Category Archives: People and Places

The Architect of Victoria – Francis Rattenbury

February 10, 2015 by Martin Vernon

We might dispute who is the architect of Victoria – Francis Rattenbury or Samuel Maclure but residents and visitors alike should be grateful to them both for the distinctive stamp they placed on our city. Rattenbury designed a few dominating buildings in significant settings whereas Maclure created many fine homes in residential areas. They were contemporaries working in the same environment though rarely collaborated, partly due to the emphases of their work and partly for reasons of personality.

Francis Rattenbury was born in 1867 and trained as an architect with a leading firm in Yorkshire. BC Legislative Buildings Victoria - Francis RattenburyHe sailed to Vancouver BC in 1892 where he saw a newspaper announcement of a competition to design new buildings for the Legislative Assembly in Victoria. Cunning and manipulative means enabled his entry to defeat the other 66 entrants. At the age of 25 he had grasped the plum commission which led to future prominence and was indicative of his grand architectural style of public buildings. This 500 feet long classical domed building was opened in 1898, proudly overlooking the Inner Harbour of Victoria.

At that time the Inner Harbour consisted of James Bay flowing onto mud flats. These mud flats obstructed access to the Parliament Buildings from the commercial areas, not only an inconvenience but a smelly one too. The City failed to recognise that this undesirable land was prime real estate. They offered the land to the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1903 at no charge and with no taxes for fifteen years, if they would reclaim the land and build a “tourist hotel”. The C.P.R. selected Francis Rattenbury as architect and the Empress Hotel was born.

By now his commissions usually ended in court wrangling as Rattenbury’s unscrupulous ambitions brought him wealth and status but not personal respect. His nickname “Ratz” was doubtless ambiguous. Two buildings of his design now dominated the Inner Harbour, with a third to follow 20 years later; the very different columned Victoria Steamship Terminal, now housing the Robert Bateman Centre.

Rattenbury’s determination and over-riding ambition saw him win conflicts again and again including the commission in 1901, against the odds, to design a new official residence for the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Cary Castle burnt down in 1957 but its later replacement in the Rockland area, Government House, can be visited today.

One more major project, just behind the Empress Hotel, was to receive his grand interpretation of past architectural traditions: Crystal Garden. The Victoria Chamber of Commerce wanted what we would call today a recreation centre focussing on a swimming pool. Rattenbury’s design was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace with the swimming pool set under a grand greenhouse-style roof. The Crystal Garden proved to be immensely popular, gaining repute by Johnny Weissmulle of “Tarzan” fame setting an indoor swimming world record for 100 yards freestyle in 1925. This is all history now but it is a wonderful setting for part of the Victoria Conference Centre.

His admiration for past architectural heritage, set in a fast growing young city, led him to two conclusions which make him a man for today. One was a concern to preserve trees and create adequate parks. The other, which we have not come to terms with, was a desire to see some civic oversight over the designs along with height restrictions – artistic taste, though subjective, should be implemented.

Success never brought him happiness, with Rattenbury’s marital life bringing his final downfall; no less than his murder in England in 1935 by the lover of his second wife. His wife Alma and her lover received a sensational trial: he was found guilty and sentenced to hang, she committed suicide, then he was reprieved – a sad messy end for all concerned.

The beneficiaries of his inspired but unhappy life are … us. We can appreciate the character of the buildings at the centre of Victoria’s life, the Inner Harbour, and tour his legacies.

In the Footsteps of the Pioneers

October 30, 2013 by Martin Vernon

The pioneers of Victoria BC pop up in unlikely places. You’d expect that some fine houses of the politicians and leading townspeople of their day might still stand but what about the settling farmers? Even now we can walk in their footsteps.

My wife and I were walking through John Dean Park on the Saanich Peninsula Illahie - John Dean Parkwhen we unexpectedly encountered the remnants of the homestead of John Dean. The park, on the top of Mount Newton, has old-growth Douglas firs and an area of Garry oaks giving fine views over the Peninsula. In a rather dark, damp area of the forest we came across a sign about his home, Illahie (above), and could see where it had sat. John Dean came to Victoria in 1884 and became a dedicated conservationist, donating land for the park in 1921 to protect it from early urban growth.

