Tuesday, 7 March 2017

1886 - Dominion Building

As it was nearing completion, the huge federal government facility at King and John streets in downtown Hamilton was ready for inspection.

On May 17, 1886, a Spectator reporter, armed with detailed specifications and costs given to him, toured the building. The following day, his lengthy, and very detailed description of the massive structure was published as follows:

 “Although the new government buildings are not yet finished, they are so near completion that a full and detailed description of them can be given, and the general public, which has been excluded while the work was in progress, can now enter and inspect the interior from cellar to attic. There is much to see and admire in the main building, for it is perhaps the most magnificent edifice of its kind in the country.

“On Aug. 1, 1882, the contract was let to Messrs. Van Allen, Brown and Love; the work on the foundation was begun in the autumn of the same year; and the buildings will be handed over to the government on June 1. The work has been pushed forward with great energy by the contractors, but there is no evidence of heaste in it; it is solid and enduring, and when the present century has rolled away, and the next is no longer young, and the present generation of Hamiltonians has disappeared from the earth, the citizens of Hamilton will point to the building as a sample of honest workmanship; the taste and skill of the building of a past age.


“It would be difficult to say exactly what is the style of architecture of the handsome pile which graces the corner of King and John streets. Perhaps it is best described as a mixture of Elizabethan and Corinthian. The walls are built principally of the reddish brown sandstone from Chisholm’s quarry in the forks of the Credit, 40 miles north of Hamilton. The face of the walls is elaborately ornamented with carving, all done by Hamilton and Toronto workmen. The caps and ponds of the pilasters, the keystones of the windows and the cornice are all rich with elegant devices, chiseled out of the stone. From the sidewalk to the eaves, the building is 80 feet high, and the measurement to the top of the main tower is 140 feet high: the slated spire 35 feet and the lead pinnacle 19 feet. The frontage of the building on King street is 96 feet; on John street 146.

“There are three public entrances to the building – one on King street and two on John street. The King street entrance leads into the Post Office. At the entrance inside is a wide vestibule of cherry wood, handsomely carved and elegantly finished. The public part of the office, from the screen to the front wall, measures 20 feet and 50 feet long. The ceiling is 25 feet high. In the center of the screen which separates the public from the private office is the semi-circular general delivery wicket, and on each side of it are 400 brass boxes. At the right end of the public office is the money order and savings bank office, fitted up with the necessary counters, vaults, etc. and at the opposite end is the office in which the registered letter clerk will preside. Behind the screen, the office is already provided with all the necessary tables, sorting cases, and a large, circulating ‘sortation box’ for sorting newspapers and parcels, which looks on the outside like a Brobdignagian beer keg, and on the inside like an immense cupboard upended by an earthquake. There are, opening from the main office, private offices for the postmaster, accountants, etc. A large room in rear of the general office, and opening from it, will be devoted to the letter carriers. The city mail will be sorted there before delivery.

“The first entrance on John street is a private entrance to the post office, and the general entrance to the customs office upstairs. At the foot of the staircase, preparations are now being made for putting in a passenger elevator which will run from cellar to attic.

“The second John street entrance leads into a wide corridor, which extends to the other side of the building. The rooms to the left of the corridor are to be used as a weights and measures office; the front one is 22 feet square and near one is 22 x 36 feet. The room to the right is the gas inspector’s office – 24 x 36 feet in dimensions and furnished with a fireproof vault, etc. From the west end of the corridor, a narrow staircase winds all the way to the attic.

“There are a few things in or about the building which the visitor will admire as much as the main staircase, the foot of which is at the first John street entrance. It has been pronounced by good judges the finest staircase in any public building in the Dominion. It is Elizabethan in style, and is built of cherry – steps, risers, newels, panel work, balusters and all. The balusters and newel posts are all richly carved. The cost of this massive and magnificent staircase was $4,000, and the cost of carving alone reaching nearly $1,000.

“It takes a long time to reach the first floor for the first time, there is so much to examine and admire on the way up. Once there, however, the visitor finds himself in a corridor 15 feet wide, and extending nearly the whole length of the building. At the right end of the corridor – occupying the whole north end of the building on this floor – are the customs offices.

“The general office, or ‘long room, is the handsomest room in the building. It is 40 feet wide and 50 feet long. Its lofty ceiling – 37 feet from the floor – is paneled, and the walls are covered with pilasters and panels. The panels and caps of the pilasters are finished in very elaborate stucco work, and high up, in the spaces between the pilasters, are large medallion heads in plaster of Paris. The room is wainscoted with cherry wood, 3 ½ feet high, and the counters are also cherry, with brass wire screens. There is a very large vault in this room.

