Foundations of Construction: Carvings, scrollwork, and murals enhance Legislative Building

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“Working on the architectural plans of R.A. Waite, British stonecutters carved the Whirlpool Sandstone onsite at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Toronto, 1891,.” Archives of Ontario, RG 15-74-0-1.3/Torontoist. Retrieved from https://torontoist.com/2009/03/historicist_legislators_in_fairylan/

By Susanna McLeod

Special to Ontario Construction News

Gathering at temporary locations over decades, Ontario’s Legislative Assembly prepared for a dedicated building to be located in verdant Queen’s Park in central Toronto. Legislature members opened an international competition for bids in April 1880. The first round of proposals by 13 professional architects did not meet the stringent conditions.

A second round invited three architects to submit improved designs and details such as heating and lighting. The choice was difficult. Then one of the three judges, Richard A. Waite, from Buffalo, New York, made a suggestion. He would design the government building.

Initially, the construction budget was $500,000. It grew to $750,000 by 1885 and by another $300,000 two years later. Waite was asked to make the final choice between two local architectural firms. “He scandalized Toronto’s architects by declaring that both had serious defects, and that neither should be built,” said William Dendy and William Kilbourn in Toronto Observed (1986). Instead, Waite presented his own drawings.

Officials gave Waite the contract in January 1886. The government’s goals were not met from the start—the submission was expensive. By the end of the project, it was well over-budget.

Local architects raised a furor over the appearance of Waite intentionally disqualifying the competitors. However, there was no proof that he had any interest in the contract until he won. The whiff of injustice lingered, and “the controversy over his appointment never really disappeared as the building was constructed over the next six years,” said Kevin Plummer in “Legislators in Fairyland,” Torontoist, March 28, 2009.

The public appreciated 38-year-old Waite’s drawings for an asymmetrical design in Richard Romanesque style, described Plummer, “with all its heavy stonework, rounded arches, and boldly carved ornamentation.” An iron frame supported the heavy load.

The building’s beautiful facade was constructed with “large blocks of the red Whirlpool Sandstone quarried near the Forks of the Credit and Orangeville,” stated Kathleen Kemp et all in “Learning geology from buildings in downtown Toronto,” University of Waterloo, 1997. British stonecutters carved the pink stone at the building site. Affected by weather and climate changes, the sandstone required ongoing attention.

The roof domes were covered with copper and “the roof is a blue slate which was quarried in Rutland, Vermont, USA,” said Kemp. A metamorphic rock, the slate tends to split in layers and is excellent for roof shingles.

Showcasing expansive windows with voussoirs (wedge-shaped stones set to form an arch), the architect’s designs incorporated “a multitude of stone carvings, including gargoyles, grotesques, and friezes,” noted Chuck Lachiusa in Buffalo Architecture and History. Some grotesques represented blened human and animal creatures; exquisite scrollwork displayed leaves, and bead-and-reel moulding added complex finishing touches. Between smaller round windows, the provincial seal was carved with scenes of events.  Waite’s initials were carved into scrollwork above a set of columns at the south entrance.

Reflecting the pre-eminence of government, the building’s interior “featured cast iron columns and detailing, oak floors and panelling, and inner walls constructed of over 10 million bricks,” according to “Historical Overview,” Legislative Assembly of Ontario (OLA). Wood carvings enhanced the Legislative Chamber’s beauty, “and artist Gustav Hahn painted the walls and ceiling with murals.”

The wings of Waite’s building were equally appointed. The west had white marble quarried in Italy and the east wing was similar to the luxurious wood used in the main building. A disastrous fire in 1909 destroyed the west wing.  “Toronto architect E.J. Lennox was hired to redesign the west wing, and added an additional two floors to provide space for government offices,” OLA noted. Enlarging the structure as well with a new north wing designed by George W. Gouinlock, construction was completed in 1913. The north wing “houses the Legislative Library—a research facility for MPPs and Legislative staff.”

Completing enough of the Legislative Assembly to open in 1893, Waite’s costs rang up to nearly $1.4 million. It would have been higher but the government’s Commissioner of Public Works refused to pay for cost overruns related to sub-contractors.

The public was invited to the grand opening on April 4, 1893, “attended by everyone who was anyone in Toronto society,” said Plummer. Enthusiastic visitors delighted in taking the new electric elevators throughout the day. In the spirit of celebration, Premier Sir Oliver Mowat officially opened the first legislative session in the dramatic new building.

Born in London, England, Waite was only nine years old when his family immigrated to the United States. By about age 26, he was a qualified architect living in Buffalo, New York, with a wife and growing family. After a long successful career, the professional was troubled by financial problems. Contracting pneumonia, Richard Waite died at age 62 in January 1911.

Along with many architectural commissions in the United States and Canada, Waite’s impressive works are defined by the magnificent Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

© 2023 Susanna McLeod. McLeod is a Kingston-based freelance writer who specializes in Canadian History

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