The Plot to Destroy City Hall
If you’ve been thinking that the debates about sewage treatment or the Johnson Street Bridge have gone on too long, they haven’t held a gaslamp to what may be Victoria’s longest-burning issue: the fate of City Hall itself.
Victorians have always been reluctant to buy facilities for our local government. Immediately after the City was incorporated in 1862, our first mayor, Thomas Harris, appealed to Vancouver Island’s colonial officials for money to build a town hall, and was rebuffed. Subsequent mayors appealed to taxpayers for money and were rejected, forcing the city council to hold its meetings in shabby rented rooms on Broad Street. Then, in 1874, the council quietly bought two lots “for municipal purposes” at the corner of Douglas and Pandora. Citizens were outraged. “Not only with secrecy, but with indecent haste have the municipal council purchased a site for the city hall, which they seem determined to have ‘by hook or by crook’,” thundered the daily Colonist.
Nevertheless, voters apparently realized that their local government needed a permanent home, because in 1875 they approved a bylaw to borrow $10,000 for a new city hall. John Teague (left), an English-born contractor and self-taught architect – he had already built the “carpenter gothic” Church of Our Lord – crafted a competition-winning design for the mansard-roofed structure we know today. His city hall opened in 1878, and a few years later (after further acrimonious debate) voters approved several additions, including the clock tower, and a west wing containing the public market and fire station. Teague himself became mayor in 1894, perhaps making him the only politician anywhere to preside over a town hall that he had personally designed.
The love affair with Teague’s building faded after he died in 1902. As early as 1910, mayors started demanding a new city hall for the expanding town, but world wars and economic depression made such an expense impossible. That changed in 1946. Mayor Percy George declared that Teague’s building was “no longer adequate” for the increasing variety of services needed by returning veterans. The council agreed, and the City listed the building for sale. A few weeks later, a developer offered $176,000 to buy the land, demolish the building, and replace it with a department store.
City inspector J.W. Oosterink argued that replacement made financial sense. The existing City Hall needed $60,000 in repairs, he said: its roof was rotten, elderly residents couldn’t negotiate its stairs, and its maintenance costs would keep escalating. “I do not consider it good business to spend a lot of money on a building which we cannot expect to continue to use indefinitely,” Oosterink said. Then he unveiled his own drawings for a new concrete structure (above right), with underground parking and elevators, which he estimated would cost $250,000.
A majority of councillors approved Oosterink’s scheme. The lone holdout was B.J. Gadsden, who pointed out that the City had no realistic plan for its overall finances. “To attempt to build a City Hall in the face of all the other demands for money which we must meet is neither wise nor businesslike,” Gadsden asserted. “We must ensure that the most important things are done first.” Mayor George blasted councillor Gadsden, arguing that any delay would jeopardize the developer’s proposal. But Gadsden’s view prevailed. In 1947, citizens rejected the replacement, 1803 votes to 1216, and the City resigned itself to repairing Teague’s building.
The dream didn’t die, though. In 1957, the futuristic Capital Regional Planning Board – which also envisioned freeways through Vic West, and bulldozing Market Square for a mall – revealed designs for a new civic precinct around the Royal Theatre, with a new city hall, museum, and courthouse. The proposal gained steam when Woodward’s announced that it wanted to replace Teague’s city hall with a $5-million department store, but it subsequently backed out. Another plan emerged in 1960, when a developer offered to create an eight-storey city hall (left), with shops on the ground floor. That also failed – some said having retailers at the government’s front door would be “undignified” – and the City abandoned interest in lands around the Royal Theatre, leading to construction of the YMCA and concrete courthouse there today.
The urge for a new city hall finally waned in 1961, when Victorians elected Richard Biggerstaff Wilson as mayor. A native Victorian (his grandfather founded W&J Wilson clothiers), he admired Teague’s building, and believed repairing it would save money. The Colonist agreed, editorializing that the building possessed “a dignity not to be found in most modern office structures.” So on August 2, 1962 – exactly 100 years from Victoria’s incorporation – Wilson announced the plan for Centennial Square (right), including renos to City Hall and a new legislative wing. Voters approved borrowing $950,000 for the project, and the revived City Hall opened in 1964.
Today, Teague’s building is a national heritage site, and the oldest city hall in western Canada. Over the years, it has been painted cream, gray, and pale blue; it returned to its early brick-red with gray trim in 2004. In 2005 it underwent partial seismic upgrades: a 2006 emergency assessment noted that City Hall is quakeproof only to a “survivability” level, not an “operational” one, and that its computing department could be prone to flooding.
Similar issues plague much of Victoria’s infrastructure. Last month, engineers said the City needs to spend $462 million to upgrade its facilities, and noted that the 70 buildings it owns are only in “fair” condition overall. But with new sewage treatment and an expensive replacement of the Johnson Street Bridge on the horizon – to say nothing of another emergency radio system, operation of the Traveller’s Inn shelters, or a new Crystal Pool or downtown library – it appears City employees will have to make do with Teague’s 132-year-old town hall for many decades to come.