Temple of Poseidon
On January 15 of 1901, the city was abuzz. For decades, the principal way to travel to the mainland had been aboard dilapidated old paddlewheelers and steamships – “barnacles on the wheel of progress,” the Daily Colonist called them – built by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Now, at last, a new player was entering the local ferry business: the mighty Canadian Pacific Railway.
The news was electrifying. Although the Esquimalt & Nanaimo railway had been completed in 1886 and the CPR had been running its Empress liners to Asia since 1891, the CPR’s investment in coastal ferries, reaching canneries and sawmills and ports to the Klondike gold fields, heralded a regional economic boom.
Victorians were not to be disappointed. As Robert D. Turner describes in his wonderful 2001 book, Those Beautiful Coastal Liners, the CPR quickly built “a new and dynamic fleet of coastal steamships, renowned for speed, elegance and fine service, that became the dominant shipping presence along the coast[.]” Under the supervision of Captain James William Troup, the CPR’s B.C. Coast Service built 19 ships (all dubbed Princesses), many of them featuring lush, woody salons and sleeping cabins based on designs by architect Francis Rattenbury. The service’s flagship, the Princess Victoria, could motor between downtown Victoria and Vancouver in under four hours.
To complement the new ferries, in 1904, Troup retained Rattenbury to design a terminal on the Inner Harbour. Rattenbury created a larger version (photo left) of the half-timbered mansions he’d already designed around town. But the Coast Service boomed – passengers on the Vancouver-Nanaimo run grew from 11,000 in 1917 to 147,000 in 1923 – and his terminal quickly became obsolete. In 1920, Troup warned that it was “no longer fit for occupancy, and [that] extensive repairs must be undertaken before the building literally falls down.”
So Troup asked the architect to create a new terminal. “I would be more than delighted to design this building,” Rattenbury replied. By then the harbour included his Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel, which had opened in 1908. “So much of it [the harbour panorama] is my life’s work that I would put my whole heart into designing a building that would harmonize and add to the beauty of the surroundings.”
Rattenbury proposed a neo-classical temple, similar to his Bank of Montreal on Douglas Street, flanked by Ionic columns. Since an all-stone building would be expensive, his architectural partner Percy Leonard James suggested using reinforced concrete covered with “cast stone” made of cement and powdered Newcastle Island rock, which could be shaped to create exterior details – such as the fabulous heads of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, overlooking each corner of the building. (The heads were carved by George Gibson, a Scots artisan who also created the speaker’s chair in the Parliament Buildings, and much of the cast-stone and wood sculpture in Christ Church Cathedral.)
The terminal’s interior was equally as grand. The main floor had ornate 17-foot ceilings, a large fireplace, and lounges and waiting rooms finished with marble and Haddington Island stone. The hipped roof of Welsh slate covered two floors of spacious offices. (Troup’s was in the northwest corner so he could monitor the harbour traffic, which he also did from his waterfront home, near today’s West Bay marina.) When the building opened in 1924, it was considered one of Rattenbury’s best, and its success led him to join the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada that year.
The Depression and World War II took their tolls on the CPR’s steamships, however, and by the 1950s, its fleet was sadly out of date. In 1958, a series of paralyzing CPR shipworkers’ strikes compelled premier W.A.C. Bennett to create BC Ferries, and the government’s roll-on, roll-off car ferries won most of the traffic to the mainland. By the 1960s, the Princess Marguerite was the only CPR vessel sailing out of downtown Victoria. The company moved its offices to Vancouver in 1968, leased the terminal to the Royal London Wax Museum in 1970, and sold the building to the province in 1975.
Now the terminal is back in the news. To take advantage of a time-limited $3.1-million infrastructure grant, the Provincial Capital Commission is undertaking a complete overhaul of the building, repairing its chipped concrete, restoring its details – including its floor-to-ceiling windows, which have been blacked over for 40 years – and seismically reinforcing the structure so it doesn’t collapse in an earthquake like a monument in Clash of The Titans. (Iredale Group Architecture’s rendering of the new interior is above right. A PDF of the conservation plan is available here.)
The big debate is about who will occupy it. The wax museum couldn’t secure a long-term lease, so the PCC is taking bids for new tenants. Entrepreneur Bob Wright has proposed a high-tech history exhibit, which some say would only mimic the failed B.C. Experience. Others argue it would be a great home for the Maritime Museum of B.C., but that institution’s been amid rocky waters after sacking most of its staff last spring. And some say – as famed architect Arthur Erickson did in 2004 – that it should be revived as a ferry terminal.
“We have to have a building that’s able to pay for itself over the long term,” says Rick Crosby, the PCC’s chief financial officer. “There could be some brilliant proposals, but we don’t have the capacity to underwrite someone who wants to pay a dollar per year.” Crosby says he’ll be surprised if a bid comes from existing marine transport companies, but anything’s possible. The next chapter in the history of the temple on the harbour is about to be written.
PS Thanks to Rick Horne for use of his 1960s photo of the terminal’s main floor.
UPDATE (March 3, 2011): Today’s Times Colonist has a photo gallery of the reno work inside the CP Steamship terminal, linked here.