Bay Street Armoury marks 100th anniversary

A march into history at a military bastion that has seen generations recruited and even a Joe Louis fight

The Bay Street Armoury has seen a lot since it opened 100 years ago, from the military purpose for which it was designed to an appearance by none other than legendary boxer Joe Louis.

Louis, who was world heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, took to a ring set up in the armoury on Dec. 10, 1945, in front of about 2,500 people for an exhibition three-round bout against Bob Frazier, part of a tour Louis was on. The Daily Colonist described Frazier, introduced to the crowd as the United States Navy boxing champion, as a “battered and outclassed opponent.” Louis won easily.

The Victoria Symphony Orchestra performed at the armoury in 2014 and is planning a second appearance. It has also become the venue for the annual Mustard Seed Christmas dinner, which is enjoyed by about 1,000 people in need each year.

While the armoury still holds outside events, it had more extensive public use in its first decades because venues such as Memorial Arena and the Victoria Conference Centre had yet to emerge, said military historian John Azar, one of the organizers of the armoury’s centennial event.

The public event at the armoury, 713 Bay St., will be held today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will includes cadet groups and military organizations as well as the Victoria Geneological Society, the Old Cemeteries Society of Victoria and the Victoria-Esquimalt Military Re-enactors Association.

“Fifteen local history and heritage groups and archives are participating with display tables,”  Azar said.

A special part of the event will be the presence of Victoria High School’s memorial banner, listing the names of all those from the school who served in the First World War. “That banner’s really significant,” Azar said. “It will be there hanging. It’s quite spectacular, two storeys high, so it will have to hang from rafters.”

There is plenty of anticipation for having the public tour the armoury, said Lt.-Col. Stephen Sawyer, commander of the Canadian Scottish Regiment (Princess Mary’s),which calls the building home, along with the 5th (B.C.) Field Regiment.

Today’s activities will be a sign of things to come, he said. “We’re going to turn our attention a little bit more over the next few years to trying to do one event every year, to try and share ourselves with Victoria, and vice-versa.”

Construction of the armoury began in 1912 as part of a national building campaign for military reserve units that went from 1896 to 1918.

The Bay Street Armoury was built to replace a smaller drill hall on Menzies Street.

Training for reservists or “civilian soldiers” prepares them to be quickly absorbed into the regular military, Azar said.

At the centre of the Bay Street facility is a large parade square, with museum areas, mess rooms, and storage space all arranged around the parameter.

The armoury had other amenities in its early years, said Azar, including a basement swimming pool that has long since been filled in with sand.

The armoury’s architect, Maj. Ridgway Wilson, also designed the Church of St. John the Divine on Quadra Street and the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre, or Wilkinson Road jail. The armoury was built by Parfitt Bros., and three grandsons of company principal Albert Parfitt will be at today’s event.

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