Similarly, I was exploring Gowlland Tod Provincial Park Caleb Pike Housewith its wide variety of trails south of the Butchart Gardens, and saw Caleb Pike House. Caleb Pike sailed from England to Victoria in 1849 to work for the Hudson Bay Company along with his two brothers. He built the log house from 1883 in a remote setting almost a day’s ride from Victoria (now it is a 25 minute drive). You will also see two other buildings creating an interesting heritage setting to explore.

If the weather is fine, as it has been consistently this fall, then consider a pleasant stroll in the footsteps of our pioneers.

Closer to hand, downtown, is a source of information about the pioneers of Victoria BC which everyone will find fascinating: the superb Royal BC Museum. In the next post we’ll explore more of the early history of Victoria and the Pacific North West as discovered at this outstanding museum.

Money doesn’t matter, just build what I want

July 10, 2013 by Martin Vernon

Hatley Castle designed by Samuel MaclureIn 1906 James Dunsmuir, son of Robert Dunsmuir, purchased 800 acres of land in Colwood near Victoria overlooking the distant Olympic Mountains. Like his father, who had built Craigdarroch Castle, he had grand schemes for his own castle. He also shared his father’s use of cheap labour and fought organized labour.

James Dunsmuir commissioned Samuel Maclure, a renowned architect in Victoria to design his 40 room home in the Scottish baronial style much like his father had done. Maclure was instructed “Money doesn’t matter, just build what I want.”


Hatley Park

Local stone was used for the grand exterior and the interior was equally impressive. Hatley Castle was completed in 1908. Landscape artists from Boston created the various gardens which, like the house, can be enjoyed today. 100 men were employed in the gardens alone. Today the 565 acre estate is tended by less than a dozen staff. James Dunsmuir retired in 1910 and lived at Hatley Castle (the name we most commonly call Hatley Park) until his death in 1920. His wife continued to live there until she died in 1937. In 1939 the family sold Hatley Park to the Dominion Government for $75,000 and it became Royal Roads Military College. Then Royal Roads University was established there in 1995.


Hatley Castle - Japanese GardenThe gardens are a particular joy to visit, Particularly impressive are the Japanese, Rose and Italian gardens. It is interesting to compare the Japanese Garden with other Japanese gardens in Victoria: those at the Butchart Gardens and at the Gardens at HCP (Horticultural Centre of the Pacific).



Select from either a guided tour or take a self-guided tour. The Castle interior can only be viewed on the guided tour. Afterwards you might like to explore adjoining Fort Rodd Hill and the Fisgard Lighhouse.

Craigdarroch – a fairytale castle

June 30, 2013 by Martin Vernon

Once upon a time, in a beautiful land, there lived a wealthy
sweat-shop owner with his wife, two sons and eight daughters.

One day he said to his wife “I will built a beautiful castle for us to live in
so that handsome princes will come to court my princesses.”
So he bought lots of land, commissioned an architect,
employed workers, and used the very best materials money could buy.

Sadly, for this shouldn’t happen in fairy tales, he died a year
before his castle was finished. When he died his wife and family bickered
over his estate and within 20 years the castle had become a raffle prize.

Not all fairy tales have a happy ending.

Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria BC

The castle was Craigdarroch Castle, the man was Robert Dunsmuir. A coal-mining and railways magnate, he died in 1889, a year before the castle was completed.

Craigdarroch Castle had a chequered career in the following years but it is now appreciatively owned by the Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society. They have carefully restored it to the glory of its late Victorian heyday with its wonderful woodwork and stained glass.

Craigdarroch Castle staircase

Craigdarroch Castle is visited by 150,000 people each year. There are no gardens to see and its dramatic Scottish baronial exterior is hemmed in by houses in its Rockland neighbourhood. But the four storey interior is magnificent, typically toured in about an hour.

So, when you come to Victoria, do pay a visit to our fairytale castle, Craigdarroch Castle.

Next time, we will visit a different castle built by a different Dunsmuir.

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