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T.W. Paterson column: Downtown ‘silo’ has become a Duncan landmark

“Imagine the Leaning Tower of Duncan! It would be the Ninth Wonder of the world ”
Duncan’s round building stands out as a landmark in the cityscape. (Citizen file)

“Imagine the Leaning Tower of Duncan! It would be the Ninth Wonder of the world — the Eighth, of course, being British Columbia.”—Duncan Mayor Jim Quaife.

Duncan’s Government Street has been the seat of civil authority for as long as there has been a City of Duncan — even longer.

What, today, is the Seniors’ Centre was the public library. Next door is the “new” Duncan courthouse, ca 1970. This low, rambling structure which in no way resembles its two-storey predecessor, and the Round Building — the Silo some chose to call it initially — date from that time, too, meaning that Joe’s Tire Hospital immediately to the east is the oldest kid on the block.

Much of what is now parking lot for courthouse and government offices was Chinatown, which reluctantly made way for these newcomers.

The first government office in this location was a two-storey frame building with hip roof, picket fence and, at the front on the top floor, three gothic windows. Its photo shows it as looking far more like an Edwardian home than a place of business, government or otherwise. This was when H.O. Wellburn, uncle of B.C. Forest Museum (today’s B.C. Forest Discovery Centre) founder Gerry Wellburn, was the government agent. As was, for many years, James Maitland-Dougall.

It was a damp and chilly but memorable day in late October 1970 when the new complex was finally completed. With bold black type reserved only for the most breathtaking news, the front page of the Cowichan Leader proclaimed, ERA OF PROGRESS DAWNS IN VALLEY.

“A new chapter has just been added to the history of the Cowichan Valley, with the official opening October 21 of Duncan’s provincial office building, stage two of the $1.3 million office and law courts complex on Government Street,” wrote Jan Cates.

Present for the momentous occasion was Premier W.A.C. Bennett who, with Public Works Minister W.N. Chant, joined the former Opposition Leader, NDP MLA Robert Strachan, in cutting the ribbon — likely one of the few occasions when these long-time political foes worked together. Also in attendance were Attorney-General Leslie Peterson, Minister of Industrial Development Waldo Skillings and other government and civic dignitaries.

The premier heralded completion of the expensive development as not just the end of a phase but the beginning of a new era for British Columbia. The province, which was coming out of a period of government cutbacks due to recession, was about to embark on a bold new expansion program of public works, he said, which included funding for the final six miles of the Lake Cowichan Highway.

He acknowledged that construction of the courthouse and office building had been “delayed a little while, but you’ve got a much better building than you would have had before. As a matter of fact, your government agent now has a better office than does your Minister of Finance.”

Duncan Mayor Jim Quaife praised the complex for its “bold and refreshing” concept. At first sight, the five-storey Round Building “takes your breath away”. Too bad, he joked, that the government engineers and the contractors had done such a good job: “Imagine the Leaning Tower of Duncan! It would be the Ninth Wonder of the world — the Eighth, of course, being British Columbia.”

A grinning Premier Bennett interjected that the building was “in the round so you can’t catch up to the tax collector”.

Mayor Quaife then hearkened back to 1963 when “a dream was born to solidify the downtown area. It is just unfortunate that in fulfilling this dream we must destroy part of the history of this area,” he said, referring to the loss of historic Chinatown.

Besides the weather, the only damp touch was provided by pickets from the Cowichan-Malahat branch of SPEC (Society for Pollution and Environmental Control) protesting the Socred government’s perceived failure to take sufficient pollution control measures.

Just two weeks before, a newspaper photographer captured the new and the old for the last time as workers completed demolition of the old courthouse in the shadow of its flashy successor.

Ironically, the Round Building proved to be too innovative. It has never developed a lean a la the Tower of Pisa, but it has proved to be a difficult work environment. Some government employees complained that it was inefficient; some members of the public thought it “too maze-like”. In May 1992 noted Victoria architect John A. Di Castri, no stranger to avant-garde building design, was hired by the B.C. Building Corporation to redesign parts of the 20-year-old building. By then many of the government offices had been moved to the new ground-level Access Centre on Duncan Street, the construction of which had drawn the Leader’s editorial ire.

Government Agent Jo Bodard defended the move by declaring the Access Centre to be a vast improvement over the Round Building which would have had to be vacated anyway for the extensive renovations necessary, which included major electrical and computer re-wiring, and the removal of asbestos ceilings.

But renovations did not go smoothly. After moving out three tenants who rented office space in the building, BCBC scrapped its originals plans because it judged cost estimates to be too high. This impasse left the Round Building virtually without occupants for a year. In January 1993, BCBC’s communications manager John Murphy admitted that the building was “difficult…for occupancy” because of its lack of heavy wiring when “the whole of government is electronic”.

As of writing, For Lease signs show in some of the Round Building’s windows…

City records show that the older courthouse on Government Street was built in 1889 and enlarged in 1926. Ruby Evans — 79 in 1970 when it was demolished — remembered it having been there when she was only four years old, or about 1895. It actually was the third courthouse in the Cowichan Valley, the first two having been built on Tzouhalem Road in the immediate vicinity of St. Ann’s, as early as 1868. The coming of the railway in 1886 dictated the move to the future Duncan.

Footnote: There has been some controversy in recent years over whether the maple tree in front of the courthouse is the same one that was planted on July 1, 1927, by pioneer settlers David Alexander and George Kier to commemorate Canada’s Diamond Jubilee.