Heritage property with links to Butchart family might be carved off for a second house

An Oak Bay heritage property, with connections to the family behind the Butchart Gardens and designed by famed B.C. architect Samuel Maclure, is being considered for a subdivision.

Owners of the large property with its historic mansion-style home at 2031 Runnymede Ave. are asking Oak Bay council to allow them to create another lot. A single-family lot of 0.29 acres would be carved off the existing 1.26-acre lot.

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Owners Bruce Wilkin and Ann Hillyer are also seeking to continue to upgrade the house and build a secondary suite. They could not be reached for comment.

The subdivision application, called a heritage revitalization agreement, will go before a public hearing on Monday at the Oak Bay Municipal Hall.

According to background documents and historical texts, the house was finished in 1916 for then newly married Jennie and Harry Ross, who named it Blair Gowie. Jennie was the eldest daughter of Robert and Jenny Butchart.

Robert Butchart was a cement entrepreneur who came to Victoria attracted by its limestone deposits. When his pits were exhausted, they were transformed into what is still called Butchart Gardens.

The house on Runnymede was designed in the Italian Renaissance Revival style. Its B.C. architect Maclure also designed Hatley Castle, now Royal Roads University.

Local historian and author Valerie Green said the house’s designer and the Butchart connections make the home a significant piece of local heritage.

“Blair Gowie on Runnymede Avenue is an important piece of history,” said Green.

According to her 2001 book If These Walls Could Talk, the name Blair Gowie, is believed to be a derivation of Blairgowrie, Ross’s ancestral home in Scotland.

When Ross died in 1930, Jennie continued to live in Blair Gowie. Adventurous and strong-willed, she met an impoverished Russian prince a few years after Ross’s death and married him.

“Her choice of partner caused something of a family uproar,” wrote Green in If These Walls Could Talk. “She was by then forty nine and he was only twenty eight, a scenario that was not acceptable by the standards of the day.”

The marriage lasted only a few years before the prince left for New York and Europe. Ross continued to live in the house until just before the start of the Second World War.

The home later passed to families named Fee and Ellis before it was purchased by its current owners. It has also been the subject of at least two previous applications that were withdrawn for different reasons.

Oak Bay Mayor Kevin Murdoch said he has no opinion about the upcoming application.

Murdoch said he could say only the owners have done what looks to be a successful renovation so far.

“The applicant has done an awful lot of work to bring back an otherwise dilapidated house to some of its former glory,” he said.

But nearby Blair Gowie neighbour Dr. Alan Lupin, former professor of surgery at the University of B.C., said he and his wife aren’t convinced the subdivision is a good idea.

Lupin recalls previous owners who once allowed the public to shoot wedding pictures in the garden. He would like to see a return of some public enjoyment.

“We don’t see this [the subdivision] as the right thing to happen,” he said.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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