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Requiem for a civic icon: Victoria's Centennial Fountain as a symbol of progress

The Centennial Square fountain was vital to a wide-ranging revitalization plan that, among other things, saved Victoria City Hall from demolition.

It’s hard to imagine Victoria’s Centennial Square without its centrepiece, the Centennial Fountain — the water feature that city council plans to remove.

The fountain has been part of the square since the area was created almost six decades ago. It was vital to a wide-ranging revitalization plan that, among other things, saved City Hall from demolition and gave downtown Victoria a new lease on life.

The development was driven by the bold vision of Richard Biggerstaff Wilson, Victoria’s mayor from 1962 to 1965. Wilson relied on a major San Francisco architectural firm as well as a who’s who of local architects to bring his vision to reality.

Before Wilson took office, council members were struggling with two major decisions: What to do with the ramshackle 19th century City Hall, and what to build to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the city’s incorporation in 1862.

Under Wilson’s leadership, those decisions were made quickly, and all the work was completed before the end of his term.

He recognized that downtown Victoria needed to change to keep up with the times. It was being hollowed out because of the appeal of the suburbs.

The numbers tell the tale. From 1941 to 1961, Victoria’s population had grown by 25 per cent. In contrast, the combined population of Oak Bay, Saanich and Esquimalt had grown by 150 per cent.

The need for change had been recognized before Wilson became mayor. In 1957, for example, the province proposed that the city abandon the old City Hall and join it in a civic centre on Church Hill — the area in front of Christ Church Cathedral — along with a Supreme Court building and the Land Registry.

Two years later, the city considered leasing space in a high-rise office building that would be part of a complex that could include an auditorium. The old City Hall? It would be demolished, and the land sold.

As Victoria council dithered about what to do, Oak Bay, Saanich and Esquimalt councils assembled a fund of about $30,000 (nearly $300,000 in today’s money) for “a project of a permanent nature,” according to Oak Bay council minutes, in celebration of Victoria’s anniversary.

A group of citizens encouraged Wilson to run for mayor. Wilson was a third-generation Victorian, a former member of Oak Bay council, and at the time was chair of the committee responsible for the new campus of Victoria College, which was shortly to become a university.

When he took office in January 1962, he promised a fresh, progressive look at Victoria’s many issues. Soon after, he unveiled plans for a revitalization of Victoria’s civic core through what we would now call a “private-public partnership.”

Three shopping malls – a new idea at the time – would mark Victoria’s borders with Oak Bay and Saanich, capturing the retail shopping taxes from the rapidly expanding suburbs. Acknowledging the importance of the automobile, a string of multi-storey parking garages would ring downtown. Old Town would be anchored by a block-square urban mall.

Revenues these initiatives generated would be matched with Ottawa’s new program of urban-renewal funding to restore and revive Old Town and build public amenities such as a major addition to the central library, a swimming pool, revived performing arts facilities and a centre for senior citizens.

The crowning symbol of the plan would be the restoration of City Hall with a new public square adjacent to it.

We live in Wilson’s dream now.

A comprehensive plan for downtown

Wilson had highly creative sources of inspiration, because postwar urban design was awash with new ideas.

Rapid urbanization across North America created a froth of architectural creativity. New architecture schools opened across North America, including the one at the University of British Columbia.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs published her profoundly influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She pioneered the idea of urban renewal and core-area heritage conservation.

Architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander headed a group working on A Pattern Language, a 1977 book that would radically alter design thinking by describing how design should be based on the daily minutiae, and habits, of ordinary people going about daily life.

About public squares, Alexander wrote:

“People gravitate naturally toward the edge of public spaces. They do not linger out in the open. If the edge does not provide them with places where it is natural for them to linger, the space becomes a place for them to walk through, not a place to stop. It is therefore clear that a public square should be surrounded by pockets of activity: shops, stands, benches, displays, rails courts, gardens…”

In keeping with his reputation for bold action, Wilson took Victoria College’s building committee on a tour of University of California campuses.

In Berkeley, they met with William Wilson Wurster, who was recreating the university’s architecture school as a new progressive entity, the School of Environmental Design, bringing together various design professions.

Wurster also headed the powerhouse architectural firm Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons, often working in close association with Lawrence Halprin Landscape Architects.

The firm, known as WBE, was designing the Berkeley campus, new suburban college campuses across North America and major urban-renewal undertakings such as Ghirardelli Square in old-town San Francisco.

Wurster and Wilson clicked, and WBE was invited to Victoria to do a plan. The result was a 50-year ongoing relationship, with WBE serving as UVic’s consulting campus planners.

