Visiting Alberta’s Past
The First Century of Government House
by John Althouse
When Alberta became a province, a wave of unbridled enthusiasm swept it resulting in a number of rather ambitious projects. The Alberta government in 1906 decided that a residence fitting the vice-regal status of the Lieutenant Governor should be built. A wave of prosperity helped convert this project from a dream to a reality.
Work began after the government acquired 28.15 acres of land a part of River Lot 2 atop of the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River. The work directed was by the provincial architect. At the time, skilled tradesmen were scarce in Alberta. A group of stonemasons from Scotland was brought to Edmonton to erect the structure. The shell was constructed of brick covered by sandstone. Government House was built in the Jacobean Revival Style.
The interior of the House was opulent. The finest materials were used in the construction. Antique furnishings were imported from Europe. The decorative elements were equally grand. The main floor served as the center for daily work and entertainment. It housed rooms which included a library, parlours, and the dining room. The second floor was reserved for the six bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. One was a large two-room Royal Suite. The third floor housed quarters for the servants. The basement contained the heating plant, kitchen and billiard room.
On the west side of the house, a conservatory was built. A ballroom was to be erected to the north of it. It never was built. In the southwest corner of the grounds, a carriage house with quarters was constructed. It appears to be a one-story building, but as it is built against the bank, actually is two stories. On October 7, 1913, Government House was officially opened with a grand reception. The grounds had not been completed. They were completed and were opened for the enjoyment of the public. The dream of a palatial residence for the Lieutenant Governor had been realized.
The stone-clad house was home to six Lieutenant Governors: George Bulyea, Robert Brett, William Egbert, William Walsh, Phillip Primrose, and John Bowen. Each man left his distinctive stamp on the house. In the 1930s, a Social Credit government led by William Aberhardt came to power in Alberta. They brought forward a number of rather radical pieces of legislation. Some questioned the legality of this legislation. The Lieutenant Governor reserved three of bills. Whether this or the cost of maintaining the house was the impetus, Government House was closed as the residence for the Lieutenant Governor in 1938. The gates were chained, and the house sat vacant. In 1942, this once regal residence suffered one final indignity when its contents were auctioned off.
After its fall from grace, the building served many roles. From 1942 to 1944, it was rented by North West Airlines. In 1944, it became a convalescent home for wounded military personnel. From 1951 to 1965, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs established a home for 75 veterans. In 1967, the Provincial Museum was constructed north of Government House. The government made extensive renovations to the house, creating a centre for government functions.
In 1985, Government House was declared a Provincial Historic Resource. It was visited by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1978 and again in 2005. In 2012, it was designated a National Historic Site. Recently, this magnificent home has regained a measure of its former glory.
To learn about Government House, visit it. Tours take place each Saturday, Sunday and holiday Mondays from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Displays recounting the history of Government House are on the first and second floors. Also, visit the website http://history.alberta.ca/governmenthouse/default.aspx
Originally appeared in Relatively Speaking, v.41 #4 (Nov 2013)