Out of the Past: A Tour of the Colonial Building

After nearly a decade of restoration work, the Colonial Building has just opened its doors. The Independent got a sneak preview ahead of opening day.
Exterior of the Colonial Building. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

It’s been the setting for numerous political showdowns that have included politicians as well as members of the public. It has witnessed everything from changing governments and collapsing administrations to elegant galas and angry mobs. It has even served as a scene for a bank robbery. More recently, it was the site where thousands of tiny flags and ribbons were placed to honour all the Indigenous children whose bodies were found in unmarked graves at residential schools across the country this past year. 

The Colonial Building, which has had its doors closed since 2010, has undergone a $22 million renovation. It is now open to the public, but only by appointment through guided tours. Last week, the press was given a walk-through of the building’s interior. Here are the photos The Independent snapped, and some initial impressions.

Don’t Go to the Front Door

The Colonial Building’s east entrance is now the main entrance. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

First, some re-orientation! Those grand steps leading up to a very tall door no longer mark the entrance into the old seat of political power. The east entrance is now the main entryway for the Colonial Building. Guests are welcomed at the side, which is where we started our tour.

We were taken through the building by Gerry Osmond, Assistant Deputy Minister, Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts and Recreation.

Inside the east entrance. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

It was like walking back in time, with some reminders that it has also been brought into the 21st century, such as the addition of a lift.

Osmond said all of the work had been done last week. Signs warned us to watch out for wet paint as the fresh-paint smell wafted through the air. When I arrived, there were still some people coming in and out of the building, clearly doing some construction work.

The ground floor is painted a stark white, with pictures on the wall with quotes that speak to  historical events that took place in the building. Osmond said this floor will primarily be for administrative purposes.

The Colonial Building history, represented by white men with beards. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

It was once the home for the librarian and caretaker, and one of their flats has been restored. I peeked in and have to say, it looks a little like a prison cell.

Flat originally used by the librarian caretaker. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

The hallway was created as a sort of palate cleanser, establishing the transitions between different rooms. You can see the old brick work that’s been left exposed, emphasizing the presence of the old in tandem with the new

The main floor hallway. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

Down the hallway, we were taken to the site of Newfoundland’s first official bank robbery (if you don’t include the unofficial financial shenanigans the rich often got up to). A heavy black door marked where the Newfoundland Savings Bank once was. On November 30, 1850 the robbery happened here, when 413 pounds were stolen from an iron chest. Two men were apprehended for the crime, and most of the money was retrieved. The Legislative librarian, Sarah Perchard, helped lead to the arrest. Apparently she had to petition the governor to get her reward, as she was entitled to a fee. 

Doorway to what was originally the Newfoundland Savings Bank. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

From there, we were led up a narrow staircase to come into the massive room where the House of Assembly used to gather. It’s the place I’ve been really looking forward to most. It’s the ceiling I want to look at: specifically the fresco painting by Polish artist Alexander Pindikowski.

A narrow staircase that leads up to the Assembly room. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

The artist found himself in legal troubles after coming to Newfoundland and Labrador for a job as an art teacher in Heart’s Content. In March of 1880, he was arrested at the Temperance Coffee House in downtown St. John’s for trying to cash forged cheques. He was sentenced to 15-months in prison, to be served at the Penitentiary.

Ceiling fresco by Alexander Pindikowski. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

However, to shave a bit of time off his sentence, he agreed to put his paint brush to work for the government. He painted the ceiling of the elected House of Assembly and appointed Legislative Council chambers in the Colonial Building. Likewise, if you go across the street to Government House you’ll also see Pindikowski’s handiwork.

Another view of the Assembly room ceiling. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

The Assembly room itself is also impressive. Brought back to its state in the 1930s, it still retains the fireplace in the corner. It is the reason why the political party in power sits in the left side of the house, and not the right. Those who had enough seats wanted to be warm, so they went to the room’s left side. This habit of sitting to the left carried on even after they moved to the Confederation Building in 1960.

