Manitoba History: Through the Architect’s Eyes: F. W. Simon Surveys his Masterwork - The Manitoba Legislative Building

by Hubert G. Mayes

Number 38, Autumn / Winter 1999-2000

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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According to a French saying, Le hasard fait bien les choses—“Chance arranges things well.” The truth of this maxim was illustrated for me during a recent foray into the Legislative Library of Manitoba. While searching for material relating to a very specific feature of the provincial Legislative Building, I stumbled on an article that made me more elated than if I had found what I was looking for.

Manitoba Legislative Building architect F. W. Simon.
Source: Winnipeg Free Press

The article—actually a short memoir—was published in the Winnipeg Free Press on 11 March 1935. The author, W. J. Healy, who was Provincial Librarian at the time, was writing with humour and perceptiveness about a meeting with F. W. Simon, the architect of the Legislative Building. The meeting had occurred (by chance) fifteen years earlier, in July 1920. I felt that if the article were reprinted with a few explanatory notes, it could still inform and amuse readers of today.

The events described by Mr. Healy probably took place a few days after the official opening of the Legislative Building on 15 July. The memoir is entitled “Bison under the Dome” and begins as follows:

Late one afternoon fifteen years ago, Mr. Simon was standing in front of the Legislative building by the side of the massive statue of Queen Victoria on the sunken lawn. It was a July day of strong sunshine, and he stood there as if he were a Greek just arrived across the centuries from ancient Athens, absorbed in admiring the imposing mass of his architecture and the play of light and shadow on column and cornice and on the figures that filled with sculptured life the pediment that faces Broadway. Presently Rev. Dr. Charles W. Gordon joined him. When a few moments later, a third joined the two, Dr. Gordon was telling the architect that the light-limbed young athlete in gold bronze, Marathon-running through the sky and just touching the pinnacle of the great dome with his left foot, had the wrong foot forward. The architect listened with impatience. After Rev. Dr. Gordon had gone on he did not conceal his displeasure.

“I’d like to see Ralph Connor running as hard as he could,” said Mr. Simon, “holding forward a torch in his right hand, would he change the torch to his left hand every time he put his right foot forward, and change it back to his right hand every time he put his left foot forward? What nonsense! The sky pilot should stick to his sky-piloting.”

Simon’s 1912 design for the Manitoba Legislative Building was chosen over sixty-six other entries.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Mr. Healy assumed that his readers would know who the Rev. C. W. Gordon was and would understand his references to the “sky pilot” and Ralph Connor. He was right, because the man in question was a very prominent Manitoban. Dr. Gordon, a minister first of the Presbyterian, then the United Church, had been one of the most famous authors in the British Empire in the first decades of the 20th century. Writing under the pen name Ralph Connor he published 25 novels, one of which was entitled The Sky Pilot, as well as his autobiography Postscript to Adventure. He served as a chaplain in the first World War, was a fervent advocate of social reform and chairman of the Joint Council of Industry, a board created by the provincial government to improve labor relations after the Winnipeg General Strike. He was a tireless public speaker for good causes and the holder of honorary degrees from Glasgow and Queen’s Universities. When he died in 1937, the vogue for his novels of adventure and Christian uplift had passed, but he was still a well known and highly esteemed member of the Winnipeg community.

What is one to think of his criticism of the Golden Boy statue? It seems at the least somewhat tactless to tell a distinguished architect that the piece of statuary he had chosen to crown his greatest artistic achievement was seriously flawed. One would like to think that Dr. Gordon was simply having a bad day.

The Healy article continues:

Then we walked into the building. When we came before the two huge buffaloes in green bronze, we found a man, woman and two children were looking up at them. The woman informed Mr. Simon, who was not at all interested, that she and her husband and the two children were from Nebraska, and that they were touring in the Ford, and that they had already been eight days on the road, including stops, and that they had had no car trouble. She also told him that she was surprised to see those two buffaloes in an English building. Mr. Simon stared at her, and before he knew it had asked “why?”

“Because buffaloes are American, not English,” the woman explained to him.

Mr. Simon’s manner became frigid, and he did not speak to the woman again, though it was evident she would have liked to have a friendly talk with him. When she and her family had moved on, he laughed. “I suppose she thought the bison should be lions,” he said. “Or, maybe, a lion and a unicorn.”

