Heritage Register
James Bay

501 Belleville Street
British Columbia Parliament or Legislative Buildings

Built 1893-98; 1911-16

For: Government of British Columbia

Architect: Francis Mawson Rattenbury
Contractor (carpentry): Bishop & Sherborne

501 Belleville


The Parliament Buildings were built in two main stages, the first from 1893-98 and the second from 1911-16. The initial construction was a T-shaped building comprising the two arms of the façade and the legislative chamber in the stem to the rear. The later additions were an extension to the stem to house the Legislative Library, and two wings parallel to the stem. The style is an eclectic one that Rattenbury called Free Classic and that has since been termed Late Victorian Free Style. It had been used earlier in several prominent British public buildings (particularly the feature of the corner towers with their cupolas), and it had also inspired the design of Ontario’s Legislative Building in Toronto, completed the year before Rattenbury submitted his plans. The façade is laid out in what is called a Palladian tripartite plan of a central block joined to two outlying buildings by colonnades, a Renaissance motif. Typical of much of the detail on the buildings is the prominent entrance with its concentric receding round arches supported on small ornamental columns. This is characteristic of Romanesque Revival style, also seen in a simpler form in Temple Emanu-El (1461 Blanshard St, Downtown), derived from early medieval Norman architecture. A whimsical feature is the comic faces incorporated into the grotesques on many upper-storey ornamental columns.


Legislative buildings are a statement of physical and symbolical political power. This power is manifested through the public rallying and law-making that takes place there. The buildings symbolize the strength of a particular political system by their imposing presence. This province’s original buildings were built in 1859 to the designs of German-born architect Herman Otto Tiedemann who created a series of five short brick and timber structures with low-pitched, bellcast roofs, reminiscent of Chinese pagodas, nicknamed the “Birdcages”.

While they did serve their purpose for 30 years, they were inadequate for government use and unsafe for document storage by the early 1890s. The seat of political power had shifted to Victoria, which was in an economic slump. Premier Theodore Davie therefore proposed new legislative buildings to be constructed for $500,000. In 1892, the government held an architectural competition, open to Americans and Canadians. The winning design had to provide for the Legislative Assembly, Land Registry, Printing Office and other departments, all to be housed in one fireproof building. They received 65 entries from 62 competitors, and selected five semi-finalists. These five entered a second competition in which the Land Registry and Printing Offices were to be housed in separate buildings, raising the cost to $600,000.

Frank Rattenbury, 25, arrived in BC from Yorkshire, England, in 1891. Relatively inexperienced but highly ambitious, he signed his entry “BC Architect” to bolster his credentials. His design was selected based on the confidence it inspired and the fact that it would fit between two rows of Birdcages. Construction, begun in 1893, utilized as much local labour and materials as possible, to boost Victoria’s sagging economy. The foundation and steps were of Nelson Island granite, the roof of Jarvis Inlet slate, and the exterior of Haddington Island andesite, rendered to a natural rock finish; local Douglas fir timber was used extensively. Marble finished the interior walls, stairways and floors of the Legislature.

However the project did not proceed without controversy and delays. Originally, the exterior was to have Duncan Koksilah stone as well, but it was found unsuitable to work with, so the contract was cancelled. That firm sued the Province for $12,000. In June 1894, the stonecutters went on strike, and in December, masonry contractor Frederick Adams (1215 Pembroke St, Fernwood) halted work after a dispute with Rattenbury. Although this was resolved, Adams was drowned in 1895, and the masonry firm of McDonald, Wilson & Snyder took over. Further delays resulted in 1896 because the Province wanted to modify the plans by moving Land Registry to the Provincial Museum, and the mines office to the basement of the Legislature. Rattenbury grudgingly modified his designs, housing the mining department in an original Birdcage moved to the rear. It was destroyed by fire in 1957. The other four were demolished to accommodate the new Legislature.

Although the building was not completed in time to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee in 1897, it was still illuminated with thousands of lights (which were changed to LED bulbs in 2007). Formal opening ceremonies were held February 10, 1898. Clerk of Works was Edward Charles Howell, a building and quantity surveyor, whom many building contractors credited with the success of the undertaking being accomplished at a minimum of cost. While Rattenbury’s exterior design was superior, the interior left a little to be desired: acoustics in the legislative hall were sub par, there were no writing facilities in the press gallery and no washroom in the lieutenant-governor’s suite. These problems, in combination with the delays, boosted the cost to $923,000 and the completion date to 1907. In 1911, construction began on the east and west wings, for over $1,000,000. Completed in 1914, these housed administrative departments. The library was completed by 1915-16. Rattenbury designed the additions in 1910-11.

This project launched Rattenbury’s extensive architectural career. In addition to residential and office buildings, he designed several buildings for the CPR, including the Empress Hotel and branches of the Bank of Montreal including 1200 Government. In 1913, he was elected reeve of Oak Bay. Rattenbury was murdered in 1935 in Bournemouth, England, by his young wife’s lover. His life and death have been the subject of books, plays and documentaries.

During the 1970s, a massive restoration and renovation was undertaken under the guidance of architect Alan Hodgson, who won a design award in 1983 from AIBC. His previous work in Victoria included the redevelopment and restoration of Centennial Square and the McPherson Theatre. From 1974-77, 85% of the work was completed. This was a period of development in the heritage field, and as public perceptions favourably changed, work began again in 1980, and was completed in 1983. The initial budget of $5 million ballooned to $30 million.

The restoration project faced public and political criticism, particularly where restoration of ornamental mouldings and the addition of embellishments to previously undecorated rooms were concerned. Hodgson’s design strived to remain true to Rattenbury’s. Renovations included updating the wiring and expanding the executive council chamber for a much larger cabinet. The building would no longer house both legislators and civil servants, so administrative offices were moved throughout the city. Today, the Legislative Buildings remain the political centre of the province and are open to the public.

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