lit the stairwell and hallway. The north doorway off the hall led into the six by five metre breakfast room, and the west door entered onto the seven by six metre drawing room. The portal on the west wall opened onto the eight by six metre dining room, which took up the southwest corner of the building. An adjoining serving room was connected to the basement kitchen, scullery room, and storage rooms by a dumbwaiter and stairs. During state parties or large public functions, the folding doors between the library, breakfast room, drawing room, and dining room could be opened to form an L-shaped reception area or ballroom.

The footprint of Government House has changed dramatically in eighty years. Virtually all its outbuildings in 1918 have been replaced by a series of interconnected structures comprising some 20,000 square feet.

The light-well that stretched up from the main hall to the third storey formed a gallery or balcony on the second floor. Off the gallery were the dressing rooms, bathroom and bedrooms used by the Lieutenant Governor’s family and guests. Two bedrooms at the rear of the house were connected by a set of folding doors which could be opened to create the six by sixteen metre royal suite. All of the main bedrooms on the second floor had a small fireplace, and a number featured marble-topped mahogany bedroom suites. A small staircase, off the bathroom-dressing room area on the south side of the house, led up to the attic storey. The servants’ modest accommodations and a number of unfinished rooms were situated here. One of these unfinished chambers was apparently made into a billiard room.

The house was finished and furnished according to the formal tastes of the vice-regal resident. Walnut and ebonized wood furniture was purchased in Toronto. Carpets were also ordered from Toronto and from the Hudson’s Bay Company store on Main Street. A billiard table was supplied by Samuel May and Company of Toronto, while D. Scott and Company of Winnipeg provided the mahogany bedroom suites and servants’ furniture. The large furnace and boiler was made by a Montreal manufacturer, R. Carte and Company. All in all, it was a residence that offered “every modern convenience.” As one local journal observed, “Nothing, in fact, will be wanting to make this a fitting abode for the Lieutenant Governor of the great Province of Manitoba.”

Government House, 1960

The ballroom, added to Government House at the turn of the twentieth century as the site for special functions, was demolished in 1960 to make way for a replacement.
Source: Archives of Manitoba, Winnipeg-Homes-Government House-15.

Prior to 1885 the federal government provided fiscal aid and a large portion of the funding needed by the Manitoba government. It also paid for construction of the province’s first Legislative Building and Government House. After 1885 Manitoba assumed responsibility for its own financial affairs, which included the cost of any renovations or alterations made to the Lieutenant Governor’s residence. By the mid-1890s Government House was in need of repair. During the winter of 1896-1897 observers claimed that the house was barely habitable—the heating system needed overhauling; plumbing fixtures had to be renewed; and the hearths and fireplaces needed to be rebuilt and retied. These and all subsequent repairs, renovations and extensions were paid for by the provincial government.

Over the years, Government House underwent a number of changes. Rooms designated for one purpose came to serve others: a library became a drawing room, a second floor bedroom doubled as a ballroom, and the Lieutenant Governor’s office became an aide’s room, once the incumbent was given his own chambers at the Legislative Building. A conservatory was added to the greenhouse in 1886, and a ballroom and verandah were added around the turn of the twentieth century. Some of these were later torn down and replaced by other additions: a sunroom, an assembly room, a new garage, and modern greenhouse. An important alteration was made in the 1940s when a kitchen wing was attached. In March 1999, the newly installed 22nd Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba, the Honourable Peter M. Liba, had to wait for several months to take up residence in Government House, until the latest round of renovations were completed. The original Manitoba oak hardwood floors on the main level were restored and additional preservation work was done in the parlours, grand staircase, and some second floor spaces. Upgrades brought the building into code compliance, the fire alarm system was improved, the private residential space was modernized, new windows matching the originals were installed, the original cedar roof and dormers were restored, and the foundation was underpinned to stabilize and strengthen it. Finally, air conditioning was installed on the main floor in July 2000. Prior to this, formal dinners could not be held during the summer months.

Then and now.
Furnishings in the front drawing room of Government House have changed to suit the tastes of the times, as seen in this pair of photos spanning 104 years. Heavy curtains in the archways of the 1904 photo (top) have, by 2008 (bottom), been replaced by classic columns, perhaps to provide structural support to the 125-year-old building.
Source: (top) Town Topics, 23 January 1904, Manitoba Legislative Library, (bottom) Gordon Goldsborough.

