Province House, currently located in downtown Halifax, stands on the original site of the first governor’s residence in Halifax in the colony of Nova Scotia. It is the oldest legislative building in Canada and has been characterized by some as the finest example of Palladian architecture in the country.
Province House has been the permanent home of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly since 1819. It also housed an upper chamber from 1819 to 1928.
Meeting houses for the Nova Scotia Legislature
Prior to the permanent structure being built, the legislature met at various buildings in Halifax:
October 2 - 30, 1758
The first meeting is held in the Court House at the corner of Argyle and Buckingham Streets, which is the current site of Scotia Square Mall.
October 31, 1758 - May 1, 1759
The House meets at Mr. Walter Manning’s. The Journals record payment of £50 on April 11, 1759 to Mr. Manning.
1759 to 1764
Location uncertain but could have been at Mr. Manning’s. He died in 1764.
Ca. 1765 to 1789
Old Halifax Grammar School Building, on the northwest corner of Barrington and Sackville Streets. Shirley Elliott states that the House moved to this location in 1765; Thomas B. Akins, in his “History of Halifax City,” (1847), states that it moved to this location in 1765 or earlier.
1789 – 1819
Cochran’s Building, present site of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia on the southeast corner of Hollis and George Streets.
1819 - present
Legislation passed leading to the building of Province House
At the end of the 18th century, the need for a building dedicated to the legislative work of the colony became apparent and various legislation passed toward achieving this goal:
1787 An Act for enabling Commissioners to make Sale of the public Buildings therein named for public Uses, and to erect on the lower Parade in the Town of Halifax a commodious Building, and also to provide or build a Common Jail (1787, c. 10)
After the old court house burned down in 1789, the House passed:
1790 An Act to provide a suitable place for the General Assembly and King’s Courts to sit in, and for other public Purposes (1790, c. 10) is passed after the old court house burned down in 1789. This act provided the “Province lease from the Honourable Thomas Cochran [Councilor], James Cochran and William Cochran of the Town of Halifax … all that new Building belonging to them now in Front of the Government House … at a Yearly Rent of two Hundred Pounds.” The Province of Nova Scotia continued to lease this building until April 1, 1819.
1797 An ACT for appointing Commissioners to determine upon a ground situation, in the town of Halifax, and to purchase Lots of Ground if necessary, to erect a Public Building, for the accommodation of the General assembly, Court of Chancery, Supreme Court, and Court of Admiralty, and Public Offices, and for procuring plans and estimates for a building hereafter to be erected for the residence of the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor, or Commander in Chief, for the time being.
Despite these attempts to move forward with a new building, nothing happened.
Two years later, Governor Wentworth refused to live in the decaying governor’s residence any longer. As a result, the Legislature deferred the proposed building in order to construct a new Government House instead, on the south Barrington Street property originally intended for the legislative building.
1799 An ACT in amendment of an Act, passed in the Thirty-seventh year of His Majesty’s reign, (1799, c. 9) authorizes a new Government House.
1800 An Act to provide suitable places for the General Assembly, and King’s Courts to sit, in and for other public Purposes (1800, c. 4) passes, but again nothing is done. The Act recognizes that the lease term for Cochran’s Building was coming due and that the government should renew the lease for three more years.
Finally in 1809, the Journal and Proceedings of the House of Assembly record that there is need for a separate Legislature and public offices building. A joint committee was struck “to procure plans for the erection of a Province House, for the accommodation of the Legislature, and for Public Offices, and also estimates of the probable expence of the said building in case it shall be erected of Stone,
Brick or Wood, and to report thereon as soon as possible” (Journals, November 24, 1809, p. 22). The committee presented its report, but the process stalled.
On December 20, 1809, Mr. Simon Bradstreet Robie, member for Halifax County, moved: “Whereas the ruinous and decayed state of the Building, in which His Majesty's Council and the House of Assembly now sit, makes it inconvenient and unhealthful to hold the General Assembly there any longer; and it is expedient to provide a more convenient place for that purpose, to be occupied until a Province House shall be provided.” This resolution was moved as an attempt to set up a commission to find another place to rent. On the next day, the Council did not agree to the motion.
In 1811, Governor Prevost’s Speech from the Throne recognized that Cochran’s Building was no longer suitable for the Legislature. He said, “The prosperous state of this Province, requires that the different Branches of the Legislature, - the Courts of Justice, and the Public Offices, should be better accommodated than they are at present – I therefore recommend that object to your consideration.”
In response to the 1811 Speech from the Throne, the House finally passed numerous resolutions, which culminated in an Act for erecting a Province House, on the Ground where the old Government House now stands for the meeting of the different Branches of the Legislature and other public purposes (1811, c. 14). Finally, planning for a new building began in earnest. The Act specifies that the building plan will be based on a plan derived by Mr. John Merrick, who, oddly enough, was not an architect, but a painter.
Province House architecture
There is some controversy as to who designed Province House. The Journals and the Statutes clearly state that John Merrick, who was a painter and glazier, created the design, but an article in the Acadian Magazine (1826) attributes it to Richard Scott, who was a master builder and the supervising architect for the project. Scott had the necessary skills to design the building.
