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  • Requiem for a civic icon: Remembering the Centennial Fountain, a symbol of civic progress

    Martin Segger

    Council’s recent decision to remove the Centennial Fountain and renovate the Centennial Square prompts a review of how this Victoria icon came to be. 


    IF THE CITY holds true to its current course a familiar and long revered symbol of Modern Victoria will soon be gone. City Council’s recent decision to remove the Centennial Fountain and renovate the square prompts a review of how this Victoria icon came to be.  While the Square, and particularly the fountain, have imbedded themselves in the popular memory of our community over some 60 years, few appreciate the fascinating story of its creation.



    Centennial Fountain (Photo by Michal Klajban, Creative Commons license, via Wikimedia Commons)


    The ten-year World War II boom saw Victoria add 45,000 people to its population of 149,000.  Indeed, the war years had seen the overall population almost double.  Densification and suburban growth were changing the way the City worked. The traditional downtown core was hollowing out as the suburbs rapidly expanded.  Government services were expanding and in 1957 the Province proposed that the City abandon its ramshackle 19th century City Hall and join it in building a Civic Centre on top of Church Hill where it would join a new Supreme Court building and Land Registry.  A further scheme floated in 1959 proposed that the City demolish the old city hall, sell the land, and lease space a new high-rise office building. This would form part this civic centre which could include a new civic auditorium.  The City was also looking forward to some physical way to mark its forthcoming 100th anniversary of incorporation in 1962. Council dithered. Financing was proving problematic. 

    As Victoria pondered these options the municipal councils of Oak Bay, Saanich and Esquimalt were assembling a fund of approximately $30,000 (nearly $300,000 in today’s money) to be put toward “a project of a permanent nature” according to Oak Bay Council minutes, in celebration of Victoria’s 100th anniversary of incorporation as a City. 

    In the mean-time a group of citizens decided fresh blood was needed at the helm of the City.  They approached Richard Biggerstaff Wilson, a third generation Victorian, formerly successful Oak Bay reeve, then board chair of the committee building out the new campus of Victoria College (shortly to become a University). Wilson was elected with a comfortable majority. At his inauguration at Mayor in January 1961 Wilson promised a fresh progressive look at Victoria’s many issues. By June 1962 Wilson had assembled a bold plan to reinvent Victoria.  What was finally revealed was an overall plan that would revitalize the civic core through what we would now call an ambitious “private-public partnership”.  Three shopping malls (a new idea at the time) would mark Victoria’s borders with Oak Bay and Saanich, thus capturing the retail shopping taxes from the rapidly expanding suburbs. Acknowledging reality that the street cars would probably have to go in favour of the automobile a string of multi-story parking garages would ring Downtown. Old Town itself would be anchored by a block-square urban mall. Revenues generated from these initiatives would be matched with Ottawa’s new program of urban renewal funding to restore and revive Old Town and build out a new set of public amenities.  Heading the list was a major addition to Library, a new swimming pool, revived performing arts facilities and a centre for senior citizens.  But the crowning symbol of all this new way forward would focus on the restoration of the historic city hall looking out on a new public square.  We live in Wilson’s dream now.

    What was not realized at the time, and even little-known today, is that Wilson had some highly creative sources of inspiration for his scheme. 

    The post war world of urban design was awash with new ideas. Rapid urbanization across North America created a froth of creativity among the architectural profession.  New architecture school such the one at UBC were opening up across North America.  In 1961 Jane Jacobs published her profoundly influential book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.  She pioneered the idea of urban renewal and core-area heritage conservation.  Christopher Alexander headed up a group working on a book that would radically alter design thinking, “A Pattern Language”.  In it they described how design should be based on the daily minutia, and habits, of ordinary people going about daily life. About public squares he would write:

    “People gravitate naturally toward the edge of public spaces. They do not linger out in the open.  If the edge does not provide them with places where it is natural for them to linger, the space becomes a place for them to walk through, not a place to stop.  It is therefore clear that a public square should be surrounded by pockets of activity: shops, stands, benches, displays, rails courts, gardens…”

    Alexander joined the faculty of Berkeley School of Environmental design in 1963.  

