(The information in this article is from an exhibition by the Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador on the history of the Colonial Building. It was curated by Patti Bannister in the fall of 1997.)

A Brief History of the Colonial Building

After Newfoundland won the right to Representative Government in 1832, it became necessary to find a building where the new legislature would meet. Several locations were used before the Colonial Building was built in 1850.

The Colonial Building
The Colonial Building

Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division (VA 3-8).

The first was a tavern and lodging house owned and operated by Mary Travers. The legislature's stay at that location turned out to be a short-lived misadventure. In their haste and inexperience, the members of the legislative assembly forgot to approve the funds needed to pay Travers her rent. The result was a very irate landlady who seized all the property of the legislature, not to be released until she was paid in full. The assembly then moved to the St. John's Court House, where it remained until the Great Fire of 1846 destroyed that building. Temporary accommodations were subsequently found at various buildings in downtown St. John's.

By then, planning was well underway to build a permanent home for the legislature. In 1836, the assembly had passed an act for the construction of the Colonial Building. After much debate, Military Road was decided upon as the construction site. The building's principal designer was James Purcell, an Irish architect who had moved to St. John's to supervise the construction of the Roman Catholic Cathedral. The project's co-designer and superintending inspector was Patrick Keough, the superintendent of Newfoundland's public buildings.

Construction and Interior

The cornerstone was laid on Queen Victoria's birthday, 24 May 1847. A crowd gathered to watch the ground breaking ceremony, which included the burial of a time capsule containing local currency and newspapers, grains of locally grown wheat, and an inscribed parchment which formally documented the event.

The Colonial Building officially opened at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, 28 January 1850. The total cost of construction was estimated at £18,335. It was then, as it is now, a stunning example of fine architecture. Its facade was constructed of imported white Irish limestone and is neoclassical in design, with six impressive ionic columns, and a pediment sculpted with the Royal Coat of Arms.

A local newspaper, the Royal Gazette and Newfoundland Advertiser, described the building's appearance: "A flight of 10 steps extending nearly the whole length of the front, which is 88 feet, leads to a magnificent hall, 30 by 20 feet, from which a grand staircase conducts, by a corridor on either side, to the public galleries of the Council and Representative Chambers, to the Legislative Library, and to the Committee Rooms of both branches".

Ceiling Frescoes

The celebrated ceilings of the Colonial Building are noteworthy for both their beauty and the story of their creation. They were painted in 1880 by the Polish fresco painter Alexander Pindikowski. He had come to Newfoundland to teach art in the community of Heart's Content, but on 10 March 1880 was arrested in the Temperance Coffee House in downtown St. John's for attempting to cash forged cheques. He was convicted of forgery and sentenced to 15 months in the penitentiary.

Ceiling of the Colonial Building
Ceiling of the Colonial Building

Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division (B2-69).

The government knew of Pindikowski's artistic skill and asked him to paint the ceilings of the council chamber and the assembly room. In return for his fine work, Pindikowski's prison sentence was shortened by one month. The original frescos included nine different colours and an inlay of 200 books of gold leaf. Pindikowski's work was carefully restored in 1940 by the local painter Clem Murphy. Smoke and dust had to be removed from the ceilings and many of the colours had faded or disappeared and need to be re-stenciled.

Noteworthy Events

The Colonial Building has had a colourful past. In 1850, Newfoundland's first bank robbery took place inside its walls. On the night of November 30, two men broke into its basement, where the Newfoundland Savings Bank was located, and stole £413. The Royal Gazette reported on December 3 that "the robbers entered the office by a window which they forced open, and removed an iron chest containing the money to a lower apartment where the chest was broken open, and the above sum abstracted therefrom." Two men, James Kavanagh and Michael Whelan, were convicted of the crime in March 1851, but only £270 of the stolen money was recovered.

The Colonial Building was also the venue for Newfoundland's first gala ball, held on 25 July 1852 in honour of Vice Admiral Sir George Seymour and the officers of Her Majesty's Ships Cumberland, Bermuda, and Buzzard. Many more balls were held in the coming years, some for Royalty - including the Prince of Wales Ball in 1860 - and some to celebrate historic occasions, such as the laying of the transatlantic cable in 1866.

The Colonial Building, Decorated for Prince of Wales Visit, 1919
The Colonial Building, Decorated for Prince of Wales Visit, 1919

Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division (A35-49).

The Colonial Building hosted other public functions as well. Agricultural fairs were held on its grounds and, on one occasion, the items destined for the Paris Exhibition of 1867 were put on public display inside the building.

Debates and Demonstrations

The Colonial Building is also famous as the site of heated debates, political controversies, and public riots. On 31 May 1861, an angry crowd gathered outside the building after some residents at Harbour Main were prevented from voting in a general election. Rioters tried unsuccessfully to enter the building and then proceeded to Water Street, where they damaged some business premises. The military was called in to restore peace, but opened fire on the crowd and killed three people.

Colonial Building During Riot, 1932
Colonial Building During Riot, 1932

Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division (A2-160).

The most famous riot took place during the Great Depression. On 5 April 1932, a crowd of about 10,000 people gathered outside the Colonial Building to demand that government do more to relieve poverty and create employment. Recent allegations from finance minister Peter Cashin that Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires had misused public funds also fuelled public discontent. What began as a peaceful demonstration quickly escalated into a full scale riot. All of the building's windows were smashed, furniture was dragged outside and destroyed, and the Members of the House of Assembly, who were still inside the building, feared for their lives. The police responded with more violence and beat back rioters with their batons. Squires escaped unharmed with a police escort, but was removed from office in an ensuing election. Damages to the Colonial Building were estimated at $10,000.

House of Assembly in Session c. 1914
House of Assembly in Session c. 1914

Courtesy of The Rooms Provincial Archives Division (C1-207).

The political history of the Colonial Building has also had many landmark moments, including the winning of Responsible Government in 1855, the establishment of the Commission of Government in 1934, and the opening of the National Convention in 1946 to debate Newfoundland constitutional future. When the Convention ended, and the two referendums were held in 1948, voters decided that Newfoundland and Labrador would join Canada. The Colonial Building became the seat of the provincial legislature of Canada's tenth province, under the leadership of Premier Joseph R. Smallwood's Liberal government.

Post-Confederation Era

The Colonial Building served as the seat of the provincial legislature for the first 10 years of Confederation. The legislature met inside its walls for the last time on Tuesday, 28 July 1959, and then moved into the newly constructed Confederation Building for the 1960 session.

The Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador occupied the building from 1960 until 2005, when it moved into The Rooms. The Colonial Building then became home to the provincial Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation. Various non-profit heritage groups have also used the building, including the Newfoundland Historical Society, the Museum Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Association of Newfoundland and Labrador Archives, and the Newfoundland and Labrador Sports Archives.

The Colonial Building was named a Provincial Historic Site in 1974. Although usually open to the public, it is currently closed for renovations. The provincial government intends to reopen the building in 2015 with new exhibits and fully restored interiors. The building will serve as a museum of the province's political history and as headquarters for non-profit heritage organizations.