Hidden in Plain Sight

Heritage and Art Features on Victoria Streets and Sidewalks

Good Bones and Vibrant Art

Broad Street, Victoria, B.C.

Text by Janis Ringuette
      Photos by Norm Ringuette

Overhead view of Broad Street

Ovehead view of a Broad Street mosaic and pavement patterns.

A view down Broad Street

A view south along Broad Street showing sidewalk brick patterns.

Design insert within the larger mosaic     Gary giving some mosaic details

Gary Bolt points to a coloured glass design (shown in closeup on the left) embedded in a mosaic near Pandora Street.

The most interesting streetscape in the city is found on Broad Street from the Bay Centre to City Hall. Vibrant sidewalk and street art, heritage buildings, and a rich variety of shops and entertainments fill the three blocks.
Gary Bolt explaining the Broad Street Project

Colourful mosaics, brick, tile, rock and glass designs, spirals and swirls stretch down sidewalks and streets from View Street to Pandora. Installed in 2000, the art was created by Gary Bolt, Lisa Samphire and Morna Tudor, co-owners of Starfish Glassworks and members of the Broad Street revitalization project design team.

Public art underfoot references the street’s long history. This mosaic circle near View Street suggests an old airplane parked there before the Central Building was constructed. (An overhead view of the airplane mosaic appears at the top of this page.)

Boulders, watery ribbons and a mosaic circle are reminders of the long-gone
Johnson Street ravine which knifed through early Victoria to the ocean.
Watery street ribbon reflecting former stream    Stepping stone reminders of stream crossing     Water ripples in a stream

A “furrowed fields” brick design and a colourful stylized cabbage, shown below, refers to the
area’s agricultural history, which included a farmer’s market where Centennial Square is now.

Street bricks set in a furrowed field pattern
Brick cabbage

Not all the art designed during the revitalization project made it onto the street. Negative public response torpedoed three-metre tall pylons designed by Vancouver artist Katherine Kerr and axed displays of Michael Kenyon’s poem Broad Street Blues. The money budgeted but not used for art is still available, according to city planner Mickey Lam. “When the time is right,” he said, more could be done.

Broad street has more assets than art underfoot. Lam says the street has “good bones.” The scale is small: all but two buildings on the three blocks are one to three stories high. “Broad Street has a fantastic framework. It has the right proportions.” As more large chain stores move onto Government Street, Lam thinks smaller family businesses will feel comfortable choosing Broad Street. Apartment dwellers living above ground level shops hardly need to leave the street for products, services or entertainments. There are four places to eat, a nightclub, hair salons, and stores selling sports equipment, music, clothing, games, law advice, yoga, tattoos, comics, swimsuits and coffee.

The street is lined with outstanding heritage buildings. The ornate “Exchange Building” near View Street was built in 1889, one of a pair designed by architect Thomas Trounce. A 1910 fire destroyed its twin across the alley, where the Central Building stands now.

Exchange Building next to Trounce Alley     Front view of the Exchange Building

Two 1892 buildings shown below--the picturesque Duck’s Building and the London Block--stand in the middle block along with Robinson’s Outdoor Store, built in 1909 to manufacture ice cream. At the north end of the Broad Street, next to the City Hall, the “A Channel” television station occupies a Francis Rattenbury designed 1907 building which was used previously by a milling company, a church and a furniture store.

The Ducks Building     Ducks Building front    The London Block

Starfish Glassworks, shown below left at the corner of Broad and Yates streets, was an outstanding attraction until it closed in December, 2006. For almost ten years, tourists and residents viewed glassblowing in action from a gallery overlooking the artists' work area. When Starfish Glassworks decided not to renew their lease, The Legacy Gallery and Café, featuring the 3.5 million dollar art collection of the late developer and philanthropist Michael Williams, took its place. Williams bequeathed his art collection and properties to the University of Victoria, including the building at Yates and Broad streets.

