Architect Francis Rattenbury: brilliant, yes, but a nice guy?

“More than 80 years after his death by murder, can we not forgive Francis Rattenbury his indiscretions?—Dave Griffin

“More than 80 years after his death by murder, can we not forgive Francis Rattenbury his indiscretions?—Dave Griffin

In a January letter to the editor of the Times Colonist, A. Cameron Johnson responded to a previous letter that praised architect Francis Rattenbury for his masterpieces, the parliament buildings and the Crystal Gardens (among many others). In rebuttal, Johnson censured Rattenbury for having driven his wife to divorce and fatal illness so that he could marry his mistress, and played on the double meaning of the architect’s “well-earned” nickname, Ratz. “In our day,” he wrote, Rattenbury would have been “dealing with police and child-protection services for criminal behaviour toward his first wife and their children…

“When giving guests a tour of Victoria, I suggest the best that can be done is to give Rattenburgy accolades as the architect of the buildings he designed. Full stop.”

Which prompted Dave Griffin to write, “More than 80 years after his death by murder, can we not forgive Francis Rattenbury his indiscretions and recognize him without reservation the iconic image he created for Victoria?”

Victorians of the day certainly didn’t forgive him. Rattenbury’s flagrant affair, bitter divorce and marriage to the flamboyant and much younger widow Alma Pakenham prompted his early retirement to England, then descent into depression and alcoholism that culminated in his brutal death at the hands of his wife’s young lover.

So, all that aside, was Rattenbury a nice guy or a cad? Let me and the late Victoria author and historian Terry Reksten answer by introducing you to Frederick Adams, one of the leading contractors for the second phase of the construction of the legislative buildings. Then in his mid-50s and with considerable experience in Ontario and Quebec, he should have known better than to accept the low-ball contract for providing the building stone — a contract that had to be set so low because Rattenbury had underestimated the total cost of the project and needed to find savings wherever he could.

Whatever the case, Adams agreed and Adams had to deliver. It got even worse when Rattenbury rejected an entire load of sandstone from the Koksilah quarry at Cowichan Station, one of the two quarries approved as suppliers. Despite Adams’s expert opinion that less than 17 per cent was unsuitable, he was forced to re-stock exclusively from the Haddington Island quarry which meant hauling thousands of tons of andesite by tug and barge from Broughton Strait at greater expense — as much as 50 per cent more.

Rattenbury could have released him from the original contract because the substitution stone was more costly. But this, Reksten wrote in her authoritative biography, Rattenbury, would have been an admission that he’d erred when he approved the Koksilah stone before Adams had contracted to use it. Only upon delivery to the building site had he seen that it was a much darker shade of grey than he’d envisioned: “so dark that even if used only on the sunny southern elevation it would not blend in with the lighter stone from Haddington Island.” (The Koksilah sandstone was salvaged for use in an addition to the Jubilee Hospital.)

Rattenbury saved face at the cost of Adams losing his shirt. Adding insult to injury, he also insisted upon making further changes to the plans, again at Adams’s expense. Rattenbury, in denying that the Haddington stone cost substantially more, shrugged it off as “Mr. Adams’s own lookout”.

When government ministers, by this time more concerned with escalating costs than justice, sided with the architect, the pressure upon Adams must have become unbearable and likely explains the tragic conclusion to it all.

He’d chartered the tug Velos to haul stone from Haddington Island aboard the old Columbia Bar tug Pilot which had been cut down for use as a barge and had 24 quarry workers on board. On the night of March 22, 1895, despite a violent gale blowing from the southeast, a harried Adams ordered Capt. Anderson to cast off his moorings in Victoria’s sheltered Inner Harbour.

The 49-ton tug and its tow made it only as far as Enterprise Channel between Oak Bay and Trial Island where Anderson decided to return to port. While making her turn in mountainous seas, the Velos was swamped, lost power and struck a reef. Of the seven men aboard, five were drowned; among them contractor Adams who’d made out his will only that afternoon.

His sons refuted a rumour that he’d been carrying large sums of money at the time of his death, saying that he could have had “no more than $50 or $60 at the most”. They offered $100 reward for recovery of his body.

Three-quarters of a century after the Velos tragedy, an article in a Victoria newspaper concerning the old Adams house on Pembroke Street mentioned that, on the fateful morning of March 23, 1895, the contractor’s family had been gathered in the drawing room. When the dog suddenly began howling, Mrs. Adams gasped that something had happened to her husband. Spookier still is the fact that all the men’s watches stopped at precisely the time, as was learned later, that the Velos went down.

So much for poor Frederick Adams. As for Francis Rattenbury, his legacy is secure: some of the finest, most famous buildings in British Columbia. As for Ratz the man, well, I leave that to you to decide.