Jack Knox: For Point Ellice House, chronic underfunding compounded by COVID

The location couldn’t be tougher.

Really, the way Point Ellice House is hidden away in the industrial grittiness of Rock Bay, like a solitary rose bush clinging to the edge of the junkyard, it might as well be in the witness protection program. Many Victorians don’t even know it’s there.

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Yet half a century ago, this historic property was deemed so significant that the province took possession of it as a heritage site.

So, that being the case, how can the government just let it wither away now?

That’s what the operators of Point Ellice House and five other provincially owned heritage properties fear will be their fate now that a chronic lack of funding has been compounded by COVID.

This story goes back to 2002, when Gordon Campbell’s new Liberal government decided to contract out the operation of a dozen B.C. Heritage Branch sites, including four in Victoria.

Agreements were soon reached to run the capital’s other three. The Royal B.C. Museum was a natural fit to take on neighbouring Helmcken House, while operators were also found for Emily Carr House and Craigflower Manor (the latter now houses the Hallmark Heritage Society).

Alas, no one wanted Point Ellice House, even though it was a gem of a place with a rich past. After gold rush commissioner Peter O’Reilly bought the property in 1867, it had become a centre of Victoria’s social scene.

Before gaining fame as an explorer, Robert F. Scott — Scott of the Antarctic — would drop by for dinner, tennis or horseback riding when his Royal Navy ship dropped anchor.

There are bearskin rugs, 14-foot ceilings, 20-foot holly­hocks and heritage trees that include beech, linden and a sequoia planted by O’Reilly in 1876. It’s also where, amid all this old-world loveliness, O’Reilly, as Indian reserve commissioner, more or less arbitrarily drew the lines that dispossessed Indigenous people in the name of “progress,” changing the course of history.

The province bought it all — the rambling Italianate house, two acres of heritage gardens and Western Canada’s largest collection of Victoriana — in 1975.

In the early 2000s, though, no one could figure out what to do with the place. Finally, in 2004, the Capital Mental Health Association, seeing an opportunity to offer clients pre-employment training, took over as operator, offering tea and tours.

Nice idea, but even with harbour ferries dropping off visitors, the location proved too much of a challenge. In 2009, the non-profit Point Ellice House Preservation Society stepped in to try to run the site. Next up came the current operator, the Vancouver Island Local History Society, in 2019.

This last group did away with the tea and sandwiches and concentrated on being a museum, a place offering historical programs where Victorians could learn about their past — good, bad and ugly. (The old teahouse now houses special exhibits; the current display has to do with the history of waste and water in Victoria.) Volunteers act as docents, researchers and gardeners (the food they grow goes to the Sandi Merriman women’s shelter).

The thing is, the finances still don’t work, not with the province only providing $80,000 a year to run a site that includes a 160-year-old house, 12,000 artifacts and two acres of heritage gardens. A 2007 government study said it would take $230,000 to do the job properly.

Not only is there little money for programming, but basic upkeep isn’t getting done. “The more you defer maintenance, the more you build up to a crisis situation,” says Kelly Black, the executive director.

A bad situation was made worse when COVID hit, closing the house and grounds. (The gardens recently reopened, but only from noon to 4 on Saturdays and Sundays.)

“We have this perennial crisis of insufficient operating funds, magnified by the pandemic,” Black says.

On May 25, Black and representatives of five other heritage sites — Carr House, Yale Historic Site, Kilby Historic Site in Harrison Mills, Hat Creek Ranch near Cache Creek and the biggest one, the gold rush town of Barkerville — wrote the minister responsible, Katrine Conroy, to warn of a crisis and ask for a meeting to talk about sustainable funding. The ministry said Wednesday that Conroy will reach out to all parties to discuss their concerns.

What she’ll hear is this: If government sees a heritage site as so important that it takes ownership of it, then shouldn’t it also ensure its preservation?

It’s the same question that was asked almost 20 years ago when the province offloaded the properties. “They gave non-profits a pittance to manage these sites and said ‘good luck,’ ” Black says.

In some cases, community groups figured out how to make heritage sites somewhat self-sufficient but in others, the idea wasn’t realistic.

What was Point Ellice House, isolated on the shoreline east of the Bay Street bridge, supposed to do, grow and sell heritage weed?

With a bit of polish, this hidden gem could be so much more.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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