Then and Now: 642 Battery Street
Then and Now
By Ted Ross
In December we looked at three heritage houses on Battery Street. That street runs from Government to Douglas, a block south of Niagara, and has a pocket of heritage houses. In this issue we will consider another of these classics.
The house at 642 Battery was constructed for Charles and Caroline Nairne in 1893. Its style is defined by the Hallmark Society as 'Victorian Eclectic Italianate.' The dwelling was designed by Alexander Maxwell Muir. It stands today in excellent condition and is a Designated Municipal Heritage Site.
Charles Nairne worked for the treasury department of the B.C. government.
Nairne commissioned Victoria architect A. M. Muir to design a "Victorian vernacular," a classical cottage with several important and distinctive features, for his property on Battery Street.
Alexander Maxwell Muir (1859-1922) was born in Glasgow, Scotland. He was a pupil of Thomas L. Watson, the prominent Glasgow architect. Muir obtained a degree in engineering from the University of Glasgow. He then immigrated to the United States in 1885. There he worked as a contractor in Troy, N.Y., Topeka, Kansas, and San Diego, California. Muir moved to Victoria in 1889 and worked for three years as a draftsman for architect John Teague. In 1891 Teague's firm won a commission to design the City Market, on which Muir worked. As well, he designed the Board of Trade building. His career as an architect in Victoria was launched.
Muir's early success was not to last. In 1892 he lost the competition for the British Columbia Parliament Buildings to F.M. Rattenbury. He was modestly successful in obtaining work from the Province of British Columbia, but lost the competition for the Nelson courthouse as well to F.M. Rattenbury. Muir did not have a high opinion of Rattenbury. Muir continued to practice in Victoria until 1915. He died in Vancouver in August, 1922.
The design for the Nairne house called for a low-pitch hip roof with a single front dormer, side gable, Italianate-style fenestration (windows), and a covered, projecting veranda at one corner, reminiscent of a small bandstand. Its purpose was to extend the living area outward where the garden, distant sea views, and fresh air could be enjoyed to the fullest extent.
In a 1987 article, Geoffrey Castle, president of the Victoria Historical Society, said, "The delightful Nairne house is in excellent condition. The new picket fence cost more than the house to build. The house was owned by the Nairne family for 90 years, and like others on Battery Street, has heritage designation."
Charles Nairne worked for the treasury department of the provincial government. He married Caroline Cruikshank and they had a daughter and three sons.
Both Charles and Caroline were born in Scotland. He in Glencreggan in 1851, she in Perth in 1863. Charles came to British Columbia in 1887, Caroline the next year. Charles was farming in the Prospect Lake area of Saanich when they married. From 1891-1914 he worked in the provincial treasury branch.
Nairne commissioned Muir to design the Battery Street house for his expanding family. They moved in shortly before the birth of their second son in 1893. There is no City Directory available for 1893, but the 1892 edition shows no entry, while the 1894 edition shows C.R. Nairne on Battery Street.
Nairne retired in 1917 and lived at 642 until his death in 1927. The City Directory entry for 1928 is altered to 642 Battery, Mrs. C. Nairne. Caroline Nairne lived on in the house until her death in 1951. Beginning in 1952 the entries read Miss C.H. Nairne. This is Carrie Nairne, the youngest and only daughter of the family. She never married and lived her life in the house, looking after her mother and her brothers.
Eldest son Reginald lived there as a bachelor until his death in 1977 at age 88. He was a stamp dealer, with an office at 602 Broughton Street, and was a founding member and president of the Vancouver Island Philatelic society.
Second son Charles served in WWI with the British Army in East Africa. He married in 1923, bringing his bride to live in the house. By 1929 he was on his own again, residing in the house until his death at age 86 in 1979.
In 1921 third son David married, and lived in the house until WWII, when he and his wife moved to Prior Street.
Carrie remained in the house until she passed away in 1982, aged 79. Carrie's greatest fear was that on her death the house would be sold and demolished for new construction. With no family to leave the house to, Carrie bequeathed it to the Salvation Army.
The Salvation Army chose to sell the house. It was purchased in 1983 by Jim Lee who was living in a heritage house in Victoria West. Lee totally cleaned-up, painted-up and rewired the property and then rented it out. The first tenant was a cabinet maker who renovated the kitchen.
Pamela Madoff has resided in the Nairne house since 1984, but her interest in and attachment to it date further back. She grew up in the North Park area and would ride her bicycle to Beacon Hill Park. As she rode, the tower of the Pinehurst House at 617 Battery would appear enticingly over the hill. Making her way down Battery to find that mansion, she quickly fell in love with the pretty little house at 642. She would look over the fence and have teenage dreams of living there.
In 1984 Pamela returned to Victoria to join her fiance, Mark Madoff, a professor of literature and philosophy at Royal Roads Military College. They were on a search to find a residence to rent in the city. In those days, before the internet, they scanned classified ads for 'Houses to Rent.' One afternoon Mark was on the phone in response to an advertisement.
Pamela later said, "While he was taking down the particulars, I heard him say, Battery Street, and my heart leapt. We went to view the house and instantly fell in love with it." It was indeed, 642.
She went on to say, "Subsequently Mark became president of the Hallmark Society - as I did, after his death. We were so fortunate to make so many friends in the heritage community - all because of our good luck in renting 642 Battery Street."
In 1986 the Madoffs purchased the property from Jim Lee.
A failing wire fence along the Battery Street front line was replaced by a white picket one which duplicated the original. Pamela and Mark used old photographs of the house, and a picket attached to a floor joist, to allow Vintage Woodworks to replicate the pickets and parts required for the replacement fence. Martin Whitehead, a carpenter, was hired to construct the fence. Years later the replica is kept bright and attractive with regular painting and maintenance.
Pamela says of the bandstand verandah, "While it does capture the breezes and puts you close to the garden and sea view, most days of the year you'd better take a sleeping bag to wrap up in to protect you from those elements." It is the only one of its kind in Victoria, and is a unique feature of the house.
A bench is built into a corner on the main floor. It is called an 'inglenook,' a term which refers to a built-in bench adjacent to a fireplace. This is typical of the 1912 period, and that's the period Pamela followed when, working with builder Stuart Stark, she finished the upstairs attic to make it a well-lit and useable space. Pamela said, "I quite enjoyed having the attic as a place to store things, but I knew if the house were ever sold the space would be finished by the new owner, and I wanted to be the one to have the work done, the way I chose."
In the 1950s, Carrie's brothers had given her a steam-heated greenhouse in the yard for her birthday, replacing the structure enclosed with salvaged windows and doors built on a portion of the front porch. With the arrival of the new greenhouse, the porch was returned to its original condition. The greenhouse is still used today; the steam-heating is functional, but not used.
Times-Colonist, 'Landmarks,' Bandstand porch adds to Nairne House's distinction,' by Geoffrey Castle, 1987; This Old House; Victoria's Heritage Neighbourhoods, Volume Two, James Bay, by John Adams, The Victoria Heritage Foundation for the City of Victoria, 2008; Inventory of Heritage Buildings, Hallmark Society, 1978; Times-Colonist, 'For smile by owner, ask about home,' by Diane Dakers, April 20, 1996; Times-Colonist, 'Heritage awards heavy on Battery,' by PappaJohn, February 28, 1987; Vancouver Public Library, 'City Directories,' 1892-1955; Heritage Register, James Bay, '642 Battery Street,' Victoria Heritage Foundation, 2013; Personal interview with Pamela Madoff, January 27, 2018.