The current Ontario Legislature building was officially opened on April 4, 1893. Designed by Buffalo architect Richard Waite, it marked the appearance in Toronto of the Richardson Romanesque style, which quickly became a favourite of the young provincial capital. Other structures in the same style within walking distance of Queen’s Park include the York Club at Bloor and St. George streets, the former Ontario College of Art building on College St. near University Avenue, and Old City Hall.
A unique feature of Waite's design is the placing of the Chamber over the front entrance to the building, such that it constitutes the dominant feature of the front façade facing University Avenue, and is approached via a grand staircase leading up from the main lobby.
The Chamber is rectangular in shape, about 19 metres wide and 24 metres long, with a ceiling over 15 metres high. It is divided lengthwise by a central aisle, with the main entrance to the Chamber at one end facing the Speaker’s elevated dais at the other end. On each side of the aisle are members’ desks aligned in rows. Just inside the entrance is a barrier known as the Bar. When someone is found to be in contempt of the House, the transgressor is summoned to the Chamber and made to stand at the Bar to apologize. (This venerable procedure, rooted in British parliamentary tradition, has not been invoked by the Legislature since 1903). Surrounding the Chamber are the four Galleries. Just above the main entrance and facing the Speaker is the Speaker's Gallery. Behind and above the Speaker is the Press Gallery. The Visitors' Galleries run the length of each side of the Chamber, as is typical in parliamentary democracies based on the Westminster model.
The government Members occupy the seats to the right of the Speaker, and the opposition the seats to the left. The Premier and his ministers sit in the front rows, confronted across the aisle by the leaders of the opposition parties and their senior colleagues, each with the serried ranks of their supporters behind them. Hence the term ‘backbencher' for those who do not have a Cabinet position.
The colour scheme in the Chamber has been altered on more than one occasion over the last hundred years. For decades the desk tops and seats were blue, and the carpets and drapes red. During the summer of 1999, as part of renovations to arrange the Chamber for a smaller number of Members (103, down from 130 in the previous Parliament), the decision was made to outfit the Chamber in "parliamentary green", the principal colour in the British House of Commons since the 17th century, and a significant feature of the Ontario Chamber's original colour scheme. Green also appears in the colour schemes of the Canadian House of Commons and five other provincial legislatures, as well as many others in the Commonwealth.
When the Chamber was opened in 1893, visitors marvelled at the colourful painted ceiling featuring intricate maple leaf designs and the allegorical murals contributed by artist Gustav Hahn, the most important Canadian artist working in the Art Nouveau style popular at the turn of the century. These murals depicted women symbolically representing the virtues of good government, such as moderation, wisdom, and justice. However, in 1912, in a move which seems inexplicable today, the painted ceilings disappeared under layers of painted canvas and horsehair, intended to muffle echoes and improve the Chamber's acoustics, and at about the same time Hahn's murals were covered over by paint and a simple 10 inch stencilled border in greys, beige and gold leaf. This border, as well as a stencilled pattern painted over the ceiling canvas, eventually disappeared as well.
The recovery of the Chamber's original artwork has been an ongoing project since an all-party legislative committee approved a restoration master plan for the Legislative Building in 1991. A small section of one of Hahn's murals was uncovered in 1994 by the Legislature's heritage conservators. However, the process of paint removal is painstakingly slow, and can only be undertaken when the House is in recess. Considerable progress has been made in uncovering the ceiling and two of Hahn's allegorical paintings. The stencilled border is now visible, but eventually it too will be removed to expose Hahn's work, which is considered to be of greater heritage value.
Also, all of the arches and decorative plaster relief work have been repainted in their original 1893 colours.
Fortunately, the exquisite wood craftmanship of the Scottish wood carver William McCormack and his team has survived unscathed over the years. On surfaces throughout the Chamber, he and his assistants wove wooden tapestries of whimsical figures — bats, dragons, wolves, monkeys, gargoyles, leaves and flowers, as well as crinkled faces and caricatures. There are also several larger carved panels in the Chamber, the most spectacular of which is the huge mahogany Royal Coat of Arms above the Speaker's Chair, which is signed in the lower right hand corner by McCormack himself.
The Speaker's dais, installed for the opening session in 1893, was constructed of solid mahogany from San Domingo. It displays the date 1867 (signifying the date of the confederation of Canada), and is guarded by two sculptured lions on decorated columns.
The dates 1792 (commemorating the first parliament of Upper Canada) and 1892 (believed to signify the year the new parliament building was completed), were intended to be carved on either side of the date "1867", as is shown in the original drawings of the Speaker's dais. For unknown reasons, these carvings were never done.
The Speaker's chair dates back to 1874. It was made in Toronto for Speaker Wells for the grand sum of $100. Until World War Two, it was the custom for each Speaker to take his chair with him when he retired. However, before the 1943 election Speaker Clark made it clear he could not accept his chair because he lived in an apartment in Windsor; instead, he was presented with a portrait of himself. This has been the practice ever since. Every Speaker now uses Mr. Wells' chair, which was donated to the Legislature by his family.
In front of the Speaker sits the Table of the House. Placed at its end is the Mace, the symbol of the authority of the Speaker in the House. While the Speaker is officiating over the House, the Mace must be placed on the Table. No business may be conducted unless the Mace is present.