House Beautiful: A makeover for ye olde club

The 138-year old Union Club of British Columbia made history when it was declared a National Historic Site last month.

That honour coincided with another important moment — the completion of an extensive $4-million, five-year renovation and redecoration of the landmark Gordon Street building.

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The wide-ranging project included a two-year restoration of the exterior, upgrades and improvements to all 22 bedrooms and ensuites, a complete redesign of the grand ballroom, and enhancements to other key areas, such as the library.

The club desperately needed remediation and rejuvenation, but its members were determined that the building retain its historic and warm atmosphere, while adopting an elegant new look in keeping with its long-time role in the city.

Although the club was formed in 1879, the building was erected in 1913 and has become a symbol of the Union Club’s traditions and values, said Bernard Beck, who recently stepped down as president after a two-year term.

Members have had a long tradition of active leadership in the region, a commitment to social outreach and contributions to the cultural life of Victoria, said Beck.

Partnerships with organizations such as the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Pacific Opera Victoria, the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, Souper Bowls for Hope, Symphony Splash and the University of Victoria Scholarship Program have provided “tremendous benefits to our members and our community,” he said.

The club’s most recent upgrades have resulted in a remarkable change in the ballroom — the $500,000 facelift transformed it from a dark and somewhat gloomy space, with cracked and chipped veneer panelling, into a bright and inviting room with cream walls accented by gold and blue.

Interior designer Sheri Peterson said the ballroom had not been renovated for decades. For the redesign, she looked to the past, something she said holds true whether for a heritage house or larger structure such as this.

“I always let the architecture talk to me, then take cues from the original scale, proportion and size. For example, I designed the new wall panels and baseboards based on proportions found elsewhere inside the club.

“The panelling was like dry skin and very inexpensively done, so we stripped it off, took off all the stringers and took the walls down to the original dry plaster. We added plywood, drywall, mouldings and wall panels” that resemble silk moiré, but are actually hardwearing vinyl.

She also ran wiring behind new pilasters, vertical elements that add architectural interest by resembling columns while only projecting a few inches from the walls.

English-specialist decorator Nicholas Alexander — an expert in faux finishing, trompe l’oeil and glazing — created the look of old wood on two fireplaces that anchor each end of the room, replicating the original faux finish.

“We were so, so fortunate to find this wonderful gentleman, who is new to Victoria,” said Peterson, adding Alexander previously worked on national historic sites in the U.K. Finishing carpenters at Knappett Projects were also “outstanding.”

The ballroom’s custom carpet was inspired by ceiling detail in the club’s palm court. Peterson sent a photo of the ceiling to Wilton Weavers in England and asked if they could replicate it. They could and they did.

Original ceiling lights were “dipped and stripped” for a new finish and Waterglass Studio created matching wall sconces by copying the vintage chandeliers.

At the turn of the last century, there was not a lot of accommodation in this city, so the club was designed with many bedrooms and suites. Several members have lived at the club over the years. They and guests enjoy preferred rates.

The club also rents rooms to the public and all the bedrooms and suites have now been refreshed, with modernized ensuites.

Antiques, four-poster beds, small writing desks and roll tops, as well as other authentic pieces of furniture, add to the old-world character. General manager David Hammonds — former executive chef at The Empress Hotel who later worked as a manager in Dubai, Beijing and Shanghai — said the club is always looking for fine heritage-style pieces, such as those purchased when the Bengal Room closed.

“We want to preserve the historical components and retain as much heritage feeling as possible, while bringing the rooms up to modern standards. Because our bathrooms are small, about 50 per cent now have walk-in showers rather than bathtubs.”

Lorne DeLarge, who served as president before Beck, explained that planning for the upgrades began several years ago.

“Very little exterior work had been done to the building and there were cracked and missing pieces of terracotta, rain was getting inside, so the cement was disintegrating and rebar was rusting in the foundation and walls.”

This phase of restoration took two years and cost $2.7 million, he said. “We did a lot of work, and we did it right. That was important to Victoria and the members who trusted us to undertake this work.”

The remaining $1.4-million mortgage for all renovations will be paid off in five years: “We didn’t want the debt to linger, or future members [to be] obligated,” said DeLarge.

Martin Segger, a club member and adjunct UVic professor of Canadian art and architecture, is guiding the acquisition of new artworks for the building and said the club’s collection of roughly 150 items reflects the history of B.C. art.

Victoria had many clubs in the early days, but the Union Club was the professional one made up of businessmen, the judiciary, government bureaucrats and newspaper owners.

“These people travelled … early members sketched and drew landscapes of B.C. … There is a long tradition and history of collecting here,” he said.

“The members played an important role in the founding of the Arts and Crafts Society, which became the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and also in founding the provincial parks system, the Royal B.C. Museum and University of Victoria.”

Membership continues to be strong, said Beck, adding the club is enjoying “significant” operational surpluses that are earmarked for building-preservation now and in the future.

Fast facts

• The Union Club of B.C. was founded to support the Union of Canada at a time when there was a movement to split the Island and province from confederation.

• Originally an all-male club located above a butcher shop on Government Street, it welcomed women 27 years ago and they now make up close to 50 per cent of the membership.

• The building was designed by Loring P. Rixford, who graduated from l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, the world’s most prestigious architecture school at the time.

• Of the club’s almost 2,500 members, 1,400 live locally while the rest are all over the world.

• Initiation fees for residents start at $500 for young members (ages 19 to 34) and rise to $1,500. Monthly dues range from $94 to $128.

• Members enjoy a gourmet dining room, bar, reading room, steam and exercise rooms, billiards room, rooftop terrace and more

• One of the members’ favourite benefits is the reasonably priced wine. Restaurants typically charge double or triple the cost of wine in a liquor store, but the club charges just an extra 30 per cent.

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