Inside Victoria City Hall, there’s a future for the past

The $5.46-million renovation at Victoria City Hall has created a unique opportunity to let the building tell some of its own story, says senior city heritage planner Steve Barber.

Victoria’s city hall building is designated as both municipal and national sites. Barber is recommending a number of interior features, including the 1891 McKillican clock, the clock tower and the old 1891 staff tearoom also receive heritage designation.

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“We’ve got all these little bits and pieces from original roofs and hopefully some of this can be incorporated in the future and interpreted as part of the history of the evolution of City Hall.”

The renovation, which will be completed this year, is designed to make City Hall more accessible and efficient, and to complete seismic work begun in 2002. Changes include installation of a new elevator, improved sprinklers and fire alarm systems and removal of hazardous materials such as asbestos and lead paint.

Victoria City Hall was built in five stages between 1878 and 1891, making it the oldest standing municipal hall in the province.

“The very first city hall was built in 1878 and at the time they had very grand plans,” Barber said.

“But there was a big protest because people felt it was too extravagant for Victoria so they scaled back their plans and they built a much smaller version.”

Many of the features recommended for designation are found in the third-floor attic — a space not slated for finishing into office space in this phase of the renovation.

Seismic upgrading of the building has also exposed evidence of City Hall as it was at various stages in its life.

There are small sections of the original wood shingle roof from 1878, later enclosed by building additions, and original wood supports of the hose drying tower of the 1881 Tiger Engine House which was the city’s first city’s firehall. An original brick chimney and an exterior cornice from the 1878 north wall are also evident.

It’s also hoped work can be done to restore the interior of the bell tower whose wood panelled walls have been graffitied over the years with hundreds of visitors’ names.

Coun. Pam Madoff, council’s leading heritage advocate, notes that identifying and designating interior features will help shape decisions when further renovations are considered.

“It’s identified that there are areas of significance that should be responded to in some way,” Madoff said. “It’s a building telling a story.”

Madoff hopes that should the designation become official, the associated public hearing will be celebratory.

“I think one of the things that we perhaps don’t do as well on council is take the time to celebrate successes. It’s not only a success on the part of staff and council, but from the public’s point of view this is something that will be extremely well received,” Madoff said.

“I don’t expect it’s going to be controversial in any way but it’s just trying to provide an opportunity for the public to celebrate something really significant and features that — other than the clock — that the staff were not even really that aware of.”

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