Victoria’s heritage designation program began as an attempt to save some of the city’s most significant examples of early built heritage.
When it comes to designated heritage homes today, many have been restored to the point where it’s clear to the onlooker that care has been taken to preserve or restore the original architectural features and the overall character of the structure.
In the 1970s, when local heritage advocates made it clear that development pressures were threatening the existence of such turn-of-the-20th century homes – especially those that had fallen into disrepair – city council began taking action to prevent widescale demolition.
Initially, specific homes with historical relevance and architectural significance were targeted for saving. In 1978 a program was initiated by the City of Victoria to help interested owners restore and repair designated homes, and by 1983, the City launched the Victoria Heritage Foundation (VHF) to administer grants and further encourage the preservation of older homes.
One of the original three homes designated in 1974 was 223 Robert St. in Victoria West, a 1-1/2-storey home steps away from what is now the Westsong Walkway. Known alternately as James Muirhead House for its original owner, and White Tower House for its prominent circular corner feature, the formerly splendid home had become a run-down rooming house.
Local accountant Jim Lee bought the home not long after its designation and began the process of restoring it. He won a Hallmark Heritage Society Award in 1987 for his efforts, and in 1991, the home was declared a National Historic Site, one of few private homes to be given such a status. Oddly enough, the NHS distinction was given without Lee’s knowledge.
The home was built for about $2,000 in 1903-04 for newlyweds James Muirhead and his wife, Ella, on a subdivision of a family-owned property that stretched from Esquimalt Road to the nearby waterfront. It has a number of historical elements that render it significant, including its design by noted Victoria architects Thomas Hooper and C. Elwood Watkins, who designed many downtown buildings, and its construction by builder Duncan McBeath.
It is seen as an outstanding example of the transition between Victorian and Edwardian versions of the Queen Anne style. It was constructed with high-quality standard and decorative wood products milled by Muirhead and Mann, co-owned by James’ father – who was also James – and a supplier of millwork for the B.C. legislature.
Today the home sits behind tall hedges and is surrounded by multi-unit developments. Lee still owns the home and continues to work on restoring it.
Scaffolding is currently set up around the turret as he engages in the painstaking work of restoring decorative woodwork elements.
Benjamin Schweitzer, the managing director of Wentworth Villa historic home on Fort Street and a board member with the VHF, says the group protesting the demolition of James Muirhead Sr.’s former home at 527 Esquimalt Rd. went on to form the Hallmark Heritage Society. They also helped the city create the VHF.
“One of those things I’m battling,” he said about designation, “is that it isn’t nearly as restrictive as people think it should be.”
There are certain stipulations around doing upgrade work when a homeowner has received a grant to help with the cost, but in general, owners of designated homes can do many things to enhance the buildings without fear of running afoul of the City, Schweitzer said.
“Almost every time I meet someone who has a house that should be designated, I find myself having to clear up misconceptions around the criteria,” he said. “I find there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
Homeowners who have applied for and received grants from the Foundation to help pay for restoration or repairs must complete the work within the calendar year.
One might expect that because no “new” old houses are being discovered around Victoria, the trend toward heritage designation would be on a downturn. But between 2014 and 2016, a total of 15 properties were given the distinction, including buildings moved as part of the Jawl Properties/Concert Properties’ Capital Park development in James Bay to Michigan Street (580, 584, 588) and Dallas Road (222, 226).
Three other homes on Lewis Street (39, 43, 50) just off Dallas Road, including the former home of B.C. Finance Minister Carole James and her family, were designated in 2014.
A list of designated and registered homes, a series of heritage home walking tours by neighbourhood, and details of the House Grants Program can be found at victoriaheritagefoundation.ca. More information about the heritage designation program and the heritage registry is available at victoria.ca – under the Residents heading, go to community planning then click on heritage.
– Sourced from Victoria Heritage Foundation and Canada’s Historic Places