Review: British Columbia Parliament Buildings

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Lit up at night they are impressive structures. Christmas-like lights outline the buildings’ contours, while during the day they draw hundreds to the manicured pastures that lie in front. Bands frequently perform from the front steps where there always seems to be something ceremonious happening. Overlooking Victoria’s grand Inner Harbor, the Parliament Buildings are one of the two iconic architectural symbols of Victoria, British Columbia that welcome ferry passengers arriving daily from Seattle and Vancouver. The other is the ivy-covered Empress Hotel.

Completed in 1897 after only fours years of construction, the predominantly stone structures were built using many of the materials that can be found in British Columbia. Haddington Island andesite makes up the exterior veneer, while Nelson Island granite supports the foundation and forms the steps. Characterized by arches, vaulting, columns and heavy piers between small windows, it’s mostly a Romanesque architectural style like that seen throughout Western Europe and in many parts of North America.

Today, more than forty years after a renovation that cost Canadian taxpayers $80 million, it is open daily for the public to visit and tour. It’s one of Victoria’s few attractions with free admission, and it’s worth taking the time to take a self-guided tour of the majestic building.

If you have questions there is someone to give you the answers. His name is James Douglas, the first governor of British Columbia who served from 1858 to 1864. Believe it or not, he is alive and well and still walking the halls of the main building. Actually he is a historical interpreter who is there to portray Douglas and to engage visitors. He’s good. So good, in fact, that I suspect that he is an aspiring actor.

Looking up at the dome of the Memorial Rotunda, there are four murals representing the main economic activities of British Columbia. Mining, forestry, agriculture, and fishing are represented on the works by artist, George Southwell. The rotunda is named for the several war memorials honoring those citizens of British Columbia who lost their lives defending Canada. In one is a recovered set of bagpipes lost during the Battle of the Somme. Piper James Cleland Richardson died while playing the pipes that inspired the 16th Canadian Scottish Battalion into battle.

Looking upward from the Lower Rotunda, the dome rises to a height of 100 feet. The architect Francis Rattenbury, who also designed the Empress Hotel, designed the Lower Rotunda to be a central meeting point for the citizens of British Columbia. It is centrally located within the building, and from it anyone had access to all government departments. Lying in the center is an Italian mosaic from which you can see the British Columbia Coat of Arms. The vividly colored piece is made of painted aluminum. On it you can see the the elk and the ram, the same two symbols that adorn the top of the buildings’ Ceremonial Entrance. The Vancouver Island elk and the mainland bighorn sheep symbolize the union of the two colonies that became British Columbia.

In the Reception Hall hangs a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, the Queen of Canada. Despite its sovereign status, Canadians still consider the British queen to be their head of state. And she is treated as such. Her image is surrounded by Canadian and provincial flags, while stately columns, elegant wainscoting, and stained-glass windows decorate the room.

Who watches the watchmen? In the province’s Legislative Chamber, somebody is, but no one is sure who they are. On twenty-two decorative, Italian marble columns that surround the legislative chamber are plaster faces watching over these august statesmen. Some say these are wise philosophers’ who may influence the legislators’ judgement. Others believe they represent the people of British Columbia, constituents of the elected representatives.

Regardless, it’s just as likely that stupid laws are passed here whether the faces are looking or not, but it is a beautiful room, and it is second to none in terms of decor. The 40-by-60 foot room has marble paneling, while the ceiling has gold leaf trim that surrounds four stained-glass skylights. You can’t walk in, but you can see from the main door the more than 80 ornate desks where Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) sit.

Despite that I think the Legislative Chamber provides a facade of credibility to the MLAs that they may not deserve–come on they’re politicians–all in all, it’s a stop worth making in Victoria. Below the copper-plated, octagonal dome–a feature that distinguishes it from most American government buildings that have round domes–that is topped with a gold-plated statue of George Vancouver is an interesting and engaging place to visit. Buildings aren’t made this way anymore, and in a city with no shortage of things to see and activities to do, this one is well worth taking the time to see.

About Bloice Davison

Bloice C. Davison, III blogs, travels occasionally, and takes pictures. He has experience in the telecommunications, banking, retailing and outside sales businesses. He is a former fly-fishing guide and fly-fishing instructor for the Orvis Company. He served as an Aircraft Maintenance Specialist in the United States Air Force. A 1988 graduate of Virginia Tech, he also has a BS in statistics from the Metropolitan State College of Denver.

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