Then and Now: 228 Douglas - The Kent House
Then and Now
by Ted Ross
Above: 228 Douglas Then: home and garden. Phote by by Herbert Kent. Image I-68978_141 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum Archives.
Early in the 20th Century a beautiful mansion rose across from Beacon Hill Park on Douglas, just north of Simcoe. Standing on the eastern edge of the former Beckley Farm lands, its front yard was the park. To the southwest, between Niagara and Simcoe, was the Caledonian Field. The old farmlands behind the dwelling were being subdivided for house construction in 1906, when the house was built.
Charles Herbert Kent ordered the building of this mansion. Kent, who was born in Manchester on July 13, 1862, had emigrated with his parents, Charles and Ellen Kent, to Victoria in 1864, when he was two years old. He stayed the rest of his life.
In 1878, when he was sixteen, Kent became involved with the Victoria Choral Society. He made his first public appearance at the age of eighteen as the footman in the opera Love in a Village. In 1879 he began studying the flute. He made his first public appearance on the instrument in 1881. In addition to being in constant demand as a singer and actor, he played flute in most amateur orchestras of the day.
In 1882 he joined the militia band playing alto horn. Between November 12, 1886 and March 1887 he was leader of the choir at St. John's Church. From June 3, 1887 until 1895 he led the choir at Christ Church Cathedral. In 1892 he was one of the founding members of the Arion Male Voice Choir.
Geoffrey Castle wrote in the Times-Colonist in 1990, "After working at different places he discovered his real vocation at M.W. Waitt and Company music store on Government Street in 1885.
"Kent played the police sergeant role in Pirates of Penzance, at the new Victoria Theatre in 1885. Among the cast were Col. E.G. Prior, J. Stuart Yates and Georgina Seymour Waitt, M.W. Waitt's daughter. She married Kent the following year.
"When Kent's father-in-law became an early victim of the smallpox epidemic, Kent took over the music store. A few months later, in 1892, Kent founded the Arion Club and conducted its choir for many years."
The Kent’s had a family of three boys and a girl. They were living near the corner of Yates and Cook. Feeling cramped, they acquired property on Douglas Street across from Beacon Hill Park. Here they had a house constructed with plans prepared by Samuel McLure.
The building went up in 1906. The exterior was shingled and half-timbered in the Tudor Revival style. With materials carefully selected by builder, John Young, every beam and joist in the structure is clear of knots. The detailed gables, sleeping porch and Queen Anne chimney made the house a feature of nearby Beacon Hill Park. It is a reminder of the original setting.
In 1913 Kent opened a piano store on Broughton Street. Georgina shared her husband's love of music and often organized concerts and stage productions to raise funds for the less fortunate. Following her death in 1933, Herbert Kent lived on in the family home for 25 years, remaining active in mind and body until he died, aged 96.
Kent's Music Ltd became a household name and the big house overlooking Beacon Hill Park a focal point for the town's social life. Butlers and maids and Chinese cooks were involved in the entertainments. There were many big receptions and parties. Georgina was very socially conscious.
The lavish entertaining continued when Herbert's son, Aubrey, became master of the house. Aubrey married Doris Evans, daughter of Flitcroft Evans, city editor of The Daily Colonist.
"While many of the guests who frequented the family home...were drawn by the bond of music, prominent businessmen were more likely to gather around the huge dining room table in later years." states a Times-Colonist article.
Aubrey Kent was a city alderman. A lieutenant-colonel in the 5th Artillery Regiment, he took part in both world wars. The house on Douglas was rarely without a coterie of servicemen. Every Boxing Day, pipers from the Canadian Scottish Regiment would come and pipe around the big dining room table.
In a piece in the Times-Colonist grandson Barney Kent said, "My grandmother was a very outspoken woman." He went on to say, "To give you an idea of the size of the rooms, when my sister Geraldine was married in 1943, we held the reception in our drawing room."
The house was converted to apartments in 1944 under the National Housing Act. "It was wartime, and my mother found it too much to keep up," said Barney. The city directory in 1946 lists four apartments at 228 Douglas. The Kent name appears on #102. M. Aubrey Kent is still in this apartment in 1975 but he passed away in 1978 while his wife Doris had died in 1976. Son Barney Kent stayed on.
The house was designated a heritage structure on January 27, 1977, preventing demolition or exterior changes without city council permission.
On December 31, 1985 Barney sold the house to Glyn Investments Ltd, of Victoria. That company's owner, Glenn Froud, settled in one of the apartments it was said, although his name doesn't appear in the directories. Barney Kent was no longer in the apartment in 1985, having moved out on the house's sale.
A double garage with another apartment upstairs was built to match the house in 1990.
South Douglas, across from Beacon Hill Park, has changed mightily since the Kent house was constructed 112 years ago. In the past six decades old mansions have faced the wrecker's machines and apartments have appeared overlooking the park. Tall sequoias are the only remnant of the gardens of those fallen mansions. Apartment blocks stand like a wall along Douglas from Battery to Toronto Street.
The Calle de Mar Apartments, 220 Douglas, with six floors, are immediately south of the old Kent house. Directly north is the eight floor Beacon Tower at 240. Beyond it is the Bickerton Court, twelve floors at 250. Hidden now behind a tall hedge, the house at 228 Douglas is dwarfed by its neighbours.
The apartments are still rented today, just as they were 74 years ago when the Luney Brothers created them in the old mansion. There are two at ground level and two more up the broad old staircase inside which leads to their doors. The hedge and the large house make an enclosure separate from Douglas Street and the towers when you walk down the driveway to the garage and entry stairs. At that level the house's massive size impresses the viewer. Its imposing footprint is 465 m2 (5000 sq ft), very large indeed. You find yourself unaware of the towering neighbours.
If there is an apartment for rent in the old heritage house, Ian Rogers, in apartment #201, is the man to see. It's a beautiful old mansion, credit to a long-ago neighbourhood.
Vancouver Public Library, City Directories 1905-1955, online; City of Victoria Archives, City Directories, 1964-1999, on microfilm; Times-Colonist, Maclure's trademarks evident in Kent house styling, by Geoffrey Castle, March 17, 1990; Victoria Real Estate, 250 Douglas Street, 2015; Victoria Heritage Foundation, 228 Douglas Street, 2013; Times-Colonist, House leaves family but ghosts stay on. by Pat Dufor, December 28, 1985; Camas Chronicles, Aubrey Kent, by Jean Mason, 1978, This Old House; Victoria's Heritage Neighbourhoods, Volume Two: James Bay, 228 Douglas Street 1907; 1944, by John Adams, 2008; City of Victoria Archives, 228 Douglas Street: Charles Kent House, 1979; City of Victoria Archives, Kent, Charles Herbert, from A Documentary History of Music in Victoria, by R.D. McIntosh, 1899.
A special thanks to the Beacon Park Apartments morning coffee klatch at the Beacon Drive In, who wondered what the story on that old blue house down Douglas was. Here it is folks!