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House Beautiful: Renovations bring Government House into modern age

Take a peek inside B.C.'s Government House, which underwent an extensive refurbishment during the COVID-19 lockdown, bringing it into the 21st century.

Until recently, whenever there was a power outage in Rockland and elegant homes were plunged into darkness, a tiny backup generator in the biggest mansion of all could barely keep one light burning and one refrigerator running.

Today, thanks to a major upgrade of health, safety, security and fire systems, British Columbia’s ceremonial home can keep the lights and heat on, as well as refrigerators and more.

A large new generator is just one element in the extensive refurbishment that lasted over a year during the COVID-19 lockdown, said Jerymy Brownridge, executive director of Government House and private secretary to Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin.

The multimillion-dollar project required months of painstaking pre-planning, design work and careful decisions to ensure the smooth, simultaneous flow of multiple streams of construction workers and teams of technical experts.

Brownridge noted that completion of the work is a strong indication that the B.C. government values the role and work done by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, and those in the office appreciate the fact that guests will be now be safer and more comfortable thanks to new wiring, security, fire prevention systems and HVAC.

The new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system will help prevent disease and allergies, said Brownridge. In the past the only option was to open a window.

State-of-the-art fire suppression is another vital upgrade since the last two government houses burned to the ground. The first, known as Cary Castle and built in 1859, was destroyed by fire four decades later. The next, a Rattenbury/Maclure design opened in 1903, burned down in 1957, leaving only the porte cochère.

This house, opened in 1959, now has an advanced fire control system with sprinklers in every room and suppression improvements that include fire dampers and fire stops.

The scope of work was vast, said Brownridge.

It included everything from a HAZMAT team removing asbestos in the basement to the ultra-challenging installation of a new six-inch water main that stretches from street to attic. It now wends its way, unseen, behind walls, around tight corners and through cupboards all the way to the top of the building.

“It’s almost a work of art,” said appreciative civil engineer Colin Smith, a volunteer trustee on the Government House Foundation and close observer of the refurbishment.

He said the work throughout was done to an “admirable quality.”

“Although almost all the walls and ceilings had holes in them, big enough to crawl though, I defy anyone to tell me where the work was done,” said Smith. “Without minute inspection it is almost impossible to detect the many areas that were extensively renovated … or to identify new doors and millwork.…”

The house is operating at full tilt now, still catching up for the shutdown in 2020-21. It’s abuzz with public events, diplomatic visits, art exhibits, presentation ceremonies and the awarding of honours and medals.

In recent weeks it has hosted 15 long-service award evenings — with dinners for 250 guests — and other events including police honours and more for excellence in education.

One of the upcoming highlights, being held for the first time in three years, is the black-tie Government House Foundation Ball on Nov. 19, a fundraiser for the Government House Foundation (see below).

The house has been in need of critical updates for years and work was set to begin in the summer of 2020, serendipitously very timely considering the house was shut due to the pandemic.

“If not for COVID these renovations could have taken as long as five years and cost a great deal more,” said Brownridge. Because they were done while the house was closed “there were great efficiencies.” (At this time the staff and Lt. Gov. Janet Austin had offices downtown.)

The renovation was challenging to say the least.

It required scaffolding to the ceiling in the ballroom and front entry, as well as scaffolding hung from the attic roof, to install water sprinklers in the massive, golden-arched ceiling.

The kitchen, which serves tens of thousands of meals every year, saw floors, back splashes, work surfaces and refrigeration units replaced. Chef Aleks Kornat said the slippery, small-tile kitchen floors were stressful and dangerous during big events.

Sharp-eyed guests will notice more sparkle at the house since every light fixture — including all chandeliers — was removed, rewired, cleaned and rehung with 5,200 new, energy-efficient light bulbs. Motion sensors ensure they shut off when people leave a room.

Other improvements include new carpets as many of the old wall-to-wall ones dated back to the 1950s. Brownridge noted the underlay had turned to dust in some areas and was a health hazard when people walked on it stirring up puffs of powder.

Restoration of the mansion was paid for by the B.C. Government.

The Foundation supports enhancements to the house, garden and programs of each Lieutenant Governor. For example, Her Honour Janet Austin recently initiated the Platinum Jubilee Awards to encourage investigative journalism, and to celebrate leadership, creativity and excellence in the musical, visual and performing arts.

The renovation called upon scores of local contractors and trades.

Kingsview Construction Ltd. was general contractor; project manager was engineer Behrooz Razban of the Ministry of Citizens’ Services; others were Ten Architectural Group; Stantech and WSP electrical and mechanical consulting; and security consultants PBX and Paladin Security.

Government House Ball

What: Government House Foundation Ball

Where: Government House, 1401 Rockland Ave.

When: November 19, 6 p.m. to midnight

Tickets: $350 per person with a $100 tax receipt. Get them through the Government House website or by calling Allison Farrell at 250-880-2301

Dress: Black tie, Mess Kit, evening dress with miniatures

A black-tie ball is being held at Government House for the first time in three years to honour the Platinum Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II and celebrate the new reign of King Charles III.

The elegant affair will feature the Naden Band, a lavish array of gourmet food, performance by pipes and drums, an open bar, scotch tent and more. It is a fundraiser for the Government House Foundation.

New Indigenous Gardens at Government House

Two new gardens featuring Indigenous plantings have been created at Government House to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

The estate already has extensive ornamental gardens and nine acres of Garry oak woodland, “but we welcomed an opportunity to create two new gardens,” said head gardener Valerie Murray.

“One of them includes a whole other palette of Indigenous plants including cedar, huckleberry, ferns and native bulbs set in a natural rocky outcrop close to the driveway and easily accessible.”

The other — named the Friendship Garden and located by the mews — extends the iris garden with the addition of a number of Indigenous plants, “and also includes sweetgrass, which is not native to the West Coast but was given to the gardens by a volunteer who received it from an Indigenous relative in Ontario,” said Murray.

The centrepiece of the latter is a bench carved by Haida artist Tejas Collison and Joslyn Williams, a Nuu-chah-nulth artist. It depicts two eagles with interlocking talons in mid flight.

Murray explained that eagles sometimes resolve disputes this way without mortally wounding each other — a powerful symbol for current times.

Two smaller complementary benches were created by local artist Robert Kid.

Funding for the gardens was shared by the Government House Foundation, the Commonwealth Society and the Friends of Government House Garden Society.

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