Sixty-two century-old ceramic tile street names can still be seen and walked on at City of Victoria intersections. The unique street signs were installed in downtown and residential sidewalks beginning in 1907. Earlier wood signs nailed to houses and poles were often stolen by “young scamps,” according to the Daily Colonist. Tile signs embedded in concrete solved that problem.
Before the tiles were recognized as valuable features to be preserved, they were routinely destroyed when new sidewalks were constructed. Current Streets Division Manager Hector Furtado knows their value and would replace damaged tile signs if letters were available. Without a single letter A in stock, however, new signs are out for Dallas, Douglas, Yates, Pandora and Fairfield. Linden can’t be spelled either: there is one I left, but zero L’s. The supply of other letters is low, too; there are only two U’s, eight E’s and five D’s. In the left photo, taken in his Garbally Public Works Yard office, Furtado holds two of the remaining original tile letters.
The tiles feature distinctive white capital letters on a blue background, accented with a groove and gold colouring. All tiles are 15 cm. high (6") but vary in width according to letter. T, for example, is 10 cm. (4"), but S, R and G are 11 cm. (4 l/4"), M is 16 cm. (6 l/4") wide but I is only 5 cm. (2").
The original tiles were made using an “encaustic technique,” according to Chris Gray of Clayworks, Austin, Texas, “a very exacting process.” The tiles are a “Rolls Royce version and quite unique,” according to Martin Segger, University of Victoria professor and former City of Victoria Councillor. The Zanesville, Ohio company which supplied the original tiles went out of business in 1935, so it is astonishing the city has any left in stock.
For decades, thousands of replacement tile letters were stacked in alphabetical order on long shelves at the city’s Garbally Works yard. Now those shelves are empty. The few remaining tiles have been moved onto a small shelf in a locked closet. There are a surprisingly high number of some letters: 78 G, 66 C, 44 B. There are, however, few M, Q, V, Z, only five D and zero L. Vowels, except for O, are very low: eight E, two U, one I and zero A. The left photo below reveals an empty space on the shelf where the letter "A" should be stacked high. In the same locked room, as may be seen in the right photo below, there is one concrete block with the ceramic tile street name in place which could be replaced in the future on Cook Street.
Furtado explained that tiles cannot be removed from the concrete without breaking them. When a new sidewalk is being constructed, a rectangle of concrete is removed containing the tiles and the rectangle replaced in the new sidewalk. “It is the only way we can save them,” he said. There are at least seventeen locations in the city where concrete rectangles containing tile street names have been cut out by city workers and then replaced. Photos below show the two downtown examples of this method. The “Blanshard” sign set into Fort Street next to Monk’s Office Supply has a visible edge of old, dark concrete. A thinner band of old concrete also surrounds the “Government” sign set into a new brick sidewalk on the southwest corner at Yates Street. Those are the only remaining tile street signs in the downtown core. Early in the 1900's, tiles were on every downtown corner as well as in residential areas.
Though a few original tile street names are in excellent condition, most show a century of wear. Tile letters are cracked, pitted or missing. Nevertheless, as the photos below reveal, partially-damaged tile names still add interest and history to the sidewalk.
For more than twenty years, the City of Victoria has recognized the heritage value of the tiles and staff has made a concerted effort to preserve them when replacing sidewalks. Despite those efforts, 67.4% of the original tile names remaining in sidewalks in 1985 were lost by 2006. A complete inventory by the Hallmark Society in 1985 recorded 190 heritage ceramic tile street names in place. By April, 2006, there were 62 tile signs left in the city. James Bay neighbourhood tiles dropped from 27 to 11. Fernwood numbers crashed from 24 to 8. Fairfield had 118 tile names in 1985, by far the largest number in the city; now there are 37. “Every time I pass by, I still visualize the missing street names,” Fairfield resident Jim Masterton, a retired city planner and long-time CRD employee, said. Jennifer Nell Barr, Executive Director of the Victoria Heritage Foundation, misses them too. “The street name tiles are distinctive items of street decoration, and too many corners are now missing their handsome ceramic blue tiles.”
Masterton values “small things” which add history, interest and texture to the streetscape. “It is easy to lose your distinctive character bit by bit by bit,” he says. Like Masterton, City Counselor Pamela Madoff understands “The cumulative impact of many small, seemingly insignificant details create the fabric of the city.” Ceramic sidewalk tiles have always been one of her “favourite urban features in Victoria.”
Fairfield resident Cornelia Lange attempted to solve the tile letter supply problem herself by making rubber molds of the original tiles and filling them with a concrete compound. City worker Joe Frias installed one set of Lange’s experimental letters on McKenzie Street, in the Cook Street Village, but the compound did not stand up to heavy foot traffic. Still in place, the letters are barely visible. Frias still hopes a local company can be found to fill Lange’s excellent molds with a stronger material. Another tile experiment proved more durable. New blue and white tile names were installed at Menzies and Toronto streets, shown below, and St. Charles at Shasta about 20 years ago, Frias said. The blue background and letter style differ from the original tiles, but the tiles have worn well. Unfortunately, records identifying the supplier cannot be found.
Original tile street names were always placed for pedestrians to read while standing on the sidewalk facing the curb. Furtado said the intention is for city workers to replace tiles the same way. However, modern workers have often reversed that orientation, placing the words to be read from vehicles. In at least seven of the locations where rectangles of concrete have been cut out and replaced, street names were re-installed facing the opposite direction. All three locations with new (not original) experimental tiles are also oriented to be read from the street.
As recently as the early 1990's, Clayworks, an Austin, Texas company, supplied the Municipality of Oak Bay with tiles identical to Victoria’s originals. Contacted in 2006, company spokesperson Chris Gray said the “historic encaustic technique” of the original tiles requires “a very exacting process and we no longer do it.” Clayworks can, however, provide “a durable sidewalk tile similar in appearance if not technique.” So can Illahe Tileworks of Ashland, Oregon.
Some residents think it is past time for a concerted effort to install new tiles and that similar tiles are better than none. Segger has advocated putting “some of them back” for more than twenty years. “This is a pedestrian city and this is the sort of feature which makes it special,” he said. Nick Russell, President of the Hallmark Society agrees. “As a long-term plan, it would be wonderful if the city decided to get new ones made, at least for Downtown and for the five Heritage Conservation Areas.” There is no money in his tight budget for a tile replacement project, Furtado said, but James Bay resident Marc Pakenham offers a possible solution. He thinks residents and neighbourhood associations could raise funds to buy new tiles for the city to install. “I love those ceramic tiles!” Pakenham said. “Let’s do it.”