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Peril for Centennial Square fountain: Group lobbies to protect 'major piece of public art' from dismantling

In an open letter to the city, historians, architects and others call the 1960s-era fountain a landmark that should be preserved.
Architectural historian Martin Segger at the fountain in Centennial Square, which was a gift from ­Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay in 1965 for Victoria’s centennial celebrations. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

A group of historians, architects and others has launched a campaign to preserve the 1960s-era fountain in Centennial Square, calling it a landmark and ­Victoria’s primary example of modern art.

In an open letter to the city, the Friends of Centennial Square said they want the fountain to remain where it is, as the square undergoes a phased renovation over the next few years, which could include turning the space now occupied by the ­fountain into a children’s splash park.

The 110 people who signed the letter include Saanich Coun. Judy Brownoff, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria CEO Nancy Noble, a number of former capital region councillors, former Oak Bay mayor Chris Causton, and former Canadian senator Patricia Bovey.

Architectural historian and former city councillor Martin Segger, who also signed the letter, said while it’s time to take “a serious look” at whether Centennial Square is meeting the city’s needs as a public and civic space, the fountain it was designed around has critical historical value to Victoria.

“It was the first major piece of public art — modern public art — to be commissioned and erected in Victoria,” he said.

The fountain was a gift from Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay in 1965 for Victoria’s centennial celebrations.

Previous plans to replace the fountain with a children’s splash park in 2016 were put on the backburner, but the conversation resumed this year at city council.

In June, council approved $750,000 to cover consulting and design fees for a Centennial Square refresh.

Mayor Marianne Alto said in a statement that no decision has been made about what will happen to the fountain, though design work on the square is moving ahead based on preliminary concepts.

A concept plan from January showed a splash park with in-ground spray features around the existing fountain monoliths, as well as eating terraces, additional commercial space and new public seating.

Coun. Matt Dell won his seat on a campaign that included bringing a splash pad into downtown and had suggested Centennial Square as a potential location. He said he’s “eagerly waiting” for a staff report on the square.

The report, which will contain more detailed design plans, is expected to go to council next year.

Segger said his group will be paying attention to the planning process and noting whether there will be opportunities for public consultation.

The three Centennial Square fountain monoliths — the tallest of which is 10 metres high — represent youth, creation and the struggle against evil.

Designed by Jack Wilkinson, the fountain included hundreds of thousands of Italian mosaic tiles laid in traditional relief style by Paul (Paulo) and Joseph (Giuseppe) Cocco, according to the Victoria Civic Heritage Trust.

In 1970s, the fountain was modified, with the “tiara” surrounding the monoliths resurfaced with rough-cast stucco to discourage loitering.

Some city councillors at the time were against “hippies” congregating in the square. Then-councillor Robert Baird complained that he couldn’t have them publicly whipped.

A city report from 2018 said the fountain is showing signs of age and needs “significant capital repairs” to return to its original state.

A 2016 cost estimate from Stantec, an engineering consultant, said remediation work would cost between $58,000 and $84,000.

— With a file from Andrew Duffy

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Spelling for Paul (Paulo) and Joseph (Giuseppe) Cocco has been corrected.


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