Saving Esquimalt's anchor

Neighbours try to rescue funky nautical shrine

It's arguably the quirkiest, kitschiest house in Greater Victoria.

But the tiny white stucco house on Head Street is also decaying around itself and the folk art that made it famous.

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At issue now is whether the Swallowed Anchor, as the building is known, can be saved, and whether the developer who owns the property can work out the details with neighbours who want to move it across the street and restore it.

More broadly, the question is whether the West Bay neighbourhood can become the marine tourism hub some want it to be.

Sitting across Gore Street from Work Point military complex and across Head Street from West Bay Marina, the Swallowed Anchor is an Esquimalt landmark. The house itself is nothing much, but the folk art adorning it is funky enough to make passing motorists slow and gawk.

A stork with a bundle in its bill stands atop the roof. So does a peg-legged pirate who, parrot perched on his shoulder, peers across West Bay through a telescope. They, along with King Neptune and other characters, were the product of the whimsical mind and skilled hands of carpenter John Keziere, who moved into the house in the 1970s.

At one time, tour buses would stop outside. Keziere himself was known to don a mermaid costume during Swiftsure, row out to a little island in the Inner Harbour, prop himself on the rocks and wave to the yachts.

But the figurines deteriorated after Keziere died at age 90 in 1999. Pieces of sea creatures' fins have fallen on the lawn, a wooden cannon is rotting into the grass and the mermaid on the steps has lost one arm and half her bottom.

When the same company that owns West Bay marina across the road purchased the property in 1999, it was with the idea that the house would be demolished, but the folk art would be saved.

That didn't happen. The Styrofoam and wood creations look pretty shabby now.

But neighbour Carole Witter thinks both the art and the home can be saved. She can point to her own 119-year-old home, the lovingly restored Captain Jacobson house, which sits a block down Head Street. It had once been slated for demolition, too.

Witter says the Swallowed Anchor's folk art is cool on its own, but what makes it really work is the way it is built into the house. "Even in the state it's in, which is sad, there are still people who flock here to take photos."

So Witter wants to preserve the Swallowed Anchor, moving it across the road to Hidden Harbour marina, which she and her husband also own. She hopes to rally artists and others to take part in the restoration. "I'm seeing this as a true community endeavour."

She sees preservation as key to the idea of West Bay becoming a marine-oriented commercial village as envisioned in Esquimalt's official community plan. With three marinas, kayak rentals, a restaurant and the West Bay walkway, the area is already a bit of a destination.

How the building would be used is uncertain. Her idea is in its infancy, emerging from a recent neighbourhood meeting with West Bay Investments president Mark Lindholm.

Lindholm says he has already agreed to hand the folk art to Witter. The idea of moving the house is more complicated.

"But, speaking very generally, and subject to working out the many practical and logistical issues, we are agreeable to that as well," he wrote in an email Wednesday.

West Bay Investments has gone to the municipality with a proposal to erect a 10-storey building -- commercial on the ground floor, residential above that -- on the Swallowed Anchor property and an adjacent parking lot. That would require rezoning and a development permit from Esquimalt, whose official community plan, the same one that speaks of West Bay as a marine hub, says council may consider a building as high as 12 storeys on the site.

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