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Manitoba History: Carrying the Torch: Optimistic Themes in the Classical Vocabulary of the Manitoba Legislative Building

by Gavin Wiens
Carleton University, Ottawa

Number 64, Fall 2010

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.

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The north façade of the Manitoba Legislative Building features a Greek temple-inspired portico and Roman-inspired central dome.
Source: James A. Burns

The culture of the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one which had become enamoured of the classical past. The great museum building projects of the age had created an enormous demand for antiquities. During this period civic structures began taking on a classical language; in particular legislative assemblies were constructed with nostalgia for antique monumentality, rationality, and stability. Architects who had trained at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris were reviving the use of classical forms in buildings constructed all around the world. Students from this school would build on a grand scale using antique elements in their designs. [1] The long reach of this architectural trend extended all the way to Manitoba, Canada with the construction of the Manitoba legislative building in Winnipeg between 1913 and 1920. The Manitoba legislative building is rendered classical in style through its combination of Greek and Roman architectural elements, a central dome, and the use of decorative sculpture throughout the structure. The building is an example of government using a classical visual vocabulary put in a modern syntax in order to portray civic law and order.

The design for the Manitoba legislative building was the work of British-born architect Frank Worthington Simon (1863-1933). Beginning in 1883, Simon studied at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts under the famous architect Jean Louis Pascal. [2] Simon’s own writing from this period of his life reflects a romantic fascination with the past. In a collection of etchings he made in 1885 of historical buildings in Edinburgh, the brief descriptions of each etching contain nostalgic anecdotes. Writing about the Grassmarket of Edinburgh, he noted that it was once the site of an ancient gate to the city, where “here, also, was the scene of some of the quaint ceremonials wherewith our ancestors were wont to testify their loyal congratulations at the sovereign’s approach.” [3]

Simon’s interest in the antique world would inform his aesthetic throughout his entire career. At L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the programme of study that he took part in drew inspiration from all types of ancient monumental structures. One of the inaugural lectures given by a faculty member at the school claimed that the canon of art which would inspire the students would be influenced by works such as “the Parthenon and the Roman baths and amphitheatres, but it is also Sancta Sophia and Notre-Dame, it is St. Ouen at Rouen as well as St. Peter’s or the Palazzo Farnese in Rome and the Louvre in Paris.” [4] It is clear that students of this school would draw heavily from classical and neoclassical influences in executing their works. With grandiose prototypes such as these, the conception for a new building to house Manitoba’s legislature followed in the footsteps of some of the world’s most recognizable architectural works.

Corinthian and Doric columns in the rotunda are reminiscent of ancient structures such as the Pantheon in Rome. The marble flooring has a Grecian key-pattern inlay which is a traditional border element in classical architecture.
Source: James A. Burns

The province of Manitoba commissioned Simon and his assistants to design a building that would fulfill the desire for an imposing structure to represent the seat of the provincial government’s power. [5] This desire grew out of the dramatic population increase and economic growth that had occurred in Winnipeg during the early 20th century. In 1881 the population of Manitoba had stood at 62,260 and by 1901 that figure had grown to 255,211. [6] At the time there were many who believed that Winnipeg was destined to become the financial centre of Canada. [7] With this belief in a strong future on the minds of those who governed the province, it was deemed necessary to have a building which reflected Manitoba’s growing power in Canada. The grand scale of the building and the desire for architectural elements that reflected state power made for a perfect fit for Simon and the classical elements his work exhibited.

Simon’s plan for the building called for an entrance portico based on that of a Greek temple, a ground plan based on the shape of an H, and a central dome for the structure. One enters the building through the columned portico on the north façade. The columns are of the Ionic order and are repeated in the tower at the base of the dome above, the repetition of their vertical elements adding to an illusion of greater height for the building. A dentil course runs below the cornice of the building, unifying the portico with the wider portion of the façade. In the rotunda stand four pairs of Corinthian columns. Smaller-order Doric columns may be seen in the entranceway leading to the assembly. By choosing to use these visual references to Greek architectural elements the provincial government was making a political statement. Through classical visual references the government of Manitoba was attempting to align itself with powerful civilizations of the past.

