Hidden in Plain Sight

Heritage and Art Features on Victoria Streets and Sidewalks

Walking Over History: Victoria's Historic Sidewalk Prisms

Text by Janis Ringuette     Photos by Norm Ringuette

Underneath prism view
Photo taken from below the Broad Street sidewalk.

North view under Broad St. sidewalk

From his basement office in the Yarrow Building on Broad Street, Chuck Honsberger has an exclusive view. Surrounded by paint cans, rope, scrub buckets, pieces of metal, tools and stacks of plywood, Honsberger--who keeps boilers running in several downtown buildings--can look up at more than 4,000 three-inch square purple glass prisms stretching north toward the Bay Centre along the sidewalk. When the afternoon sun streams through the old glass, as shown below, the dark under-sidewalk tunnel is transformed. Shades of purple and pink light illuminate sturdy wooden beams and posts supporting the sidewalk. “They look beautiful when the sun hits them,” Honsberger said, as dim shadows passed overhead, shoe heels clicking on the translucent glass.

Three sidewalks around the Yarrow Building--Broad, Broughton and Fort--contain a whopping 73% of the city’s surviving 11,155 intact prisms. Honsberger, a local history enthusiast, says the prisms were installed when the Pemberton brothers constructed the building in 1909. The photo below left shows Broad Street sidewalk prisms on the north side of the Yarrow Building while the photo below right shows prisms on the Fort Street side of the corner building.

Broad Street;                 Fort Street

A few Victorians appreciate those prisms every day from street level. Gail Lastiwka, who works in Broad Street’s Moore Gallery, considers the heritage glass panels outside her doorway an asset: “They are aesthetically pleasing and in keeping with the gallery.” Most pedestrians don’t seem to notice they are treading on anything special. That doesn’t surprise Rick Goodacre, Executive Director of the Heritage Society of B.C. He points out the prisms, like many unique historic features, are “hidden right in front of our eyes.” The photo below shows pedestrians walking over prisms embedded in the Broughton Street sidewalk on the south side of the Yarrow Building.

Broughton Street

Montrose Building

Purple glass blocks can be seen--and walked on--in six other Victoria locations, including the Sayward Building (1207 Douglas Street), the Ritz Hotel (706 and 714 Fort Street), the Hamley Building (602 Broughton Street) and at the entrance to Willie’s Bakery and Cafe (537 Johnson Street). Customers can drink coffee sitting on prisms at Italian Food Imports in front of the Montrose Apartments (1114 and 1116 Blanchard Street), shown on the left. Coffee drinkers can also sit atop the prism sections in front of Ambientes Espresso Bar (714 Fort Street). There is only one prisms location outside of the downtown core, at the Park Mansions Building (903 North Park Street), by the window of the North Park Bicycle Shop on the Quadra Street corner.

In the early days of Victoria, most downtown basements extended to the street curb. Spaces under sidewalks provided extra storage for merchants and access from outside the building to deliver coal and freight. To redirect sunlight from above into dark basement areaways, glass tiles with horizontal prisms on the underside were installed in reinforced concrete panels. The cut-away drawing below shows a delivery and how prisms provided needed light below. (Illustration courtesy of Ian Macky) The glass was clear when first installed. It slowly turned a striking purple colour as the manganese, used in the manufacture of glass from 1900 to 1914, oxidized in sunlight. The purple colour of Victoria’s prisms indicates they were manufactured before 1915.

Early sidewalk access

Hector Furtado, Manager, Streets Division, shows off an old prism at his Garbally Works yard office in the photos below. A supply of new replacement prisms is desperately needed and Furtado is searching for a specialty glass supplier. Salvaging glass blocks from old panels is difficult without breaking them, he said. “If I could get new ones, it would be my first choice.” A program to replace about 500 damaged or missing prisms with new glass blocks would require special funding, Furtado explained.

Hector Furtado shows a prism    Closeup of a glass prism

As recently as the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of glass blocks stretched down Government, Yates, Johnson and other downtown sidewalks. As streets and sidewalks were torn up and rebuilt, most were removed. Not all prism panels were lost. During sidewalk improvement projects on Douglas Street, Fort Street and Johnson Street, the city carefully removed prism panels, filled areaways underneath and then re-installed them. Sidewalk prisms were added to the City of Victoria Downtown Heritage Registry in 1990, according to Heritage Planner Steve Barber. “We try to preserve the sidewalk prisms as a decorative feature.”

Ten concrete prism panels salvaged from city sidewalks are stored in the Garbally Public Works yard. Furtado knows it is valuable heritage material and he has saved that old pile from the garbage heap each time the yard was cleaned. The panels, shown in the first two photos below, could be reset into sidewalks in the future. Though thick dirt has accumulated on top of the panels over the years, light still shines through beautifully when viewed from underneath, as shown in the third photo. The last photo shows the special metal frames which hold prisms in place in the concrete panels.

Garbally Yard prism panel storage              Hector pointing out the prism panel quality

View from underneath the prism frame             Top view of the frame holding prisms

Pedestrian traffic, damage from vehicles and deliveries and environmental exposure continue to take a toll on Victoria's sidewalk prisms. Trucks unload heavy material on top of prism grids at Fort and Broad streets. At the same corner, a parking meter and a street sign were installed in prism grids, replacing four glass blocks. Two heavy grey postal boxes are parked on top of prisms in another nearby grid. Hard working and well meaning city staff do their best, but are not trained in preservation methods and techniques. Through the years, city workers have filled cracks and spaces with materials at hand: concrete, asphalt, grout and square metal grates, as shown below.

Poor repair materials         Strange repair work

Among the outstanding displays at the May 24, 2006 Garbally Works Yard annual Open House for school students was a prisms panel. It was skillfully set up to be viewed from both sides by visiting groups while a city worker explained the history and function of the prisms. The photo below left shows a top view of the panel while the right photo reveals a much more colourful view from underneath as the light streams through the prisms. The prism panel on display was one of the ten panels salvaged from city streets still stored in the yard. The prism display at the Garbally Open House helped raise public awareness about the historic feature.

Front prism panel in Garbally Works Yard display    Colourful back side of a prism panel

Glowing purple sidewalks would do even more to raise awareness. A proposal to light downtown prisms from below at night, presented to City Council in March, 2006, would definitely get people's attention and highlight an important heritage feature. Installing lights under the Broughton and Broad Street sidewalks, where areaways are still open and accessible, would illuminate over 5500 prisms every night in the downtown core.

The proposal had the support of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, the Heritage Advisory Committee and Councillors Pam Madoff, Charlayne Thornton-Joe and Dean Fortin. The idea received favourable media attention in a Victoria Times Colonist feature article March 12, 2006 and a news article April 5, 2006. The prisms illumination plan was featured in the Black Press’ publication Best of the City 2006 and in the Spring, 2006 edition of Heritage B.C. Newsletter. Nevertheless, a staff report to council on the installation had not yet been presented as of November, 2007. In the meantime, similar illumination projects have been completed elsewhere, including Sydney, Australia, where fibre optic illumination was installed to light up that city's sidewalk prisms from below.

A few lucky Victoria people have already seen glowing sidewalks. Carrying boxes outside Details, the Broughton Street shop where she works, Elly Gilchrist was amazed one night to see light streaming up from the basement through purple glass squares from lights left on accidentally in Chuck Honsberger's workroom. “When the light shines through like that it is just magical,” she exclaimed. Glowing purple sidewalks could highlight a significant Victoria architectural and heritage feature, add a unique new downtown attraction, and--just perhaps--create a magical experience at the same time. Hard to beat that.


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