Politics from the ground up

Building Saskatchewan | 100-year-old legislative building stands proud

I place my foot in the depression on the marble stairway and begin to climb.

Each of the 85 stairs from basement to third floor is worn from 100 years of footsteps placed in the exact same spot closest to the railing.

Yes, there are elevators in the Saskatchewan legislative building, but taking the stairs means walking in the footsteps of Walter Scott and the 13 other men who followed him as premier.

The building is probably best known for its distinctive dome rising above the trees in south Regina, but the wear and tear on the stairways show it isn’t just another pretty structure.

Cabinet ministers, building staff, tourists, reporters and countless others have pounded up and down one of the many staircases since the building officially opened in October 1912. There were even rumours of a secret staircase that allowed politicians to sneak away to play cards.

Current premier Brad Wall prefers to park in front of the building, rather than in the more private parking by the back door.

This way he can climb the steps to the main doors and then the grand staircase, also known as the Staircase of Honour, to the second floor rotunda and his office.

“It’s a great reminder of the privilege we have to work there at least for a short period of time. It’s a pretty historic entrance. It’s been the site of protests that eventually informed policy like Medicare.”

There is a sense of awe at being in a place that holds so much history.

Construction of the building began in 1908 and signaled a grand future for young Saskatchewan.

Scott believed tens of millions of people would eventually live in the province, and he wanted a leg-islative building that could accommodate the future needs of a province that large.

However, the decision to locate the stone and marble structure south of the growing downtown area of Regina and the Wascana Creek reservoir was actually a recommendation by deputy premier J.A. Calder.

He proposed seven sites including some close to downtown and others close to the former territorial government buildings on Dewdney Avenue to the west.

His cabinet colleagues accepted his recommendation to buy 168 acres known as the Old Sinton Property, owned by the McCallum Hill Co. The asking price was $108,000; the purchase price was $96,250.

The choice stirred controversy. People questioned the decision to build in an isolated spot where the cost of constructing a bridge had to also be considered.

Early photographs show just how isolated the building was, standing alone with not a tree in sight.

In his book, Building for the Future, a photo journal of Saskatchewan’s Legislative Building, former legislative clerk and lieutenant-governor Gordon Barnhart quoted Calder’s rationale:

“It lies high and if the buildings were erected there they would face the city and at the same time overlook the reservoir. The grounds could easily be beautified, prison labour being available for this purpose. Water and sewage connections could easily be made at comparatively small cost. While at first I thought the property too far from the centre of the city, upon examination, I found it just as close as the Dewdney properties.

“Besides, in deciding the question of a site, the fact must be borne in mind that at an early date, there is every likelihood that we will have a street car service.”

Scott promised the building would be surrounded by a park and agreed to include the city’s Town Park, south of present-day College Avenue, in the landscaping plan, Barnhart wrote.

The eventual creation of Wascana Park ensured the legislative building would never be swallowed by the city, and the street car service materialized even before construction was complete.

The $1.75 million construction cost was about twice the budgeted estimate. Many of the individual renovation projects over the years, including one to keep it from sinking, have cost more than that, and replacing the building today would cost $200 million.

Renovations have kept the building modern and comfortable, but heritage features such as the windows, fireplaces and original furniture remain.

To mark this 100th anniversary, events such as an artists-in-residence program are exploring the history and significance of the building.

A time capsule placed in the cornerstone laid by governor general Earl Grey on Oct. 4, 1909, was opened in December 2011 to reveal items of the day. A party is planned for October, and a new time capsule will replace the old.

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