Recently I was in Winnipeg for the Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation annual conference. Winnipeg is probably not on too many bucket lists, but the downtown core has some interesting old buildings and attractions around the Forks.
One of the most interesting buildings is the Manitoba legislature. Years ago, Frank Albo was driving by the leg when he spotted a sphinx on the west side of the roof. What is a sphinx doing there, he wondered. After spotting that sphinx, Albo spent years researching the legislature’s architectural history.
Several conference attendees were lucky enough to be part of a tour group led by Albo, who these days is an architectural historian with a PhD from Cambridge. It was a whirlwind look at Freemasonry, numerology, astrology, geometry and alchemy. He calls this mix of symbols and numbers and ratios the Hermetic Code.
What I found most interesting were the symbols and statues that adorn the building. There are, in fact, two sphinxes. One faces east, and one west. Each sphinx holds Egyptian hieroglyphics just below the chin which state: “The everlasting manifestation of the Sun God Ra, the good God who gives life.” That is not something you’d expect to find in Manitoba in 1920, the year the legislature was completed.
Albo told us the whole building was designed as a temple to Hermes (hence the Hermetic Code). Hermes is the gold-gilded statue on top of the building. Many people refer to him as the Golden Boy. He’s nude and running with a torch (perhaps a dangerous combination). Statues representing earth, air, fire and water sit at each corner of the dome supporting Hermes. Those four elements are a nod to alchemy, as is the gold figure in the centre of them.
Moving inside, the first thing that caught my eye was a pair of bison flanking the grand staircase (see photo at top). These bison are in what Albo calls the protection room. He told us the bison echo the bulls that guard temples from evil. He then pointed out several other icons in the room that serve the same purpose, including lion heads and cattle skulls. Another example is Medusa’s head, glaring down the staircase. Staring back up at Medusa is a bust of Athena. I can’t imagine anything scarier than being trapped in the middle of Athena and Medusa’s ancient grudge match, so I thought those icons were well-placed.
The attention to detail was fascinating to me. For example, sunlight touches every statue in the protection room at some point during the day. There are lots of mathematical details, such as three sets of 13 steps on the grand stairway, or 13 lights down each hall. There were also examples of Fibonacci sequences and sacred geometry, but I didn’t take notes fast enough to catch it all.
Albo told us that Simon believed architecture could influence people in a positive way — make us more rational, for example.
However, effective the Hermetic Code may be at influencing our moral character, there’s no doubt that Frank Worthington Simon left Manitobans a fascinating legacy. Frank Alba deserves a ton of credit for the years of research he’s done decoding the architecture.
Building a legacy
Whether by coincidence or design, the theme of legacy-building threaded through my entire conference experience in Winnipeg. Right after the legislature tour everyone gathered at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which is a short walk from the Forks.
The museum, envisioned by Izzy Asper, was the first national museum built outside the Ottawa area. It’s slated to be featured on Canada’s new $10 bill, along with civil rights activist Viola Desmond. The exhibits themselves chronicle the legacy of human rights abuses and advancements in Canada and around the world.
Then, early on Friday morning, I hopped on a bus with several colleagues and headed west. The first stop of the day was a pasture about 50 miles north of the U.S. border. Meadow larks trilled. Even I could see that there was a variety of vegetation in the landscape. The livestock producers who owned the quarter were working with the Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corporation to maintain the native prairie.
Curtis Hullick, a field manager with Manitoba Habitat Heritage, told us grasslands were disappearing rapidly in Manitoba due to economic pressure.
“In our minds, the species most at risk is the beef producer,” said Hullick. That’s bad news for birds and the beef industry.
We also visited SG&R farms, where the Boyd family manages the land with soil health in mind. They do everything from intercropping annuals to seeding farmland to diverse grazing mixes for their beef cattle. The field we looked at had been annual cropped for years before being seeded for grazing. Next year it will grow perennial crops before eventually going back into the annual crop rotation.
Ryan Boyd and his family are playing the long game with their farming methods. They’re not the only ones, of course. Many farmers and ranchers have future generations in mind. But the trick is to balance the farm’s financial needs with agronomic and environmental considerations.
Our last stop before supper was the Manitoba Agricultural Museum at Austin. It’s a collection of pioneer buildings and old machinery. It was another physical reminder of what the pioneers built in Western Canada.
Whether you’re building with bricks and mortar or working with soil, you’re creating a legacy. It’s worth thinking how future generations will view your handiwork.
For information on tours at the Manitoba legislature, visit the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba website.