Book: This Old House, Volume Two: James Bay

Book: This Old House, Volume Two: James Bay

This Old House, Volume Two: James Bay

By Rita Button

Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, a restaurant in London, UK, near Samuel Johnson’s house (the dictionary Johnson), was rebuilt in 1667. It’s amazing to realize that the building, still standing and in good repair, has existed for three hundred and fifty-one years. For me, that’s part of the joy of London: discovering the stories of buildings, their original and historical occupants, the nature of any renovations, and the changes of the buildings’ uses over the years.

Victorians will have to wait a very long time before the history of their buildings becomes history. That’s what volunteers Jennifer Nell Barr and Margaret Narain discovered in their work on the third edition of Victoria Heritage Foundation’s (VHF) This Old House James Bay. It has been revised, and the inclusion of house demolitions, limiting the life-span of many houses to much less than one hundred years, illustrates that history played an almost inconsequential role in issuing building permits. “We’ve lost a lot on Dallas Road,” Jennifer commented sadly. And we’ve lost a lot in all of James Bay as well. The demolition of two hundred buildings are recorded in this volume, but the truth is that many more have been taken down to make room for new structures— one at 66 Lewis Street to build a parking lot. Only two hundred are recorded in this volume because that is all the space the researchers had.

Joni Mitchell’s lyrics: “Pave paradise and put up a parking lot,” seem an appropriate comment, especially when the line “We don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone” is included.

Jennifer, VHF’s retired executive director, regrets the demolition. Governor Sir James Douglas’s house is gone. Built in 1851, it was the first house built in James Bay, at the east end of what has become Belleville Street. It was demolished in 1906 to make way for Elliot Street. Today, only a pathway between Helmcken House and St. Ann’s Schoolhouse at the Royal British Columbia Museum remains. Many buildings that would have created an historical framework in James Bay have also been demolished. Jennifer is pleased that the Hallmark Heritage Society was formed in 1973 by citizens of the city—in her words— as a “volunteer, non-politically aligned, member-driven organization to be a watchdog guarding against the rampant destruction of heritage properties in the Capital Region.”

Nonetheless, Jennifer absolutely enjoys the work of “proving the house.” She and her fellow volunteer research team pore over pictures and information available on many on-line sources. City of Victoria Archives, Hallmark Heritage Society, Greater Vancouver Public Library, 1878 Bird’s Eye Views of James Bay(B.E.V.), Fire Insurance Plans (F.I.P.) and City Directories are a few of the many they use. It’s useful to compare the address changes on the 1903 -1909 F.I.P.’s with the City Directories. As well, using Vital Statistics, Census Reports and local newspapers of the time, all on-line, allows the team to discover the occupants and the addresses of the houses.

Jennifer told me a story of two houses whose addresses were identified inaccurately on photographs in both the City of Victoria Archives and the RBCM Archives; unfortunately, the house that was identified as being on Michigan was actually the house on Superior while the house that was actually on Michigan was identified as the one on Superior! It took some sleuthing to figure that one out! And sometimes houses are moved. Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, the first black man to hold elected public office, had a house on Michigan and Menzies. However, Captain Iriving wanted that site on which to build a house for himself and his family. As a result, the Gibbs’ house was moved to Superior and Menzies. Today, the site of Captain Irving’s house is known as Irving Park. These kinds of moves create a challenge for the team. As well, the street names may have changed such as Birdcage Walk and Carr Street being incorporated into one street known as Government Street.

These detectives also find out who lived in the house to help them determine which house the photograph illustrates. They read about the people who lived there and, if possible, who designed as well as who built the house. The floor print (F.I.P.) looks the same as the house whose address they are searching, but the outside seems to have changed. While looking at Clifton Cottage at 437 Belleville Street where Captain William Alexander Mouat and his wife Mary Anne lived, the researchers could see the similarities between the white house in the panoramic photograph of 1859 (page 3) and Clifton Cottage which was built in the late 1850’s, but then dormers were added some time before the 1878 B.E.V., changing its outside appearance. Continuing with the research, Jennifer realized that the Captain passed away in 1871. Mary Anne needed to make a living, so it’s reasonable to suppose that she might have taken in boarders; hence adding the light to the upstairs area. This idea is borne out by the long rear addition added in 1892. The house is a part of this new edition of the James Bay This Old House.

The stories about families whose names survive as street names—Douglas, Rithet, Helmcken, Lewis etc. are partly what makes the new version interesting. The families are in this book. And it’s what has taken me a longer time than usual to write this article—I keep getting sidetracked by information that made me understand more about the history and the people of James Bay.

Photographs of the past—industrial Ogden Point, several James Bay Bridges which no longer exist because James Bay has been filled to create land for the Empress Hotel, the building of the legislative buildings— can be found along with a chronology of events. The book includes a short history written by John Adams—succinct and informative—and always the pictures take the reader back to the time before.

Many James Bay houses now have heritage designation—granted by the City of Victoria if the house qualifies. Architectural and historical criteria are listed on the city’s website As well, information regarding funding and other elements of heritage designation can be found at the Victoria Heritage Foundation’s website The Victoria Heritage Foundation has information and is willing to help. Call them at 250-383-4546 or check out their website—address above.

The conversation I enjoyed with Jennifer included her comments on the generosity of many volunteers. Some find the pictures; others give access to hand written family diaries and descriptions of various events while others grind out the work of checking and re-checking facts. The result is a great book which contains an incredible amount of information about old James Bay. And, just in case you aren’t up on Architectural Styles or Architectural Terms, don’t worry; this new edition includes some rewriting of the architectural descriptions, given new information in a desire to be more accurate.

However, there’s more than the past in this volume. A picture of today’s James Bay is also presented—the putting together of the sewage pipes on Niagara Street as well as the Ogden Point Breakwater with its railings are only two examples of contemporary James Bay recorded.

It’s a great book. But don’t take just my word for it. Here’s what Bob Baxter, architect and specialist in heritage houses said about this volume:

The new This Old House City of Victoria Vol. Two James Bay publication prepared by the Victoria Heritage Foundation for the City of Victoria is a definitive & exhaustive update to the original edition issued in 2005. For anyone interested in the architectural heritage of the James Bay Area this new updated and expanded edition is welcome to all in the heritage architectural field and anyone with an interest in placing the existing structures into their original context of the James Bay neighborhood as it once existed. This is not a light reading book, but one which will indicate the architecture of James Bay in its prime and total context. All the effort spent researching & documenting the data is welcomed by those who are working in the restoration of historic structures & will assist in present & future endeavours in this field. This volume is not only of value to professionals in the field but also to anyone who appreciates an in- depth record of the historic James Bay neighborhood and the history of its residents.

You can pick it up at Munro’s Russells, Ivy’s, Tanner’s or Bolen’s, all locally owned or from City Hall or from V.H.F. 250-383-4546 as well as from Jennifer—250-389-1864. For just $30.00, you can own over 300 pages and more than 800 photographs that will inform you when you take it along on James Bay walks or enjoy reading it on the verandah!

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