Please, stop calling these gold rush-era warehouses 'Junk' Buildings

Due to a technical problem, the first part of Nick Russell's piece on the Northern Junk buildings did not appear in Sunday's Islander section. Click here for a PDF of the full two-page spread.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, if the name is “Junk.” It’s difficult to love and respect buildings called Junk, especially when that reflects only a brief part — the low-point — of their 160 years of history.

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Most of us, if we invested in an important waterfront property, would probably plan at least to re-brand any old buildings that we inherited, especially if they carried that ignominious tag. How can one proudly promote such a place?

Yet the Gold Rush Warehouses, at the south-east end of the Beige Bridge, represent an important milestone in the history of Canada.

It’s because of this that the two buildings are on the national register of Canada’s Historic Places. Each has the same description:

“It provides insight into the continuum of commercial use of the Inner Harbour, and contributes significantly to the historic commercial streetscape comprised of other early warehouses and commercial buildings nearby. As one of the first buildings constructed on the waterfront side of Wharf Street, this nineteenth-century warehouse illustrates the early harbour-based commerce which dictated the development of the land along the shore, and fueled the growth of the city.”

Unfortunately, no pictures have been found showing the front façades of these buildings in their earliest days. Number 1314 Wharf was built in 1860, designed by an extraordinarily important West Coast architect, John Wright. Originally, it likely bore a sign proudly promoting “Caire & Grancini Hardware.” When its neighbour, 1316-18, was built four years later for the Hon. Donald Fraser, it might have said, “Fraser Stores.” Designed by Thomas Trounce, this was celebrated in the Victoria Evening Express as double stone and brick stores:

“The total storage accommodation will reach fifteen hundred tons, at a cost including the wharves, of $12,000.”

In those days, that was a huge investment.

These are and should be utilitarian buildings, though both buildings may have had handsome columned fronts. Some of that detail may still be under the crude signage on the front. They are designed as a transition between the water and the land — between incoming shipping and the explosive growth of the young town.

Victoria, in its turn, was supplying the gold rushes on the Fraser River and in the Cariboo. There must have been constant traffic of vessels loading and unloading on the wharves below, with carts trundling up and down the alleys, and customers arriving with carriages and wagons.

In the 1860s, Wharf Street was the busy, thriving heart of the town, where major businesses, such as wholesaler Richard Carr, hardware dealers Fellows & Roscoe, the British Colonist, and several hotels hung out their shingles. The Hudson Bay Company warehouse and the Customs Building were just down the block and two banks were close by. (Store Street had quite a different personality, offering services such as laundries, tailors and grocers.)

The 1867 Pacific Coast Business Directory lists some 26 businesses on Wharf, 20 of which are described as merchants, including Caire & Grancini. By the 1890s, 1314 Wharf seems to have been occupied by Boskowitz the fur dealer, while the Fraser Store next door (1316/18) was shared by Findlay, Durham & Brodie (commission agents), the Pioneer Feed Store, and R.P. Rithet (wholesale, shipping & insurance). Not a junk store to be seen.

Wharf Street continued to thrive until after the last great gold rush, to Yukon. Findlay, Durham & Brodie remained, expanding into insurance, while the B.C. Canning Co. probably had the bigger building to itself: The demand for canned salmon was huge.

Eventually, of course, business shifted to Government and Douglas Streets and the Outer Wharves drew shipping from the Inner Harbour. Wharf Street lost its allure — and the economy tanked.

But “Northern Junk” does not turn up in street directories until 1919 — on Store Street. Directories indicate that Hyman Kramer’s Northern Junk store subsequently operated on Store and Johnson Streets before he moved his headquarters into the Wharf Street buildings about 1953.

So, for almost a century, these buildings were not known as Northern Junk. Victoria Junk Agency used one for a decade or more, but other businesses, such as Mitchell Brothers, commission merchants, Victoria Cartage, and John Idiens’ flour and feed store, shared the buildings.

Years of abuse

Latterly, owners have not been kind to them. Heritage consultant Don Luxton described them in a draft Conservation Plan:

“These heritage designated buildings are currently derelict, vacant, and in need of envelope remediation, structural repair, and seismic upgrading due to neglect, water ingress, and faulty rainwater shedding systems … .”

These are buildings that have been heritage designated for nearly 50 years!

Luxton’s report proposed a full, sympathetic restoration, bringing the buildings up to the standard of their handsome neighbours on the 1100 and 1200 blocks of Wharf Street.

We easily forget that these modest, abused, storefronts are, in fact, two-storey buildings, dominating the entrance to downtown from the south. People using the harbour (in kayaks, ferries, floatplanes, harbour jitneys), people walking the Songhees waterfront, and people arriving across the bridge — all see the imposing two-storey façades of these buildings, just as the pioneers did, 160 years ago. And what those people saw was working warehouses, not junk buildings.

So what could be done with these buildings? Clearly they should be connected back to the waterfront, not just with a walkway passing below, but with a dock for water taxis and other traffic. If the historic buildings were used by the Maritime Museum, for instance, they could keep boats down on the water, with floating exhibits like the San Francisco Maritime Historical Park.

If it became a Victoria City Museum, it, too, could have a marine theme. Perhaps both: “The Victoria/B.C./Canadian Gold Rush Museum”?

(These gold rush buildings would also connect nicely with the Raymond Stores building, on Belleville at Pendray. Under the faux half-timbering there’s a century-old brick warehouse that could serve a complementary role, connected by a vintage water taxi …. )

Calling them Junk Buildings is a bit like referring to Craigdarroch Castle as Craigdarroch Military Hospital, which it was for a while. Or referring to the Parthenon in Athens as the Ottoman Gunpowder Store, which it briefly was.

Naming them the Gold Rush Warehouses is not a whitewash: It’s an accurate description of what they were. They played a key role in Victoria’s history, and can continue to do so, given a little respect. They represent a key moment in Canada’s history.

Instead of trying to hide the buildings in amongst some alien towers, imaginative developers could seize the opportunity to celebrate that history, making the Gold Rush Warehouses the focus and theme of any surrounding construction.

Nick Russell is a heritage researcher. His latest book is Victoria Then & Now: Postcards from the Past (2020).

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