Whether you’ve been to Victoria before or if you’re exploring this gorgeous city for the first time, you’ll have noticed that there are quite a few marvellous historical buildings around the city. You might have explored the towers of Craigdarroch Castle, had tea at the the Empress Hotel or wandered the halls of stately Hatley Castle but there is one building that serves both as the seat of Provincial Government as well as being one of the main landmarks in Victoria’s downtown core: the Parliament Buildings. This ornate, domed building sits pride-of-place right on the water and is one of the most recognizable and beloved landmarks in Victoria. There is lots of information about the Parliament Buildings, but if you want a quick overview, we’ve rounded up our team’s favourite facts about one of the most ornate buildings in BC!
- It was built by the same architect as The Empress Hotel
When Francis M. Rattenbury arrived in Vancouver in 1892 he had five years’ experience articling at his uncle’s architectural firm in England but was determined that he would make his fortune in Canada. Only a year later, at 25 years old, he won his first major commission: to design the new BC Parliament Buildings. His vision was to create a monumental structure that would reflect the importance of the building as the seat of the Provincial government and decided to draw up plans for a building that would reflect the classicism of important European structures in a style that would later be described as a mixture of classical, renaissance and Romanesque architectural styles.
- The roofs were originally shiny copper
One of the main aspects of Rattenbury’s design was to showcase the natural raw materials of BC and place them front and centre as decorative features. One of the most striking external elements were the copper domes that would glisten in the sun during the early days post-construction. Today, due to the proximity to the ocean, the copper has oxidized, turning the once shiny domes into the turquoise ones that you can see today.
- There has been some controversial interior decoration decisions
In 1932, the artist George Southwell was commissioned to decorate the rotunda with murals depicting scenes from BC’s history from 1792 to 1843. At the time, and for some decades after, Southwell’s work was both applauded and accepted as an important depiction of the early years of BC’s history. However, the scenes became a topic of controversy as our understanding and acceptance of the negative impacts that colonization had, and still has, on First Nations people grew, it became clear that the scenes depicted in these murals were harmful and inappropriate for a government building. It was in 2001 when the NDP government suggested that the murals be relocated to a museum where they could be given historical perspective, but the cost was astronomical so they have now been hidden behind false walls.
- It is one of the main historical sites in downtown Victoria
The Parliament Buildings is, without a doubt, one of the most important historical buildings in downtown Victoria. As one of the largest and oldest buildings in all of Greater Victoria, it stands today as a reminder both of BC’s early colonial history and of how far we’ve come as a Province and as a city.
- You can take a tour!
If you’re impressed by the exterior of the building, you should definitely have a look at the magnificent interior! Join one of the daily guided tours of the buildings where you’ll get both insight and perspective on the historical significance of the architecture, decoration and how this building shaped the city itself, legitimized Victoria as a seat of government and even aided in the creation of Canada as a whole. If you prefer to go solo, you can do a self guided tour and wander at your own pace – you can even observe one of the debates from the public gallery above the assembly and see government in action!
- The grounds are beautiful public spaces that represent important people and events in BC history
The Chinese Empress Tree in the front lawn of the building was planted to recognize the Honourable David See-Chai Lam, the first Chinese-Canadian Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Confederation Garden Park, across the street, was created in 1967 to commemorate Canada’s Confederation. The Premier’s Rose Garden, built between 1935 and 1936 by Henry Whittaker was both a relief project for unemployed men during the Great Depression and built on the original footprint of the early Birdcage buildings that served as the seat of government in BC’s early years. The huge Sequoia tree, that stands pride of place in the front lawns of the Parliament Buildings was planted in 1863, at the time when the Birdcages were being built.
- It lights up every night
If you’ve ever wandered around the Inner Harbour at night, you can’t help but notice the glow of the lights that cover the Parliament Buildings. This is not a modern-day addition, originally, 350 carbon lights were installed and lit up to honour Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897! After that time, the lights would only come on for special occasions or ceremonies and it wasn’t until 1965 that the lights became a nightly occurrence to light up the Inner Harbour. Since then, additional lights have been added, the wiring and bulbs upgraded to be environmentally friendly and every night from sunset to sunrise, the lights of the Parliament Buildings glow in the Inner Harbour.
- The facade is decorated with statues of important historical and allegorical figures
In the middle of the front facade, you’ll find statues of Sir James Douglas and Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie flanking the arched ceremonial entrance used by the Lieutenant Governor, Indigenous Chiefs and visiting heads of state during ceremonies or for special occasions. Sir James Douglas was the Chief Factor of Fort Victoria for the Hudson Bay Company and later became the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie was appointed by Douglas in 1858 as the Chief Justice of the Crown Colony of BC and was known to travel on foot or horseback all throughout BC to administer colonial justice and sentences. At the top of the rotunda dome, sits the figure of Captain Vancouver who led a British expedition to survey the western coast of North America in 1790. The detailed maps that were created during this expedition have been used all through history into the twentieth century. While there is no doubt that the impact of the lives and works of these men were instrumental in creating modern day British Columbia, it is important to recognize that their legacies are complicated and have to be looked at through the lenses of both past and present. The only figures of women that adorn the exterior are allegorical figures of art and science, at the far ends of the front facade and music, sculpture, painting and architecture along the top of the Library.
- There are seven Provincial and Parliamentary symbols
Each of the seven symbols of BC were chosen to reflect different areas of this large, varied province to help build a unified provincial identity. Because of their importance, many of these symbols can be seen through the design of the Parliament Buildings.
- Dogwood flower – the flower of the Pacific dogwood tree was adopted in 1956 as BC’s official floral emblem. You can see dogwood trees planted on the grounds of the Legislature as well as used throughout the design of the ceilings.
- The Western Red Cedar – this tree was adopted as the official tree of BC in 1988. Traditionally harvested by many Coast Salish and interior Indigenous people for building material, textiles and numerous other uses, the Western Red Cedar is an important part of First Nations history and culture.
- The Kermode bear – also known as the Spirit Bear, this incredibly rare, white-furred black bear became BC’s official mammal in 2006
- Jade – in 1968, Jade became the official gemstone of BC and it’s no wonder because not only is BC the Jade capital of the world for the abundance of Jade deposits that can be found here, this gemstone is also known for its strength, used as knife blades and axe heads by Coast Salish people, and it’s beauty which is why it is so widely used by jewellers and carvers.
- Tartan – designed in 1967, the official tartan was adopted in 1974 to recognize the Scottish roots of many important colonial figures. The colours of BC’s tartan are blue, white, green, red and gold. The colours represent the ocean, the dogwood flower, the forests, the maple leaf and the sun.
- The Pacific Salmon – added to the official symbols in 2013, the Pacific Salmon is arguably the most important emblem in this list as far as economic and cultural significance. Pacific Salmon includes the species: Chinook, Chum, Coho, Cutthroat trout, Sockeye and Steelhead.
- It is said to be haunted…
There have been many reports over the years by people working in the building that a hooded, robed figure walks the hallways, always disappearing out of sight just when the person goes to investigate. One chilling tale from a committee clerk who was working alone in their office a few years ago, saw a hooded figure walk past the office door. Thinking it was odd, the clerk got up from the desk and peered around the corner of the office door to find that it hadn’t been their imagination at all! There was a hooded figure walking…or floating…down the hall and then suddenly turned and entered the library. The clerk was so confused and worried that they called security who told the clerk not to worry, it was probably just the ghost of Rattenbury! Spooky…