By Ted Ross

Then

A large house sits on the southeast corner of Superior and Government Streets. Its many additions give it a singular look. This is one of the oldest houses in Victoria.

Built in 1879, it was to be home for Martha and Dennis Harris. Mrs. Harris was the youngest daughter of Sir James Douglas. Mr. Harris worked as a professional surveyor.

Lot 1716, on which the house stands, was first registered in the Victoria Assessment Roll in 1876. In 1877 it was sold to Martha Douglas. In 1878, the year of the Harris wedding, the lot was transferred to Dennis Harris. Improvements of $1500 in 1879 indicate that this was the year when, under the direction of architect John Teague, the dwelling was constructed for the newly married twosome.

Although they had their lovely new home up Birdcage Walk (Government Street's former name), the Harris couple chose to live in the large Douglas manor down the walk. (It was roughly where the IMAX Theatre is found today.) Martha's mother, Lady Amelia Douglas, was widowed and Martha had been her last child living at home. Dennis was often away on his surveying work. It made more sense for the newlyweds to live in mother's large house, and so they did from 1880-1889. All four of their children were born in this period. What a pleasure it must have been for Lady Amelia!

The Harris house ended up in the hands of tenants, but Dennis retained ownership. For two years Dennis Croft lived in the place. Then a Mrs. Fraser established a dressmaking business there. She took roomers in the spacious dwelling as well. Mrs. Fraser stayed until 1899.

The Harris family, after Lady Amelia's death in 1890, moved to a palatial mansion they had erected, Easton Hall, at Burdett and Vancouver Streets. But they retained ownership of their house on Birdcage Walk at Superior Street. After ten years in Easton Hall, the Harris family moved to the Superior Street house, built for them when they were newly married. They took up residence in 1900, and they stayed the rest of their lives, celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary there in 1928. Harris died in the late fall of 1932, and Martha passed away a few months later, early in 1933.

Martha Harris was a noted weaver and artist in the textile arts. Daughter Hilda followed her mother in this talent and was a skilled spinner and weaver. She had a great musical gift as well. Hilda, who was never married, lived her entire life in Victoria, much of it in this home. The 603 Superior Street house continued as her residence after her parents passed away until her death in 1939, aged 54. Her brother, James Chichester, lived in the residence for a time in the late 1930s.

The City Directory, after Hilda's passing in 1939, lists, in the 1940 edition, Miss L Patenauder at the address, and shows she was renting rooms. Similar entries occur until 1947. The 1948 entry shows the building being 'occupied.'

From 1949 on, the entry is 'Government Offices' of one type or another. Until 1953 the Labour Relations Board had their offices in the dwelling. In 1955 the Department of Finance was occupant, and remained so until 1978. Beginning in 1974, along with the Dept. of Finance, rooms were available for travelling assessors at 603 Superior.

The 1979 entry shows the office as 'vacant' but rooms were still available. In 1980 the newly named Ministry of Finance appeared in the offices, with travelling assessors' rooms available. The Ministry, with the assessors' rooms, stayed until 1982.

The entry for 1985 indicates the building had been sold into private hands by the Provincial Government. Dr. Paul Yewchuk had a physician and surgeon's practice at the address that year. In 1986 Dr. Yewchuk was practising at 601 Superior and living at 603 Superior. The two addresses are both in the house. In 1988 Dr. Yewchuk was practising at 601a and James Bay Dentistry had established at 601b. Dr. Yewchuk's residence continued at 603 Superior.

In 1996 the medical and dental practices carried on at 601a and 601b, but 603 was now occupied by Elizabeth Toole. These occupants were still there at the turn of the century in 2001.

Now 

During a recent visit to the Boathouse Barber Shop at 601a Superior Street, barber Keith Porter spoke of the history of the building he has worked in for the past year. The current property owner is the one who originally acquired it from the Government of BC in the late 1980s. The owner rents accommodation to Boathouse Barbers, the House of Sun Hairdressers, and a seasonal tax accounting office.  There are, as well, four residential suites rented in the old house. The medical practice, which had been in 601a, saw Dr. Yewchuk retire a few years ago. The James Bay Dental Clinic no longer operates in the building.

Over the years many additions have been made to the house. The Heritage Register states, "Part of the foundation is of cut stone. The facade, which originally had a full-width verandah, which is now totally filled in along with the second floor above, has a fine early entrance door in the middle and a pair of narrow double-hung sashes to the left and right. A 2nd floor balcony to the right, which was there when it was government offices, has been enclosed under an ungainly flat roof. The Government Street facade still has its original one-storey, hip-roofed, angled bay. Dentil cornices are the dominant decoration other than the modillions. There is a back full-height gabled extension with decorative shingle work, but this is largely hidden from the street by a plain flat-roofed one-storey in-fill addition. The side has a small one-storey bay."

In a final note:  Dennis Harris, the building's original owner, came to Victoria as a handsome young man, to go into the surveying business on Vancouver Island. He captured the heart of Martha Douglas and was loved by Lady Amelia Douglas. Harris had worked on the Canadian Pacific Railroad right-of-way when it was being surveyed through the mountains west of Calgary. While on Vancouver Island he surveyed the E&N extension from the Island's east coast to Port Alberni. He also worked on the survey of the Malahat Highway. Harris surveyed for the Outer Harbour wharves, which were to be built at Ogden Point in 1918.

601-603 Superior Street is a house with a long history in Victoria. The marital connection to the Douglas family makes it an especially interesting spot in the days of old in our fair city. Being in the Heritage Register, the house is protected forever.

Bibliography

Vancouver Public Library, British Columbia City Directories, 1860-1955, digitalized; City of Victoria Archives, Victoria and Vancouver Island Directories, bound volumes, 1964-1987; City of Victoria Archives, Victoria and Vancouver Island Directories, microfilm, 1988-1999; Historic Guide to Ross Bay Cemetery, "Harris," Victoria, 1983; City of Victoria Archives, "603 Superior Street, History of Property and Owners," Victoria, 1933; Victoria Heritage Foundation, Heritage Register James Bay, "601-03 Superior Street (ex-42 Superior St)," Victoria, BC, 2013; Camas Historical Group, Camas Chronicles, "Dennis Harris Story," Ruth Judson, Victoria BC, 1978; This Old House; Victoria's Heritage Neighbourhoods, Volume Two; James Bay, Victoria, 2008; Keith Porter, Boathouse Barber, personal interview (in the course of a haircut!), March 5, 2016.