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Our History: Emily Carr’s family homes live on

The evolution of residential architecture on Canada’s West Coast, from pioneer log cabin to modernist mansion, is surprisingly short and direct, and is amazingly well represented in the city of Victoria.

The evolution of residential architecture on Canada’s West Coast, from pioneer log cabin to modernist mansion, is surprisingly short and direct, and is amazingly well represented in the city of Victoria. In Glorious Victorian Homes, local author Nick Russell, an impassioned champion of the city’s architectural heritage, showcases a cross-section of our most handsome homes, including the four historic houses in the Carr Compound.

Excerpted from Glorious Victorian Homes, TouchWood Editions ©2017 Nick Russell

The artist Emily Carr was little known or honoured in her lifetime. Her fame has really only spread in recent decades, and today she is recognized as one of Canada’s greatest artists.

Emily’s father, Richard Carr, with his wife and two oldest daughters, arrived here from England via California in 1863, and he set up a provisions importing business on Wharf Street. A decade earlier, Sir James Douglas, HBC chief factor, had built a bridge across the tidal flats called James Bay (now the site of the Empress Hotel), and a grand house (where the Royal B.C. Museum now stands), resulting in the James Bay peninsula suddenly becoming fashionable.

The Carrs immediately bought four and a half acres of land, probably cleared earlier for the Hudson’s Bay Company farm, on a trail that extended from the James Bay Bridge to the south shore of the peninsula. They commissioned the dominant local architectural firm of Wright & Sanders, and built what is now known as the Emily Carr House (207 Government), where several more children were born, including Emily (1871-1945). Mr. Carr allowed the front of his property to be used to extend the road from the bridge, so it was called Carr Street for years — now the south part of Government Street.

Richard sold some of the land before he died in 1888, and the five surviving daughters subdivided the rest in 1911, keeping one lot each. Alice appears to have taken over the old gardener’s cottage from the property (now 218-220 St. Andrews). Edith built what is now 231 St. Andrews. And Emily, during a tempestuous career as an artist, built a house around the corner, which is now 642-646 Simcoe.

The four homes remain. All are valued by the community and are on the city’s Heritage Register.

Fortunately, their childhood home was rented and saved, and it now makes a fine anchor for the cluster of four properties, all part of the original Carr farm.

Richard Carr’s original property ran from Government Street to Douglas Street, and included the sites of the three daughters’ future homes.


207 Government St.
The Carr House, 1863-64

The Carr family home, where Emily Carr was born, was built in the latest style — the Gothic revival — with a two-storey front bay topped with a gable and finial. The front windows have rounded tops, and the roof of the full-width front porch has an elegant “bellcast” curve. The house has been nicely restored. The house is side-gabled and very symmetrical, with angled bays that were added later on both sides. Like the porch, the roof has incredibly slim finials, plus a pair of panelled split-stack chimneys. Little pendant knobs hang from the rafters like Christmas ornaments. The porch columns are slim and chamfered, and the porch railings are cut out. The result of these restoration efforts beautifully reflects the early photographs of the house.

The house is furnished to the period when Emily Carr was growing up here, and is one of Victoria’s most popular visitor destinations.


642-646 Simcoe St.
House of All Sorts, 1912

Emily Carr borrowed money from her sister Edith to finance building the House of All Sorts, round the corner from the family home, and promptly got into a battle royale with her architect, John R. Wright. Despite her complaints, Wright was a competent designer. Earlier, he had designed two nearby houses, at 671 Beacon (in 1909) and 140 St. Andrews (in 1911). In 1912, Carr asked him to design a small two-storey apartment building with a studio for herself. At first it was called Hill House (after nearby Beacon Hill), but her catchy nickname for it, based on the mix of people and animals occupying the house (she had a cat, a rat, a monkey, and dogs), stuck, so that when she wrote about her experiences as a landlady, she called the book The House of All Sorts.

She augmented the meagre rental revenue with a crude kiln, making what she called “stupid objects” for sale to tourists (now highly collectible!). She also bred sheepdogs. Meanwhile, her sisters were teaching school. Emily hated the drudgery of being a landlady, but sporadically got away in her caravan (“The Elephant”) to sketch some of her most important works, finishing them in her studio or in a studio she created in Alice’s house on St. Andrews.

At one point, she even rented out the studio, retreating to the attic, where she painted two huge eagles on the ceiling in the Kwakwa-ka-’wakw style.

She moved out permanently in 1936, and died in a nearby nursing home (which later became the James Bay Inn) in 1945.

The House of All Sorts is one of a kind, with side gables and several angles to the roof. A gabled box bay on pillars creates a central porch. As she had sketched what she wanted for the architect, it may be no coincidence that this bay is reminiscent of the bay on the front of the Carr House, her family home. Emily’s room over the porch was designated a “sleeping porch” on the drawings. Recessed porches at each end provided covered entries to the rental units, but she reached her own upper suite by exterior rear stairs. The house was originally shingled all over, but some time later the lower floor was stuccoed over.


231 St. Andrews St.

After the Carr sisters divided up the family estate, the city decided to put a road through the middle, to be called St. Andrews after the popular St. Andrews and Caledonia sports field (northwest of Government and Niagara streets).

Edith Carr had this handsome two-storey residence built in 1913 for $5,000 on her share of the Carr estate, but she (along with her sister Elizabeth) only lived here for a couple of years before moving back into the family home.

No architect is known, but the contractor may have used a catalogue design. The essential squareness is relieved by several box bays and by the generous recessed front porch. The garage may well have been added later, as it would have been unusual at the time, serving to support a deck. And the front steps might well have been side-facing, where the garage now stands. Would any of the impecunious Carr sisters have had a car?

The top floor is defined with a shallow bank of half-timbering and stucco, and the box bays have their own hipped roofs.


218-220 St. Andrews St.
By 1903

Numerous additions and alterations have been made to this modest one-storey cottage, probably built as a gardener’s cabin behind the Carr family home at 207 Government St., sometime before 1903. While Edith and Emily opted to build from scratch, Alice seems to have adopted the existing lodge around 1911, and then moved her kindergarten here from 620 Battery. Evidently the school filled a need in the fast-growing James Bay neighbourhood, and Alice added one room in 1912 and three rooms in the fall of 1913. She ran the school sporadically until 1936, and died here in 1953, aged 85.

At one point, Emily moved in with Alice. She set up a studio as a separate suite and taught art classes there.

The various additions to the house are marked by the variety of building styles and materials. Hint: The earliest part is at the front, using simple drop-siding. The front entry may originally have been on the other side, facing the family house and the street.