Saturday, 27 February 2010

Francis M. Rattenbury

image Francis Mawson Rattenbury



If you ask anybody who visits the city of Victoria in British Columbia what they liked most during their visit they will answer: Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel, the Legislative Buildings, the Wax Museum and of course the infamous Butchart Gardens


Three of these Victoria’s signature icons: the Empress Hotel, the Legislative Buildings and the Wax Museum are remarkable pieces of architectural work by British architect Francis M. Rattenbury. 


Rattenbury’s first opportunity came when Premier Theodore Davie approved a competition to design a new set of Parliament Buildings in Victoria. Rattenbury’s designs for the new Parliament Buildings were first shortlisted and then selected from 67 designs submitted for the competition.


Rattenbury used the name “A B.C. Architect” for his design, believing that the judges would favor a local architect. When he arrived in Victoria on March 14, 1893, to great fanfare, nobody questioned whether a 25-year-old architect was qualified for such a large project. The 1898 Romanesque British Columbia Legislature is a beautiful building that has stood overlooking the Inner Harbor for over 110 years, and is the defining structure  of the landscape.


image The Legislature Building


Rattenbury arrived in British Columbia with little experience but lots of charm and self-confidence.  His commission to design the parliament buildings was a great coup, and Rattenbury went on to establish a flourishing practice designing such notable buildings as the Vancouver Court House (now the Vancouver Art Gallery) the Crystal Gardens in Victoria, and several banks and high end residences throughout the province.


imageVancouver Art Gallery


Throughout his career Rattenbury worked on all types of buildings in Victoria, Rossland, Nelson, and New Westminster; courthouses in Nanaimo, Nelson, Vancouver and his most well-known work for the Canadian Pacific Railway the world-famous Empress Hotel, which was named in honour of the Empress of India, Queen Victoria.


The Empress Hotel, an Edwardian Chateau-Style hotel was built in 1904–1908 and since then this wonderful piece of architecture has played hostess to kings, queens, movie stars and many famous people.  Also known as the Jewel of the Pacific this 460-room hotel was recently restored to its original grandeur, with antique furniture and luxurious décor.



The Empress Hotel


Another great building is The Royal London Wax Museum located in the original Canadian Pacific Steamship ticket office, where ocean liners once arrived from destinations around the world. Its noteworthy the classical lines of architecture. Today the historical past is fitting, since the museum now displays more than 300 wax reproductions.


imageThe London Wax Museum


Rattenbury’s career was dramatic and although Rattenbury was included in the local high society, his private life was very normal. Things changed however, when he met musician Alma Pakenham starting an open affair with no concern for public opinion or for his wife Florence’s feelings.  Rattenbury divorced his wife at the age of 58, and married his mistress, Alma, who was 26 years his junior. His behavior during this period of his life was not well regarded by the citizens of Victoria, and Rattenbury soon found himself to be a social outcast and decided to move back to England.


image Alma Rattenbury


In 1934 Alma initiated an affair with George Stoner who was hired as a chauffer for the couple. On March 23, 1935, Rattenbury was found badly beaten in his study.  Francis Rattenbury died a few days later on March 28th.   Both Alma and George Stoner were initially charged with his murder.   The trial was a major news story in Britain, giving everything it could have wanted: sex, drugs, celebrity and, in the end, tragedy. When the verdict was announced, Alma was found not guilty but Stoner was sentenced to death. Feeling responsible for both the murder of Francis Rattenbury and the impending execution of George Stoner, Alma committed suicide.


Francis Rattenbury was in British Columbia for only 38 years but during that time he was the most prominent architect and remains till this day one of British Columbia’s most famous.


Today while I was having an affogato date with talented local designer Gillian Ley at the Rogers Soda Shop I decided to write this entry and to honor the work of Victoria’s legend Francis M. Rattenbury. 


