Then and Now

 By Ted Ross

There is a red brick building on Niagara Street at the corner with Medana. To the passerby it looks slightly churchy and somewhat institutional, enclosed by its chain-link fence. The architecture differs from its residential neighbours. One wonders, "What is the story of this edifice?"


The adjectives 'churchy' and 'institutional' show their veracity when we look at Major Frederick V. Longtaff's Christ Church Cathedral Victoria, B.C.; A Short History. On page 21 we read, "1939 - Niagara Street Sunday School, built of red brick, was dedicated by Bishop Sexton on September 6th. It was provided by an anonymous donor, a parishioner, as a branch of the Memorial Hall Sunday School, and not as a church."

In an email, David Barlow, long-time member of Christ Church Cathedral, said, "I can tell you it was built and donated to the Parish of Christ Church Cathedral by an anonymous parishioner. There were many children living in the small houses in James Bay (which was part of the Anglican geographical Parish of Christ Church) and the hall was built in James Bay as a satellite operation to the Cathedral Sunday school in the Memorial Hall, the building on Rockland and Vancouver Streets at the back of the Cathedral." At the time, Major F. V. Longstaff was the Superintendent of the Sunday School of the Parish.

Here, then, is the origin of the structure. It was a Sunday School building, provided by an unamed donor, in 1939. In a Christ Church Cathedral advertisement in the Daily Colonist Saturday October 12, 1946, we see Sunday School announced for James Bay, Niagara Street, 11 am, as part of the notice.

It is a sturdily built structure. In a 'Heritage Inspection of 520 Niagara Street,' given to Victoria City Council - 18 Sept 2014, we learn, "Bricks were laid in English bond, which is rare in Victoria, thus the bond is uncharacteristic with the local or regional buildings of the same period." It is constructed with a timber frame structure, the brickwork forming heavy exterior walls.

Looking at the Heritage Register for '520 Niagara Street' we discover, "This utilitarian institutional building is the same basic shape as an industrial building of an earlier age in the City Works Yard at Garbally Rd. The school is a handsome one-storey brick structure with a concrete foundation and 4-over-12 wooden windows with brick sills... It has a ridged roof with parapeted gable ends covered in metal, and a castellated parapet roof on the external front porch."

The Register continues, "James Bay Sunday School or Cathedral School as it was commonly called, was designed by P.L. James and built by contractors Williams, Trerise & Williams in 1939 for $6000. It operated as an Anglican Sunday School until 1974. Brownies and Girl Guides met here in the 1950s. In 1975 the building was leased to the Provincial Government for use by the Department of Human Resources."

In 1974 James Bay New Horizons Society rented the basement of the school to hold their well-attended weekly Friday Forum, things having become too cramped in the basement of James Bay United Church. In 1976 JBNH lost the quarters they had rented in the Legion house on Superior Street to a fire. They then leased the entire school building from the Diocese for their operations until their new accommodations at 234 Menzies were ready in 1978.

In later years the building saw use as the Renaissance School and as a pre-school and day care. It was, most recently, a kindergarten for the Christ Church Cathedral Education Society which left in 2014.


photo by Bob Tuomi

With an old Sunday School building on their hands, for which they had no real use, the Diocese decided to sell the property, which had an assessed value of $689,500. On December 13, 2013 they applied for a demolition permit to knock the old school down, feeling it would be easier to market the two lots with the structure, which sits on both lots, gone.

The Victoria News, September 11, 2014 reported, "The Anglican Diocese of BC has applied for a demolition permit of a heritage building in Victoria, causing uproar in the James Bay community. The St. James Mission of Christ Church Cathedral School, located at 520 Niagara St., is on the city's heritage registery, but is not legally protected as a heritage site."

At a City Council meeting on September 18, 2014, a motion to stay a decision for 60 days while a heritage inspection was completed was passed unanimously. The building was safe from the wreckers for the time being.

In the meantime, the property, with the building extant, remained on the market. A rather unusual property, there wasn't a lot of activity in the marketplace for it. Then in September 2015, a year later, a couple looking for a property with good heritage qualities, had their offer accepted by the Diocese. The property sold, building in place, to people who valued what it was, and what they could do with it, while retaining its heritage character. Those who knew heaved a sigh of relief. The Mission School was saved, while undergoing a complete change of purpose.

What was once a public hall has become a private home. The new owners have rewired and replumbed the entire building. The old Sunday School hall has been tastefully renovated to become spacious living quarters for a family. The former pre-school, in the basement at the north end, is converted to a rental suite. It is airy and bright with windows looking out to Medana Street and is decidedly not underground.

The new people have tales to tell from the course of the renovation. An old telephone exchange, from the Provincial Government days, turned up in the crawl space. As renovations progressed, neighbours, used to the public days of the building, would just wander in to, "see what's happening," even though the new owners were already making their home in the building, amidst the mayhem of construction. Sometimes folks would just have a coffee or a little picnic in the chain-link enclosed yard, as if it were a public park. One homeless fellow set up camp in the back yard. Reluctantly the new folks have posted their property so its private status is clear.

Speaking of the chain-link fence, the owners would like to replace it with something a little friendlier. They were well pleased to see the old photos of the building with the fence it had in the 1940s, more pleasing in look. You'll see something happen with the fence in the next while.

There are no plans to change the traditional appearance of the building's exterior. That classic red-brick construction of the 1930s will remain unchanged, with its castellated front porch and all the other features noted in the Heritage Register. Neighbours may remain confident that the look of the Cathedral School will go on for years.



"Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria, B.C.; A Short History," Frederick V. Longstaff, 1951; email, David Barlow, May 22, 2016; Interview, David & Mary Barlow, May 24, 2016; email David Barlow, June 02, 2016; "Anglican Services, Christ Church Cathedral," Daily Colonist, October 12, 1946; "Major Frederick V. Longstaff 1879 - 1961," Victoria Historical Society Publication, Number 30, Winter 2011-2012; "The Value of Heritage," Victoria News, September 11, 2014; James Bay Beacon, "Then and Now - New Horizons 40th Anniversary," Ted Ross, November, 2014; "520 Niagara Street," Heritage Register James Bay, 2013; Interview, new propery owners, May 10, 2016; email from new owners June 02, 2016.