Downtown core houses draw visitor attention

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the architecture of Prince Rupert in a column about churches.

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the architecture of Prince Rupert in a column about churches, and the draw that Prince Rupert’s unique architecture has for many of our visitors.

This is often on my mind, because I live in one of Prince Rupert’s earliest houses. It’s an unassuming place. I was curious from the beginning about the way it sat on the lot. It took awhile to figure it all out. The balloon-framed “addition” on the back of the house is actually the original, already standing when the first fire insurance map was completed after the incorporation of the city in 1910.

Mrs. Mitchell, whose family lived here for many years, told me that in their first renovation of the main floor rooms they found that the wallpaper had been laid over a layer of 1908 newspapers. The house was completed in its present form by 1913 at the very latest.

The houses surrounding the downtown core tend to be the ones that draw the most attention from visitors – especially those built by Rupert’s early merchant princes. The Besner, Greer and Young houses on Fourth East, like the neighbouring Presbyterian Church, appear in many tourist photos. The grand old homes on Fourth West and Borden form an elegant backdrop for the downtown.

Yet, some more modest homes also make an impression. The proliferation of “wartimes,” for example, offers a very vivid picture of the crazy days of ballooning population at the start of the war in the Pacific.

But of course it is the commercial districts that really capture attention. Kwinitsa Station and Pillsbury House evoke the earliest era of railway construction. Cow Bay so perfectly captures the romantic image of the typical west coast town that it could hardly be better if it were a movie set.

The downtown offers many jewels. I have a few favourites. The little stretch that includes Gary’s Lock and the old Westholme Opera building is virtually unchanged from the very first photographs of that block of Second Avenue. I love the CityWest building, originally the 1930 Government Liquor Store. It’s a straightforward Art Deco building, but to me it has stately class. And of course the Provincial Courthouse, completed in 1923, helps define the look of our downtown.

But for all of this, any visitor we’ve brought to town is most impressed by a juxtaposition of styles on Third Avenue that really points a finger toward Prince Rupert’s diversity. The old Federal Building, Prince Rupert’s City Hall, is unlike anything I’ve seen or heard of anywhere else.

At first glance, it’s simply an Art Deco building, rather common in public buildings of its time, but in place of Greco-Roman ornamentation there are Tsimshian-inspired motifs executed by William Jefferies.

Hardly less surprising is the Besner Block next door, in a Spanish Colonial Revival style presumably selected by the flamboyant Olier Besner. This building would seem more at home in Southern California, and certainly has no match in northern BC. Yet it doesn’t end there. Visiting journalists who photograph these two together (with, appropriately, hybrid Haida/Tsimshian crest poles between the two) also comment on the Italianate style Capitol Theatre just down the street. In no other place is it possible to really grasp Prince Rupert’s unbelievable mix of architectural influences.

If you’d like to know more about the history of Prince Rupert’s architecture, the Heritage Advisory Committee’s “Heritage Walking Tours” booklet is still available in local bookstores.

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