Victoria heritage house heavily damaged in fire

A 1911 arts-and-crafts house in Victoria that the city had hoped to preserve was gutted in a fire early Monday.

The two-storey heritage-designated house at Foul Bay Road and Quamichan Street, originally built for lawyer David S. Tait, was vacant and boarded up when it burned, said acting battalion fire chief Mark Robertson. Now all that’s left is a “burnt-out shell,” he said.

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Owned since 2014 by the Large and Co. development company, the house was the subject of a demolition request last year, as well as a request to remove heritage designation. The property, which had housed about 100 cats, was deemed contaminated with mould, feces and urine.

Owner Earl Large, called to the fire scene at 5 a.m., said he was told the building will likely have to be torn down.

“Now that the building has to be taken down, we will decide something for the site in conjuction with the city’s planning department and neighbourhood association,” he said.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation after a preliminary probe around the perimeter of the building yielded no obvious cause, said Victoria deputy fire chief Chris Royle. The structure was considered unsafe to enter and inspect further on Monday, he said.

Coun. Pam Madoff called the loss “very significant.” “Not only was the exterior of the house designated but the interior was as well and the grounds, because it’s quite a large piece of property. It was very character-defining for Foul Bay,” said Madoff.

She said other developers had wanted to buy and restore the property. “If the other guys had gotten it, it would have been well along its restoration process by now and wouldn’t have sat empty for a year and a half at risk the way that it has been.”

The Victoria Fire Department was called at 12:31 a.m. and arrived in three to four minutes, Robertson said, but all windows and doors were boarded up, making it difficult for firefighters to attack the fire.

The owners said the house was securely boarded up and the surrounding brush eliminated to ensure the building was visible to try to avoid what happened Monday.

With few ways to get into the house and few safe options for getting out, firefighters attacked the blaze from the outside, Robertson said.

Twenty-six firefighters responded and fire crews sprayed a constant stream of water at the back of the house to ensure no neighbouring structures were threatened.

The property’s heritage designation included the exterior of the house, selected interior features and the land, including the trees, a stone wall and iron gate, said City of Victoria spokeswoman Katie Hamilton.

On Jan. 16, 2014, inspectors for the Vancouver Island Health Authority and the City of Victoria found the condition of the house, which was not heated in the last two years of its occupancy, posed health risks.

Large & Co purchased the house “indicating a desire to demolish the house due to the contamination, and redevelop the property,” Hamilton said.

Large said the original goal was never to tear down the house. “The ultimate goal was to restore the building as heritage and build townhouses in the yard, but when we got into examining the building, we found out there were serious, serious problems we didn’t know about.”

On April 2, 2015, the company submitted a request to demolish the house based on environmental assessments, but the city’s heritage panel recommended that council reject the request.

In October, the panel recommended that city council decline a request by the company to “de-designate” the property as heritage.

Its report confirmed the presence of mould, feces, urine and biological contamination of interior finishes, but suggested that “the style, design, construction and character of the exterior of the house and lands would appear to have the potential to be sustained.”

The city recommended the developer do a detailed inspection to determine the extent of contamination, whether remediation was possible, and if any significant heritage features could be salvaged as part of redevelopment, Hamilton said.

The developer was asked to provide that information as part of any request to council for de-designation or demolition.

Large said the company was in the midst of that process when the fire occurred.

“We were just working our way through, in close co-operation with the city, to determine what the eventual outcome of the building would be,” Large said.

Large and Co. has restored heritage-designated properties before, one of which is on Dallas Road, he said. “We can restore just about anything but there was pollution in there.”

— With files from Bill Cleverley

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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