Description of Historic Place
The Vernon Block is located at the corner of Government and Broughton Streets, in Victoria’s historic Old Town. It is a prominent, three-storey, masonry structure, recognizable for its two-tone brickwork, round-arched bays and broad banks of large windows.
The Vernon Block is valued as a symbol of Victoria’s burgeoning commercial development at the turn of the twentieth century, just after the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. Its layout reflects a rational approach to maximizing business opportunities. Prominent retail storefronts face Government Street, a busy source of commercial activity. The less-commercial Broughton Street frontage contains the entry to the second floor offices. This substantial structure was built as an investment property for Charles Albert Vernon (1840-1906), a pioneer who emigrated from England to British Columbia in 1863. Along with his brother, Forbes G. Vernon, he established a large cattle ranch in the Okanagan Valley, and the brothers were also actively engaged in mining and business pursuits; the town of Vernon is named in their honour. Charles Vernon later relocated to Victoria and established himself as one of the most successful local businessmen, and served for a number of years as provincial gold commissioner and land commissioner. Vernon was one of the owners of the British Columbia Pottery Company, manufacturer of tile and all kinds of pottery, and the Vernon Block was built with examples of the company’s brick and terra cotta products.
The Vernon Block is additionally significant as an example of the transition from the Late Victorian era to the Edwardian era, at a time when architectural styles, as well as building technologies, were in rapid transition. It typifies the late persistence of the Romanesque Revival style, as demonstrated in the round-headed arches on the upper floor windows, and was built to echo the Weiler Brothers’ building across the street. It is an example of the work of prominent British Columbia architect Thomas Hooper (1857-1935), whose many commercial buildings helped define the evolving character of Victoria’s downtown. At the time, Eastern architects were pioneering the use of iron and steel technology to enable the construction of higher buildings and large expanses of façade glazing. The use of arches as a structural device that enabled greater spans was a transitional device in the evolution from the Romanesque Revival style of the late Victorian era to the Chicago School style of the Edwardian era, and this structure demonstrates a clear understanding of these trends. Over a number of decades, the English-born Hooper demonstrated stylistic versatility that reflected changing tastes and technologies. The use of the Romanesque arch-and-spandrel motif, here enlarged to a size that dominates the façades, enabled a high ratio of glazing that floods the interior with natural light. Hooper’s exploration of these progressive motifs began with the Lim Dat Building at 1617-1623 Store Street/505-511 Fisgard Street in 1898, and was further developed in the Thomas Earle Warehouse, built at 530-534 Yates Street, Victoria, in 1899-1900, in which the entire façade was rendered as a giant arch.
Over time, it has accommodated many local businesses, including Pemberton Holmes Realtors who were located here for many decades. In the late 1990s, Richard Holmes undertook an extensive rehabilitation, including seismic upgrading, that has provided a new life for this historic building. In recognition of the material and social values of the historic buildings of Old Town, the City of Victoria has established policies and incentives that encourage their adaptive re-use and improve their economic viability. Rehabilitated buildings such as this play a critical role in revitalizing the downtown economy, in providing commercial space and in environmental sustainability.
Source: City of Victoria Planning Department
Key elements that define the heritage character of the Vernon Block include its:
- location at the corner of Government and Broughton Streets, in Victoria’s historic Old Town
- continuous commercial use, with retail space at the ground floor level and offices above
- siting on the property lines, with no setbacks
- commercial form, scale and massing, as expressed by its: three-storey plus basement height; symmetrical façade facing Government Street with four bays with arched tops; two tall rectangular storefronts facing Government Street; symmetrical Broughton Street elevation with projecting end bays with arched top floor openings; flat roof; and round-arched side entry
- elements of the Romanesque Revival style, such as: a repetitive series of wide round-arched bays interspersed with banks of rectangular windows, with fluted mullions; corbelled brick cornices with diagonally-laid courses; rounded corner bricks; and grotesque carvings
- masonry construction as expressed in the use of: buff-coloured brick with red-brick detailing; rubbed brick insets, dentils, corners and surrounds; sandstone columns at the storefronts with blocks of alternate tooled and rough-dressed finish, and ornate capitals; sandstone arch spring blocks at third floor; a running parged terra cotta cornice band of floral motifs; common red-brick side walls; and heavy timber internal structure
- original windows including: double-hung one-over-one wooden-sash windows, some in triple assembly with central wooden mullions; double-hung two-over-two wooden-sash windows in the end bays on the south façade; and wooden storefront elements