While Oak Bay is in the throes of developing a new Heritage Plan intended to help preserve key historic buildings for future generations, the oldest of these buildings, Tod House, continues to exist as a municipal rental property, a situation that has been described by Jean Sparks, municipal archivist as “a dismal heritage strategy” that endangers the heritage value of the site. Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen, however sees the current management model as the most reasonable way of maintaining the property and safeguarding the house from vandals.
The house was built at what is now 2564 Heron St. by John Tod in 1850. The chief fur trader for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Tod retired in 1850, whereupon he purchased some 406 acres of land in the Oak Bay area from the Hudson’s Bay Company. The land was adjacent to the HBC’s Uplands Farm and included the Willows Beach area.
Tod was appointed as a member of B.C.’s first legislative council a year later and then as justice of the peace until 1864.
Tod himself is a character of contradictions. By some accounts, he forged bonds between the First Nations community and the HBC through his three “country wives,” the name assigned to the First Nations women in relationships with white men at the time. On the other side of the ledger, Robert Belyk, in his book John Tod; Rebel in the Ranks, characterizes Tod as an argumentative and sometimes violent man, a hard drinker who was disdainful of the First Nations and who may have used small pox-infested blankets in an effort to spread pestilence among those people.
Whatever the truth may be about Tod, it seems that his house has inherited at least some of the man’s penchant for controversy.
The home was under private ownership until 1975 (last as the property of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Massie) when it came into the public domain to protect it from the likelihood of demolition. Prior to that time, it had been considered for national heritage status, but a 1964 report by the federal government incorrectly stated that the building had “suffered a number of unsympathetic renovations” and that many of the original interior surfaces had been destroyed.
The building had undergone significant renovation in the 1930s, in one case prompting an article in the Oct. 1, 1936 Colonist in which the house was praised as having “sturdy construction … as hard as iron.” The new owner at the time, William Clark, wanted to modernize his home and undertook the work with enthusiasm. It took until 1992 for the truth about the interior of the building to be discovered. A report prepared by Stuart Stark, a Victoria heritage consultant, revealed that many of the surfaces that had been thought lost had actually been covered over and still existed.
During the preparation of that report, Stark also discovered evidence that at some point a staircase in the house had been removed, as had a room in the attic.
“You don’t do (interior renovations on a historic building) without documenting and photographing. … None of that was done,” said Stark. Those poorly monitored renovations Stark said, could eventually destroy the heritage value of the building. “It’s extremely dangerous to operate in that way.”
In 1975, the property came into the public domain, jointly managed by the province and the municipality of Oak Bay. During that period, the Tod House management committee was established to manage the property and safeguard its heritage value. When the province devolved its ownership of the property in 2005, turning it solely over to the municipality, that committee was dissolved.
That left any renovations requested by the tenants the responsibility of Oak Bay’s municipal clerk, who can approve such renovations, not necessarily with the advice of the Oak Bay Heritage Commission.
“It’s a concern to us who are involved in heritage,” said Sparks. “They took away any power that the committee had and kept it to themselves. They didn’t want any input from the public, that’s for sure.”
According to Sparks, the Heritage Commission annually approaches municipal council to establish an oversight committee. “No matter how many times we’ve written them, they haven’t (reestablished the oversight committee).”
Ben Clinton-Baker, a member of the Heritage Commission, shares Stark’s concerns. “(Tod House) is a gem and should be widely accessible and appreciated. We need a focal point for heritage infrastructure in Oak Bay and Tod House would be perfect. Or it could be a museum so that young people could get an appreciation of what life was like. The way it’s managed now is very dangerous to the house.”
Not so, said Jensen. “It’s been 20 years since Stark’s report and the ‘recipe for disaster’ hasn’t happened,” he said. “No doubt there’s a difference of opinion of how the property should be managed. Some say it should be sold to a third party group, but there are pluses and minuses to that approach.”
There was an effort to open the house to public tours with thoughts to establishing it as a museum in the past, but concerns of neighbours and others derailed that concept, as did the poor turnout for tours at the time.
“As a rental, the property has the distinction of being the oldest continuously occupied home in Victoria,” said Jensen. “It’s heated and cared for and not vandalized.”
As a private residence, the house is also not under the stewardship of people who have its heritage value as their primary concern, said Don Reksten, past member of the Heritage Commission and current archival volunteer.
According to Reksten the Tod House subcommittee submitted a report to council in 2003 in which it made a series of recommendations for alternative uses for the house. “Ongoing modern usage as a rental will continue to seriously jeopardize the fabric of the house and ultimately lead to escalating expenditures,” he said.
“We sent that study to council and nothing came of it,” said Sparks.
Other heritage buildings of later vintage have had a variety of uses. Craigflower Manor, located in View Royal, is open to the public and is administered by The Land Conservancy, while Dodd House, located in Saanich is similarly used as a rental property.
More information on Tod House can be found here. Read Our View here.
A heritage plan is being developed for Oak Bay and the coordinators of the study want to know what residents think.
Although questionnaires have been sent out and an online survey is gathering information, the group conducting the study realizes that nothing beats talking to people. To that end, they’ve invited Oak Bay residents to express their views at one of two focus group meetings to be held on Nov. 15 from 7 to 9:30 p.m. and Nov. 17 from 1 to 4 p.m. Both meetings are at the Oak Bay Municipal Hall.
Organizers have identified three topics for the meetings: trees, gardens, and landscape features; street-scapes, neighbourhoods, and buildings; and heritage awareness and public process.
The Heritage Plan will form a part of Oak Bay’s new Community Plan, and is intended to help protect the heritage of the community