2010:   New Life for the 1888 Bandstand

Text by Janis Ringuette
      Photos by Norm Ringuette

Refurbished Bandstand


Beacon Hill Park’s first bandstand, built in 1888, was transformed into a public information kiosk in July, 2010. Its location, next to the Stone Bridge, north of the Cameron Bandshell and on a popular walking route, is ideal for this new use. The heritage structure was meticulously repaired, restored, and repainted the original colours. The result is a spectacular, iconic new park feature.

The colourful kiosk shown above contrasts dramatically with the former empty, gray, rundown structure on the right. (Photo by Jamie Druin) For two decades, it deteriorated forlornly behind ugly chicken-wire and chain-link fences. Then Senior Park Planner Doug DeMarzo joined the parks division team in July, 2008. DeMarzo conceived and ably directed the complicated rehabilitation project from the start to its successful conclusion.

Beautiful Victorian-era design

The project was guided by preservation, restoration and rehabilitation recommendations provided in a heritage impact study prepared for the City of Victoria by Donald Luxton Associates, Inc. Important features of the heritage structure were preserved and protected as it was repaired and adapted for "a contemporary but compatible use." (Heritage Impact Study: Old Bandstand, Beacon Hill Park, Donald Luxton Associates, Inc., December, 2009)

Luxton discovered the bandstand’s original colours by taking samples of paint from “various protected locations” on the existing building to analyze. He also examined coloured postcards of the time. The rehabilitated structure was colourfully painted according to Luxton's diagram’s which pinpointed the location of three original paint colours (Pendrell Verdigris, Pendrell Red and Mount Pleasant Buff). The roof was stained to match Pendrell Red brackets and drop slats. Though no original shingles were available to analyze, Luxton explained it was typical of the era to stain roof shingles.

Luxton concluded the 1888 Bandstand/Aviary, had “great heritage significance” because it “is the oldest surviving structure in Beacon Hill Park; is the only surviving early bandstand in the City of Victoria; was a focus of social and cultural activities in Beacon Hill Park for many years; is an integral part of the picturesque design of Beacon Hill Park; and is a superior example of late Victorian-era design and Carpenter ornamentation.”

Until City Council designated Beacon Hill Park a Municipal Heritage Site in November, 2009, there was no process in place to assure work on heritage features would be done appropriately. Well-meaning workers without heritage expertise or advice “repaired” the 1889 Stone Bridge several years ago using modern mortar and inappropriate techniques, damaging the structure. Such mistakes are unlikely in the future. Heritage advocate and City Councillor Pam Madoff explained the new Municipal Heritage Site designation requires consultation with the city’s heritage planner when changes are proposed. Heritage impact studies like Luxton’s will be commissioned to assure appropriate materials and methods are used. The heritage designation is therefore the most significant achievement in recent park history. It not only protects built features like the bandstand, it also protects the park’s cultural and natural landscapes.

The early bandstand

Nine interpretative display panels explaining the history and features of Beacon Hill Park will be permanently displayed on the refurbished bandstand. Seven were installed in July. In the fall, the final two panels will go on display and the surface area around the building will be completed before the official opening. This article highlights the panels with particularly significant and complex aspects of park history.

The interpretative display board to the right features an excellent archival photo of the original bandstand near the top. As reported by Luxton, the 1888 bandstand was designed by architect Leonard Buttress Trimen and built for $300 by contractor G. Mallette. The bandstand was an open, decagonal (10-sided) wooden structure with a shingle roof, supported on ten posts. After examining archival images, Luxton concluded the original location of the bandstand was “close to the west side of the race track” [now Circle Drive] but that it was moved to its current location in 1900, “to enhance the picturesque aspects of the lake and Stone Bridge.”

