Johnson Street's hidden jewel

By Danda Humphreys, April 2011

In the ’70s, the Bawlf brothers breathed life into a crumbling city block.

Victorians have had an unexpected treat for the past few months—a Winter Market in the appropriately named Market Square. This latest addition has helped draw attention to an area that, despite its long and colourful history, had until recent times been largely ignored by local citizens. 

Four decades ago, Mayor Peter Pollen spearheaded a move to rehabilitate Old Town (Bastion Square to Chinatown). The area had gone through many changes in the preceding century. Originally, the small settlement called Victoria was bounded by Wharf, Government and Yates streets. Beyond Yates was a ravine, through which water flowed on its way down to the harbour. Eventually the ravine was filled in to create Johnson Street, lined on both sides by brick-built hotels and other commercial enterprises. Dance halls and bars abounded. Sailors, businessmen and Klondike-bound gold miners filled the saloons. Success was in the air. 

Of course it couldn’t last. The cumulative effects of two world wars had spelled doom for Victoria, and by the 1960s Old Town showed signs of deep decay. In an effort to revitalize a once-prosperous downtown and attract tourists, the City embarked on a frenzy of new development, much to the dismay of citizens who watched older buildings being destroyed in the name of progress. Newly formed neighbourhood associations put pressure on the City to curb development, and in 1973 a Heritage Society formed to identify and protect buildings that had architectural and historical importance.

When Mayor Pollen encouraged developers to take an interest in Old Town, local businessman Sam Bawlf and his restoration architect brother Nicholas rose to the challenge. They undertook to preserve heritage buildings around the western end of the Johnson-Store-Pandora block, many built by Italian-born Giacomo and Carlo Bossi, who decades earlier had invested profits from their gold-rush-era grocery sales into real estate. The Bawlf brothers planned to turn the now-decaying structures into practical, updated commercial spaces, and to create at their centre a public space in the form of an urban retail mall.

By 1976, their vision was complete. Buildings that had once housed merchants, warehouses, and hotels catering to travellers from far and wide had been gutted and refurbished, their original façades preserved, the interiors readied for retail and office space at ground level, with some living quarters above. The area to the rear of the old buildings became a “market square,” with two levels of shops around an open lower courtyard. 

In all, eight heritage buildings were given a new lease on life. The Market Square project earned an Award of Honour from the Heritage Canada Foundation, just one of many Victoria conservation initiatives to garner national interest, and one of a slew of similar awards for Sam and Nicholas Bawlf. Over the years they have worked on dozens of projects, including the Belmont Building at Humboldt and Government, redevelopment of the Law Courts building in Bastion Square, The Counting House on Broad Street, and the Victoria Convention Centre on Douglas.

Nick Bawlf’s interest in heritage projects had been sparked while writing his architectural graduate thesis at the University of British Columbia. Younger brother Sam said the thesis inspired him to form a company to restore buildings. In the meantime, as a 24-year-old, he organized the James Bay community association, designed to protect the single-family neighbourhood from high-rise development pressures. Sam subsequently served as a Victoria city councillor, guided the first inventory of commercial heritage buildings, and lobbied the provincial government to make the first urban heritage conservation amendments to the Municipal Act. As an MLA, he oversaw the creation of the province’s first Heritage Conservation Act (1977), as well as the creation of the BC Heritage Trust and the Heritage Conservation Branch. The Bawlf brothers were among the first British Columbians to practise conservation architecture, and—while they have completed many other projects—Market Square has been described as their most noteworthy. 

Today, most people enter the Square through huge ornamental iron gates at its Lower Johnson Street entrance, where a cobblestoned walkway past an old water fountain leads to two levels of shops and a courtyard performance space. The Square is also accessible from Store Street, and from Pandora Avenue, where a wall display of archival photos describes its historical connection to Chinatown. 

Looking around Old Town today, it’s hard to believe that just 40 years ago this area left so much to be desired. Thanks to a civic-minded mayor, two brothers with big ideas for improvement, and enterprising local business-owners, all that has changed. 

This winter, Market Square has been the focus for, among other things, the purchase and enjoyment of Vancouver Island foods. Winter Market organizer Tim Trebilcock reports that it has “exceeded all expectations.” The first Summer Market will be held on Sunday, April 24 (running the 4th Sunday of each month through August). Visit, enjoy its unique historic surroundings, and celebrate its success. www.victoriapublicmarket.com.

Danda Humphreys, a firm fan of local food, has written several books about Victoria’s earlier days. www.dandahumphreys.com.