One can understand Simon’s irritation on being told that the “buffaloes” were not a fitting symbol for Manitoba. However, his acerbic choice of the unicorn as an example of what not to use as a provincial symbol has an ironic ring today: the province’s new coat of arms (1992) has a unicorn rampant on the left-hand side of the shield. According to the official description, “this complex, fascinating and graceful mythical creature is one of two supporters in the Royal Arms of Canada, in turn inherited from the Arms of Great Britain and ultimately from Scotland, homeland of many of the first Europeans who came to Manitoba.” One suspects that not many Manitobans of Scottish descent realize that their contribution to the province is recognized by an animal that was one of the supporters on the royal arms of Scotland.


Plan of Second Floor.

Plan of Second Floor.

Architects Brown and Vallance’s proposed design for the Manitoba Legislative Building, 1912.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The bison still occupies the central position on our coat of arms, as he has done since the insignia was authorized in 1905, but his appearance has undergone some interesting transformations. In a brochure entitled The Story of Manitoba’s Legislative Building published by the Department of Industry and Commerce (no date), the following passage appears:

Manitoba now (1905) had its own coat-of-Arms. But several complications were to follow. When the Warrant of Registration arrived in Winnipeg it was accompanied by an unexpected bill for twenty-five pounds, one shilling, for an “armorial design” which included a buffalo with a human, or almost human face. This design, approved and accepted by the government, was used on documents and stationery. But the human-like features created quite a stir. Many printers and engravers, assuming that the design was a mistake, began to substitute designs of their own. This practice became so widespread that the King’s printer finally insisted that the official buffalo, regardless of his humanlike features, should henceforth be used without variation. Since 1947 this has been done.

One of the bronze bison that flanks the grand stairway at the Manitoba Legislative Building.
Source: Hubert Mayes

The bison depicted in the brochure does indeed have a human profile. In recent times, however, the bison shown on most government documents is an extremely simple, stylized representation. But what form does the animal assume on the new coat of arms? It no longer has a human face (an undisputable improvement), but the artist has somehow contrived to change its shape so that it now appears to be the victim of an emaciating illness. In addition, the artist has the less-than-noble beast perched on a sharply outlined mountain crag. Our bison of the plains and northern woods looks strangely uncomfortable. Perhaps it is the nature of coats of arms to have a faint air of absurdity. This premise is confirmed by a glance at the top of our own. There, crouched on the golden helmet signifying co-sovereign status in Confederation is a disgruntled-looking beaver. He has reason to look unhappy, because resting on his back is a royal crown as large as he is. He is bracing himself with his tail—a tail which seems to be growing out of his back legs. However, in spite of his undignified pose, he dutifully holds up in his right front foot a huge prairie crocus, the Province’s floral emblem.

I would like to think that Mr. Healy would have forgiven this digression on the beaver because he was obviously interested in symbols and amused by incongruity, but we must get back to his story. Simon has just reacted to the American woman’s claim that “buffaloes are not English.” It has been recorded already that to hear the buffaloes spoken of as buffaloes displeased him. He called them always North American bison. Frank Worthington Simon, to give him his full name, was English, unlike the buffaloes.

Liverpool was his home. When the Government of Manitoba, in December, 1911, decided upon a Legislative building, designs were asked for and the competition thrown open to all architects in the British Empire. Sixty-seven designs came in. Of those it was decided that two were of outstanding excellence. One was the design submitted by the firm of Maxwell Brothers of Montreal, who had designed the Legislative buildings for the two new Provinces between Manitoba and the Rockies and supervised their construction. The other was Mr. Simon’s. It was decided to leave the choice to Leonard Stoke, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects. He did not know whose the plans were. He gave the award to Mr. Simon’s. And it is only the plain truth to say that we have an incomparably finer building here than the one at Regina or the one at Edmonton. Mr. Simon had studied at Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts at Paris, he had designed the buildings of the Edinburgh International Exhibition, the Cotton Exchange building in Liverpool, and the buildings of the Liverpool University, to name no others. Two years before he died he became president of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Simon’s death occurred on 19 May 1933 in Menton on the French Riviera. I did not know this when one day in the spring of 1990, while walking through the Trabuquet cemetery in Menton, I was startled to see a tombstone (actually a columbarium slab) inscribed simply with these words: “In loving memory of Frank Lewis Worthington Simon—Born 31 March 1862—Died 19 May 1933.” Writing later about this chance occurrence, I surmised that Simon had chosen to spend his last years in the beautiful surroundings and gentle climate of Menton. Still later, I discovered from newspaper and magazine obituaries in the Legislative Library that Simon had indeed lived “for the past eight or ten years” in France. It is an interesting coincidence that two Britons who played important roles in Manitoba’s history—Simon and Lord Selkirk—are both buried in southern France.

