Every year, for one weekend only, Winnipeg opens up the doors of its public buildings to the commonfolk, offering guided tours interspersed with historical facts and local legend. Although the Manitoba Legislative Building is actually accessible to the public on an almost daily basis, it is not often that we get the opportunity to hear some of the stories contained within its four walls (or whatever magical number of walls it happens to have) and even rarer that we might receive a personal, after hours tour, courtesy of Ben the long-time security guard of the building, its people and its secrets.
Rushing into the grand entrance hall, literally falling up the dramatic stone steps and dripping from the rain outside we were disappointed to learn that we were too late. Doors had been metaphorically closed on us and the last guided tour was already wandering somewhere off on the third floor. Nevertheless, security suggested that since the building would remain open for a further hour or so we should use this time to take a look around by ourselves… I would urge anybody who lives in Winnipeg and has not yet set foot inside the overwhelming wooden doors to do so ASAP because this fascinating building is not only exquisitely designed, elegant and full of intricate details as well as its impressive grandeur and sheer size, but it is also steeped in mystery – maybe even magic!
So, we hurriedly scaled the building. From the majestic staircase with the twin bison to the pool of the black star, along endless marble corridors and up swirling steps through heavy wooden doors, we investigated as many nooks and crannies as we possibly could, pausing to take in the portraits of previous speakers before calling it a night. Already delighted at our evening’s explorations, we were entirely unaware that the best was yet to come.
“Is there anything you’d like to know? Any questions?” asked Ben as we thanked him for allowing us free range to explore. I hesitated between a polite ‘no’ or generic ‘When was it built?’ type question, but settled upon ‘Does the Golden Boy have a story to tell?’ Not being from Winnipeg, I had heard him mentioned but was unsure of in what context or if there really was anything to tell. Well, it turns out his story has had some very real ups and downs!
Ben politely obliged by showing us a few photographs as he entertained us with the facts, embellished by his own personal experience in recent years and his assistance in the royal visit of Her Majesty Queen Lizzie II – he does a cracking impression – which took place shortly after the restoration of the infamous statue, officially known as: Eternal Youth but affectionately dubbed Golden Boy.
When he had finished telling us about the damage inflicted upon the statue some years after its post-war arrival in Winnipeg, the tons of gold leaf used to cover the bronze and the fate-tempting fireworks display just days after the restoration was completed, it was as though Ben had warmed up and was ready to launch into the ‘good parts’ of the Legislative Building’s story.
So we raced off excitedly after our tour guide to the pool of the black star to learn about the Hermatic Code locked into the building’s spellbinding architecture. While we had already established for ourselves that the star central to the room was an acoustic anomaly, we had not yet realised the full effect. Bang bang bang bang – gunshots ricocheted off the surrounding walls. One powerful stomp of the foot in the correct spot sends shockwaves around the whole building. No wonder the grand-father clock that used to boom out each hour has long since been removed from the spot! That was certainly his crowd-pleasing party-piece.
Nevertheless we were eager listeners and were simply wowed as he unearthed details about Masonic traditions. From the number of points on the star, feet on the lamps, the incorporation of Greek mythology and placement of particular figures watching the building’s visitors enter and leave to the alternative interpretations of the Great War portrait in the Great Hall and location of the Scottish national flag. Nothing was placed without care or sculpted without reason. Even the buffalo have a story to tell!
There really is too much to write about in one blogpost and I don’t do either the history, mystery or the stories anywhere near as much justice as our story-teller did.
As we left I mused to myself that we had been lucky to be late and that if you don’t ask you don’t get. Had I not asked a simple question about a popular statue I would still be oblivious to one of the most interesting buildings right here on my doorstep. I stared up at the roof, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Arc of the Covenant; no such luck. Maybe Ben used some artistic licence… I guess we may never know!
For anyone interested in the Bison story – Apparently the giant bison on each side of the grand staircase were almost impossible to put into place and gave the builders, politicians and designers a headache for weeks. Finally a stonemason carving one of the lions in the lobby came up with the idea of flooding the place and letting it freeze so that the great weight of stone buffalo could be slid along the ice and up onto their pedestals. Very clever!
Also if you look carefully at some of the door handles they have buffalo on them which should be facing each other. Due to budget cuts they are all facing the same direction as though stampeding! The architect was mad so the person who authorised the cut said something along the lines of ‘No no, if bison face each other they are fighting, angry. If bison are facing the same direction they must be happy. We want happy buffalo.’ So there you have it! Happy buffalo in the Manitoba Legislative Building.
Visit www.doorsopenwinnipeg.ca for more information about events and participating locations for next year.