This theme of civic power is continued in the interior rotunda of the dome. The marble flooring, square coffers in the dome, and the use of Corinthian columns to visually frame a mural remind one immediately of classical influences seen in buildings such as the Pantheon in Rome. The cupola and decoration of the dome also recall Italian Renaissance influences, although it has been given an agricultural theme with the use of a wheat grain motif appropriate to the young prairie province whose economy would always rely on the fertile lands of the Red River flood plain. The marble of the flooring in the rotunda also has a Grecian key-pattern inlay surrounding a balustrade and light well, a traditional border element in classical design. The emphasis on clarity, order, and rationality throughout the building is indicative of what some have referred to as “Beaux-Arts influenced classical purity.” [8]

The square coffers, or sunken panels cut into the dome, seen here from below, are also borrowed from antique precedents. The original function of coffers was to lighten the load of a dome but here it is a decorative element.
Source: James A. Burns

The sculptural elements of the building combine Greek, Roman and Egyptian motifs. Above the main portico in the pediment are various carved limestone sculptures. In reference to the meanings of the pedimental sculptures, Simon left quite a detailed account of his conception:

In the centre is a seated symbolical female figure representing Manitoba. In the left-hand corner the figure of Enterprise beckons the workers to the Land of Promise. Next is a finely modeled bull led by Europa, signifying the immigration from Europe and adjoining the central figure is a group of father, mother, and child, the new family in the land. In the right-hand corner are two figures embracing and clasping a jar, whence issues a stream of water. These represent the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers fertilizing the earth. Next is a plough man with his horse, tilling the soil, whilst the male and female figures bring the fruits of the Soil of Manitoba. [9]

The central allegorical female figure representing Manitoba is a continuation of a tradition going back to ancient Greek times when sculptors would often use female figures to personify city states. The idea of having sculptural figures representing important rivers and agricultural practices is also inspired by classical influences, as is the more obvious reference to Europa, one of the many love interests of the Greek god Zeus. The drapery of Europa in particular, which reveals the structure of the body beneath, seems heavily influenced by classical Greek sculpture such as the pedimental sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, as does the exaggerated musculature of the plough man which recalls some of the battling Lapiths and Centaurs from the Parthenon metopes. The two sphinxes which flank the pediment and represent the wisdom expected of the provincial legislators are based on Egyptian models. [10]

A sphinx on the north façade flanks the main pediment, representing wisdom, a virtue sought after by good government.
Source: James A. Burns

Passing through the portico one enters the staircase hall where two life-size solid bronze sculptures of North American bison stand at the base of a massive marble staircase. These recall the sculptures of animals used to frame the base of staircases from ancient Greek and Roman times as well as the Italian Renaissance period, and are an emblem of the province of Manitoba. The artist who cast these bronzes was Georges Gardet, a French sculptor recommended to Simon by his former professor, Jean Louis Pascal from L’Ecole des Beaux Arts. [11] Gardet was “considered to be the most talented animal sculptor of his time,” and was “appreciated particularly for his groups of big game in powerful forms.” [12]

The central figure on the main pediment is an allegorical female representation of Manitoba. Pedimental sculptures such as these are reminiscent of the sculptures which decorated the pediments of ancient Greek temples like the Parthenon in Athens.
Source: James A. Burns

Facing the grand staircase on the third floor are pairs of karyatids. These columnar sculptures in the form of human female figures are reminiscent of the karyatids from the south porch of the Erechtheion in Athens. These sculptures were designed by British sculptor Albert Hodge, the same artist responsible for the design of the limestone sculpture for the main pediment, as well as the two sphinxes flanking the pediment. [13]

Located in niches in the legislative chamber are two more bronze sculptures by Gardet, representing important legal figures from antiquity. Situated in the east end of the chamber is the Biblical Moses, holding the Ten Commandments. In the west end of the chamber is a sculpture representing the famous Greek legislator Solon. By choosing to place these sculptures of highly-regarded ancient lawmakers in the legislative chamber the government was once again attempting to elevate both the legitimacy and the supremacy of their own legislative activities through reference to the classical past.

Perhaps the most striking feature of the Manitoba legislative building is the gilded bronze sculpture which caps the building’s dome. The official name of the sculpture is Eternal Youth but it is better known as the Golden Boy. Also a work by Gardet, this bronze was based on Simon’s desire for a figure similar to the sculpture of Mercury by the Italian sculptor Giovanni da Bologna circa 1580. [14] The Golden Boy underwent a restoration and regilding process completed in 2002 as part of ongoing restorations to the Legislature grounds. [15]

Bison guards. The tradition of using sculptures of big game animals to flank staircases goes back to ancient times and was popular during the Italian Renaissance. The bison is emblematic of Manitoba and was selected by Gardet for this reason.
Source: James A. Burns

