New Brunswick's soul and character in art: Celebrating the Centennial Building murals

Once considered the “greatest unknown treasure trove of visual art” by some, the art inside Fredericton’s Centennial Building is now largely invisible to most but the civil servants working there.

Murals were commissioned to fill building with art reflecting people and history of New Brunswick

The 50-foot fibreglass and metal relief structure of artist John Hooper can still be seen by visitors entering the building today. (John Leroux/ Supplied)

Once considered a great "treasure trove of visual art," the murals created for the inside of the Centennial Building in Fredericton are largely invisible today, says architect and author John Leroux.

But the murals, with the largest spanning 50 feet of the building's main lobby, remain a "freeze frame of what New Brunswick is about," Leroux said.

"It's our soul and character in art."

Leroux has just released a book, 1967 — New Brunswick's Centennial Building Murals, that dives into the history of the Centennial Building and the art.

It's our soul and character in art.- John Leroux , architect and historian

The building was constructed in the 1960s, when provinces and territories got money from Ottawa for celebrating Canada's Centennial in an enduring way.

Where others built art galleries, theatres and cultural centres, New Brunswick put its money into an office building for civil servants.

"It visually represented the progress we were going through," Leroux said. "And so the civil servants on their own accord, without the public pushing them, they just knew that they had to make this a cultural gem.

"It had to be more than an office building."

Art that reflects history and people

Leroux said the murals — painted, cut and shaped by some of the province's best-known artists — were to fill the building with art that would reflect the people and history of the province.  

The art was also meant to give a sense of the optimism of the time.

"The summer of love, the Expo, it was just a great time," Leroux said. "The economy was booming and culturally we had all these amazing artists, the best in Canada really."

John Leroux just released a book, 1967 - New Brunswick's Centennial Building Murals, that dives into the history of the Centennial Building and its art. (Pat Richard/CBC)

Artists were asked to compete for space in the building, and in the end six were chosen to produce murals for the Centennial Building. 

Although all six turned out to be men, two women, Rosamond Campbell and Molly Bobak, had competed for space.

"But the reality was, all of the six artists who submitted, who finally got the commission, they had all done large murals," he said.

The book uncovers many curious tidbits and stories about the building and the art. (John Leroux/Supplied)

A mural was installed in the lobby of each floor, although the work by Fred Ross was removed from the sixth floor in the 1990s, and its whereabouts, according to Leroux, are unknown.

Research for the book uncovered many more stories about the competition and the art itself, Leroux said, including how the province at first invited famous painter Alex Colville to submit a piece for the competition.

But he politely declined, saying he was a painter, not a sculptor. They turned to Fred Ross instead, and he ended up submitting a painting anyway, said Leroux.

"But they could have had a Colville mural, as well," he said. "They didn't really negotiate."

Tourist draw

In the 1970s, the building appeared in government tourism brochures, and public tours were offered.

But in the 2000s, after the attacks of Sept. 11 in the United States, the building and the history of the murals were largely lost to the public's mind because access became much more restricted.

It represents so much of modernism and kind of an international style of progress at the time, when that's the way the world built buildings like that.- John Leroux , architect and historian

Now that the building is being refurbished and restored, Leroux hopes the art will become more accessible again.

"Architecturally, it's a hard one to digest sometimes," he said.

"But it's a great building. It represents so much of modernism and kind of an international style of progress at the time, when that's the way the world built buildings like that.

"My real hope is that they open this book and their jaws will hopefully drop at the work that's there."

The Centennial Building opened in 1967 and centralized a number of government departments in close proximity to the New Brunswick Legislature. (John Leroux/ Supplied)

The welded, sheet-metal sculpture by Tom Forrestall represents the agricultural sector of New Brunswick. (John Leroux/ Supplied)

Jack Humphrey's venetian tile mosaic represents the fishermen and fishing industry of New Brunswick.

John Hooper's mural is a depictioni of New Brunswick history, with the Fathers of Confederation in the middle.

Claude Roussel's welded steel rod wire art shows the evolution of the forest industry, from log drives to pulp mills and everything in between.

Fred Ross created this large, round painting to evoke the 19th-century literary history of the province.

Bruno Bobak's large woodcut shows three miners and reminds the viewer of a paper print.