Victoria, British Columbia 2001


The 35th ANNUAL MEETING of the VICTORIAN SOCIETY IN AMERICA

VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA, CANADA

 
MAY 24-26, 2001
 

“ To realize Victoria you must take all that the eye admires in Bournemouth, Torquay, the Isle of Wight, the Happy Valley at Hong Kong, Sorrento and Camp’s Bay – add reminiscences of the Thousand Islands and arrange the whole around the Bay of Naples with some Himalayas for the background” – Rudyard Kipling

Kipling’s description of Victoria remains accurate in 2001.  Still a place of unparalleled natural beauty, the city retains a remarkable variety of Victorian and Edwardian architecture and gardens. It has a rich and fascinating history.

The city began life in 1847 as Fort Victoria, a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost established to protect British interests against Russian and American expansionism. Fort Victoria was the most westerly British establishment in Her Majesty’s Empire. Incorporated as a city in 1862, it became the Capital of the Crown Colony of Vancouver Island and later of British Columbia. Today the population numbers 300,000.

During the nineteenth century, Victoria was an evolving mix of fur traders, transient gold-seekers, entrepreneurs, Colonial administrators and pseudo-aristocrats. In the late 1880’s, Victoria was the largest Canadian city west of the Great Lakes and the largest city north of San Francisco. Its fortunes were dependent on gold, lumber, coal, fur, and on being the seat of government in this new land. But when Vancouver township on British Columbia’s mainland became the terminus for the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886, Victoria’s economy waned. Historic preservation ‘by default’ resulted.

The 35th Annual Meeting of the Victoria nSociety in America as seen through the eyes of an unknown lady not from Philadelphia

The weather was perfect.  Victoria has such an unbelievably beautiful setting.  Bruce Davies is a master of organization, so capable, so calm, so much fun, and his dazzling side-kick, Elisabeth Langford---what efficiency, everywhere at once, walkie talkie in constant contact with Bruce, making certain all was well.  In other words, it was a splendid 35th Annual Meeting of the Victorian Society in America, and a sell-out number of Vic Socers made the most of it.

On Wednesday, May 23 Stacy Hampton, bull whip in hand, made certain all of the pre-tourers were on the proper bus in front of The Empress Hotel, except for Bill Fischelis, who boarded a bus full of Japanese tourists.  Whether it was his height or his name tag identifying him as O. N. Bader of the U.S.S.R., he was made to feel unwelcome.  First stop on Vancouver Island was Goldstream Park where gold was once panned and salmon still struggle upstream—but not on Wednesdays—although Elizabeth Shevlin, just arrived from Philadelphia on the red eye flight, announced she felt like a struggling salmon.  We looked for Cadusauras, the sea monster, but to no avail.  Next, there was an unscheduled stop, so a radio station could interview President John Simonelli by cell phone.

Past the Laughing Llama II grocery store, we drove to windswept and now abandoned Butter Church (1879).  It’s $500 cost was paid for by the native people who made and sold butter to hire the stone mason.  Next was St. Peter’s Cowichan Anglican Church (1876) with a cemetery full of old tombstones and entrancing wildflowers.  Enveloped in his winter coat, Marvin Cristil ate enough homemade cookies to last until lunch, while Dolores Hovitch bought hand colored wildflower cards also made by the church ladies.  Lunch was served at the Cowichan Native Village in their Cultural and Conference Center.  After barbecued salmon and much else, First Nation Singers and Dancers demonstrated several dances—most involving much jumping with legs bent at the knee.  It was not a dance step to practice in The Empress hotel rooms after midnight, although Allen Check and Lois Howlin, chosen to learn a more subdued dance, sort of a shuffle with turns, could have practiced with impunity.  On our way to the 1886 town Chemainus, noted for murals, we passed through Ladysmith, but missed seeing the biggest hockey stick in the world, but it probably wasn’t Victorian.

