Author uncovers the Greater Victoria that would have been

Unbuilt Victoria details various urban projects that never came to be

This 1966 photograph shows the proposed Skydeck tower for Victoria’s Inner Harbour. It is one of the unrealized projects that Dorothy Mindenhall describes in her book Unbuilt Victoria. Photo courtesy of City of Victoria Archives (CVA) CoV-CR-0232-M09015

A beach along the Trans-Canada Highway near Helmcken Road. A medieval castle paying homage to the tales of Robin Hood. Student residences on the campus of UVic that could have also stood somewhere in communist eastern Europe. An observation tower that resembles Seattle’s Space Needle.

These were just some of the unrealized building ideas that (perhaps thankfully) did not turn into reality. But they continue to live on in the pages of Unbuilt Victoria by architectural historian Dorothy Mindenhall. Published in 2012 by Dundurn Press, Mindenhall’s book details a region that could have been, but never came to be.

Some of the plans were rough, others quite sophisticated, said Mindenhall, who wrote the book, after she had written a similar book about Toronto. Ultimately, none of the proposals came to fruition because they either ran into money problems or public opposition with residents fearing environmental damage, the loss of heritage buildings, or the perceived loss of viewscapes, as in the case of the proposed Skydeck, which bears an eerie resemblance to Seattle’s Space Needle.

The building would have stood near the Legislative Assembly, said Mindenhall. “This [location] would have been one of the main problems with this one. It would have ruined the arrangement of the Empress [Hotel], the parliament building, and the Old Post Office.”

So what animated these projects? “I think they all wanted to improve Victoria,” said Mindenhall. Victoria, especially in the 1960s, was stagnating as part of a longer decline relative to Vancouver, which had long emerged as B.C.’s primary city. At that time, tourism was the economic driver, and urban leaders, inspired by re-construction efforts in post-war Europe, were looking to restore Victoria’s appeal to outsiders.

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Victoria, in other words, might have been suffering from a case of status anxiety in the post-war period.

“I think so,” said Mindenhall. “It had been so important for the first forty years of its life. On the West Coast, there was nothing like between here and San Francisco.” Things, however, changed with the emergence of Vancouver, which eventually surpassed Victoria.

Three specific Saanich-specific proposals stand out. One would have created a large viewing platform on Mount Tolmie. Opposition from residents and environmentalists fearing the loss of Arbutus trees killed that idea. Another one would have created a fake-Elizabethan village in the Royal Oak neighbourhood around the pre-existing building that now hosts the Fireside Grill. Finally, one proposal from the United States called for a replica castle (inclusive fake torture chamber) and encampment near the Gorge Bridge where visitors could have tried their hands at medieval craft or shake in their shoes at the sight of a fake Viking longboat.

In short, Saanich could have been the site of a tourist theme park that would have drawn on a distorted version of the past for future urban revitalization and private profit. “If you think, this is what Disney is about,” she said.

The emergence of the heritage preservation movement, coupled with financial concerns, eventually stopped these various projects, including plans by star architect Arthur Erickson to re-design UVic’s campus.

Opposition from the university community, as well as neighbouring Oak Bay, eventually forced UVic to reconsider.

Mindenhall, for her, sounds generally glad that most of these project never got off the drawing board.

“I think there are very few I regret that they didn’t get finished,” she said.


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