Centennial Square: A place for all people

By Danda Humphreys, June 2011

How a 1960s mayor saved City Hall from the scrap heap.

If Richard Biggerstaff Wilson could see Centennial Square today, his face would probably break into a big grin, for it was during his decades-ago mayoralty that it was created in its present-day form. And it was largely thanks to his efforts that the oldest City Hall in Western Canada is standing to this day.

Wilson came by his civic-mindedness honestly. He was, after all, a native son. His grandfather and great-uncle, British-born William and Joseph Wilson, had opened a clothing store on Government Street way back in 1862, the year Victoria became a city. 

By 1904, when Richard Biggerstaff Wilson was born, Victoria’s fortunes had waxed and waned more than once, and were on the rise again. But a half-century later, two world wars and a depression had taken their toll. Streets were unkempt, storefronts were shabby, once-impressive buildings had lost their lustre. Try as they might, quaint shops, hanging flower-baskets, and cluster lights could not dispel the drabness of the downtown core. And nowhere was this more evident than in the area surrounding City Hall.

For five years before R.B. Wilson took office, major changes had been in the works. His predecessor as mayor, Percy Scurrah, had in 1957 announced council’s plan to sell the ageing City Hall and its adjoining blocks to a developer. The area bounded by Pandora, Fisgard, Douglas and Government streets was actually earmarked for a new $5-million Woodwards store. In 1959, the first bit of history to bite the dust was the ornate 1891 building that had housed the main Fire Hall, the Victoria Public Market, and the Victoria & Sidney Railway’s downtown terminus. Next in the line of fire was the historic but decaying City Hall, which its detractors were determined to demolish in favour of a modern City Centre.

Fortunately, when Wilson was elected Victoria’s 54th mayor in 1962, sanity prevailed. Even as sprawling shopping plazas sprang up on the outskirts of the city to service the expanding population, the downtown mood was more serene. Under Wilson’s leadership, the feverish rush toward replacement gave way to an era of renovation and renewal. Yes, said the mayor, improvements must be made, but all in good time, and without sending City Hall to the scrap heap. 

John Teague’s Public Market building might have gone the way of the dodo, but for the time being at any rate, his 1878 City Hall was safe. Wilson lobbied to renovate, restore and expand the building and reinvent the surrounding area as a civic meeting place. With the strong support of City Planner Rod Clack, Wilson enlisted the expertise of a group of prominent local architects to help him realize his vision. Courtesy of John Wade (Wade, Stockdill, Armour & Partners) and Bob Siddall (R.W. Siddall & Associates), City Hall underwent a complete renovation of its interior, realignment of its main entrance, and a modern addition at its west end. 

Across the square, where the public market had once stood, John Di Castri’s multilevel parkade rose above ground-level specialty shops. The Old Police Station, renovated under the watchful eye of Don Wagg, now stood beside a new Senior Citizens Centre designed by Clive Campbell. Behind Alex Pantages’ Orpheum Theatre, renamed for generous benefactor Thomas Shanks McPherson and given an architectural facelift by Alan Hodgson, a sunken Elizabethan “knot garden” added an unusual touch. A fountain featuring a balustraded rim, supposedly reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s crown, and mosaic concrete totems by local artist J.C.S. Wilkinson, served as a focal point. Recycled bricks from the old Public Market building were incorporated into the surrounding paving to provide a visual link with history. Thus City Hall was re-established as a downtown feature, and the City’s 100th birthday was celebrated by the creation of Centennial Square. 

There have been many changes and a few hiccups along the way, but the square has benefited from recent major improvements. Anchored by City Hall at one end, with the McPherson Theatre and the new CRD building incorporating the Old Police Station at the other, it now features a Spirit Garden, with two First Nations Spirit Poles, and a canopied performance stage. Soon umbrellas, chairs and tables will add to the ambience. 

Today, the Square serves as a venue for everything from protests to honouring ceremonies, from demonstrations to displays of public art to theatre performances, and from music and cultural festivals to local markets. 

Before he died in 1991, R.B. Wilson received the Order of Canada in recognition of his many accomplishments, which included helping to create the University of Victoria as a degree-granting institution. And in our historic downtown, Centennial Square serves as a civic gathering-place, just as he intended it to, all those years ago. 

With this column, Focus says good-bye to Danda Humphrey’s long-running column in Focus. She’s busy working on her fifth book and conducting historic walking tours (www.dandahumphreys.com). Focus is very grateful for her many lively, informative columns over the years. Danda will continue on as Focus’ proofreader. (Whew!)