By making references to Mercury the Roman god of commerce, the Golden Boy is intended to represent enterprise and progress in the province. [16] One can see the quotations of Giovanni da Bologna’s Mercury in the open gait of Gardet’s runner with the outstretched right leg balanced by the up-thrust right arm. In one hand the youthful nude male carries a sheaf of wheat, traditionally symbolic of wealth and affluence. In the other hand the running figure holds aloft a torch symbolic of the optimism of the growing province, with one writer claiming that the sculpture is “intended to carry to all the newcomers to the province the same message that the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour sends out to strangers on incoming ships – welcome and promise.” [17] The sculpture faces to the northwest where the vast majority of Manitoba’s wealth in natural resources originates. In 1919 the north was seen as the land of boundless promise and the Golden Boy is shown making bold strides forward towards that Promised Land. [18]

In the Golden Boy, Gardet had taken a classical subject and adapted it to fit Simon’s particular contemporary needs. In this case Simon required a figure representing enterprise in what was a booming young province. Choosing to have a sculpture representing enterprise as an idealized nude male at the cap of the dome of the Manitoba legislative building is also indicative of the classical influences in Simon’s architectural style. At a time when Manitoba is once again experiencing economic ascendency, it is perhaps all too fitting that the Golden Boy has undergone the regilding process so recently. Just as the Golden Boy originally signalled the optimism and faith in Manitoba as the land of plenty in the early 20th century, the newly gilded sculpture once again shines like a beacon of hope for the prosperous province.

Karyatids are sculpted female figures which serve as architectural supports. This element was used in ancient Greek sculptures, the most famous being the karyatids of the Erechtheion in Athens.
Source: James A. Burns

As has been stated, governments have long been fond of aligning themselves with powerful civilizations of the past by using classical elements in state-commissioned art and architecture. Simon, with his neoclassical training at L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, was the perfect choice to construct a building which would make reference to the grandiose structures of the past. That Simon’s intentions were at least understood by his contemporaries is evidenced by an anecdote told by the provincial librarian of the times, W. J. Healy. Healy told of an event which supposedly took place within days after the official opening of the legislative building:

Late one afternoon fifteen years ago, Mr. Simon was standing in front of the Legislative building by the side of the massive statue of Queen Victoria on the sunken lawn. It was a July day of strong sunshine, and he stood there as if he were a Greek just arrived across the centuries from ancient Athens, absorbed in admiring the imposing mass of his architecture and the play of light and shadow on column and cornice and on the figures that filled with sculptured life the pediment that faces Broadway. [19]

By choosing to build Frank Worthington Simon’s conception of the Manitoba legislative building which included Greek, Roman and Egyptian motifs in its design and decoration, the government of Manitoba was attempting to portray a strong sense of civic law and order by making reference to some of the powerful Western civilizations of the past. This was achieved through the use of a Greek temple-inspired main portico, columns of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian orders throughout the building, a Roman-inspired central dome over the structure, and the use of classically inspired sculptural decorations throughout the building. During a period when Europe seemed to be intent on self-destruction due to the chaos of the First World War, the construction of the Manitoba legislative building represented faith in the stability and progress of a vibrant, young prairie province.


1. Robin Middleton. The Beaux-Arts and Nineteenth-Century French Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982. p. 10.

2. Marilyn Baker. Symbol in Stone: The Art and Politics of a Public Building, Manitoba’s Third Legislative Building. Winnipeg: Hyperion Press, 1986. p. 43.

3. Frank W. Simon, Bits of Old Edinburgh, Drawn & Etched [with Brief Descriptions] (Edinburgh: 1885).

4. Middleton, p. 10.

5. Baker, p. 20.

6. Baker, p. 20.

7. Baker, p. 21.

8. Baker, p. 44.

9. Baker, p. 82.

10. Baker, p. 82.

11. Baker, p. 80.

12. Pierre Kjellberg, Bronzes of the 19th Century: Dictionary of Sculptors. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 1994.

13. Baker, p. 82.

14. Hubert G. Mayes. “The story of a symbol: Golden Boy.” The Beaver Vol. 73, No. 4, 1993. p. 28.

15. Government of Manitoba. “Manitoba Golden Boy Restoration Project Update.” Manitoba Government News Release, 13 May 2010.

16. Baker, p. 126.

17. Baker, p. 127.

18. Mayes, “The story of a symbol: Golden Boy,” p. 28.

19. Hubert G. Mayes. “Through the Architect’s Eyes: F. W. Simon Surveys his Masterwork—The Manitoba Legislative BuildingManitoba History No. 38, Autumn / Winter 1999-2000.

Page revised: 8 July 2016

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