HERITAGE BUILDINGS: If these walls could talk

Nanaimo established the Community Heritage Register in 2002 as a means to retain the city's important and interesting architectural past.

If these walls could talk, the stories they could tell.

They would tell of the interesting and important people who lived within them, the historical significance of their location, the people who built them using the architecture of the day, and events that changed the course of the city.

If these walls could talk, we’d all listen.

But walls can’t talk, so Nanaimo established the Community Heritage Register in 2002 as a means to retain the city’s important and interesting architectural past.

From private residences and commercial buildings to institutions and even a motel sign, dozens of places and things unique to Nanaimo were added to the registry.

Heritage conservation, says Nanaimo heritage planner Chris Sholberg, is an important part of managing change. For a city like Nanaimo to be progressive and change over time, it must understand where it came from.

“We have more structures, sites and objects on the registry today than ever before with just over 160,” said Sholberg. “One motivation is new development and that it may be a potential threat to a heritage building, and people want to ensure that some of these places are recognized by the city as important buildings and links to the city’s past.”

The purpose of the program is not to thwart development – being on the register does not protect a building from demolition or a historic lot from being developed – but to highlight the history and significance of a structure.

Yes, our famous Bastion is on it, as are other familiar landmarks, such as the Nanaimo Centennial Museum, much of Commercial Street, and the Occidental Hotel.

But so are unique items, such as: the dugout canoe in Georgia Park, a gift from the Squamish First Nation to the Snuneymuxw First Nation in 1922; the neon sign in front of the Castaway Motel; and the Italian Fountain, a gift from the city’s Italian community to the city 50 years ago.

Private residences are prominent and make up 86 listed entries.

One of the more interesting ones is the Woodward/Harrison residence at 215 Newcastle. Built in 1900, the house was built by Hiram Woodward and sold to Victor Harrison in the 1930s.

Harrison was a lawyer and also served as mayor from 1925-26 and 1938-44. He helped create Petroglyph Provincial Park, was involved in preserving the Bastion, and also played a key role in bringing the notorious cult leader Brother XII to trial.

Unfortunately, some buildings were gone before they could be saved or restored.

The city’s original post office at 60 Front Street, where the federal building is now, featured architecture similar to the courthouse with stonework and sweeping arches. It was originally built in 1884 and demolished in the 1950s in favour of the current building, designed by architect E.A. Gardner. The original post office’s clock, often called Big Frank, now resides in the spire at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on Machleary Street.

Also gone is the Nanaimo Opera House, a three-storey classic Victorian building built in 1889 that had a hotel on the top two floors and the opera house on the lower floor. It also housed the Nanaimo Brewing Company, whose owner, John Mahrer, built it. Mahrer was also an alderman.

“It was torn down in 1941, but the back wall is still there,” said David Hill-Turner, curator of the Nanaimo Museum. “But it had gas lights, five backdrop screens that could be interchanged produced by a big company in Chicago, it sat 750-800 people with lodges, it had an orchestra pit, and was built for $40,000. It hosted some of the largest productions that visited the coast, including the New York Metropolitan Opera.”

The Best Western Dorchester Hotel now sits on the opera house site, and the hotel has a banquet room called the Opera Room as a nod to the past.


To be on the register, a place or site must first be nominated, either by a member of the public or through the Nanaimo Community Heritage Commission.

It is considered for architectural uniqueness or importance, cultural history or importance, and the integrity of the building. If it passes the points test, the commission then recommends an inclusion to council and council must approve it.

Most years, five to 10 buildings are considered.

Once on the register, building owners are provided with incentives to keep the structure as close to historical authenticity as possible.

The Downtown Residential Conversion Tax Exemption program has two main goals – one is to encourage new downtown residential units in existing heritage buildings while the other is to preserve heritage buildings in the downtown core.

The Heritage Facade Improvement Grant Program was created by the city in 2003 to provide financial incentives for heritage buildings as part of Nanaimo’s downtown revitalization strategy. Cash grants of up to $10,000 per facade facing on to a city street encourages the rehabilitation and enhancement of heritage buildings located in the city’s core.

Homeowners can apply for up to $2,500 in grants to help preserve and maintain their historic houses.

To date, the city has paid out $52,272 in heritage home grants with $277,838 in private investment. More than $264,169 has been distributed through heritage facade grants with $2.26 million in private investment.

However, sometimes the home grant isn’t enough to keep owners from modernizing, either for improved efficiency or for resale, and that has some residents worried.

Heather Cooper, a resident in Nanaimo’s Old City neighbourhood, is concerned some heritage homes might have to come off the list because they no longer feature the historical architecture that put them there.

“There’s at least one house that has been updated and no longer has any of the criteria they have listed and that’s, in my opinion, a bit of a problem because there are only so many heritage homes in this town,” said Cooper. “To have to take one off the registry is kind of sad.”

Recently, Nanaimo council gave the Old City neighbourhood some help in protecting its heritage values. To guard against demolition of historic homes, it won’t allow duplexes to be built on the neighbourhood’s 16 corner lots, often large lots that feature some of the community’s most significantly historic residences.

Sholberg said it’s always a balancing act to retain significant dwellings on the register. Some houses are removed from the register due to neglect, while others are removed because updates eliminated the architectural significance.

“A large renovation can seriously jeopardize the heritage value of a building,” said Sholberg. “And it’s the same if it’s neglected, like half burnt out, for example. We tend to leave a property on in that situation because there is always the possibility of redemption for the property. Some simply can’t be redeemed.”

Sholberg uses the E&N Train Station on Selby Street as an example of reclaimed heritage, as well as the Nanaimo Centennial Museum, which was considered by council for demolition but ultimately saved because of public support. It now houses the Vancouver Island Military Museum.

“I always say there is nothing worse than an old, unoccupied heritage building,” added Sholberg. “If there is no use for it it is really hard to argue why that building should be preserved. The city sees it as a liability and an expense, but it’s always good to see them used and appreciated, like in the case of the museum.”

Nanaimo started to lean toward preserving its heritage buildings in the 1970s, though it was mostly carried out by citizen historical groups then.

In 2001, city council adopted the Heritage Action Plan, which took heritage conservation into municipal powers and systems, which created formal funding and the Nanaimo Community Heritage Commission, which consists of six at-large members, and one representative from the Nanaimo Museum, Nanaimo Archives, Snuneymuxw First Nation and a member of council.

For a complete list of buildings on the Community Heritage Register, visit www.nanaimo.ca.


Core properties on the register:

• Nanaimo Bastion at 98 Front Street

• Great National Land Building at 5-17 Church St.

• Gusola Block at 120 Commercial St.

• E&N Train Station at 321 Selby St.


Recent additions to the registry:

• Nanaimo Centennial Museum at 100 Cameron Rd.

• Italian Fountain at 626 Terminal Ave.

• ‘Fernville’, the Land Residence at 167 Irwin St.


Properties at risk of being removed from register due to poor condition or vacancy:

• Manson’s Store and House at 236-240 Haliburton St.

• Woodward/Harrison Residence at 215 Newcastle Ave.

• Harewood School at 505 Howard Ave.



Nanaimo News Bulletin