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. He 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.