The Assembly room. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

If you keep an eye out for them on the tour, you’ll notice patches along the wall or columns throughout the building. They reveal layers of paint from decades gone by. The surfaces have been peeled back and left exposed. These unearthed layers of paint were used to inform the restoration process, and served as guides in the painting of each room.

A wall revealing layers of paint and paper underneath. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

Off of the Assembly room is a room reserved for reporters. I got to sit on one of the four Victorian re-creations of circular-shaped couches that cost $136K. I have to say, they were pretty comfy–-but maybe not $34,000 comfy.

The press room. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.
Inside the former main entrance, which won’t be used by the public. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

We were brought to the other massive room in the Colonial Building, the Legislative Council Chamber – which also has one of those pricey couches.

Osmond explained the building has an occupancy limit of 100 people. Admission to the building will be free and tours, which kick off this week, need to be booked in advance.

The Legislative Council Chamber. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.
Another example of the exposed wall left for visitors to see. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

Up on the second floor, two of the smaller adjoining rooms are being used for art installations. One includes this neon flashing sign by Angela Antle, titled “Mishta-Shipva.” It references Newfoundland and Labrador’s shifting status as a “have not” province.

What’s In A Name?

This seems as good a time as any to take a break from oohing and aahing over the restoration of this building.

It wasn’t on the agenda for discussion during the tour, but I’m still stuck on the missed opportunity to rename the Colonial Building, to pair a symbolic renovation with its physical one. Earlier this year the provincial government announced it was looking to rename the building but on August 15 decided against it. Apparently, the majority of the 215 respondents who participated in their website questionnaire claimed to be satisfied with the name. 

Many criticized this as a step backwards in reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, and a failure to address the province’s colonial past as it relates to the present. 

The building does give the visitors the impression they have stepped into the 19th century, but it has still been updated to bring it into the 21st Century. It has electrical lighting, a lift. The government’s decision to not rename the building is glaring. This building has been renovated from top to bottom, from the lantern that sits at the very top of the building to the ground floor. We could have similarly ‘renovated’ the name to accommodate our present circumstances.

I also couldn’t help noticing that when I walked around the grounds of the building, the squares and ribbons once attached to the fence had been removed. In their place is a massive sign for Come Home Year. As it turns out, this was nothing more than a coincidence.The Independent learned from a trusted source that the prayer ties were actually removed so the fence could be sanded and painted, though it is not known when and if they’ll be put back.*

In the aftermath of the death of one 96-year-old monarch, it seems fitting that I’m walking around a structure called the Colonial Building. After all, she and her family are still very much a part of an old, massive colonial empire, of which Newfoundland was just one small part. That empire took away more than it gave back, thriving on the abuse, exploitation, and impoverishment of the people and places under its rule.

Anyway, it’s weird how timing works out but it’s hard not to think of it as an invitation to ponder. But let’s get on with looking through the neoclassical building we spent a lot of money fixing up.

On With the Tour

One room has also been turned into a 19th Century office and there are some period clothing for people who might want to dress up.

A room that has been modeled after a 19th Century office. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

The second floor also offers a view of the Confederation Building, where the government packed up and moved to in 1960.

A view of the confederation from a window on the second floor. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

One of the balconies that overlooks the House of Assembly shows what might be my new  favourite detail: during renovation, they unearthed these cuts into the wall and it’s where the chairs in this balcony would have been.

Cuts in the wall show where the original seats would have been attached. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

And, because I love this ceiling, another close look at the work of Alexander Pindikowski:

The Assembly room from another angle. Photo By: Elizabeth Whitten.

Osmond also told us another story about the ceiling: it almost collapsed! Clem Murphy ended up creating a system to support the ceiling, and kept it from caving in. He was also careful to preserve and paint Pindikowski’s work. Lori Le Mare and her company Lori Le Mare Studio were also working on the building and helped restore Pindikowski’s work, among other features. 

Clearly, it took a lot of time, effort, and resources to bring this building out of the past and into the present. Going forward, we should reflect on its significance as we carry it into the future.  

* Updated as a result of new information, September 15, 2022.

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