The architectural work of Rattenbury is majestic without being excessively busy.  As you can see in the images each building that he designed for the Victoria Inner harbor has a different architectural style, but they all work together harmoniously creating a sense of history; if you take in consideration that all these building were designed and built in a spam of 30 years.  Victoria’s inner harbor is an example of fantastic urban planning by the architect himself.


The architectural detailing in the Rattenbury’s interior spaces are as notable as the exteriors.  The woodwork in the dining room at the Empress Room is a master lesson in symmetry and craftsmanship.  The Bengal Lounge, other than have the best Lemon Drop Martinis in the city, clearly reflects the atmosphere of the British colonial times with the coolest motion fans I have ever seen.  The Dome at the British Legislature is another clear reflection of Rattenbury’s innate talent.


image The Empress Room


image The Bengal Lounge


imageInterior of BC Legislature  [Photo by Moatway ]


Researching and writing this article made me realize how important it is to honor and remember those who have made our city one of the the best places to live.  Sometimes we forget how fortunate we are to have such great and elegant architecture in our city.  


I hope that the planners of Victoria realize how important it is to have real beauty around us and that there is a fine line between diversity and trash.  Perhaps they will consider replacing some of the sculptures, or should I call them “visual pollution” that have been commissioned in recent years. They seem disrespectful and pale in comparison to the greatness of the city’s architectural heritage.





“ I suppose you got the sketches for the proposed Hotel at Victoria.
It is going to be a whopper if it goes on, and I think it will go on alright.


It will make a decided attraction to Victoria, as we really have wanted a first-class hotel”

Francis Rattenbury letter to his mother, 1903



Sources: Wikipedia, Robert Fulford column, Mini Doc Youtube, GVLP, Canadian Museum of Civilization, The Canadian Enciclopedia

MEADE DESIGN GROUP - THE BLOG. Copyright 2007-2011


La Maison Fou said...

Thanks for stopping by the blog, my husband is a Canadian born there and moved to the states when he was 8. His family still lives in Ontario and he has a sister in Colona BC. I will stop back by,

vosgesparis said...

Thanks so much for your very nice comment, I feel flattered ;)

heather @ what's blooming this week said...

Thanks for visiting my little blog. It always intrigues me as to how you "big players" manage to find my little venture.
Fond memories of tea at the Empress - truly a star in the railroad (now Fairmont) chain of hotels

A Gift Wrapped Life said...

How lovely to hear from another Canadian blogger and am enjoying my return visit, this is one intensive blog full of excellent resources and research.....and great style. Visit again.

Jeff said...

I enjoyed the article as I've always loved the parliament buildings in Victoria but did not know much about their architect. However it makes me feel under accomplished - to accomplish such a great thing at 25 is amazing.

Unknown said...

What a great post. These pictures are all wonderful, and the interior spaces are so grand!

Karena said...

Ivan, excellent post. I really enjoyed reading about this truly talented young man. Of course his architecture is legendary!What a tragedy in the end!

Michelle said...

I didn't know any of this!! It's such a tragic bio! So that's the story of the empress and the art gallery. What a great time in the history of both cities.

Great post Ivan!


Unknown said...


I throughly enjoyed this post. Architectural history is vital because we don't learn the same way the prior "great minds" did and we learn all too well how human we are.
History reveals all (maybe too much) at times but most of it is so appreciated many years later.

Let's focus on what we do today that can enhance what history records on us and will reveal in the future. Ivan you can leave such an mark as well....Amazing to think about isn't it? That's where it starts...a thought...a dream...a reality.

Thanks for your comment @ Ideezine.


Echito said...

This is a great post, who knew the story behind our city's most recognizable buildings would be so scandalous!?!? I think there's a movie in here somewhere... Hollywood better get on this!

Brillante Interiors said...

Amazing talent, amazing story. I had no idea of who was behind those iconic places.
This post is so well documented and so important to read.
Did you mention "affogato"? my favorite dessert in summer (with or without whipped cream)