Description of Historic Place
The Milne Block is a three and one-half storey plus lower level, red-brick commercial building, distinguished by its patterned brickwork, stone trim and central tower with a semicircular window. It is located mid-block on the north side of lower Johnson Street, within Market Square, a rehabilitated complex of late nineteenth century buildings that comprise the western half of a full block, with continuous historic streetfronts along three major streets and a central courtyard behind, in Victoria's Old Town.
The Milne Block is a significant contributing resource to a key historic grouping of nineteenth-century structures that marks the northern edge of the expansion of Victoria's original Old Town. This block, bounded to the north by Pandora Avenue and to the south by Johnson Street, was once part of the course of the Johnson Street Ravine, a swamp that marked the boundary between the European business area to the south and Chinatown (now a National Historic Site) to the north. During the 1880s, the wooden shacks on the north side of the ravine were replaced with utilitarian commercial blocks housing Chinese businesses, spurred by the dramatic increase in the local Chinese population after the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed. The announcement of the land grant to the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway in 1883, and its completion in 1888, sparked a construction boom in Victoria of stores and hotels around the terminus at the west foot of Pandora Avenue. The south side of the block was filled with more elaborate buildings such as hotels and commercial enterprises run by Europeans, such as the Milne Block, illustrating the physical and cultural divide within the early city. The large open space in the centre of the block remains as a significant representation of the interconnected network of courtyards and alleyways in Old Town. These alleyways provided service areas and access which were important to the commercial functions of these buildings.
Built in 1891, the Milne Block is a significant surviving design by prominent BC architect, Thomas Hooper (1857-1935), one of the first local proponents of the Romanesque Revival style. Hooper had one of the province's longest running and most prolific architectural careers, designing hundreds of commercial and residential buildings in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island. The Milne Block is characteristic of the Romanesque style adapted to commercial usage. Stylistic embellishments on the front facade include round-headed windows, rock-faced sandstone detailing, and patterned and corbelled brickwork with a prominent central tower. Cast-iron storefront columns and sheet-metal detailing used on the building are typical of the prefabricated building elements of the period.
The Milne Block is additionally significant for its association with its original owner Alexander Roland Milne (1839-1904). Milne was a prominent businessman in early Victoria who became Collector of Customs, and Controller of Chinese in 1890, a position that reflected the emerging demographics of the area due to the dramatic increase in the local Chinese population after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway. This building was one of Milne's first ventures into private development, an indication of the intense building boom that drew many investors into speculative construction.
Additionally, this building represents Market Square's role in the modern revitalization of Victoria's historic downtown core. In the 1970s, Sam Bawlf and his brother, architect Nick Bawlf, pioneered private sector revitalization in Victoria by creating Market Square, a half-block of contiguous rehabilitated heritage buildings that framed a partly covered central courtyard, housing a vibrant urban environment with boutiques, restaurants, offices, and performance space. Seeking to reactivate Victoria's depressed downtown core with this massive project, the Bawlfs balanced urban revitalization with heritage conservation. The preservation of the open space in the central courtyard is a key feature that recalls the integral role of these secondary spaces in Victoria's commercial activities.
Source: City of Victoria Planning and Development Department
Key elements that define the heritage character of the Milne Block include its:
- location within Market Square and the historic streetscape of lower Johnson Street, set flush to the front and side property lines with other contemporaneous buildings and a contiguous rear courtyard space, on a north-sloping lot that exposes the lower level at the rear
- continuous commercial and retail use
- commercial form, scale and massing as expressed through its three and one-half storey plus lower level height, basement areaways, symmetrical rectangular plan and flat roof with a pyramidal hipped-roof tower at the front
- masonry construction, including: structural front, side and rear brick walls; rubbed-brick insets on the front facade; timber internal frame; parged window sills on the rear facade; granite door thresholds; and rubble-stone foundations
- Romanesque influences including the central tower with pyramidal roof, finial, and pinnacles; round-headed windows and semi-circular tower window with label mouldings; patterned brickwork in the parapet and corbelled cornice; and rock-faced sandstone window lintels, sills and imposts
- additional exterior details include prefabricated metal elements such as: decorative sign-plate with 'MILNE' lettering; sheet-metal cornices; cast-iron storefront columns; and sheet-metal fascias
- symmetrical fenestration including: rectangular storefront openings; and double-hung 1-over-1 wooden sash windows
- elements of the 1970s rehabilitation, such as the rear decks, openings into the rear courtyard from the front street, and stairways to upper floors