    In a bold action, typical of Wilson, he took the building committee of the Victoria College Board of Governors down to California to look at building schemes at the various campuses of then underway by the University of California.  While visiting Berkley they met with William Wurster, who was recreating the School of Architecture as a new progressive entity, the School of Environmental Design which brought together the various design professions. Wurster also headed up the power-house architectural firm, Wurster, Bernardi, Emmons often working in close association with Lawrence Halprin Landscape Architects. As well as the Berkeley campus itself the firm was designing the burgeoning spate of new suburban college campuses across North America and major urban renewal undertakings such as Ghiradelli Square in old-town San Francisco.  Wurster and Wilson clicked. Unable to await Provincial or any-body else’s approval they invited WBE to visit Victoria and do a plan.

    The result was a WBE’s 50-year on-going relationship with UVic as their consulting campus planners.

    Wilson established a particularly close friendship with one of the partners, Don Emmons.  And a few years ago the Berkeley university archives revealed correspondence between the two in which Emmons laid out the bones of a scheme for the heritage restoration of downtown Victoria. In one letter Emmons encouraged Wilson commenting “A building like City Hall is part of the fabric and history of community – nothing can replace it”.

    Two squares, now known as Bastion and Centennial, would book end Old Town and a network of tree-lined streets and pedestrian alleyways would knit together the harbour, Chinatown, the parliamentary precinct and the Government/Douglas shopping precincts.  A new civic square would form a pedestrian “respite” along the Broad Street pedestrian spine connecting Eaton’s and Hudson’s Bay department stores. Broad Street opened into the Square through the arched undercroft beneath the ‘Legislative Wing’ of City Hall. The square would be carved out of a land assembly resulting from Cormorant Street, realigning Pandora Street, and demolishing of a set of commercial buildings including the City’s public market.

    At the civic election in 1962, at Wilson’s urging, Victoria citizens passed a referendum approving a ten- year borrowing tranche of $950,000 to fund the project. 

    An essential key to the way Wurster Bernardi Emmons worked was to lay out a basic scheme and set of development policies but encourage to client to engage local architects, who were familiar with local environment to carry out the work. UVic’s approach involved the designation of a Campus Architect (Robert Siddall & Associates) and then put out the rest of the work our as commissions to local firms.  Using this formula Wilson and his council set to work, first appointing Victoria’s first architect/planner, Roderick Clack.  Then the entire architectdural team from UVic were brought in to collaborate on pieces of the Square. Wilson freed-up space in a nearby vacant building for the principals and their draughtsmen.  

    Clive Justice who had studied architecture a Berkeley and worked in Halprin’s San Francisco office, was commissioned to produce the plan for Square, working with W. H. (Herb) Warren, another native Victorian, the City’s first professional landscape gardener and its Parks Superintendent.  John Di Castri took on the parkade and shopping arcade on the north side of the square.  The firms of John Wade and Charles Stockdill with Robert Siddall & Associates undertook to restore old city hall and add a modern council chamber on the south side.  Don Wagg & David Hambleton restored the police station and added a civic court-house wing adjacent to Di Castri’s parkade.  Clive Campbell, recently retired as head of B.C.’s Public Works Department, added the new Seniors Activity Centre on the north-west corner of the square.  Alan Hodgson was assigned the reinvention of the old Pantages Theatre as a new civic playhouse with a restaurant wing addition on the west side.  Peter Cotton, Victoria’s well-known architect and interior designer, contributed the interior of the first shop to open on the Square, “The Handloom”. Three of the architects, including the landscape designer Clive Justice new the city well, having grown up here. 