Wilson established a particularly close friendship with one of the WBE partners, Donn Emmons.

The Berkeley archives has correspondence between Wilson and Emmons in which Emmons laid out the bones of a scheme for the heritage restoration of downtown Victoria.

In one letter, Emmons said “a building like City Hall is part of the fabric and history of community — nothing can replace it.”

The plan for Victoria’s downtown was comprehensive.

Two squares, now known as Bastion and Centennial, would book-end Old Town. A network of tree-lined streets and pedestrian alleyways would knit together the harbour, Chinatown, the parliamentary precinct and the Government/Douglas shopping precincts.

A new civic square would be carved out of a land assembly resulting from the closure of Cormorant Street, the realignment of Pandora Avenue, and the demolition of commercial buildings, including the public market.

The square would form a “respite” along the pedestrian spine of Broad Street — between Government and Douglas — connecting Eaton’s at the south end, where the Bay Centre is today, with Hudson’s Bay (now Victoria Public Market at the Hudson) at the north end.

Broad Street would open into the square through the arched undercroft beneath the “legislative wing” of City Hall.

Voters approved a 10-year borrowing tranche of $950,000 to fund the project.

The strategy of Wurster, Bernardi and Emmons was to lay out a basic scheme and development policies, and encourage local architects to carry out the work.

UVic designated Robert Siddall and Associates as the campus architect, then put out the rest of the work as commissions to local firms.

Wilson and his council appointed Victoria’s first architect/planner, Roderick Clack, then brought in the entire architectural team from UVic to collaborate on pieces of the square.

Clive Justice, who had studied architecture at Berkeley and worked in Halprin’s San Francisco office, was commissioned to produce the plan for the square, working with Herb Warren, another native Victorian, the city’s first professional landscape gardener and its parks superintendent.

John Di Castri took on the parkade and shopping arcade on the north side of the square. The firms of John Wade and Charles Stockdill, with Robert Siddall and Associates, undertook to restore old City Hall and add a modern council chamber on the west side.

Don Wagg and David Hambleton restored the police station and added a civic courthouse wing adjacent to the parkade.

Clive Campbell, recently retired as head of B.C.’s public works department, added the seniors activity centre on the northwest corner of the square.

Alan Hodgson was assigned to reinvent the old Pantages Theatre as a civic playhouse with a restaurant wing added to the west side. Peter Cotton, an architect and interior designer, contributed the interior of the first shop to open on the square, The Handloom.

Clack said the plan was to preserve some of “vanishing Victoria” by accepting historic values while pointing to a progressive urban future.

Justice’s inspired idea was that this mix of old and new, individual architectural contributions, contained on a gently sloping site would reference Victoria’s garden-city image, but would be anchored by a major water feature.

Viewscapes across and through the square would frame the fountain. Di Castri designed his parkade stairwell with this in mind.

The restaurant wing of the McPherson Theatre was tiered to feature views of the square. The McPherson lobby captures views of the fountain from the upper and lower levels. From the upper level of the new “legislative wing” of City Hall, a “mayor’s speaking balcony” overlooked it.

The fountain itself was a collaboration between Clack, Hodgson and artist Jack Wilkinson, who was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy.

Wilkinson was known for his portrait paintings but he also worked in the provincial public works department as an architectural draftsman and detailer. His work can be seen in the abstract bas-relief panel designs at the street level of the provincial courthouse, and in façade elements of the Royal B.C. Museum and the adjacent bell tower.

The budget for the fountain was set to meet the budget of the $30,000 gift from the surrounding municipalities.

A fountain full of symbols

Wilkinson and Clack were clear about the symbolic elements of his design. Three central cast-concrete pylons, each facing one of the donor municipalities, would rise from a bed of stones referencing the beaches surrounding the peninsula. The concrete “tiara” edging the circular pool spoke about the city’s namesake Queen.

The individual units provided public seating but were a nod toward the “Modernism” of the square. However, the reference might have only been understood by the local architectural fraternity in that they drew on the waterfront portico elements of Oscar Niemeyer’s palacio do planalto, which dominates the central square of Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil then under construction.

A night-time lighting program created a multi-coloured spectacle in the three water-columns that reached the height of the pylons.

The faces of the pylons or “fins” provided for three mosaics, each with a separate narrative. Themes addressed by the imagery included “youth and growth” and depicted the armorial shield from the newly created University of Victoria.

Another focuses on “creation and protection” symbolized by images of a mother and child.