Starfish Glassworks and street scene     Attractive street scene

Things are looking up on Broad Street now, but back in 1998, the street was on a “downward spiral,” according to Lam. The street was dark at night, which discouraged walkers but encouraged drug transactions and sex trade work, especially in the “gritty” 1300 and 1400 blocks. According to Gary Bolt, lighting installed during the revitalization project helped dramatically. Giant halogen lights attached to every building beam powerful light onto the street now, augmenting traditional cluster lights and modern light-stands.

The revitalization design team, led by architect Christopher Rowe, hoped to make the street more of a pedestrian space and less a parking lot, a dream of planners since the 1960's. The late Michael Williams, owner of three buildings in the 1300 block, enthusiastically supported change for Broad Street. He envisioned a three block pedestrian mall with floodlights, shops in the middle of the street, sidewalk cafes, performance spaces and covered areas. Open for business until midnight, he said “It could be the soul of Victoria.” Other business owners, particularly in the 1200 block, vehemently opposed change. “We’re happy with the traffic,” the Vitamin Shop’s Bruce Reid told the Business Examiner.

Traffic remains on Broad Street today, but the architect’s clever designs allow for flexibility in the future. Rowe eliminated raised curbs and individual parking meters so the area is open, level and more easily converted to sidewalk cafe use or space for a public event. Bollards in place to keep cars off the sidewalk can be moved to block traffic from a single block or all three blocks for special days and events. Round metal covers with the words “earth, water, air, fire” set in sidewalks, parking spaces and crosswalks are not just decorative. They cover 51 spaces ready to receive those moveable bollards. Despite the good plan, the bollards have never been used to block traffic, Bolt said. Part of the street was closed off twice in the last six years, but the city’s usual street closure signs were erected.

Bollards can be moved to control traffic    Removable covers for bollard insertion

Will Broad Street ready for a few people-friendly days next summer? Lam says there must be a “groundswell of wishes.” If enough voices on one or more of the blocks want to close off traffic for special days or events, if the public and merchants are ready, he says city staff will “help make it happen.” At last, those shiny bollards could be moved to block cars from the street. Perhaps, one day a month, festive pedestrians eating ice cream and popcorn will stroll along enjoying art underfoot without dodging cars.

Cracking the codes on Broad Street

        G  H  O  S T S  N O   P A I N
Coded message on Pandora Street sign

Coded messages on three blocks of Broad Street are some of the best kept secrets in Victoria. Words and phrases in Morse code are hidden in plain sight above street names set in sidewalks from View Street to Pandora. Carved in granite are words like “just a moment,” “streetside,” “bemused,” “an opera,” and “ghosts." (An example is decoded on the left.)

Most people walking and standing on the codes assume the short and long lines are just random designs. Occasionally, however, someone like Les Johnson stops dead in his tracks. A former U.S. Army radio operator, Johnson deciphered code during World War II; 62 years later, he can still do it instantly. “That’s Morse code!” he exclaimed in surprise, “What’s the story on this?”

The coded words were selected from Broad Street Blues, a poem based on the street’s long history written by Michael Kenyon during the 1998-2000 Broad Street Revitalization project. The original plan was to display words and phrases from the poem at different levels along the street. Mickey Lam, city planner for the project, said though the poem presented the “true facts of life,” references to drugs and the sex trade--problems the project was designed to overcome--were “too close for comfort” at the time. Public display of the poem was axed.

A creative, non-controversial way to include words from the poem was devised by architect Christopher Rowe, the poet explained. Isolated key words were encoded and carved in the top edge of twenty-four granite block street signs. Few knew about the code except Rowe, Lam and Kenyon when the signs were installed quietly in 2000, without announcement or explanation.

Morse Code

Using the Morse Code printed on the right, the reader is invited to decipher the words above these four street signs:

Broad Street sidewalk sign    View Street sidewalk sign

Yates Street sidewalk sign    Johnson Street sidewalk sign

Quirky codes add another level of interest and texture to a street already loaded with unusual features. Pedestrians walking those three blocks find a unique public art exhibition underfoot and the coded words carved on granite street name blocks are an extra bonus at every intersection.


Copyright 2007   Janis Ringuette.  Limited excerpts are permitted but please credit the author.