Friday, January 6, 2012

Book celebrates Victoria's notable private residences

The author Nick Russell stands in front of Pinehurst, an 1889 mansion in Victoria's James Bay neighbourhood. Chad Hipolito photographs for the Globe and Mail.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 4, 2012


The block on which Thomas Donovan built his family home included three carpenters, two laborers, a butcher, a saddler, a plasterer, and a letter carrier.

It also boasted a bricklayer. You only had to look at the exterior of No. 23 Milne St. to know where he lived.

In a city surrounded by forest, with mills lining the waterways and timber both plentiful and cheap, Mr. Donovan built his home of red brick.

It has a hipped roof and cross gables, as well as a patterned frieze separating the ground floor from the second. The home is a spectacular testimony of a craftsman’s skill.

The records suggest it took him three years and $2,000 to complete by the time his family moved in 110 years ago.

The Donovan house is one of the homes featured in Glorious Victorians, an illustrated book celebrating the capital city’s stunning stock of notable private residences. The book’s subtitle promises 150 houses to mark the city’s 150th birthday this year, with entries from castles to cottages, and in architectural styles ranging from Queen Anne Revivals with their fussy gingerbread woodwork to art-deco wonders of sleek, curvilinear shape.

As the capital of a province dependent on natural-resource industries, with dramatic boom-and-bust cycles, it is a wonder so many remarkable homes have avoided the wrecking ball.

Victoria has lucked out. After the gold rush, the booms were never too loud, nor the busts too desperate. Where vast swaths of Vancouver have been leveled, grand private homes replaced by apartment towers in the West End and modest cottages torn down for Vancouver Specials, the capital’s steady growth left intact an inventory of homes spanning a century-and-a-half of favoured styles.

A charming streetscape is one of Victoria’s understated lures.

“The city has attracted people who like what they find and want to keep it that way,” said Nick Russell, the journalist and heritage researcher who produced the book. “A lot of people move here and stay because they love the ambience.”

His research has found worthy homes in all corners of the city, including a cottage along the harbour waterfront that is all but invisible from the street, hidden as it is behind a curtain of trees. It can be spotted from the water if one looks down from the deck of the passing MV Coho ferry.

His favourite street for house sightseeing will come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the city.

“I still get a frisson of pleasure driving up Rockland where there are so many glorious, classic buildings from 1910, 1912, and where you also come across ultra-modern buildings, which are exciting architecture in their own right. I like that mix.”

Mr. Russell, 73, has renovated two houses since moving to Victoria from Regina more than a decade ago. The first was a homestead-style house covered in stucco and in disrepair as a longtime rental. During the renovation, it was learned the house dated not from 1900, as thought, but from 1861, when it was built for one of the first African-American families lured to the colony by Gov. James Douglas.

The second is his current home in the James Bay neighbourhood. It is known as the Mansard House for its roofline, an uncommon style in Victoria. He did not include it in his self-published book, as the house once had been lifted to make room for a full basement, losing the original integrity of the design. He and his wife, Sharon, worked on the restoration, which received an award from the local Hallmark Heritage Society.

The longtime reporter and educator trained many of the reporters whose bylines can be read in British Columbia newspapers. As well, he wrote Morals and the Media, a book on ethics in journalism. (Insert your own wisecrack here.) He was senior editor of This Old House, a four-volume register of Victoria’s historic homes produced by the Victoria Heritage Foundation.

Working with other researchers, Mr. Russell picked through the detritus of city hall’s attic and found dusty ledgers with valuable information for those interested in researching house histories.

So far, he has gathered 3,600 plumbing permits, 6,450 water permits, and 8,218 building permits, a dreary accumulation of data for the uninitiated but a trove of detail for researchers. The goal is to have this information made available online.

An advocate of preservation, Mr. Russell does not want Victoria to become a time capsule. A city is living space for people, he notes, not a museum.

Nick Russell checks out the architectural drawings for one of Victoria's spectacular homes.