Saving Beacon Hill...Again and Again and Again

By Janis Ringuette

If developers had been successful, Beacon Hill would be buried many times over. The building proposals described here--a replica of the Parthenon, the provincial museum, a tree-house-office complex, restaurants and teahouses--were stopped by individuals and groups who valued a more natural hilltop landscape.

Replica of the Parthenon

The most grandiose building ever proposed for the top of Beacon Hill was a replica of the Athens Parthenon. This structure was suggested in 1909 by the Vancouver Island Development League. The Secretary of the League, Mr. E. McGaffey, predicted it would become “one of the wonders of the world and people would be attracted from far and near to see it.” Made entirely of Island timber, its placement “on the elevated part of Beacon Hill would form a landmark visible for many miles out in the straits, just as the Greek Parthenon overlooks the Aegean Sea.” McGaffey said it would “form a great convention hall, capable of holding hundreds and hundreds of delegates.” Building dimensions were 114 feet by 51 feet, proportionately half of the Athens Parthenon.

The Colonist promoted the idea by printing an architect’s sketch of the building on the front page July 11, 1909.

Newspaper sketch of the Parthenon

In a letter to the editor of the Times the following day, Arthur Davies called the building a “tumorous monstrosity in the shape of an asinine imitation of the Parthenon” which would “desecrate the beauties of Beacon Hill.” He thought throwing $75,000--the amount the structure would cost--into the streets would “do far more good.”

Royal B. C. Museum Proposal

“Beacon Hill Park is the No. 1 choice as a site for the proposed new $3,000,000 provincial museum,” Provincial Works Minister Chant told the Colonist in 1964. Chant said the summit of Beacon Hill was an ideal site because “It is easily accessible, offers unlimited parking space, costs nothing, is in attractive surroundings, permits outward expansion, allows complete architectural freedom and is not beset by traffic flow problems.” The museum “could incorporate a lounge-tea room and thus supply one frequently debated park need.”

Incredibly, the museum proposal on the Hill also involved creating a salt water swimming pool in Horseshoe Bay. The B. C. Provincial Works Department report stated “excavation for the museum building would produce enough rock fill to turn nearby Horseshoe Bay into a saltwater swimming pool...The three additions of a museum, a swimming pool and further picnic grounds would probably make very welcome amenities for a part of the park which, at the present time, offers not much more than a pleasant walk.” Happily, the alternate downtown site was selected for the museum, saving both Beacon Hill and Horseshoe Bay from destruction.

Space Age Tree House Proposal

A private commercial proposal to build a "Space Age Tree House" on top of Beacon Hill was presented to the City in 1966. The “75-foot (25 metre) 'tree house' would combine tourist offices, a showcase for forest companies and a lookout."

Park Administrator Herb Warren opposed the plan in a letter to the Municipal Manager. He stated, "I am disposed to keep Beacon Hill Park pretty much as it is without any additional buildings...what I object to in this case is a suggestion that it should go on top of the hill." Parking would "sterilize an acre of valuable ground on the hilltop. The structure would probably be incompatible with the flagpole and the lookout." Columnist Tom Taylor wrote “...a tower would be as a thumb sticking up out of proportion...It has taken strict vigilance over the years to preserve the park solely as a park...It is probably the best civic asset we have.” The Park Committee voted unanimously to reject the treehouse.

Restaurant/Tearoom Proposals

A restaurant or tearoom on top of Beacon Hill has been seriously discussed at least thirteen times since 1911. The proposal reappears like clockwork and has wide public appeal.

In 1946, Park Administrator Herb Warren proposed “A first class tea room on the top of Beacon Hill emphasizing the English accent...” He envisioned a caretaker living in the building. Warren said it would require “widening the road to the hill top and extending down the South-east face of the hill to Dallas Road, where it has already been roughly graded for this purpose.”

The Local Council of Women opposed the plan, explaining the development required much wider and better constructed roads to accommodate construction equipment, delivery trucks, garbage trucks and increased car traffic. More parking spaces would be needed, a resident caretaker, water, electricity and sewer installations. Infrastructure requirements for a teahouse--or any major building on the Hill--would cause more destruction than the building itself.

The group also reminded City Council that commercialism is prohibited in the Park by the wording of the Trust. “The Women’s Council regrets the statement of the Parks Committee Chairman that the proposed building would be a good source of revenue... The Park is held in trust for the use and benefit of the people and the idea of making money out of developments [is] at variance with the spirit of the Trust.”

By 1960, a wiser, more mature Warren had changed his mind on a restaurant. He said: “I am strongly of the opinion that the Park should be kept essentially as it now stands with no additions in the form of swimming pools, restaurant or any other such structure...The open areas which are wild...should be preserved in their present condition.”

In 1984, a more detailed tearoom plan than usual was submitted to the City. It including financial estimates based on a 100 table facility, open 12 hours a day. In 1985, Ald. Janet Baird proposed a 100 seat tearoom to replace Checkers Pavilion with a new 1200 square foot building at a cost of $350,000. She suggested City Council apply to the Province for a relaxation of the Trust. In 2002, J. C. Scott, who had wanted to build a restaurant on Beacon Hill for twenty years, tried again.

New buildings will continue to be proposed. Developers will continue to see the Hill as prime real estate, “unused” land ripe for “improvement.” Defenders of a more natural Hill will be needed again and again to advocate the preservation of Garry oaks, wildflowers, birds and open views on Beacon Hill.