Firefighters save Spencer Castle, 1911 landmark known for tower

Victoria firefighters limited the fire damage at Spencer Castle, a century-old Cook Street heritage home, early Thursday, despite a challenging hilltop location and a narrow, icy driveway.

“We had some good men and women working real hard to save the heritage home and I think we did a real good job of that,” said Victoria Deputy Fire Chief Dan Atkinson, one of 23 firefighters who battled the blaze.

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The 1911 landmark, known for its crenellated tower on the east face that overlooks Cook Street, is undergoing renovations and wasn’t occupied at the time.

At 5:30 a.m., the fire department received a report of smoke in the area.

“We investigated with one fire truck and they determined pretty quickly that the smoke was coming from Spencer Castle,” said Atkinson. “There were heavy smoke conditions.”

The fire department dispatched two more fire trucks, two ladder trucks, one rescue truck and one command vehicle to the scene.

Atkinson said the fire was challenging because of the home’s location and access, especially given icy weather conditions. “It’s difficult to get the fire trucks up the hill on the very narrow driveway.”

Several fire trucks had to park on Cook Street and firefighters were forced to carry their tools up the hill to the house.

The fire had been burning for some time undetected before firefighters arrived.

“It was heavily involved when we arrived, but, fortunately, we were able to get a handle on it relatively quickly with some pretty good strategies and tactics,” said Atkinson.

Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

On Thursday afternoon, a fire truck remained in the driveway and a strong smell of smoke wafted from the building. The interior of the main floor was badly burned and large stained glass windows in the living room had been smashed by firefighters to let superheated fire gases escape.

“When you have a fire that’s too tightly buttoned up, those superheated gases can be contained within the structure. And if you don’t ventilate those properly, you can end up with backdraft explosion or introduction of oxygen prematurely. You can have uncontrolled fire spread,” said Atkinson.

Investigators spent most of the morning at the scene, taking pictures and gathering evidence. It’s too early to determine where the fire started or the cause, or to give an estimate of the damage, said Atkinson. The fire is not believed to be suspicious.

Atkinson said firefighters were able to save the top two floors and structure of the building, but there was substantial damage to the interior since the fire was “free-burning” for an extended period.

Spencer Castle was built by architect Henry Sandham Griffith, who was trained in the British arts and craft style. The large residence is considered one of Victoria’s best examples of Tudor revival.

Griffin and his wife, Marie, lived in the house, which they named Fort Garry, until 1918. Griffin also designed the Empress building on Douglas Street, now the Strathcona Hotel, as well as the Fairfield Hotel on Douglas and the Gurdwara Sikh Temple on Topaz.

In 1918, the home was bought by David Scott Spencer Jr. and his wife, Kate Gordon. They renamed the property The Rocks, but it became known as Spencer Castle.

The Spencer family opened their rock garden to the public during events such as the Victoria Spring Garden Festival and to raise funds for the Canadian Red Cross during the Second World War.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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