Built for the space age, Saanich hall still looks contemporary

Fifty years ago on Dec. 1, Saanich District Hall opened, heralded in the Daily Colonist as built for the space age. Not only did it double the space of the previous hall, but its streamlined design was distinctly in sync with modernist mid-century aspirations — including the space race to the moon.

The Vernon Avenue landmark replaced a cozy 1911 Arts and Crafts bungalow on West Saanich Road — now a Med Grill — with an uncompromising thrust of urban architectural energy in the style known as Brutalism.

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It’s an unfortunate name, says Ken Johnson. The president of the Hallmark Heritage Society is a big fan of the Saanich hall.

“It’s actually a great building and representation of the era in which it was constructed,” said Johnson, who once worked in the concrete industry.

He cannot think of a better example in the region. The use of concrete blocks predominates the building inside and out, but it’s integral to the style rather than a cheap alternative to bricks, he said.

The fact that the hall, with its half-moon porch and enormous curvilinear exterior feature, still looks contemporary after five decades is a sign of good architecture, Johnson said. “Good architecture ages well.”

The council chambers were designed to maximize the acoustics with a wing-shaped ceiling and a slight narrowing of the room at the public gallery, which has seen thousands of meetings over the decades, many of them packed.

“All of that was very carefully designed by Mr. [Peter] Blewett,” he said. Blewett worked with the architectural firm of Wade, Stockdill Armour & Partners. He died in 1999.

John Armour supplied “the most overtly progressive building Victoria had witnessed to that time,” according to the Maltwood Art Museum’s website outlining the Modernist Movement in Victoria.

Brutalism drew heavily on Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, famed for his form-cast concrete elements lightened by free-form elements but also big on “unrelieved wall slabs,” the Maltwood article notes.

Brut is the word for raw in French, as in raw concrete, leading British architectural critic Reyner Banham to define the style such concrete dominated as “brutalism.”

When the hall went up, Vernon Avenue was a much quieter thoroughfare, dotted by greenhouses instead of commercial buildings, Johnson said. If he could add anything to the area, it would be a speed bump on the arterial street facing the hall — “to slow people down so they can appreciate it.”

The hall and lands received heritage designation in 1992. A decision to designate the ponds, landscaping and fountains will go to a public hearing Dec. 8, said Coun. Vicki Sanders.

Renovations are in the offing for council chambers and would include webcasting, sound system, new furniture, lighting and accessibility access. A report is coming to council on Dec. 14, Sanders said.


Celebrate on Tuesday

The public is invited to a special Saanich council meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the municipal hall.

Mayor Richard Atwell will make welcoming remarks, then turn things over to Coun. Vicki Sanders, chairwoman of the arts, culture and heritage advisory committee.

Guest speaker Ken Johnson, president of the Hallmark Heritage Society, will address the architecture and history of the hall.

A commemorative sign will be unveiled by the mayor and Brad Shuya of the Saanich Heritage Foundation, followed by light refreshments.

What it cost 50 years ago

The Saanich municipal hall was built for $800,000 including furnishings by George H. Wheaton Ltd., after a bid of $611,616 — not far off the current cost of a Gordon Head home.

A quick look into the Daily Colonist of December 1965 reveals plenty of prices that sound comically low. Among them:

• Ladies’ half-slips — 57 cents at Kresge’s; quilted dusters for $4.99

• Men’s wool shirt-jackets — $8.95 at Spencer’s department store

• 1965 Pontiac Laurentian V8 — $2,995 at Empress Motors

• 21-day cultural tour of Europe — $1,009 with Air Canada

• One pound of Danish blue cheese, New Zealand lamb and prime rib — 89 cents, 10 cents and 69 cents respectively

• Seven-piece dinette set — $99 at Standard Furniture

Then there are the housing prices:

• Cottage in Cordova Bay — $50 a month

• New three-bedroom in Gordon Head: $140 a month with the option to buy

• Three-bedroom house with full basement in Tattersall area — $16,300

• Rancher with a highview lot and attached garage, on half an acre — $18,000

Saanich’s population reached 59,000 in 1966, finally surpassing Victoria’s. Since then, it has doubled, compared to an increase of about 35 per cent in Victoria.

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