Inside the $22M facelift for the Colonial Building

There's a good story behind the spectacular ceiling frescoes now brought back to full glory as part of a $22-million restoration of Newfoundland's former legislature.
Jerry Dick, director of heritage, culture and recreation, stands outside the historic Colonial Building in St. John's, which is undergoing an extensive restoration project. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

There's a good story behind the spectacular ceiling frescoes now brought back to full glory as part of a $22-million restoration of Newfoundland's former legislature.

The intricate patterns that embellish twin chambers where elected and appointed officials once governed the British colony turned dominion then Canadian province were painted by a Polish artist serving time for forgery.

Restoration of the Colonial Building is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2015. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)
It's perhaps the least you'd expect from one of the most fabled buildings in St. John's — a place that calls itself the City of Legends.

Jerry Dick, director of heritage for the provincial Tourism, Culture and Recreation Department, tells the tale of Alexander Pindikowski. The gifted artist wound up in Her Majesty's Penitentiary for 15 months in 1880 after forging cheques.

Rather than have his talents go to waste, his sentence was partly commuted in exchange for creating resplendent ceiling murals at the Colonial Building and other prominent sites around the city.

"There are lots of interesting things about this building," Dick said of the neoclassical structure that first opened in 1850. A triangular pediment dominates the exterior supported by six stone columns.

Project to be completed next year

The restoration to be finished by the fall of next year will transform the front lobby back to 1850 with faux marble and wood paint finishes considered among the finest of the day, Dick said.

Inside, the elected house of assembly and appointed legislative council chambers will be taken back to 1880 to showcase Pindikowski's stunning handiwork.

"There will be the desks of the legislators and we plan to use this space for things like historical re-enactments," Dick said. "We also see youth parliaments, debates and ... even special sittings of the house of assembly."

The storied site hasn't functioned as a legislature since just before provincial politicians relocated to the Confederation Building in 1960. It served as the provincial archives until 2005 and has since been maintained but mostly empty.

The $22.3-million revamp is being largely funded by the province with the federal government contributing just over $9 million.

Escaping a riot

Dick clearly enjoys pointing out the building's unique features. There's the staircase down which former prime minister Richard Squires escaped on April 5, 1932 as a riot raged outside over suspected government corruption and mismanagement. Newspaper accounts described how Squires was chased by the crowd into a nearby residence from which he narrowly fled.

Restoration work on the Colonial Building has found design features not seen in more than a century. (Paul Daly/The Canadian Press)

The incensed mob shattered the legislature windows and trashed furniture, causing extensive damage. Attempts to burn it down failed.

Happier times at the Colonial Building included lavish parties.

"We found a stash of champagne bottles that were probably from the 19th century," Dick said.

Shane O'Dea, a heritage advocate who has helped advise the project, recounted a list of pivotal events marked inside or on the steps of the old legislature.

"It is the site where we established responsible government in 1855, from which we declared the First World War in 1914 a century ago and then in 1932 there was that dreadful riot," he said.

"But probably the most important thing to occur in that building was the national convention."

O'Dea was referring to emotional, divisive debates between 1946 and 1948 about Newfoundland's future governance. A thin referendum vote majority ultimately saw Newfoundland join Confederation, becoming Canada's 10th province in 1949.

It officially became Newfoundland and Labrador through a 2001 amendment to the Constitution.

'Patterns I hadn't seen before'

Stephanie Hoagland, a senior associate with New York-based Jablonski Building Conservation Inc., assessed layers of paint finishes at the Colonial Building dating back to 1850.

"What we found was so incredibly highly skilled. And it was patterns that I hadn't seen before."

Dick said a wall in one of the upper offices revealing stencil designs and paint colours over the decades will be preserved to show how the decor evolved. The grounds will be restored to an original open forecourt with a historic wrought iron fence and gate.

But Dick said the Colonial Building will be very much a public place.

"I would like every young person in Newfoundland and Labrador to really understand their own political history. But also we want to use this building to help people understand better our political processes, our parliamentary system and some of the ritual and so forth that goes with that."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.