'It's 150 years of politics'

Barb
Barb Sweet
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Published on December 16, 2009

Two extraordinary ceilings at Colonial Building have been restored by plasterers and painters. The ceilings were stabilized and revitalized to protect them from renovations at the historic site. The decorative murals were originally painted in 1880 by

Published on December 16, 2009

Two extraordinary ceilings at Colonial Building have been restored by plasterers and painters. The ceilings were stabilized and revitalized to protect them from renovations at the historic site. The decorative murals were originally painted in 1880 by

Published on December 16, 2009

Two extraordinary ceilings at Colonial Building have been restored by plasterers and painters. The ceilings were stabilized and revitalized to protect them from renovations at the historic site. The decorative murals were originally painted in 1880 by

Published on December 16, 2009

Published on December 16, 2009

Published on December 16, 2009

Published on December 16, 2009

Published on December 16, 2009

Published on December 16, 2009

The main entranceway staircases. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on December 16, 2009

A current photo of the Confederation Building taken from an upstairs window on the Government House side of the century-old structure. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on December 16, 2009

Tourism Minister Terry French stands in front of the Colonial Building Tuesday where work has already begun on a multimillion-dollar facelift of the historic premises. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on December 16, 2009

Colonial Building - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Published on December 16, 2009

The main entranceway staircases. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Colonial Building restoration has begun

It's a couple of hours before the House of Assembly is to sit, and Tourism Minister Terry French - in his political uniform of suit and tie - is climbing around the dusty beams and rafters inside the unfinished attic of the Colonial Building.

Such is French's passion for the restoration project of this province's original seat of government - a classic stone and columned structure on Military Road in St. John's. In recent years, it appears more like an outdoor hangout for skateboarders than a publicly celebrated heritage site.

It's a couple of hours before the House of Assembly is to sit, and Tourism Minister Terry French - in his political uniform of suit and tie - is climbing around the dusty beams and rafters inside the unfinished attic of the Colonial Building.

Such is French's passion for the restoration project of this province's original seat of government - a classic stone and columned structure on Military Road in St. John's. In recent years, it appears more like an outdoor hangout for skateboarders than a publicly celebrated heritage site.

But that's all changing.

French was up in the rafters with The Telegram Tuesday to point out the special epoxy that was injected throughout to stabilize the valuable plastered ceilings of the two chambers below.

It's an important job considering the decorative murals were painted in 1880 by a Polish fresco painter named Alexander Pindikowski, who was serving a prison term while doing the work.

The ceilings had to be secured to prevent them from feared damage during the hammering and banging of the restoration project expected to be complete by 2013.

"We got to be careful what we are doing. We only got one opportunity," French says of the project.

"We haven't done this as a province before. We haven't taken a real old building of this stature and did it. It is a learning experience for us as a government and as a department."

The department's plan is to restore the site to its former glory, including the original legislature.

"It's 150 years of politics jammed in this building. It would be a sin to lose it and I love political history, obviously," French says.

While he has only been on the job less than a month, the rebirth of the Colonial Building has been years in the making by department officials and an advisory committee.

When the provincial archives moved to The Rooms several years ago, some heritage groups were housed there.

But the structure has been pretty much closed to the public since then, despite its storied history as the legislature for the Colony of Newfoundland and the Dominion of Newfoundland. It was also the site of the fiery National Convention debates that led to Confederation with Canada.

With some federal funding secured - $748,000 - and a provincial commitment of $3.5 million so far, the restoration project is currently in its first phase. The total cost of restoration is estimated at $10 million.

Early last summer, the heritage groups were relocated although they will eventually be moved back into the basement.

The lush Pindikowski ceilings have not only been secured, but the intricate coloured patterns have been meticulously restored with the help of plasters and painters. The murals were last restored in the 1940s by local painter Clem Murphy, who saved the ceiling with a system of bolts and metal strapping concealed under the paint. But recent cleaning revealed the paint had peeled over the years.

The Colonial Building's future has also been the subject of various consultants' reports including a structural study and interpretive recommendations and currently, an investigation and inventory of the original features. Initial work has revealed original finishes of wood and faux stone hidden under modern layers of white and other bland paint tones. It's believed the restoration will make the interior pop as the colour and vibrancy of its original trims and features are restored.

Construction drawings of the restoration project should be complete by March.

This Phase 1 plans - scheduled to be finished by the end of March - also includes fabrication of iron fencing to replicate what was originally around the exterior of the property.

French is hoping the public will help the effort by contributing photos of the fencing as well as any other historic pictures, particularly what the interior might have been like in years gone by.

As French moves through the building, he notes a lantern feature originally on the top of the building - removed because it leaked - will be put back by restoration's end, bringing light into the foyer.

It's also clear through the scraping away of paint in various areas that the Colonial Building had a variety of wall decorations over time, including stencils. Bits of painters' tape catalogs various finishes and trims.

"My first tour, it was amazing. I fell in love with the place right off the bat," says French, as he points out a greenish finish on the wall that feels like slate but is faux stone.

In the room where the legislature sat and the National Convention debates were held, French points to the fireplace and its significance.

"The reasons our House sits differently than everybody else is that right there," he says.

"In our House, government sits on the right and every other legislature in the country they sit on the left. The reason in Newfoundland is (the ruling party) got to sit next to the fire."

The aim is to restore the legislature using original furniture such as desks, tables and other fixtures. French hopes there will be staff dressed in period costumes to conduct tours.

He'd also like to see the government of the day pay some homage to the old chambers.

"I would love to have - when this opens - opening day session (of government) here in the old legislature when you march in with the mace," he says.

Although the room is much smaller than the Confederation Building legislature on Prince Philip Drive, he comments, "We'd manage."

Before leaving the legislative chambers, French also takes a trip down "Squires Escape," a narrow, winding flight of stairs to the basement, demonstrating the route of Sir Richard Squires to the back door. Squires took off through gardens and over fences when people stormed Colonial Building in the Riots of 1932.

French also envisions bringing some memorabilia from the legislative library and historical political portraits to the Colonial Building. He wants to depict the significant periods of the building's long history from the start.

"There isn't any reason why we can't bring this up where it was traditionally," French says.

"There's so much history that we could share with the general public even the piece of joining Confederation alone. My God, I would think we could probably fill this building alone with some of the speeches and some of the antics that went on.

"There's phenomenal stuff that went on in different districts - how they got the vote done and Confederation won. It's an amazing story and what better place to tell it then here."

While in the attic, French notes that during the ceiling stabilization, workers discovered old ballots.

There was an "Oh my God moment. - '1949 maybe we shouldn't have been in Confederation' " as thoughts turned to the 1948 referendum voting and a conspiracy theory about missing ballots.

But the bundled and wax sealed ballots turned out to be about prohibition (of alcohol) in the 1880s. The ballots were turned over to The Rooms.

Some of the other forgotten items tucked away in the attic are old liquor bottles, a collection of empty picture frames and an image of Joey Smallwood with half his face torn off.

Meanwhile, Phase II of the restoration will include roof replacement, restoration of several interior and exterior design features, new building services, a handicap lift, structural repairs and installation of the original forecourt and iron fencing.

One thing that isn't on the restoration list is the fountain which was added around the 1950s - decades ago the convenience store across the street was called The Fountain Spray because of the mist.

But in fact the Colonial Building once had a sloped approach.

At the time it was built - 1847-50, the Colonial Building was on swampy barrens above St. John's. Now it's part of the heart of the old capital city.

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Organizations: National Convention, Dominion

Geographic location: St. John's, Confederation, Newfoundland Military Road Canada

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