By Danda Humphreys
It started life as a swimming pool, but after a serious chlorine gas accident in 1967, the structure has drifted from one use to another.
The Crystal Garden pool in happier days, before the chlorine gas release
Say “Crystal Garden” to anyone today, and they will probably wax eloquent about the tropical paradise that once existed beneath its glass-paned roof. But 80 years ago, it was designed as a multi-purpose pleasure palace. And it contained the largest indoor heated salt-water swimming pool in the British Empire.
In the mid-1920s, a public referendum on this exciting new project garnered solid support. The challenge now was to design an equally solid support for the building—and the thousands of gallons of water it would contain—on the landfill area behind the Empress Hotel.
The Canadian Pacific Railway—owners of the land—agreed to put up most of the money. Architect of choice was Francis Rattenbury, whose creative genius was already evident around the Inner Harbour. Rattenbury was joined in this latest venture by fellow architect Percy L. James.
The foundation for the new facility was a 30-inch thick concrete and steel platform. An iron and glass superstructure supported a quarter-inch reinforced glass roof. By June 1925, it was ready.
Victorians were suitably impressed. Above the massive swimming pool, there was a wide promenade and a Tea Room. Huge maple-floored ballrooms anchored the building at either end, while a third ballroom doubled as a gymnasium and concert hall.
The pool itself was a sight to behold. Its 250,000-odd gallons of sea water were piped from the ocean at Dallas Road. As it entered the pool, the water was warmed by heat generated by the Empress Hotel’s laundry, which at that time stood immediately to the north.
To begin with, the Crystal Garden was enormously popular, but by the early 1930s, enthusiasm for the pool had waned. People were worried about bacteria in the water. The CP Hotels general manager travelled to Victoria and ordered a series of tests proving that bacteria could not survive in chlorinated water. There was no excuse, he said, for not using and enjoying the pool.
He was right—chlorinated water safely killed the bacteria. But it could also be dangerous. And in 1967, when the pool was already in need of substantial repairs, danger reared its ugly head.
One Saturday morning in May, chlorine somehow escaped. The alarm was immediately sounded, but by the time staff had closed the building, 34 children, firefighters and policemen had been taken to hospital. Miraculously, all survived. But the near-fatal incident sealed the ailing facility’s fate. The pool was permanently closed.
By the mid-1970s, the building was a sorry sight. Rain, leaking through its glass roof, had corroded the steel supports and buckled the hardwood floors. The tiled bottom of the pool was full of garbage and broken roof-glass.
Reluctant to spend funds to bring it back to its former glory, the Provincial Capital Commission patched it up, and it survived for several decades as a tropical garden that delighted visitors with its variety of lush plants, exotic birds and mammals. But eventually time caught up with the aging structure, and with no financial rescuer in sight, it was cleared out and closed down (amidst some public outcry) in 2004.
Today, beautifully restored and starting a new lease on life as a $12 million “interactive geographic discovery centre,” the building shows no signs of those troubled earlier times. Only the letters “CPR” above the Douglas Street entrance doors hint at its origins in days gone by.
The Crystal Garden and other historical downtown buildings are featured in Danda’s latest book, Building Victoria. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the June 2006 edition of Focus Magazine.