Government House is not only the official residence for B.C.’s lieutenant-governor, it is also the ceremonial home of all British Columbians.
The grounds of the house, located on a quiet street in Fairfield, are open to the public year-round. The doors are thrown open three times in the summer to coincide with free concerts on the lawns. And during the traditional New Year’s Day levee, British Columbians can wander the halls of the house that represents the province to visiting dignitaries.
“Other than Rideau Hall in Ottawa, we have the best facility in Canada,” said Jamie Hammond, private secretary to Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon. “But while it is a working house — it is her honour’s residence — we keep reminding people the grounds and house are accessible to all.”
The ballroom is used for ceremonies and receptions to honour individuals and organizations, while the dining room has seen numerous state dinners.
The upper rooms, including the lieutenant-governor’s suite and guest rooms for visiting royals or foreign heads of state, are off-limits to the public.
The house is kept to a high standard by a staff of 13, employed by the province.
This is the third building on the site. The first, Cary Castle, was built in 1859 but was destroyed by fire in 1899. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1903.
In 1957, the second structure met the same fate, burning to the ground. The only element left was a stone porte cochère that was added in 1909. The current building was officially opened in 1959.
The history of the grounds is almost as long as that of the house. The garden dates to just after the 1957 fire, when it was updated in the style of a traditional English garden. For decades, up to 17 gardeners tended the 14.5-hectare property, which includes Garry oak woodlands to the south. But austerity programs in the ’80s reduced the staff to only one.
In 1991, David Lam, lieutenant-governor at the time, initiated a volunteer program to help with the garden’s upkeep. Last year, the Friends of the Government House Gardens Society collectively logged more than 17,000 hours of work on the grounds, and it shows.
“The group puts heart and soul into that garden,” Hammond said of the 400 or so members who volunteer their time.
The wheelchair-accessible pathways are thanks to the late Garde Gardom, who embarked on a program to upgrade existing and build new, wider paths when he was lieutenant-governor from 1995 to 2001. He was also instrumental in having wheelchair-accessible washrooms installed for visitors.
Visitors to the gardens in the summer might have to dodge the many wedding parties that use the grounds to stage pictures of their special day.
Less famed are the modest structures found a short walk behind the main house and adjacent to the parking lot. The Cary House Mews are a cluster of buildings dating back to the early 19th century. These consist of original stables, carriage house and chicken coop. They are the oldest buildings of their type west of Manitoba. They have been refurbished and now house an interpretive centre, tea room and costume museum.
The interpretive centre is housed in the Butterworth Cottage, believed to be one of the oldest buildings in Victoria. It was at one time home to the head gardener.
The interpretive centre houses artifacts and pictures of the people who have lived and worked on the property.
The costume museum gives visitors a glimpse of fashion dating to the 1880s. Visitors can closely examine the ceremonial uniforms worn by past lieutenant-governors and the chatelaines’ dresses.
New to the mews this year are chickens. There are three breeds: Australop, Wheaten Ameracuna and Lakenvelder. When mature, they will supply fresh eggs to the house. Their inclusion was a suggestion by the current lieutenant-governor.