Opening from the corridors is the collector’s general office, and his private box adjoins it. These two rooms are about 18 feet square. They are already carpeted and are being furnished and made ready for occupation. Adjoining these rooms and facing John street is the room which inspector Mewburn will occupy – a comfortable cosy apartment 16 x 20 feet. The ceilings in these rooms and throughout the remainder of this flat (except in the general customs office), have a uniform height of 17 feet. At the opposite side of the corridor, and opening into the general customs office, is the assistant collector’s office, fitted up with counter, railing, bells and all the necessary appointments.


“At the south end of the corridor is the main room of the inland revenue department – a room 30 feet square, with paneled ceiling, enriched cornices, carved caps and paneled pilasters. This room is divided by a semi-circular counter, with screens similar to those in the customs office. The collector’s private room adjoins the general office and opens into it as well as into the main corridor. In the rear of the main office is the accountant’s room, quite a large apartment.

“There are two or three other rooms on this flat, which will be utilized by customs and inland revenue officials.

On the second floor are nine large handsome rooms. The largest – a splendid apartment at the south end – has been looked at with covetous eyes by the city board of trade, which would like to secure it as a board room.; but it is hardly probable that the government will allow the board to have it. The purposes for which these rooms are to be utilized does not yet appear, but the time will probably come when they will be found useful. The ceilings of all these rooms are the same height – 17 feet, and the woodwork, though not as ornate, is elegantly finished.

“The attic is pilastered and finished, and is intended to be used as the private quarters of the caretaker – a position, by the way, for which there are several score of applicants.

          THE WOODWORK

“Just a word here about the way in which the woodwork has been done. All through the building, one cannot help noticing the elegance of finish and the lavish and tasteful ornamentation in this department of the work. The woodwork is all cherry. Mention has already been made of the fine decorative work on the main staircase, the carving on the doors of the rooms on the first floor is much more elaborately tasteful and profuse. Hours might be spent in examining the really artistic work on the panels of these doors, and even then the wealth and beauty of design and the excellence of workmanship which they display would not be fully appreciated. In the public part of the post office, too, some very elegant carving is to be seen; but the best is in the customs department ipstairs. Some idea of the wealth of invention lavished on the woodcarving may be obtained from the fact that, though there are about 300 panels, and something like 600 caps for columns’ pilasters in various parts of the building, the carving on not two of them is the same, each one having a design of its own.

          THE CELLAR

“To the practical builder, however, the cellar has greater attractions than all the ornamentation of the upper stories. Down here is seen the sketch of the building – its backbone – all the well-thought-out preparations for its stability and endurance. It is like some fortification is this cellar. The walls are very massive – ranging in thickness from 5 to 9 feet of solid masonry – and are built of unusually large stones, some of which weigh three tons each. The floor is all concrete, the 12 foot ceiling is plastered, and the walls are whitened. Down here are the three Garth furnaces which heat the building by means of hot water. Every room has its marble-topped radiator. Last winter, the furnaces were kept constantly going, and the results were quite satisfactory.


“The building which fronts on Main street is built of stone and white brick. Its dimensions are 32 x 128. The greater part of it is one-storied, but there are two or three upper rooms, and these will be set apart for the use of the caretaker. The large room on the ground floor is to be used as a customs warehouse; it is 82 x 32 feet in size. There are four offices opening from it.


“The different offices in each department are connected by electric bells and speaking tubes.

"There are fifteen fireproof vaults in the main building.

"The slate used on the roof is all from Nova Scotia quarries.

"Hoodless & Son have the contract for supplying the furniture, carpets etc.

“The total of the work has been $320,000, and the price of the ground was $45,000.

"The different offices in each department are connected by electric bells and speak-tubes.

"The walls in the customs department are left in condition for frescoing, which is likely to be done at some future time.

"All private offices are provided with marble-topped washstands, silver-plated taps etc. There are closets on every floor.

"Men have been at work on the foundation and building for nearly four years, yet not a single accident has occurred in all that time by which a man has lost a day's work.

"It was generally supposed that the government would fix an opening day and have a big celebration before the building was occupied; and a women's benevolent association and the three national benevolent societies applied for permission to take a prominent part in the ceremonies. It is likely that the government will allow the building to be quietly occupied without any demonstration whatever.

"The sidewalk fronting the main building, on King and John streets, deserves a word of commendation. It is Forsyth's granolithic pavement. The material is much superior to ordinary flagstone. It is more durable and easier to walk on.

"Provision has been made for a clock in the main tower. It will probably be put in this summer. Its height from the street will be 125 feet.”1

1 “The Palatial Offices : Of the Dominion Government’s Hamilton Officers.”

Hamilton Spectator.   May 19, 1886.




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