On 6 September 1870, Lieutenant Governor Adams Archibald held a reception at Upper Fort Garry so that the general populace could meet and chat with the Canadian government’s new representative in Manitoba. This marked the first of many social events organized and presided over by Manitoba’s Lieutenant Governors. Archibald followed the reception with a New Year’s Levee held on 2 January 1871, a celebration which became an annual tradition. The first New Year’s Levee held at the Kennedy Street residence in 1884 provided curious citizens with an opportunity to view the handsome interior of the new house. According to one account the main hall had been tastefully decorated with festoons of evergreens, and a larger evergreen hor seshoe, inscribed with the words “A Happy New Year,” welcomed guests in the foyer. The event began at four in the afternoon and lasted for over two hours. A number of distinguished guests attended: Premier John Norquay and cabinet ministers C. P. Brown and A. A. C. La Rivière, along with American Consul James Wickes Taylor and Archbishop Robert Machray. A table in the dining hall was laid out with garnished platters of turkey, prairie chicken, partridge, duck, venison, and other dishes.

For a number of years the chatelaines residing at Government House set aside one day a week as an “at home” where a variety of visitors were received for tea and conversation. Spring and summer garden parties held on the lawn of the Lieutenant Governor’s home were another popular form of entertainment. Public celebrations, such as Queen Victoria’s two jubilees, were held at Government House, as were the receptions which marked the opening of the provincial legislature. State dinners, receptions and balls, held in honour of distinguished visitors and guests, were often lavish affairs attended by hundreds of local personalities.

Many such functions were arranged for visiting royalty. There have been twenty-one Royal visits to Manitoba, ranging from the 1901 tour of the Duke and Duchess of York to the more recent stopover made by HRH The Prince Edward, The Earl of Wessex, in 2008. During the 1939 tour of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, the royal couple arrived in Winnipeg on 24 May 1939 accompanied by Prime Minister Mackenzie King. They were met at the train station and whisked to Government House. Special radio equipment had been set up in the library, and at one o’clock that afternoon the King broadcast to the empire. The table which he used now bears a small brass plaque and photograph commemorating the event.

A medallion commemorating the 125th anniversary of Government House is being presented to special guests by Lieutant-Governor Harvard during 2008.
Source: Office of the Lieutenant Governor of Manitoba.

Visits by the Governors General of Canada have also been frequent. Since the transcontinental tour of Lord Lansdowne in the fall of 1885, every presiding Governor General has been a guest at Government House. On one occasion, in July 1900, Lord and Lady Minto travelled to the city to open the Winnipeg Fair. The couple arrived in the evening and were greeted by Lieutenant Governor Patterson. The houses along the route from the station were lit in welcome, and Lord and Lady Minto were accompanied by a torchlight procession and a score of bands. When they arrived at Government House, they found the grounds decorated with Chinese lanterns and the house ablaze with coloured electric lights.

Other guests who stayed at Government House included Winston Churchill and one-time British High Commissioner, Lord Amory. Its doors have been opened to welcome John Phillip Sousa, Billy Graham, Princess Christina of Sweden, President Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland, Lord and Lady Baden Powell, and author Margaret Laurence. Songstress Gracie Fields paid a visit, and renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt was entertained at tea by Lady Aikins. Other famous visitors included Harry Belafonte, Bill Cosby, Sammy Davis Jr., Canadian astronauts Dr. Roberta Bondar and Dr. Ken Money, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Dr. Andrei Sakharov.

The year 2008 marks the 125th anniversary of Manitoba’s Government House. Few buildings in the province have reached this milestone still serving the same function for which they were originally intended. Understandably, a 125-year-old home—even one that has undergone periodic renovations—is bound to have problems. According to the present Lieutenant-Governor, the Honourable John Harvard, foremost among them is a lack of climate control. Although air conditioning was installed on the first floor in 2000, the upper floors remain uncooled, making them uncomfortable during Manitoba’s characteristically hot summer nights. And the primitive heating plant cannot be controlled accurately with the result that it is sometimes necessary to open windows in the dead of winter to maintain a reasonable room temperature. The problem is most acute on the second floor where special guests—including members of the Royal family—would be accommodated. Mr. Harvard believes that attention to these issues is needed for the building to continue as a source of pride for Manitobans.

Government House is situated in close proximity to three buildings which symbolize the political and administrative heart of this province: the grand Legislative Building, the Land Titles Office, and the Law Courts Building and Power House. Although somewhat overpowered by the The Honourable John Harvard, P.C., O.M. Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba A Message from the Lieutenant-Governor still formalism of the large limestone structures nearby, Government House remains an important landmark in Winnipeg and an integral part of the political and social life of Manitoba.

A spring levee with Lieutenant Governor Harvard

A spring levee.
The Honourable John Harvard, P.C., O.M., Manitoba’s 23rd Lieutenant-Governor and Patron of the Manitoba Historical Society, welcomed visitors into his home during Winnipeg Doors Open in May 2008. His Honour and Her Honour Lenore Berscheid are pictured here dressed in period costume (he in top-hat, she in bonnet), as some 2,000 visitors took in the building and grounds during the two-day free event.
Source: Office of the Manitoba Lieutenant Governor.

Page revised: 4 July 2014

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