In 2011 local historian and preservationist Nick Russell self-published a book entitled Glorious Victorian; a book to bridge the gap between the wonderful heritage homes he found when he arrived in Victoria and the dearth of available literature describing those structures.
“There were a few old books out there with poor black and white photographs…really nothing to do justice to the great architecture that survives in this city,” said Russell. “I put together and self-published the original book and within a very short time I sold out the 1,700 copies I’d had printed.”
The success of the original publication prompted him to take his book to B.C. based publisher, Touch Wood Editions, where they were enthralled by his guide to the city’s most diverse and historically relevant homes. The book was reworked, polished, and some homes were added to the list whilst others were removed. The resulting compendium of the most historically significant architecture Victoria has to offer has been retitled Glorious Victorian Homes: 150 Years of Architectural History on British Columbia’s Capital.
Russell’s love of history and architecture has deep roots.
“When I first got married we bought what was really no more than a shack in the Fraser Valley, but we fixed it up and in the process developed a love for the idea of saving a glorious older home and all the history it represented,” said Russell.
Later, when he moved to Regina he bought an old brick home and, again, restored it to its original beauty. That labour of love won him a few awards, he explained, and he was firmly invested in the preservationist mindset.
Upon retiring, he moved to Victoria.
“When I got to Victoria, I saw all these amazing homes and, while I was glad to see that many of them were protected as heritage sites, many more had never managed to get on the list,” said Russell. “A lot of these homes are very vulnerable, and could easily be lost if people don’t care enough to save them.”
Russell explained how some homes, even those on the heritage list, could be lost through what he calls ‘demolition by neglect’. He points to Ross Bay Villa on Fairfield Road as an example of one such property that was saved just in the nick of time. The villa is one of the houses featured in Russel’s book.
“The place was an overgrown dump when we first saw it,” said Russell. “Most everyone, the municipality, the neighbours…everyone…just wanted to be rid of it.”
But he and a group of like minded individuals came to the rescue, and with a lot of effort, restored the property to its former glory. It now operates as a historic house museum.
“Once these houses are gone, there’s no getting them back and it’s important we appreciate their value and the ties they provide to our past,” he said.
It’s why Russell’s book contains some homes currently on the heritage protection list along with many that are not. He considered the home’s size, the architecture and architect, who lived there, the street scape of the home and whether the integrity of the house’s original design has been maintained.
One of the reasons Russell loves Victoria is based on the surviving architecture and the sense of history and community it provides. He cringes at some of the new construction he sees rising around the city and while he’s quick to point out there are some great architects and designs in Victoria’s new construction, he feels the old adage of a person’s home being their castle is misplaced.
“Every homeowner…every property owner… should recognize they are a part of a larger street-scape. People come to Victoria to see the beautiful homes. You shouldn’t just do what you want with a property without considering how it impacts on the street and the neighbours,” he said.
Russell’s book is a reminder of a time when homes were built to last, with ‘strong bones’ and a consideration for the aesthetics of the entire neighbourhood.
Glorious Victorian Homes: 150 Years of Architectural History on British Columbia’s Capital can be found at Bolen and Munro’s bookstores.