T.W. Paterson: How Nesbitt saved Craigdarroch Castle (Part 2)

“Why bother with Craigdarroch Castle? It is no more a castle than Mickey is a real mouse.” —Colonist columnist Bill Thomas.

“Why bother with Craigdarroch Castle? It is no more a castle than Mickey is a real mouse.” —Colonist columnist Bill Thomas.

As we’ve seen, James Nesbitt’s hopes of having Craigdarroch Castle become a museum were dashed when its recently departed longtime tenant, the Greater Victoria School Board, moved back in. Hardly had they vacated for the second time than the City of Victoria, the new owners of the castle and its remaining acre, granted a five-year lease to the Victoria Conservatory of Music for a dollar a year.

In response to Nesbitt’s complaints of neglect and deterioration, Mayor Hugh Stephen appointed a committee, chaired by Ald. Robert Baird and which included Nesbitt, to “look after maintenance” of the castle. Said Stephen: “The city feels the [volunteer Craigdarroch Castle Society which had paid for expensive floodlighting to deter vandalism] is of great value in acting as a type of guardian of this historic building. The society has done first-class work to date and I feel it will continue in the same vein. This society and the Conservatory of Music will work together to keep Craigdarroch one of the ornaments of Greater Victoria.” Nesbitt said he hoped the existing modern lighting fixtures would be replaced with chandeliers of the Victorian period and that the sandstone exterior would be sandblasted to deter erosion.

As always there were naysayers. “Why bother with Craigdarroch Castle? It is no more a castle than Mickey is a real mouse,” grumbled Colonist columnist Bill Thomas. “The building is an architectural eyesore. It represents affluent and bad taste at its worst. If the building serves the Conservatory of Music as a home, all well and good, but it has negligible historic and artistic value. Perhaps the province needs an historic buildings committee of what is of value…”

As it happened, the provincial government matched the society’s $2,000 to restore the grand carriage entrance, known as a porte cochere and said to be the “most elaborate in B.C.,” and the south-east servants’ porch. Both had been converted to offices and storage by the school board in the 1920s. Removal of partitions disclosed “a handsome wooden ceiling,” a railing of stone blocks and a stone staircase. The castle’s exterior, Nesbitt rejoiced, was again as it was upon construction but for the modern fire escapes. To celebrate this achievement, Mayor Stephen, provincial government minister Isabel Dawson and the president of the Music Conservatory John Graeme drove through the refurbished carriage gate in vintage cars after cutting a ribbon.

“The castle rooms looked handsome, and lived in,”wrote the Colonist’s social editor Dorothy Wrotnowski, “particularly the library with the furniture willed to the [Castle] Society by Miss Hilda Hesson.” Other authentic Dunsmuir furnishings and paintings had been returned to the castle (as had some donated antiquities). ‘Home,’ too, for the day, were two Dunsmuir descendants and their families.

Next up, said Nesbitt, was the interior: “Rain is seeping in windows and rotting woodwork. The hardwood floors are not in good shape; some windows are missing.”

Unfortunately, the society was down to $1,400 and membership growth was slow. “I feel people in the tourist industry should give this project more support as the castle is a tremendous tourist asset,” he said. But there was further good news: more Dunsmuir personal items had come home. Among them three oil paintings, given by Mr. and Mrs. H.J. Crane, that were purchased by Mrs. Crane’s parents at an auction in 1909 when the castle property was subdivided. One, a Russian scene by artist A. Bredow had been appraised at $1,500 in 1909.

When, in June 1969, the City considered applying part of a substantial bequest from the McPherson estate to a swimming pool, Nesbitt had a better idea. Repair Craigdarroch which, he complained, despite its being “an ornament and a historic landmark,” was becoming “quite shabby and a disgrace to Victoria. Visitors are horrified at its general shabbiness…” It would be a crime to allow it to disintegrate further and he was sure that the late Mr. McPherson wouldn’t have minded that $100,000 of his estate go to the castle’s upkeep.

In a further letter to the editor he again referred to the reactions of visitors who were “aghast at what appears to be negligence in its maintenance — grounds [sic], dry rot, a furnace that groans unexpectedly and lets off clouds of steam. It will ever be to Victoria’s disgrace if anything happens to this building.” Heeding his call, the City announced major roof repairs before the fall rains and that the groaning, steaming furnace would be serviced, costs to be kept below $5,000. Regular maintenance was estimated at $3,500 per year and a major facelifting to cost $100,000.

For all of Nesbitt’s carping there were those who thought that the castle’s use as a school for hundreds of music students was an ideal fit. The Times’s art editor Audrey Johnson was one: “…There can be no argument that among the perceptively worthwhile actions taken by the present city administration, the agreement to house the Victoria Conservatory of Music in the castle stands high… The city…has the satisfaction of knowing that the building is fully occupied and heated, that its interior maintenance is being looked after and that its tenant is enhancing the cultural life and reputation of Victoria…”

(To be continued)

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