Mr. Healy again:

On that July afternoon fifteen years ago, the Nebraskan family having wandered down a corridor, Mr. Simon and the present writer went up the stairway to the Legislative chamber, which was at that time was filled with scaffolding for Augustus Teck, of New York, and his assistants on the mural paintings. For each of the double doors of the chamber, as of the other principal rooms in the building, Mr. Simon had designed a pair of bronze escutcheon with a buffalo at the top. He had designed them so that the one on the left-hand door faced the one on the right-hand door. But by some mistake only the designs for the right-hand doors had been cast and the escutcheons, all rights, had just been placed on all the doors of the chamber He was greatly displeased and said that all the offending escutcheons would have to be taken off and the lefts he had designed cast and put in their place.

The escutcheons as they were, all rights, said the present writer, showed the buffaloes going in Indian file, as their habit was when they went from a grazing ground to the nearest drinking place. “The trails which remained on the prairies many years after the er-bison,” he went on, “had vanished showed those routes which they had travelled morning and evening to the nearest river or stream. It was only when the herd migrated to a new grazing region that the bison travelled en masse. When visitors in generations yet to come stand in the circular Legislative chamber, the buffaloes on the escutcheons on the three sets of double doors will go around from right to left, one after another, in Indian file. It will show how thoroughly you studied the habits of the North American bison before you designed those escutcheons.” The architect smiled and said nothing. And he did not order the escutcheons changed. The buffaloes on them are travelling from right to left.

“One way” bison escutcheons on the doors of the Legislative Chambers.
Source: Hubert Mayes

Statue of Lord Selkirk at the east entrance of the Manitoba Legislative Building.
Source: Hubert Mayes

Was Simon won over by Healy’s ingenious defence of the “one-way” bison—or did the architect simply decide that the expense of changing half of the escutcheons could not be justified? We can only conjecture. Certainly no effort was made in the following decades to rectify the mistake, and any visitor to the Chamber can verify (as I did recently) that the bison still advance in single file from right to left. Should any reader decide to do this while sharing my original uncertainty about what an escutcheon actually is, I shall simplify that person’s task by noting that, according to Webster, an escutcheon is “a protective or ornamental plate or flange (as around a keyhole).”

Before reading Mr. Healy’s concluding paragraph we should pay tribute to him by setting down a few facts about his life. He was born in Belleville, Ontario in 1867, spent his childhood in Toronto, and graduated from the University of Toronto in 1890. He spent a number of years in the Press Gallery of the House of Commons, and nineteen years as associate editor of the Winnipeg Free Press (1899-1918). He became provincial librarian in 1920 and continued in this position until 1937. His Women of Red River, and several other books on Manitoba’s history, were published in the nineteen twenties. He died in 1950.

And now the final paragraph of his reminiscence:

Then we went down to the main floor and out to the east door and afterwards to the west door of the building, to see the four statues, LaVerendrye, Selkirk, Wolfe and Dufferin (their weight, each with its plinth being a mass of stone in one piece, making a total of more that forty tons), being placed in position by means of specially made slabs of artificial ice on that blazing hot day in July. But there is not room here today for that story.

The four statues were the work of the Piccirilli Brothers of New York. They were a long established firm with a reputation for work of high quality. The choice of famous personages to occupy the four important locations must have been Simon’s, but he no doubt received advice from Manitobans who were familiar with the history of their province. It is obvious that they would recommend La Verendrye and Selkirk, but why Wolfe and Dufferin? Wolfe was of course the “dauntless hero” of the British conquest, and Dufferin was the first Governor General to visit Manitoba, but one cannot help feeling that all the statues should have represented persons who played an important role in the development of the province. The pioneer missionary Provencher and his successor Archbishop Taché might have been considered, and the first inhabitants of the province could have been honoured with a statue of Chief Peguis. And why not at least one woman? This might have been and archetypal pioneer woman, or one of the women who led the fight for female suffrage just a few years before.

Constructmg the Legisiative Building, June, 1916. Photographed by L. B. Foote.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

But the most important question of all, from a contemporary point of view, has to be “Why was the founder of the province, Louis Riel, completely ignored?” The answer is simple: in 1920, and for many years thereafter, Riel was generally regarded as a murderer and a traitor, at least among the Anglo-Celtic majority. The erection of a statue in his honour would have been out of the question.

Statue of LaVerendrye at the east entrance of the Manitoba Legislative Building.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The way in which the statues were placed in position sounds like an interesting story. Did Mr. Healy ever get around to recording it? Perhaps someone will attempt to find the answer. Or perhaps there is someone who kept a scrapbook of Mr. Healy’s historical articles, and that some individual, or a descendant, may some day supply the missing information. And of course it may just turn up like “Bison under the Dome.” Souvent le hasard fait bien les choses.

Page revised: 19 August 2017