    Through the complex web of evolving partnership Wade’s practice subsumed the earlier Victoria architectural practices including pioneer builder John Teague, and the famed partnership of F.M Rattenbury and David Frame. However, Siddall could lay claim to the practices of both Rattenbury and Samuel Maclure from Victoria’s early days through a lineage of partnerships including those with Hubert Savage and P. L. James.  Rod Clack went on to serve as architect to National Capital Commission where he designed the 1967 Centennial Flame and Fountain of Parliament Hill, then to a similar position with the National Capital Commission in Canberra, Australia.

    It was Clive Justice’s inspired idea, that this mix of old and new, individual architectural contributions, contained on a gently sloping site would reference Victoria’s garden-city image, but would be anchored by a major water feature.  Viewscapes across and through the square would frame the fountain.  Di Castri designed his parkade stairwell with this specifically in mind. Hodgson restaurant wing of the McPherson was tiered to feature views of the square. The McPherson lobby captures views of the fountain from the upper and lower levels. From the upper level of the new “legislative wing” of City Hall a ‘mayor’s speaking balcony’ overlooks the fountain. 

    An English Renaissance “knot-garden” closed one end of the square at the back of the theatre, referencing the City’s British heritage; local plants and trees filled out peripheral gardens on the north and south sides.  An expanse of lawn opened the west side of the square to Douglas Street. In his report to Council in February 1963 Clack wrote “Here is believed to be a design planned to preserve some of ‘vanishing Victoria’ by accepting historic values and at the same time pointing the way to a progressive urban future”.

    Even at the design stage Victoria’s new square attracted the attention of the Canadian design community.  The professional journal, Canadian Architect, published preliminary sketches for the early design stages in November 1963.  It noted the design team approach and how it “derives its basic form from the effect of pedestrian movement through the Square… the overall scheme and pattern seeks to integrate all the spaces and order that the whole square feels as one unit, flowing in and out and between the various buildings and using the proposed fountain as the focal point with the square expanding out to the perimeter… a gradual or gentle terraced effect”. 

    This journal continued to report on the project through 1966 and even reported on changes proposed in 1996.  

    The fountain itself was a collaboration between Rod Clack, Alan Hodgson and artist Jack Wilkinson. Wilkinson was an established local artist, and member of the Royal Canadian Academy. He was known for his figural portrait paintings but he also worked in the Provincial Public Works Department as an architectural draftsman and detailer. His work can be seen today in the abstract bas-relief panel designs at the street level of the Provincial Courthouse, façade elements of the Royal BC Museum and the adjacent bell tower.  The budget was set to be was to meet the budget of the $30,000 gift from the surrounding municipalities.



    Concept Drawing for the Centennial Fountain Murals by Jack Wilkinson 


    Wilkinson and Clack were quite clear about the symbolic elements of his design.   Three central cast-concrete pilons, each facing one of the donor municipalities. would rise from a bed of stones referencing the beaches surrounding the peninsular.  The concrete “tiara” edging the circular pool spoke about the City’s namesake Queen.  The individual units provided public seating.  But they were a definite nod toward the ‘Modernism” of square. However, the reference here might have only been understood by the local architectural fraternity in that they draw on the waterfront portico elements of Oscar Niemeyer’s palacio do planalto which dominates the central square of Brazilia, then under construction.  A night-time lighting program created a multi-coloured spectacle in the three water-columns that reached the height of the pilons.

    The faces of the pylons or “fins”, as Wilkinson called them, provided for three mosaics, each with a separate narrative.  Themes addressed by the imagery included “youth and growth” and depicted the armorial shield from the newly created University of Victoria.  Another focuses on “creation and protection” symbolized by images of a mother and child.  The tallest pylon represents the human condition, “morality and man’s struggle against evil”: St George slays the dragon of evil, a crowning sunburst is the creator looking on. Wilkinson was paid a fee of $2,500 for his design.

    Interviewed during construction Clack said “So some of us, including Alan Hodgson, who’s here tonight, and his wife, and my wife, and other people, and Jack Wilkinson… worked nights sticking all those little tiles on that thing for free, because there wasn’t enough money for the city to pay.” Joan Giles, the widow of George Giles, Director of Provincial Works Department, in a recent letter to the TC remembers that she and her daughters worked on applying mosaic tiles on the pilons.  