We arrived back at The Empress in time to change and board buses for an elegant opening reception at the Craigdarroch Castle, built for half a million dollars in 1890 by the ill-fated Robert Dunsmuir, who died before moving in.  Fortified by the hospitality of the Cragdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society, we climbed all four floors, admiring the marvelous art glass and the careful taste with which the castle is being restored.  What a wonderful party.  Curator Bruce Davies welcomed us, music played, delicious eats, as Vic Socers greeted old friends and chatted with newcomers and our hosts.  The Summer School Alumni crept out early to hear Nancy Golden, Kathleen Bennett, and John Martine tell of the past and future of the Summer School Alumni activities while we ate dinner at the 1895 Gatsby Mansion, now a restaurant and bed and breakfast.

Thursday set the pattern for mornings to come as we were led by Elisabeth Langford and Stacy Hampton to St. Ann’s Academy (1871) a few blocks away from the Empress.  The Academy was a school and has been converted to offices, but the chapel and auditorium have been saved, and were perfect for our slide lectures.  We heard John Adams, Jeffrey Castle, Alastair Kerr, Cyril Hume, and Martin Segger talk and learned about early Victoria’s history, customs, inhabitants, gardens, and architecture.

Some of the lesser known history of Victoria---The sea otter’s fur was one of the chief reasons people came to Victoria at first.  Six Indian tribes inhabited Vancouver Island, which is similar in size to Great Britain, and they shared no common language.  It is said that some of the early Victorian inhabitants of the island wished to kill all the oxen as their womenfolk would no longer want to pull the plows.  Men took their umbrellas to the exclusive Union Club so they could club rats running through the Reading Room…sometimes pilling up to 100 bodies in one evening.  (Sally Kinsey and Barbara Finney went over to the Union Club for an evening, but swore their two for one policy had nothing to do with rats.)

Kris Andersen toured us through St. Ann’s Chapel before we crossed the road to Church of Our Lord (1870) for a box lunch and the VSA Annual Meeting where minutes were eschewed, treasurer’s report given, awards presented for preservation and for books, photo opportunities taken, and John Simonelli, President, was succeeded by Patricia Pixley, the new President.

Half of the members went to explore the Royal British Columbia Museum, while half went first to a stellar tour of the Parliament Buildings led by Alan Hodgson, who had masterminded its restoration and knows every inch of that complex place.  He took us to see places in the Parliament Buildings that few tourists ever get to see.  At a magical hour, the two groups switched—although it was rumored that some never found their way out of the Museum with its side exhibits leading to more exhibits.

Both groups came together to witness John Simonelli and Pat Pixley lay a laurel wreath at the foot of Queen Victoria’s statue in front of the Parliament Buildings.  It was her birthday that day, as well as just over 100 years from her death.  John gave an appropriate speech while the press took pictures.  Click here to read John Simonelli's Speech.  (During the night, someone moved the wreath to the War Memorial; VSA members moved it back to Queen Victoria—a journey which may be continuing to this day.

Thursday night, Stuart Stark and Margaret Graham-Bell gave us a splendid party at their restored home, Jolimont (1892).  Their children Graham and Kate, along with friend Jeremy, helped serve the unbelievable assortment of hors d’ouevre, entrements which supplemented the feast laid out in the dining room.  Japanese lanterns in the garden made it look like a Sargeant painting, and Vic Soc-ers wandered from library to parlor animated and happy.

Next morning, after a lecture followed by pastries and coffee, we split into groups, each led by an excellent guide, to explore the city of Victoria.  There were six groups on six different schedules masterminded by constant communication with walkie-talkies monitored by Bruce Davies and Elisabeth Langford so no one over indulged in Rogers’ Chocolate Shop, and all could buy chocolate cigars or could go down the block to Morris Tobacconist for Cuban cigars, definitely not made of chocolate and definitely not priced like chocolate.  A few of us had breakfasted at Munro’s Books, seen the vaults below where clerks practiced target shooting, bought books galore—Sergei Troubetzkoy had a book on sexy Victorian nursery rhymes secreted in a brown paper bag.  We could only advise others to go back later and browse.

