Francis Rattenbury - Part One
The Rise of Young Mr. Rattenbury
Francis Rattenbury image B-09502 courtesy of Royal British Columbia Museum
Francis Rattenbury looms larger than life over the city of Victoria. Although he died nearly three quarters of a century ago, his Parliament Buildings and Empress Hotel still define the city to the world. Scattered throughout the city are other examples of his genius. The Crystal Gardens were his initial design. His own home on Beach Drive (now Glenlyon Norfolk School) is a local landmark for residential architecture. One could list many more. But architecture was only part of his life. As a town planner his ideas were far in advance of his time, and he had a particularly strong effect on the development of Oak Bay. As a businessman he had a hectic career, with smart and shrewd investments, but also some major failures. He also made contributions as a politician and philanthropist. But a major weakness led to his undoing. He had an affair with a much younger woman, and mistreated his wife in the process. The outcome of this was far reaching, and we'll see in Part II of this Tale from the Vault.
Rattenbury was born in England in 1867. He had family connections to an architectural firm, and at age eighteen joined the firm as an articling student. He spent several years there, learning his trade. He was an ambitious young man, and realized that Canada had greater possibilities for him than England did. In particular, a new city like Vancouver held great promise. So he set sail, and arrived in Vancouver in 1892.
His first major commission was a house for Gustav Roedde in Vancouver’s West End. (The house is now a museum.) But he soon got wind of a far bigger prize. A new provincial legislature was to be built in Victoria, with architects being invited to compete. Rattenbury entered the contest with drawings that emphasized the beauty and dignity of the building. But he also employed some clever tactics to help his cause. Submissions had to be anonymous. Realizing the political advantages of being a local resident, he signed his entry “B.C. Resident”. The judges picked him as a finalist. On the second submission he continued to emphasize his local residency, with the nom-de-plume “For Our Queen And Province”. Thus he won the prize. This combination of great architectural ability and clever tactics were to become hallmarks of his career. They were to carry him to great fame and success, but not without some cost. Sometimes he was not scrupulous in the methods he used. He made many enemies in the process.
Over the next few years Rattenbury’s architectural career blossomed. He was particularly good at designing buildings with a bold, striking image. This was what business and government leaders frequently wanted, and so it led to some impressive commissions. He designed several branches for the Bank Of Montreal, including a fine one on Government Street. For the government he did several court houses, including the one in Vancouver which is now the Vancouver Art Gallery. But his biggest customer of all was the Canadian Pacific Railway.
For the CPR he was an obvious architect to use. He had shown that he had great ability in designing Chateau-style buildings, which was the company’s signature style. As well, he had designed the B.C. Legislature which was the most impressive building in Western Canada. So they appointed him their Western Division Architect. He did not disappoint. He went on to create Mount Stephen House in the Canadian Rockies, and designed additions to many others. He did the CPR Steamship Terminal here on the Inner Harbour. And of course, most impressive of all, he did the Empress Hotel.
In the Empress Hotel he did more than create a fine building. He was designing an entrance to Victoria. He knew that The Empress would fit in with the Legislature and the CPR Steamship Terminal to create an outstanding image for the city. The future for Victoria, as he saw it, was tourism, and the city needed an entrance design to accommodate that reality. He was a visionary far ahead of his time, and it was only in the late twentieth century that local leaders started to grasp his ideas.
What he did for Oak Bay was equally impressive. He appreciated the beautiful asset the Victoria Golf Club was to Oak Bay. When it was threatened with development he ran for Reeve of Oak Bay, on a platform of stopping the development. He won the election, and the threat receded. But he knew that green space was needed. He directed Council therefore, to buy the land that became Willows Park. He also gave the municipality land of his own. He had bought Mary Tod Island (also known as Jimmy Chicken) in the early 1900s to make sure it was not developed. By the 1920s he realized that its best use was as a park, so he gave it to the municipality.
Finally, he was also advisory architect for the Uplands subdivision in north Oak Bay. Uplands had been laid out in a sensitive, park-like manner, and Rattenbury was appointed architect to make sure it stayed that way. He did his job well. Uplands, and the rest of Oak Bay as well, is still one of the most beautiful residential areas of Canada. Rattenbury has the most responsibility for this.
Rattenbury was always as much a businessman as an architect. He was usually shrewd and careful in his investments, but two of them almost ruined him. Even before he finished the Legislature he became fascinated with the Yukon Gold Rush. With a friend of his, Calgary shipping magnate Pat Burns, he invested in shipping meat to the Yukon. The success of this fired his interest. He saw what was really needed was a fleet of river boats to go from Lake Bennett to Dawson. Raising the capital, he set up the “Lake Bennett And Klondike Navigation Company” and built the boats. Next, to ensure its viability, he negotiated a shipping contract with his friend Pat Burns. But he still had to prove that travel to the Yukon was now easy and reliable. So he decided to go there himself. He had just married, so he and his bride Florence celebrated their honeymoon by hiking the Chilkoot Pass. When they reached Lake Bennett they took one of his steamers to Dawson. Business was booming in Dawson, and everything looked rosy for his investments.
But Rattenbury should have been more wary. Gold rushes in the past had always been ephemeral, and this was no exception. He made even more Klondike investments, and then watched as events suddenly changed. A new gold strike was discovered in Nome, Alaska, and Dawson began to empty. Hurriedly Rattenbury rid himself of his investments, but too late. He had to take a financial beating.
His next big investment looked secure, but ultimately was not. He left the CPR in 1906 to take an active role in a new railway, the Grand Trunk Pacific. He was the chief architect for their new hotels, and invested heavily in land on its northern route. But the driving force in this railway was its president, Charles Melville Hays. When he went down with the Titanic in 1912 much of the company’s force went with him. When war was declared in 1914 its fate was sealed. It went bankrupt a few years later, and was taken over by the government. Rattenbury built little for them, and his land was now almost worthless.
Not only did his railway venture collapse, but demand for Rattenbury’s style of architecture died as well. Faced with changing tastes he realized his career as an architect was essentially over. By the beginning of the war he was still had a commission to renovate the Legislature. That and his investments were what he lived on. This lasted several years, and might well have gone on indefinitely.
The city, however, decided to intervene. City leaders in the early 1920s wanted to build an indoor swimming pool. They had tried to do this in 1912, but the referendum on the issue had been defeated. Suspecting that a poor design was the problem, the city turned to Rattenbury for help. He more than obliged them by designing what was really an amusement palace. It was named the Crystal Gardens, in memory of Britain's famed Crystal Palace. The CPR, in return for substantial tax breaks, agreed to finance its construction. So in December, 1923, the referendum passed overwhelmingly. Flush with success, a dinner was held in Rattenbury’s honour at the Empress Hotel. After much good will and cheering, he retired to the Lounge to have a cigar. There he met Alma Pakenham, and as Terry Reksten says, “his life was never the same again”.
Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian