Building Province House
In 1787, the Nova Scotia House of Assembly passed an Act to erect a building dedicated to the legislative work of the colony. While the need for such a building was clear, it wasn’t until 1809 that a joint legislative committee was struck to procure plans for a Province House for Nova Scotia.
John Merrick, a native Nova Scotian and a master painter and glazier, submitted a design for a Palladian-style building 140 feet in length, 70 feet in breadth, and 42 feet in height. Prior to designing Province House, Merrick decorated the interior of Government House and the old Legislative Council Chamber. He also helped design St. Matthew’s Church and St. George’s Church.
Richard Scott, a master mason who supervised the construction of the Halifax County Courthouse, was appointed by the legislative committee to build Province House according to Merrick’s design. Scott was born in Scotland and immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1809. In addition to being a mason, Scott owned a sandstone quarry in Remsheg (later Wallace), which supplied the sandstone used in Province House’s construction.
On August 12, 1811, Merrick and Scott watched from the crowd as Lieutenant Prevost lay the cornerstone on the site of the Governor’s original residence. The masons surrounded the excavated site and the Lieutenant deposited a box of coins and a manuscript listing the officers of the day, including Merrick and Scott, in a cavity of the cornerstone. As a part of the masonic ceremony, the Lieutenant poured corn, wine, and oil over the stone and stated, “May the building that shall arise from this foundation perpetuate the loyalty and the liberality of the Province of Nova Scotia.”
Little did Merrick and Scott know that in less than a year, Nova Scotia would be at war, making it difficult for them securing labour for their project. The commission to conduct and superintend the building of Province House and Scott advertised for skilled and unskilled workmen and numerous supplies, including 30,000 feet of spruce boards. As construction unfolded, the number of workers skyrocketed, as did costs. In 1811, the original estimate called for seven Masons, three carpenters, an undisclosed number of labourers, and for Scott to be on site. Labour was estimated to cost £31/week. In 1814, there were actually 50 masons, six carpenters, an undisclosed number of labourers, plus Scott on site, costing £139 to £160 per week total. The original £20,000 budgeted for the project was expended by 1815 but the Province House was nowhere near complete. Thankfully, subsequent yearly budgets included extra sums for construction. In the end, Province House cost £52,000 to build.
In 1818, Merrick and Scott watched as Thomas Laidlaw placed the last stone on Province House. Although the interior was not yet finished, on February 11, 1819 the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council meet at Province House for the first time. No one knows if Merrick and Scott were present on opening day, but they would have read the account of Lord Dalhousie’s speech:
The circumstances of meeting you for the first time in this place, leads me to congratulate you on now occupying this splendid Building – erected for the reception of the Legislature, the Courts of Justice, and all the Public Offices. It stands, and will stand, I hope, to the latest posterity, a proud record of the Public Spirit, at this period of our History: And as I do consider this Magnificent work equally honorable and useful to the Province, I recommend it to your continued protection.
It would take a little longer for all of the interior decorations to be complete. Thirty-one crates full of ornaments were shipped from Scotland in 1819 and installed by the skilled mason and plasterer, James Wilson. Fine details in woodwork to the original House of Assembly Room were finished in 1820 by James Ives, a very well-respected carpenter. Much of the stucco work in the Legislative Council Chamber was finished by Mr. Robinson from England.
Merrick died in 1829. Unfortunately, he wouldn’t witness many significant events that happened in his building. Scott died in 1867, and thus lived to see Joseph Howe defend a criminal libel charge in the Supreme Court in 1835; the formation of the first responsible government in the British Colonies in 1848; and the Supreme Court transformed into the beautiful Legislative Library in 1862 by Henry F. Busch. Scott also witnessed Province House survive a fire in 1832 and narrowly escape another one in 1841. Both men would have been happy that their building survived the 1917 Halifax Explosion with only small amounts of damage to paintings, masonry, and windows.
In 2019, Province House celebrates 200 years since its opening. Very little has changed on the building’s exterior since Merrick and Scott saw it complete in 1819. Their building remains the oldest legislative building in Canada.