When a second bandstand was constructed in the park in 1927, the original bandstand was converted into an aviary. Structural changes were required for the conversion. The heritage impact study explained: “...a central wooden double-height pentagonal structure [was inserted], the centre of which is accessed through small doors, with access to the upper level loft by a ladder. A wire mesh, supported on a wood frame, enclosed the remainder of the structure into five partitions, each acting as a birdcage.” Use as an aviary continued for about sixty years. The bottom archival photo on the panel shows the bandstand/aviary in the 1940s.

The natural landscape of Beacon Hill Park

More than 1,000 years of First Nations occupation and use of the land are acknowledged in Beacon Hill Park with this display panel. It was a long wait for recognition. Previously, only one sentence in the park mentioned aboriginal history. By contrast, thirty-six park monuments, markers and plaques focus on white culture’s comparatively short history. Though Beacon Hill's aboriginal burial sites and the ancient fortified village on Finlayson Point are yet to be recognized, this panel explains aboriginal cultivation of the land and the harvesting of camas, their staple root crop.

The Beacon Hill area was “one of the most productive camas territories on Vancouver Island,” according to University of Victoria history professor Dr. John Lutz. The Lekwungen harvested bulbs for their own food and traded large quantities with west coast Nuu-chah-nulth people. They harvested the bulbs of both the Common camas, Camassia quamash, and Great camas, Camassia leichtlinii. The importance of camas to aboriginal people went beyond food and trade. Harvesting was a seasonal social and cultural activity and a time of reunion. In May and June, families paddled canoes to the shores of Beacon Hill to set up temporary working camps. Early settler Gilbert Malcolm Sproat described the festive harvest scene: “The gathering of the gammass [camas] is the most picturesque of all Indian employments. One could hardly wish...for a pleasanter dwelling than the little bush camps which the natives form in the gammass districts..”

Families owned and cared for individual camas plots. Dr. Nancy Turner, author of Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples, detailed the work: “Each season the families cleared their plots of stones, weeds and brush, often by controlled burning. Harvesting took several days, with entire families participating. The harvesters systematically lifted out the soil in small sections, removed the larger bulbs and replaced the sod. Even in this century, families would collect four to five potato-sacks full at a time.” Aboriginal women harvested bulbs measuring two to three inches across. The bulbs, which look like small onions, were steamed in large pits for a day and a half until they were “soft, brownish and sweet.” One white settler compared the taste to “baked pear.”

Beacon Hill meadows attracted James Douglas

Coast Salish ancestors of the Songhees First Nation (Lekwungen) cultivated and maintained the shrub-free grasslands for centuries as they worked to enhance the growth of camas, and other edible native plants. It was the aboriginal inhabitants’ bad luck to have created an oak-meadow landscape which exactly matched the 19th century English ideal of a perfect “picturesque” countryside. Dr. Lutz wrote: “Ironically, it was the open camas prairies, maintained by the Lekwungen’s regular burning that attracted European settlement to their territory.” Camas meadows--irresistible to the British--decided the location of Victoria.

When Chief Factor James Douglas saw six square miles of open camas meadows surrounding Victoria (then called Camosack), the search for the site of the new Hudson’s Bay Company fort was over. Sailing the schooner Cadboro along the south coast of Vancouver Island in 1842, Douglas examined other possible sites. The harbours of Sooke and Esquimalt were superior, he reported, but were “surrounded by rocks and forests, which will require ages to level and adapt to agriculture.” Victoria’s open landscape appeared more suitable for farming. “It was this advantage,” he reported to the Company, “which led me to choose the site.”

British newcomers wrongly assumed the open meadows they “discovered” were “natural” and unused. They viewed unfenced, unploughed and unseeded land as “waste,” available for “civilized” use. White immigrants’ cattle, horses and sheep soon grazed the tops off Beacon Hill camas plants. Pigs rooted up the bulbs. Acres of prime camas fields near the Park were planted in oats, wheat, potatoes and carrots. Burning--essential to maintaining healthy open meadows--was prohibited. Gilbert Sproat wrote: “One of the bitterest regrets of the natives is that the encroachment of the whites is rapidly depriving them of their crops of this useful and almost necessary plant.” Camas--merely pretty blue flowers to white settlers--began its decline.