We all ended up eventually in Chinatown and were confronted with flights of steps in order to see Tam Kung Temple, and more steps in the Hook Sin Tong Building before a lunch of many courses efficiently served at the Golden City Restaurant.  Councilor Pamela Madoff gave us greetings from Victoria’s mayor and spoke briefly on the problems and opportunities that local preservationists faced.  Then we were off for an afternoon of oohing and ahing at gardens…particularly at Abkhazi Garden, with a romantic history.  The garden was built by two people who were in different prisoner of war camps during World War II, who met, married, and decided to build a wonderful hillside garden, now maintained by the Land Conservancy of British Columbia and many volunteers.  The Victorian editor while leaping from crag to crag lost his pipe and had to make do with chocolate (or Cuban) cigars.  We made a brief visit to Government House to stand on its deck and admire the view, a privilege only granted one day a year to the ordinary person.  Dudley Brown seemed more entranced by the turtles in a pond than by peeking through the windows of the official entertainment rooms within.

To top off our garden tour was an evening at Butchart Sunken Gardens, built in a former limestone quarry next to the Butchart Family home.  The Butchart Gardens are famous worldwide for its Japanese garden, its Rose garden, its Sunken garden, and every different type of garden.  After dinner was served in the old house, we were privileged to be the only people in the gardens, free to have the whole place to ourselves with no crowds, no other photographers until the curfew hour of 8:30pm.

After our return to Victoria, many Vic Soc'ers went across the street to admire the multitude of yachts ready to race the next day.  Yawls, ketches, catamarans, and sloops Victled each other while their owners partied or watched a witty unicyclist juggler performing on the beach.  Alan Ruscoe tried to sign on as crew for the next day, but they weren’t recruiting any Victorians.

Saturday morning, this writer discovered at the window next to the elevator at a table set for two, two elderly ladies in bathrobes and slippers enjoying a room service breakfast while watching yachts sail out of the harbor or Vic Socers going up and down the elevator on their way to a lecture and coffee and pastries at St. Ann’s.  James Snyder enjoyed a scone with jam in the sunlight before all emerged for a tour of various neighborhoods followed by lunch at the Oak Bay Marina Restaurant.  Then more touring with May Stone exclaiming ooh and uum over Samuel McClure bungalows, Hank Dunlop dancing with joy, and Cheryl Huff taking pictures backlit through doorways.  Since we were near the sea, we were shown an 1887 dry dock, the largest in the world at its time, and oldest one still operating in North America.  All was well until Bill Fischelis’ Japanese nametag, Tsu Hasa Kikuchi, nearly had us all thrown in the brig as security risks.  

Jim Lee showed us his 1880’s Queen Anne house full of treasures while Dick Reutlinger peeped into all corners enjoying the unexpected.  Tea on the lawn of the Point Ellice House was sumptuous.  Marilyn and Steve Scott, Bill Fischelis, Sallie Wadsworth, and Win Gerulat all were game for seconds and thirds of cucumber sandwiches, scones with jam and whipped cream, cake, cookies, and cups of tea while others wandered through the house with its stopped-in-time interiors. 

  The trip back to The Empress was made in a fleet of harbour ferries, each holding twelve passengers, darting over the water like water bugs.  Dick Reutlinger forgot he wasn’t in San Francisco Bay and kept looking for Alcatraz Island. 

We dashed to change for Hatley Park--Elisabeth Langford, Bruce Davies, and I all using various corners of my room, having sworn to keep our backs turned on Bruce while he changed into his kilt so we could not discover what he wore underneath it.  Tom Nickel did not bring his kilt to this Annual Meeting as it had shrunk around the waist band—a shame, for it was the proper costume for Hatley Park, a grand castle in the midst of Royal Roads University.  We were greeted by a proper bagpiper skirling, who then moved down to the lagoon to play, where his tunes made the evening a Sir Walter Scott romance. 

 Charming Lis Bailly showed some of us the Japanese garden while others toured the premises with the Friends of Hatley Park Society. We ate at round tables in the grand drawing room and then assembled outside to board the buses, while the peacocks of Hatley Castle could be seen and heard calling to each other in the trees.  We went back to The Empress to pack for those going on the Post Trip to Seattle, or not pack if staying on to see whales, antiques, or more scenery in Victoria.  