Built according to the British Palladian tradition, which emphasizes symmetry and is based on Greek or Roman temple architecture. Key Palladian features include a central door with triangular pediment and a hierarchy of storeys.
The building dimensions are 43 meters (140 feet) long and 21.5 meters (70 feet) deep.
Sandstone quarried from Remsheg (Wallace), Nova Scotia.
Interior iron staircase likely ordered from Kidston and Sons of Glasgow (Pacey, p. 50).
There are some blind windows on the third storey, best viewed from the exterior of the Red Chamber.
Legislative chambers are located at the north and south wings of the building. Each room measures 70 by 32 feet.
Ground level flooring is made of white marble and black limestone with visible sea fossils.
Coat-of-arms, carved by David Kinnear, over the main entrance is that of George III. The inscriptions are the mottos of the Order of the Garter (Honi soit qui mal y pense – “Shame on him who thinks this evil”) and that of the British Monarchy (Dieu et mon droit – “God and my right”).
Doors, window surrounds, and plaster mantels thought to have been imported from Scotland.
Building Province House
On August 12, 1811, the cornerstone was laid by Governor Prevost.
A sum of £20,000 was originally allocated for the task of building Province House. Over the course of the 8 years of construction, however, £52,000 was spent on the project. The builders used local sandstone from Remsheg (Wallace).
The Journals record delays in the construction of Province House due to skilled workmen shortages, labour disputes, and the war with the United States.
Province House opens
Finally, on February 11, 1819, Province House officially opened. Lord Dalhousie’s Speech from the Throne states:
The circumstance of meeting you for the first time in this place, leads me to congratulate you on now occupying this splendid Building – erected for the reception of the Legislature, the Courts of Justice, and all the Public Offices. It stands, and will stand, I hope, to the latest posterity, a proud record of the Public Spirit, at this period of our History; and as I do consider this magnificent work equally honorable and useful to the Province, I recommend it to your continued protection.
Renovations to Province House
Province House has undergone many changes over the years. Perhaps the Red Chamber, former home of the upper house, has seen the fewest number of changes.
Selected additions and alterations:
1819 An iron fence, by the Carron Company foundry in Scotland, is installed around the Province House grounds. The name of the company is inscribed on the bottom of the south post of the Granville Street entrance.
1824 Ceilings in the Supreme Court are lowered to create three rooms above the court. One of them was to be used as a committee room. (Journals, 1824, p. 404).
1837 A door is installed adjacent to the main door to the Red Room to allow public access to Legislative Council proceedings.
1862 The Supreme Court moves to its new home on Spring Garden Road and the Legislative Library took its place. Henry F. Busch was the architect for this transformation. The cast iron work was crafted by the Mitchell Foundry in Chebucto and the woodwork by Graham and Davidson (Halifax Express, February 12, 1862).
The Notman image shows the governing party sitting on the left side of the Speaker and the opposition on the right. Now the Speaker sits on the north side of the room with the Government on the right.
Major renovations take place to install a heating system. Excavation of a space below the building makes room for the boilers while two chimneys are removed from the House of Assembly chamber. At this time, the orientation of the chamber changed from east-west (above) to north-south and the curved gallery was also installed. Edward Elliott designed the new configuration (Debates 1889, pp. 336-9). Accounts show payment for electric light in 1886.
Parking lot at north end of building is paved.
Washrooms and committee rooms are added to the basement.
An elevator is installed.
Major stone restoration is completed to the exterior of the building.
Legislative Television space provided on the third floor.
An accessible entrance and washrooms are installed.
Cornerstone is laid by Governor Prevost on August 12.
Province House officially opens on February 11 and the Supreme Court opens on May 1.
On March 11, a candle starts a fire in the Chancery Room, which was occupied by the Halifax Library (northeast corner).
On January 25, Legislative Council proceedings open to the public and a special door was installed for the public to use.
Henry Hill is commissioned to create architectural drawings of Province House.
Committee reports a need to unite and find a suitable space for the Legislative Council and House of Assembly library collections under the Sergeant-at-Arms.
Reporters’ gallery is built in House of Assembly Chamber.
First indication that the Legislative Library could be located in the Supreme Court space.
Legislative Library opens.
Boer War monument cornerstone is laid October 19, by the Duke of Cornwall and York. The Province donated $3500 in 1902 to cover the cost.
Joseph Howe monument is installed by the Province at a cost of $10,455.79. The cornerstone is laid in 1905 by Lord Grey, Governor General of Canada.
Cannon from the HMS Shannon is placed at the north end of building.
The Halifax Explosion causes $10,000 in damage, mostly to glass and masonry.
On December 2, an official ceremony is held to commemorate the exterior stone restoration.
A control room is built for Legislative Television.
Cannons - Of the two cannons flanking the building, the north side cannon was originally from the HMS Shannon. In 1813 it was removed from the Shannon after it triumphantly captured the Chesapeake and lead it into Halifax Harbour. This cannon was later used at the Citadel as the noon gun until around 1905 when it was brought to Province House. In 1913, a plaque was unveiled by General Sir Ian Hamilton, which reads “Tradition saith that this cannon was used on board the HMS Shannon, June 1st, 1813. It was used as the noon and evening gun, 1882-1905.”