The early design of Beacon Hill Park

Beacon Hill Park was set aside in 1850 as a “Park Reserve.” The park stands out clearly in red on the 1858 map shown at the top of this panel. The map, provided courtesy of B.C. historian Richard S. Mackie, author of Trading Beyond the Mountains and other books, shows how most land was divided up for private sale and other blocks were reserved for "public purposes."

This division of land was part of a British government plan to establish an “ideal society” in the new colony of Vancouver Island. The goal was to transplant the English class system to colonies around the world. An elite group of landowners would hold social and political power while a labourer class did the work. To achieve that goal, the British government adopted the colonization theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Already in place in New Zealand and South Australia, the “Wakefield System” set high land prices and other restrictions designed to exclude lower classes from owning land. The intent was, as British Columbia historian Richard S. Mackie explained, to “force ordinary immigrants to engage in wage-labour and form a landless pool of immigrant labour... Capitalists and other well-to-do immigrants would constitute the colonial elite...”

London ordered James Douglas, Hudson’s Bay Company Chief Factor, to divide Victoria area land into large 300 acre tracts for private sale at one pound per acre. No land sale could be less than 20 acres. For every 100 acres purchased, buyers were required to bring five single male labourers or three married couples from England to Vancouver Island and to support them while they worked the land. The land division formula also required public spaces be set aside for churches, schools, hospitals and parks. These “Public Reserves” would provide infrastructure for an ordered, proper society. For every eight square miles sold to private buyers, one square mile was reserved for the use of Anglican clergy and a second square mile reserved for church and churchyard, schools, and “other public purposes,” which included parks.

Few English gentlemen chose to purchase distant wilderness land sight unseen. There was one group to whom Douglas could sell land: former and current Hudson's Bay Company employees. Douglas bent the rules in every way possible to encourage them to buy large tracts; the result was that the largest Victoria landowners were middle-class Hudson’s Bay Company employees, not the upper-class “gentlemen” hoped for by the British government. Because only landowners were allowed to stand for office and vote, HBC officers became members of the Colonial government and Founding Fathers of the City of Victoria.

The important people developing the park

One of the biggest landowners was James Douglas. He enhanced the value of his private property by selecting land along the east boundary of Beacon Hill Park. In 1852, he removed twenty-four acres from the park--the entire northeast corner--and added that land to his personal estate, Fairfield Farm. Douglas deserves credit for preserving the park land that remained. He pushed through London’s official recognition of Beacon Hill as a public park before he retired, thereby thwarting the plans of his successor and son-in-law, A. G. Dallas. Dallas strongly favoured retaining all Beacon Hill Park land as Company property and selling it for profit.

The middle portion of this panel focuses on John Blair's place in park history. In 1889, Victoria City Council hired Blair to supervise the “beautification” of Beacon Hill Park; $25,000 was provided for construction costs. Council hoped to transform natural forest and meadows into a carefully landscaped 19th century English “pleasure garden.” Goodacre Lake and the rustic “medieval” Stone Bridge were completed that year and a blizzard of carriage roads were constructed through the park. Many features in the landscape design pictured on the panel proved impractical and were not completed, including a second huge lake along Cook Street and seventeen structures. The winner of the landscape design contest held by the city was a local architect named Henry Cresswell and not, as long believed, John Blair.

The last influential figure recognized in the display is W. H. (Herb) Warren, Park Superintendent for a record-breaking forty years. Hired in 1930 at age 25, he influenced every park design, policy and operation decision until his retirement in 1970. Warren constructed the picturesque stream flowing from Fountain Lake to Goodacre Lake and four small lakes along Circle Drive. He developed ornamental gardens in the centre of the park, expanded the nursery and began the city’s hanging basket program.