Looking back: an old house finds a new owner
By David Helme
1920s Dream Home for Sale
Location: James Bay, Victoria, BC.
Interior period features: granite and brick fireplaces, stained glass, French doors, wood floors.
Exterior: 1960’s stucco.
Condition: requires updating and remodeling.
Yard: large front and back yards, fenced.
Previous owners: 4 (Chave, Hoskins, Hogarth, Leadley)
Architect: Charles E. Watkins.
Builder: Parfitt Brothers.
Nearby amenities: city park, seashore, supermarket, and downtown.
My wife and I are looking for a house in James Bay that we can live in and operate as a bed and breakfast. The location of this house is just over four blocks from downtown and the Inner Harbour and is perfect. That’s the main reason why we are here. The house appears big enough and has a decent-sized yard, but lacks character. It’s like half a character house. The original wood exterior has been plastered over with stucco. The character that remains resides at the front entrance, where two tall wood columns support a large front porch. It’s nice and inviting.
The house shows some obvious signs of neglect. The columns, which have not been painted in a long time, have a few cracks in them and will need attention if they are to last much longer. The shingles on the roof are old and crusty. And the small-paned windows on the upper floor don’t match, which gives the west-facing house a bleary-eyed look. The condition of the house gives me a sinking feeling. I don’t have any carpentry skills or any experience with old homes (or any homes, for that matter). I don’t know if the columns just need repairing, or replacing.
Before the house tour, my wife Toshie and I wander around the yard. On one side of the front yard, there is a droopy-leaved rhododendron, frail and without buds, and on the other, a cedar tree with a branch as thick as the trunk that you can sit on. Numerous evergreen shrubs are soldiering on. Some are standing up against the house, acting as covers for its plainness; others stand guard near the front gate. In the front corners mock orange bushes grow wild. They look like fountains; their long branches well up, bend over, and fall back down in broad circles around the base.
Scattered among tufts of long wet grass is an array of women’s shoes. A gray pump lying on its side catches my eye. I visually measure the distance between the porch and the shoes, my eyes flitting back and forth from one to the other. I squat down. I feel like a detective examining a piece of evidence at a crime scene. Suddenly it becomes clear. Someone got fed up with moving, or more likely, cleaning up, and lost it. When they freaked out they were near the front door, and grabbed a shoe from a box that was nearby and started flinging.
“Whose stuff is this any way? Why don’t they come and pick it up?”
No one likes moving.
The house was designed by C.E. Watkins (1875-1942). Watkins, who is said to have seldom deviated from the classical conservative architectural style, designed residences (of which ours is one of the smallest) apartment buildings, commercial buildings, and schools. Some examples of his larger works are Victoria High School, the old Nurses Residence at the Jubilee Hospital, and Sands Funeral Chapel.
The original plans for the house show a porte-cochere and a kitchen nook that were never built.
The columns that support the front porch of the house (square, non-tapered, Tuscan-styled columns) are typical of the craftsman style of architecture.
The original exterior of the house, with horizontal siding, covers the bottom half of the house with shingles the top half. The shingles and the siding were left on the house when it was stuccoed in the mid-1960s.
As we walk up the steps, we can see daylight behind the stained glass window in the front door. On either side of the door are two smaller windows. Some of the glass in the windows is green. The door is craftsman style and dark red. The red and the green give the entrance a Christmassy-look.
The house numbers, 235, are on the casing above the front door, and look like they have been there since 1925 when the house was built. They are small by today’s standards and painted the same colour as the casing, which makes them only visible in relief. My wife says they are a good luck sign. She has read them as a sequence (2, 3, - , 5) and noticed that the 4 - bad luck to Japanese - has been omitted.
The garage at the back is original and in good condition. Its Douglas fir siding is overlapping and has bevelled, round edges. It has been milled from knotless timber, and is smooth enough that you can run your hand along it. This is the same siding that is still underneath the stucco on the house.
Beside the garage there is space for a parking area, which we will need as we plan to operate the house as a two-bedroom bed and breakfast and the city requires that we have one space for each room.
In the late 1950s, the previous owner of the house, Dorothy Leadley, came out to Victoria from Winnipeg with her two children. After getting a job as a waitress at the Empress Hotel, and after putting some money aside, she got a mortgage from a bank and bought the house.
The legend is that she had bought it with her tip money. That is how her granddaughter had put it. It’s easy to imagine that there was truth to the family myth. After all, after every shift Mrs. Leadley walked home from work with her purse weighed down by handfuls of change. And as she retraced her steps she would have felt the heft of her hand bag and made plans for the money she was making.
It was Mrs. Leadley who hired the stucco company, when the salesmen were going door-to-door. Stucco practically sold itself. It was maintenance free and gave a house a uniform, modern look. It also made the house less drafty.
After living on Government Street for 40 years, Mrs. Leadley went to a rest home somewhere in the Victoria. After she had been put in the home, the house was sublet and operated as a rooming house. Neighbours said it attracted a harum-scarum crowd. A red flag went up when limousines were seen coming and going at all hours of day and night. Rumours travelled up and down the block and the limousines and complaints brought the police. At first they watched the house from behind bushes. Then they got serious and set up a telescope in the living room of the house across the street. From there they could watch people coming and going without being seen.
It was the owner of the house who told me the story, which he got quite a kick out of. As he spoke he giggled and his shoulders made little hunching jerks, like a cartoon character.
The backyard looks like an abandoned lot. At the back, leaning up against the fence, is a row of window frames with a few shards of glass remaining in them. Resting on blocks above the tall grass is the hull of a cement boat, a sudden reminder that we are not far from the ocean. It is about 14 feet long, has a tarp on it, and looks as heavy as a beached whale. If it fell over, it would crush you. I caution Toshie and step back. The boat is a peculiar sight, but perhaps not as out of place as it first appears.
