Craigdarroch Castle has had many faces through its nearly 130 years of existence.
Completed in 1890 as a Victoria residence for the Robert Dunsmuir family – the coal and shipping magnate died in 1889 – the castle has been home to various organizations since it was last a private residence in 1917.
It was a First World War military hospital, the home of Victoria College, the Victoria School Board and the Victoria Conservatory of Music. Since 1980, the Craigdarroch Castle Society has operated the building solely as a museum.
This week the castle enters its next era, with the unveiling of its new $2.5-million visitors centre, a 7,000-square-foot space next door. The centre combines a beautifully renovated 1913 home with new construction containing an accessible ticketing area at ground level, and a museum quality climate-controlled basement room to store artifacts and engage in other preservation work.
“I’m excited about the different stories we are going to be able to tell in these vacated rooms in the castle,” says curator Bruce Davies.
His new office is in the brightest room in the renovated building, and the move from the castle – one of a number of functions removed from the historic building – left him with a command view of his workplace of more than 40 years.
The Dunsmuir era, 1890 to roughly 1910, currently makes up about 50 per cent of the displays in the castle, with the remainder dedicated to displays illustrating the castle’s non-residential past.
“Now we will be able to tell these stories and focus on improving the museum collection,” Davies says, noting that many more Dunsmuir-related items are out there.
In the castle, the former kitchen that housed the gift shop for many years will be returned to that function in the form of an exhibit. A second-floor bedroom, originally used for Dunsmuir guests, will become the most elegant in the house, Davies says, and be furnished with high-end period antiques.
The former registrar’s space will house a display on the military hospital years, which Davies calls the “most important outside of the Dunsmuir era.”
The reclamation of castle spaces even extends to the washroom facilities, which now exist in the visitor’s centre. A problematic women’s lavatory on the second floor, which leaked water into the drawing room gallery below, will also be redesigned as a period exhibit.
Castle executive director John Hughes is excited about the possibilities in the new space, especially in terms of visitor comfort.
“We had 160,000 visitors in 2016 and we’re six-per-cent higher this year,” he says. “We’re seeing some days over a thousand people a day, and they have to wait.”
The gift shop has doubled in size to 1,500 square feet and will have expanded retail opportunities – important for a non-profit society. The restored home also contains staff and volunteer offices, more convenient storage areas and a new food service area.
An accessible multipurpose room, originally the home’s library, will host community events and be used as a temporary gallery to display more of the castle’s collection. Hughes also foresees partnering with other local museums to share resources as a way to expand the historical exhibitions.
Davies appreciates having the castle stand alone as it exhibits important parts of Victoria’s history.
“I especially like the fact that the office type functions, not just staff offices but also cash registers and commerce, is out of the castle so that it feels more like a home,” he says. “You’re stepping back in time as soon as you open that door, instead of looking at a cash register.”
For more about Craigdarroch Castle, visit thecastle.ca, call 250-592-5323 or drop by to have a look at 1050 Joan Cres.
Expensive project cost
The Craigdarroch Castle Society saved up about $1 million toward its $2.5-million visitor centre expansion project, but two or three solid tourist seasons in row has left the group in even better shape to have a low mortgage, says Hughes.
About $1.7 million in cash was put toward the project, he says. The $250,000 Canada Cultural Spaces Fund grant the society received helped pay for the artifact storage and workshop in the basement, and making the centre accessible.