EA Morris Building
By Danda Humphreys
A unique shop dating back to 1892 still operates on Government Street.
The E.A. Morris Building on Government Street in 2008
What’s 2.5 metres high, made of the finest Mexican onyx, and situated in a store that has recently been the centre of controversy? A device in a downtown tobacconist’s, placed there by a man who made his mark on Government Street more than a century ago.
Edward Arthur Morris had an interesting early history. He was born in London, England in 1858, the same year gold was discovered in British Columbia, on the Fraser River. At 19 years old, Morris came here to find some of that gold for himself. Travelling straight to BC’s Interior, he worked at various mines until the mid-1880s, then was employed in Vancouver for a while, but by 1892 was ready to settle permanently in Victoria. He bought a 10-year-old, two-storey brick structure that had been operated as a dry goods store, and set himself up as a tobacco merchant.
Immediately, business was brisk. His timing was perfect, and he did well. His store was the largest of its kind between San Francisco and Alaska, and he was the first to import choice cigars and tobacco from England. By 1899, when the Klondike gold rush was in full swing, Morris was able to move his headquarters and his warehouse to Vancouver and, before long, opened two other stores there. “Old Morris Tobacconist” now had the distinction of being the largest distributor of smokers’ supplies in the West.
By 1900, Morris was able to make considerable improvements to his Victoria store, and by 1909 was ready to make major renovations. Architect Thomas Hooper, who had already worked on nearby commercial buildings, was hired to prepare the drawings and oversee the work. Hooper redesigned the interior in suitable style, and created an eye-catching storefront at 1116 Government that has survived to this day.
The doorway was cut from Mexican onyx. Above it, a dome-shaped leaded window extended across the width of the store, with an arched pinnacle above the entrance. Matching leaded mirror domes and large wall-mirrors along the store’s interior created the illusion of extended space. Counters and cabinets were remodelled. Walls were panelled with polished mahogany, and the entrance to the humidor—a tile-lined walk-in cabinet for storing cigars—boasted classical carved columns. Pipes from all over the world were displayed in glassed-in racks. A cask containing walking canes was reminiscent of similar items in tobacco shops in the land of Morris’s birth.
Serving staff moved along wood flooring behind long side counters, whose Mexican onyx baseboards reached the mosaic-tiled floor. The basement was blasted out of solid rock, its metallic-painted walls designed to reflect the natural light that filtered through purple-coloured glass prisms in the sidewalk at the Government Street entrance, thus saving on electricity.
During these renovations, Morris ordered a unique item from San Francisco designed to help him sell his products. It was an electrolier—a Mexican onyx column standing on a Nootka marble pedestal, topped by a globe and with gas jets extending from either side of the column at “cigar level.” A cigar cutter and long cedar spills rested on a small shelf just below the jets. Now, Morris’s customers could light up their cigars before leaving, and with a bit of luck, he figured, potential customers on Government Street would follow the enticing aroma right back to his store.
Morris was still actively engaged in the business when he died of broncho-pneumonia at the relatively early age of 60, in Vancouver, in 1937. He left the store to his wife, Elsie, and two daughters, who sold it ten years later. The two subsequent owners fortunately shared a desire to preserve the past. Thanks to them, the store has not only survived, but is also a remarkable example of what can be done when there is a clear commitment to preserving the original rather than resorting to imitation.
Long ago, a neon sign—a likeness, it’s rumoured, of old Morris himself—advertised his wares. Now it’s gone, along with the sidewalk prisms removed by the city in the mid-1970s and the eye-catching display of smoking paraphernalia that drew curious people to its windows. Modern-day regulations have forced the removal of all street-facing signs of the business—except the inlaid mosaic “Tobacconist” sign, part of the building’s facade (Victoria city council recently allowed this exception on heritage grounds). The interior of the building also remains essentially the same as it was in 1909.
The sweet smell of pipe tobacco still assails the nostrils as you walk in over the tiled floor. The old favourites—the electrolier with the barrel-full of walking canes at its base--are still there. Gazing around, you can imagine the Government Street of days gone by, when well-dressed gentlemen formed a never-ending parade of people whose “pipe dreams” paid for E.A. Morris’s success.
Danda Humphreys can always find something fascinating to write about in our town, and has written several books about Victoria’s early history. www.dandahumphreys.com.
This story was published in the August 2008 edition of Focus Magazine.