The Story of Manitoba's Government House

Winnipeg's Oldest Mansion

by George Siamandas



Adams G Archibald was first lived at Silver Heights, but didn't like it there feeling too far from the action at Fort Garry. In 1872 he moved within the walls of Fort Garry in a three story wooden building. The remnants of the Fort Garry Gate located just east of the Fort Garry Hotel, depict the appearance of that old govt house in a painted panel. As plans were made to take down Upper Fort Garry, the house itself was purchased by a Mr Marion for $100, demolished and used as firewood. In 1880 the federal govt began the construction of a new govt house and a legislature. Manitoba's current govt house was completed in 1883. Now at age 116 it is the oldest mansion in Winnipeg.


Govt House was designed by the Federal govt's dept of public works by architect Thomas Scott in the prevailing architectural style of the 1860s. The style is called Second Empire and it is distinguished by the flat topped mansard roof, dormer windows, and a tower. It was built on oak piles 27 feet deep topped with concrete. Its foundation is constructed with limestone blocks quarried at Stony Mountain, and the finest white brick available was used for the building which rises three stories. Its contractor was Major FJ Bowles from Selkirk Manitoba with the winning bid was $23,995. The federal govt paid for its construction and the construction of the first legislature and in fact the feds paid all the province's bills till the mid mid 1880s. By 1888, $89,325 had been spent by the federal govt to improve govt house.


The first Lieut Gov to occupy it was James Cox Aikins. Since then 21 Lieut Govs have occupied the home with Peter Liba becoming the 22nd on March 2, 1999. In 1970 the house was described as having 23 rooms and 11 baths. But by 1896 it had seriously deteriorated requiring major replacement of plumbing and other systems. The property also saw the addition of a greenhouse, a ballroom and a verandah at the turn of the century, all of which structures were later replaced or improved.

Improvements were carried out in anticipation of royal visits or after minor disasters. A kitchen was added in the 1940s. Previously it had been located in the basement and a dumbwaiter brought the meals upstairs. After a disastrous failure of the dumbwaiter where the rope broke during a state visit spilling food everywhere, a new kitchen wing was finally added to the first floor. There has always been reluctance to budget enough moneys to keep govt house up to date. And similarly with the legislature which can get very hot during the summers, provincial governments have been shy about adding air conditioning.


The Lieut. Gov is the Queen's and federal govt's representative in Manitoba. While govt house was once associated with the seat of power it now serves a ceremonial role. It has welcomed royalty, dignitaries, artists, and common folk.


Once a year the general pollution is invited to the annual new Years levee dates back to 1871 started by Archibald and the first in govt house was held 1884. Many Royals have stayed including 1939 when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth broadcast live to the entire British Empire from Govt House. The original mahogany library table and a plaque commemorate that day. Other guests have included Winston Churchill who stayed in 1901, Stanley Baldwin, Sarah Bernhardt, Billy Graham, Princess Christina of Sweden, and many recent personalities.


William Simon the architect of the legislative Building had planned a new govt house, (in 1910). it was never built. As late as the 1950s provincial architect Gilbert Parfitt had declared the lieut gov's residence the only jarring note in the beauty of the legislative grounds. A Westminster clock from 1870 still graces the front entry. Inside govt house hang the works of Manitoba artists including LL Fitzgerald one of the Group of Seven.


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