Sunday, Bruce Davies and Elisabeth Langford did major weight lifting and distance running transferring luggage from the hotel to the Black Ball ferry terminal where it was guarded by formidable VSA members.  Richard Kydd finally found the ticket giver outer and we all climbed aboard after watching a ballet performed by the little water taxis—the Dance of the Sugar Plum Ferries?  Although customs officials gave some people difficulties and look suspiciously at Richard Maxwell and Earl Webster, we all managed to board the ferry with our purchases from Victoria intact. 

The trip was pleasant, but chilly.  We were glad to reach Port Angeles and be met by Brian Coleman and Howard Cohen, the organizers of the Post Trip.  This enabled Bruce Davies to become an ordinary citizen once again, instead of the extraordinary leader he was in Victoria.  We ate box lunches while driving to Port Townsend, a town with many Victorian houses to admire—especially the Starrett Mansion, now a bed and breakfast, and the Rothschild House, a typical unpretentious house museum.  Ann Ashmead no longer with one foot in a cast could walk in the garden to admire the old roses.  Our time in Port Townsend was just long enough for visits to bathrooms and ice cream shops, except for one nameless person who couldn’t resist buying a bargain and was roundly hissed for making us wait and miss the ferry. 

We drove down Bainbridge Island and took a later bus/car ferry to Seattle gliding over the water.  Dinner was at Cutter’s Restaurant right on the water with Dr. Lynne Scheele giving a talk on Victorian painters he collects, and Paul Duscherer giving a slide talk on his new book on San Francisco Victorian houses.  So much time on the water made for an early night for most of us before the serious house touring of Monday. 

The group split in half to admire the fairly new, but well filled out, garden of Bill Bergensen and his restored house or to devour a breakfast at Ray and Zita Hachiya’s home, nearly every room of which is done in intricate Bradbury and Bradbury wallpaper which they put up themselves.  Ghislaine Grenier recommended the banana bread with wee chocolate chips—as exotic as the wallpaper.  Then the bus gathered us up and took us to our hosts’ house which is difficult to describe.  There was room for only ten at a time and so much to see in so little time.  The house is layered with texture, shape, whimsy, fantasy, good taste, keen eye, tolerance for crowdedness, and a love for Junior—a bird ensconced in the kitchen behind a door, but who lets out a cry that startles, and woe betide anyone nervous near anything fragile who hears such a shriek.  Michael Murphy said to Pat, “I’ll never complain about your clutter again.”  Pat replied, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”  From an unidentified voice, “I just thought I died.  I’m claustrophobic.” 

From there it was on to Pike Place Market to detoxify, find lunch, and enjoy Memorial Day activities.  Sisters Barbara Lokke and Marilyn Lage wandered around enjoying the loud music and entertainers, and masses of fish, flowers, vegetables, sweatshirts, jewelry which were for sale.  The Flora Dora Girls crowded the French pastry shop; Win Gerulat explored the outdoor food booths; while others headed for the warm soup as it was definitely chilly.  Soon everyone gathered for tours of Pioneer Square and the hill where big houses were built.  Both guides knew their territory, and we saw what preservation groups were doing and what the recent earthquake had done.  Dinner was at the Doubletree Hotel and the food was delicious.  Marvin Cristil kept one table in absolute stitches on his experiences in the military while the rest of us could only wonder.  A good talk on antique tiles was followed by Bananas Foster and Jeff Evans, the magician.  Jeff is an unbelievably smooth, calm, witty and sophisticated magician who destroyed and disappeared Charles Robertson’s one hundred dollar bill and made it reappear in the center of an uncut apple.  Jeff also cracked Roseanne Vernon’s diamond ring into smithereens, eventually restoring it whole to her in a wrapped up box.  It was a fitting ending to a magical week in which Bruce, Elisabeth, Brian and Howard had chopped up their cities of Victoria and Seattle and magically given them to us as glittering and undamaged memories.  If snooping and eating is what Victorians enjoy, this 35th Annual Meeting was a HUGE success!
 

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