The tallest pylon represents the human condition, “morality and man’s struggle against evil:” St. George slays the dragon of evil, a crowning sunburst is the creator looking on.

Wilkinson was paid $2,500 for his design.

Interviewed during construction, Clack said that he, Hodgson, their wives and Wilkinson worked nights sticking the little tiles on the fountain for free, because the city did not have enough money to pay for the work.

Joan Giles, the widow of George Giles, director of the provincial works department, said in a recent letter to the editor that she and her daughters worked on applying mosaic tiles.

The square also featured a Renaissance “knot garden” — a former garden of aromatic plants and herbs in a square frame — at the back of the theatre, referencing Victoria’s British heritage. Local plants and trees filled out peripheral gardens on the north and south sides. An expanse of lawn opened the east side of the square to Douglas Street.

The square was highly praised. Even at the design stage, it attracted attention. The professional journal Canadian Architect published preliminary sketches in November 1963.

It noted the design team approach and how it “derives its basic form from the effect of pedestrian movement through the Square … the overall scheme and pattern seeks to integrate all the spaces and order that the whole square feels as one unit, flowing in and out and between the various buildings and using the proposed fountain as the focal point with the square expanding out to the perimeter … a gradual or gentle terraced effect.”

Fulsome newspaper reports tracked the square’s construction.

After the square was finished in October of 1965, B.C.’s premier lifestyle magazine, Western Homes and Living, noted how the square and its amenities could open Victoria up to a new industry, convention tourism.

Clack went on to serve as architect to the National Capital Commission, where he designed the 1967 Centennial Flame and Fountain of Parliament Hill, then shifted to a similar position with the National Capital Commission in Canberra, Australia.

Falling into disrepair

Over the years, Centennial Square has served Victoria well. The square was the site of myriad concerts and performances, including Folk Fest for many years, although the noise often challenged nearby office workers. It has also been a marshalling place for protest parades.

Patrons of the café spilled out into the arcade and square beyond. The fountain lights provided night-time visual attraction for theatre-goers.

Mostly the square served as an urban oasis, a place to pause, to contemplate the garden landscape, engage with the Wilkinson mosaics and listen to the cascading waters of the fountain.

But time has not been kind to Centennial Square. Lack of maintenance has left a pitted floorscape, hastily repaired roadwork-style. Many of the brass letters that spell out the names of the donor municipalities have come adrift.

The water jets have lost their original vigour, the lighting program has been simplified for ease of maintenance, and patches of the mosaic tilework have fallen away.

By the 1970s, there was unhappiness about who sat about in the square (basically, long-haired youth) so the tiara was stuccoed to discourage seating, although the clusters of guitar-strumming young people seemed not to disturb the bemused seniors taking in the sun outside the seniors’ centre.

The seniors’ centre was demolished in 2007 to make way for the Capital Regional District building. One by one, the arcade shops and café have closed, and reflective glass windows now stare blankly out onto the square.

The restaurant wing of the McPherson Playhouse was removed, supposedly to better link the square to an extension of the proposed Government Street mall that was never undertaken.

In 1996, the police abandoned the square for a new building on Caledonia Street. The Spirit Garden was added to the south side in 2007. However, its “Spirit Beach” water feature has dried up. The knot-garden was paved over in favour of a better idea, a performance mainstage.

More recently, the arched undercroft of City Hall connecting the square to Broad Street was adopted by the homeless seeking temporary shelter, then fenced in for bike storage.

In 2017, the city engaged in an extensive public consultation on the future of the square.

The main thrust of the resulting report, Centennial Square Action Plan, was to start with cleanup and repair, then build on the original square concept.

It noted: “the fountain is intended to be the heart of square but cannot be fully enjoyed in its current state.”

The report urged a reinterpretation of the concrete tiara to bring back the seating quality initially intended, and consideration of a more open water feature that would allow for water play. It called for the removal of the sequoia tree and extension of the green space.

The report concluded: “Centennial Square is Victoria’s Plaza. It is a unique destination offering year-round activities to celebrate community with different events and festivals. It is also an urban oasis offering places to relax and play at different time of the day, week and year. IT IS OUR SQUARE.”

In 1964, alderman Alf Toone, chairman of the Centennial Square Committee, saw the project as a major addition to Victoria’s built heritage.

He said: “I am sure the development of Centennial Square will be a source of regional pride to the capital city of B.C. and a worthy, permanent reminder to the 100th anniversary of our city’s incorporation.”

The question remains: Without Centennial Fountain, would it still be Centennial Square?

Martin Segger is an architectural historian and urban critic. He has written extensively on Victoria’s built environment.

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