(adapted from an article by Tom Court)
Plans for a purpose-built vice-regal residence began in 1906 when an act of the legislative assembly provided for an official residence for the Lieutenant Governor. For this purpose, in 1909 the government purchased 29 acres of land immediately west of the Groat Ravine in the new district of Glenora. The house would be situated on a high promontory overlooking the North Saskatchewan River, with a grand view of the city of Edmonton to the east.
Building a new province
It was an ambitious undertaking for a young province. Alberta had only come into being on September 1, 1905 and faced massive infrastructure requirements such as roads, schools and court houses – not to mention a legislature building. Nevertheless, the province was in the midst of a financial boom and supremely confident in its future, and so pushed ahead with plans to build Government House.
Government House was constructed by the Department of Public Works under the direction of A.M. Jeffers, chief architect of the Alberta Legislature Building. Architect R.P. Blakey was tasked to design the three-storey residence in the Jacobean Revival style.
The brick exterior walls were covered with sandstone from a quarry near Calgary and finished by stonemasons from Scotland. A large glass conservatory for plants and flowers was built, and a root cellar for produce from the large garden. Southwest of the House, the original Tudor revival style carriage house still stands. The total cost of the residence, including furnishings, was $350,000.
Originally, the House and its large gardens were secluded and almost hidden from view behind a six-foot high hedge surrounding the two exposed sides of the property bounded by 102 Avenue and 130 Street. During its early history very few Albertans knew of the building’s purpose, and even fewer had ever been inside.
A vice-regal residence (1913–1938)
Together with his wife Annie, Lieutenant Governor George Bulyea started the long and eventful tradition of entertaining at Government House. From its opening in 1913 until 1938, the House served as a centre of social and political life in Alberta.
The lieutenant governors who lived in Government House are:
- George Hedley Vicars Bulyea, 1905–1915 (resident 1913–1915)
- Robert George Brett, 1915–1925
- William Egbert, 1925–1931
- William Legh Walsh, 1931–1936
- Philip Carteret Hill Primrose, 1936–1937
- John Campbell Bowen, 1937–1950 (resident 1937–1938)
The end of an era
Despite its grandeur, in the economic aftermath of the First World War and the Depression of the 1930s, Government House was a prime irritant for the opposition members of the Alberta Legislature. Details of the costs of furnishings and maintenance of Government House, all tabled in the legislative assembly, only served to deepen suspicions that a ‘privileged few’ were wining and dining at public expense. Newspapers of the period were filled with arguments of politicians for and against the closure of Government House. Similar arguments were raised in many provinces in this era.
After Lieutenant Governor John Campbell Bowen refused Royal Assent to three bills brought forward by Premier William Aberhart. Premier Aberhart gave the order to close Government House in March 1938. This decision forced Lieutenant Governor Bowen and his family to move to an Edmonton hotel suite.
Auctioning off the furnishings
The House was closed as a vice-regal residence after Lieutenant Governor Bowen moved out in 1938. It remained unoccupied until 1942. That year, Alberta Public Works held an auction of furnishings that remained in the house. A search continues to this day to locate items that were sold off during the auction and return them to Government House. A good number have been repatriated, but the list of outstanding auctioned items is still long.
Dormitory for WWII pilots (1942–1943)
In 1942, the government leased Government House to Northwest Airlines, an American company engaged in contract work on the construction of the Alaska Highway. The House was used as temporary office and residential space for airline personnel. At that time, the airline was under contract to the American Army to ferry aircraft and aircraft parts from the US to Fairbanks, Alaska during WWII.
A home for vets (1944–1964)
After Northwest Airlines cancelled its lease, the House was leased for $1.00 a year to the Government of Canada as a convalescent hospital for wounded veterans. The federal government continued to lease the house until 1951 when it purchased the building outright for $350,000. Government House evolved from a convalescent home to a veterans’ home that housed approximately 75 wounded soldiers of the First and Second World Wars, and even a few from the Boer War.
Reverting ownership to the province (1964)
By the 1960s, post-war prosperity brought on by the 1947 Leduc oil discovery, along with anticipation of the centenary of Confederation, saw the province begin planning a new provincial museum and archives. It would be built on the north side of the Government House property. The Royal Alberta Museum opened to the public on December 6, 1967 under its original name – The Provincial Museum of Alberta.
While the new museum was being planned, the federal government sold Government House back to the province in 1964. The decision was made to use the House as the government’s official reception centre, as well as for cabinet and caucus meetings. In November 1966 the residents of Government House were moved to the new Mewburn Veterans Hospital, adjacent to the University of Alberta hospital.
A return to past finery
By the mid-1970s, it was obvious that the house required a major refit. Over a two-year period, the building underwent extensive renovations. Government House, renamed the Alberta Government Conference Centre, reopened on Heritage Day, 1 August 1976.
Government House Foundation (1975-2016)
In December 1975 the provincial government made clear its commitment to maintain this historic site when it passed the Government House Act, creating the Government House Foundation. The foundation was charged with advising the minister responsible for cultural institutions on the preservation of Government House, promoting its historical and architectural significance, and acquiring artifacts to be used or displayed in the House.
A National Historic Site and Provincial Historic Resource
The foundation was instrumental in having Government House declared a Provincial Historic Resource in 1985, and a National Historic Site in 2013. These designations ensure this historically significant building will be preserved for present and future generations of Albertans to enjoy. Government House continues to be well-used, hosting a wide variety of high level government, vice-regal and state functions, as well as regular public tours.
Did You Know?
- During his 1919 stay, His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales often went for a jog along the riverbank in what’s now Government House Park.
- During her time as chatelaine of Government House between 1925 and 1931, Eva Egbert (wife of Lieutenant Governor William Egbert) hosted a tea where she and two other women showed up wearing the same dress. The next morning, both dresses were taken back to their place of purchase for refunds.
- Lieutenant Governor Primrose (1936–1937) was the first Lieutenant Governor of Alberta to die in office. He was given the first state funeral in the history of Alberta.
- The last Lieutenant Governor to live in Government House was Lieutenant Governor Bowen. He was forced to move out in 1938 during a dispute with Premier William Aberhart regarding the signing of some bills. Electricity to the House was eventually shut off, forcing the Lieutenant Governor and his family to move.
- Government House is reported to be haunted. Papers are heard being shuffled, the elevators will move from floor to floor without anyone operating them, and staff and visitors report feelings of ‘being watched’.
- From 1949 to 1964, the veterans residing in Government House hosted an annual tea and bazaar to sell their handicrafts to the visiting public. Some of these pieces are displayed today on the third floor.
- In October 1971 Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin attended a state luncheon at Government House (and was invested as an honorary chief of the Ermineskin Cree Nation). Just hours after he left, a part of the main dining room ceiling collapsed when a chandelier fell to the ground.
- His Holiness John Paul II had a brief rest in the Primrose Room on the third floor during his tour of Canada in 1984.
- After attending a banquet at the House with Prince Charles in 1983, Diana, Princess of Wales walked out on the balcony to greet the crowd, which started a spontaneous chorus of Happy Birthday. She turned 22 the following day, on July 1.