We enter the house by the basement door. In the half-light from cellar windows and bare bulbs, comes a word of caution from the agent. There is a small wood-burning stove sitting on the floor near the chimney, and the smell of burnt garbage hangs in the air. Behind the chimney there is an oil furnace the size of an elevator, and against the foundation, several old doors and more window frames. Four posts, rough cut, form a square around the centre of the unpainted floor.
Upstairs the tall kitchen cabinets brighten the room with light that glances off the paned glass from a large south-facing window. The doors look like trouble. The paint is thick on them and they fail to shut properly. The counter top and sink were probably last updated around 1970. There is enough counter space, but not enough room for a kitchen table that would seat a family comfortably.
In the dining room, there is a fireplace. The brickwork is dark brown. On either side of the square firebox are niches for figurines and knickknacks. On the right, the French-styled kitchen door, and on the left, a built-in set of shelves, dark stained. In the dining room you get the first good look at the heavy, dark trim that was lavished on the door, window casings, and baseboards. It makes the house look bomb-proof, like it was built to last forever. There are three windows facing Government Street. Above the centre window, there is a transom window of stained glass, the same design as the one in the front door.
During our later renovations, a piece of wood fell to the floor when we were dismantling a door casing and someone noticed that there was something written on it. On the back, written in long-hand scrawl was, “Parfitt Bros, Chaves Job.”
The house was built for the Chave family by the Parfitt Brothers Construction Company. The Parfitt Bros were five Englishmen who immigrated to Canada in the 1890s. They built residences, apartments, and many other structures, including Christ Church Cathedral, the Bay Street Armoury, and the James Bay Inn. After the company became successful, the brothers wore suits and ties when they inspected a job site.
The Chaves had two lots. The house was built on the first one, facing Government Street (roughly where the original house, 1879 – 1924, had been). On the second, the Chaves put in a tennis court.
We don’t have high hopes for the living room, but are pleasantly surprised. The room spans the length of the house from front to back, which shows you at once how big it is and how small the house. The floor is dark and at first glance in fair condition.
We become aware of the sound that our footsteps make in the large bare room as we walk across the wooden floor. All the surfaces are hard. The empty room has the indifferent look common to the rooms of old houses that have been vacated and whose scars are in plain view.
The room is essentially the same as it was when the first occupants of the house moved in. All the families who have lived in the house since it was built have come and gone and are now nowhere. The nothingness you can almost feel. We look around, with wonder.
The room’s showpiece is the granite fireplace on the north-facing exterior wall. Prominent and impressive, it does its best not to look overbearing. The opening is large and tunnel-shaped. At the top of the arch, a keystone locks the mosaic of large stones in place. The mantle is a single slab of granite that must have taken two men to lift into place. The hearth is a rectangle of plain red tile; the flooring in front, badly worn, and the exposed wood whiskered with splinters.
On either side of the fireplace, the walls are clad in wainscoting, still handsome and, oddly, exotic-looking. The wavy grain pattern of Douglas fir is clearly visible through the stain.
On the walls above the wainscoting, there are two identical stained-glass windows, set in deep-welled wood frames that are dark-stained, almost black. Their simple pattern, vertical bars of green and frosted glass, shine brightly, casting a filtered, unnatural light.
One of the purposes of the glass, if not the main one, was to tame or domesticate the raw light. The use of stained glass dates back to the mid-to-late-19th century when it was considered unfashionable to have light entering homes directly. Direct light was deemed too cold and bright for domestic settings.
The first filters of light were curtains, but glass was also found to work and could be made attractive. The preferred glass was “cathedral” or “rolled glass,” a commercial, monochromatic glass. It came in different colours but was often green.
Some things, like the missing picture rail and quarter round (both perhaps used for kindling), the hole in the stained glass (the size of an air gun pellet), and the dollar sign carved into the windowsill give you the feeling that the house has seen it all.
Bernice and Reginald Chave met in Victoria at church. They were both vocalists and sang in the church choir. They had two children, Cyril and Muriel, who were about 10 and 12 when they moved into their new home.
Reginald started out working for his father in the family grocery business and later went to work for a life insurance company.
The stairs going to the upper floor are bare and the finish stripped off. There is a tall window at the mid-way landing (the source of the light that shone out through the stained glass window in the front door). To the right of the stairs is the hallway that leads to the back of the house and a row of coat hooks. The hallway is dark and narrow. I imagine figures from the past congregating there, perpetually removing their hats and coats.
Screwed to the post at the foot of the stairs is a stark white grab bar, which I assume was put there for Mrs. Leadley. On the way upstairs, the old handrail, standard for its time, is below reach and the balusters are short and stocky. On the wall opposite, there is a scratch a car-length long and scuff marks. The stairwell is painted sky blue, and overhead hangs a chandelier that is a conglomeration of amber balls of cracked glass, off-kilter like a child’s mobile.
On the landing, the floor has been restored and is smooth and bright. It consists of reddish brown strips with blond ones interspersed at irregular intervals. The baseboards are tall and dark and in places, shiny as glass.
On the left is the bathroom, with a claw foot tub, and next door the master bedroom.
Our tour of the house comes to an end on the landing where my wife, gathering herself, glances from doorway to doorway. She is wondering if she can make it work. She is recalling what her mother had said about corner lots, the advantages they have over side-by-side lots.
As Toshie weighs the pros and cons, I sense what is coming, and not without some dread.