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It was 1931, and as the world sank into Depression, the City of Victoria responded with a relief program aimed at beautifying Beacon Hill Park after years of neglect.
Up to 160 unemployed men were brought on, at $1.40 per day, to help the parks department clear trees, dig lakes and streams, and other maintenance work, park historian Janis Ringuette writes on her website (see box, below).
In 1936, the cheap labour also helped to build the Checkers Pavilion, which Victorians enjoyed for decades as a glassed-in lookout atop Beacon Hill. Old men played checkers, using long poles to move the pieces on one of two large boards painted on the floor.
Young people knew the spot as a sort of lovers’ lane after hours.
Today, these are distant memories. The boarded-up building has deteriorated into an eyesore after decades of indecision over its fate. The city is taking the first steps toward securing the building, but a plan to restore it for use and enjoyment is a long way off.
An assessment of the structure is underway and a report is due by May.
“All that’s going to do is tell us what would need to be done in order to protect its heritage integrity and its structural integrity,” said Victoria parks director Kate Friars. “Then we would look at what the restoration would look like.”
That’s when the tough decisions begin. How to proceed, and even whether to invest, continues to spark disagreement among the park’s interest groups.
Ringuette originally wanted to see the building demolished, but changed her position when no other interest groups supported this course of action. She now supports the idea of restoring the building as a lookout and interpretive centre.
“It stands in an aboriginal burial ground still sacred to First Nations,” she said in an email to the News. “I (previously) thought respecting the burial ground and rehabilitating the original Garry oak/camas meadow should be the main values.”
The Hallmark Society has listed the structure as one of 12 “endangered sites” in the region.
“The Observation Pavilion is a reflection of the Beacon itself,” said president Ken Johnson, referring to the historical hilltop poles that once served to warn mariners. “In 1936, those were gone and we put up a pavilion so people could look out from Victoria to the sea.”
The story of its construction by relief workers adds to its significance, he said. “There’s very little around to remember those guys. They dug a lot of holes and this is the only thing that’s left that’s substantial.”
Restoration, however, will cost money and the city has little appetite to invest during today’s economic hard times.
Recently, Heritage Canada rejected the city’s request for a Legacy Grant for upgrades.
Restoring the building could be helped by a bequest by park lover, George Stone, made in two instalments in 1996 and 2002. With interest, the $400,000 bequest has swelled to $570,000. At the city’s request, a lawyer reviewed the bequest and determined the Checkers Pavilion to be an appropriate use of the funds, Friars said.
But not everyone thinks so.
“(George Stone) wanted a building which could be used for parks programs and for park meeting space,” said Roy Fletcher, chair of the Friends of Beacon Hill Park Society, who used to chat with Stone in the park. Fletcher would prefer to see this money put toward a nature house at another site, which can better accommodate people and programming.
The city is exploring possible uses for the pavilion. “We’ve had some preliminary conversations with some interested folks,” Friars said.
“I don’t foresee the Checkers Pavilion’s future being anything more than a viewing pavilion. We don’t see it as a commercial venue, like a restaurant.”
She envisions a nature and heritage interpretation centre, with information panels on subjects such as the history of the park possibly mounted inside. The fact the building has no power or water connections limits its potential uses. Adding these services would be very costly, Friars said, adding the city hasn’t ruled this option out.
A slow decline
• After years of vandalism, the city removed the glass walls of the Checkers Pavilion in 1971, transforming it from a lookout to a wind shelter. In both 1986 and 1994, city council considered demolishing the building. Neither council could agree to knock it down or invest in it. In 1995, the pavilion was boarded up for good. Find further history at www.beaconhillparkhistory.org.