    The Square was lauded as a progressive Canadian exemplar for its type.  British Columbia’s premier life-style magazine, Western Homes and Living, noted how the square and its amenities could open Victoria up to a new industry, conventions tourism.  Fulsome reports in the local newspapers tracked the square’s construction phases.

    Over the years Centennial Square has served Victoria well.  It has proved useful as a marshalling place for protest parades.  It has hosted myriad concerts and performances, although the ‘noise factor’ often challenged nearby office workers. For many years Folk Fest attracted thousands of citizens. Patrons of the café spilled out into the arcade and square beyond. The fountain lights provided night-time visual attraction for theatre-goers.  Students celebrating “grad days” couldn’t resist soaping the fountain waters on occasion. But mostly the Square served as an urban oasis, a place to pause, to contemplate the garden landscape, engage with Wilkinson mosaics and listen to cascading waters of the fountain.

    But time has not been kind to Centennial Square. Lack of maintenance has left us a pitted floorscape, hastily repaired road-work style. Many of the brass letters which spell out the names of the donor municipalities have come adrift.  The water-jets have lost their original vigour, the lighting program has been simplified for ease of maintenance. Patches of the mosaic tilework have fallen away.  Already by the 1970s there was unhappiness about who actually sat about in the Square (read beaded long-haired youth) so the tiara was stuccoed to discourage seating.  Admittedly the clusters of guitar-strumming young people seemed to not to disturb the bemused seniors taking in the sun outside the Seniors Activity Centre.

    The Senior Citizens Centre was demolished to make way for the Regional District Building in 2007.  One by one the arcade shops and café have been closed. Reflective glass windows now stare blankly out onto the Square. The restaurant wing of the MacPherson Playhouse was removed supposedly to better link the Square to an extension of the proposed Government Street mall treatment that was never undertaken. In 1996 the Police Station abandoned the Square for a new building on Caledonia Street. The Spirit Garden was added to south side in 2007. However, its “Spirit Beach” water-feature has dried up. The knot-garden was paved over in favour of a better idea, that being a performance mainstage. Water misters associated with the renovation, intended to introduce an element of play, did not last long. Perhaps signaling a cautionary note to those now entertaining the idea of another interactive water feature. More recently the arched undercroft of City Hall connecting the Square to Broad Street was adopted by the homeless seeking temporary shelter, then fenced in for bike storage.

    In 2017 the City engaged in an extensive public consultation on the future of the Square. The resulting report published in 2018 Centennial Square Action Plan.  The main thrust of the finding was essentially to start with clean up and repair then build on the original Square concept.  It noted: “the fountain is intended to be the heart of square but cannot be fully enjoyed in its current state”. The report urged a reinterpretation of the concrete tiara to bring back the seating quality initially intended, consideration of more open water feature that would allow for water play. It did call for the removal of the Sequoia tree and extend the green space. 

    The 2017 report concluded: “Centennial Square is Victoria’s Plaza.  It is a unique destination offering year-round activities to celebrate community with different events and festivals.  It is also urban oasis offering places to relax and play at different time of the day, week and year. IT IS OUR SQUARE.”

    In 1964 Alderman Alf Toone, chairman of the Centennial Square Committee, saw the project a major addition to Victoria’s built heritage. He stated: “I am sure the development of Centennial Square will be a source of regional pride to the capital city of B.C. and a worthy, permanent reminder to the 100th anniversary of our city’s incorporation.”  The question remains, without Centennial Fountain would it still be Centennial Square?

    Martin Segger is an architectural historian and urban critic. He has written extensively on Victoria’s built environment.

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    Thank you Mr. Segger. It is so important to understand the history--and hence value--of this iconic statue in the centre of our city. It is appalling to think it could be trashed! Surely it could be kept intact and even enhanced as well as provide the desired  kiddies' play area somewhere else in the Square.

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