Victoria, British Columbia is known as the city of gardens. Among the most famous and beautiful is the Crystal Garden, a name that brings to mind a fairy tale. A place of beauty and joy that brought life and color to the world through the twentieth century. For the people of Victoria, BC, that was exactly what the world famous Crystal Garden did. The structure, which was opened in 1925, has been a community hub and recreational center for the city ever since. Now a protected historic site, at the height of its glory, the conservatory served thousands of people, serving as a true community centre that brought all levels of society together in the same elegant space. During its construction, the Victoria Daily Times newspaper commented “the palace, which stands on the corner of Douglas and Belleville Street, to-day is a realization of Victoria’s most optimistic dream.”
Built in the early part of the century, the conservatory was designed by Frances Rattenbury and P. Leonard James to reflect not only modern industrial influences but also to incorporate the classical sensibilities of Greek and Roman architecture. The Crystal Garden was modeled after other “glass palaces” of the era, including The Palm House and the Crystal Palace in England and the Palm Court of Victoria’s Empire Hotel. When initial design estimate exceeded the budget, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) stepped up to help cover the costs. This, in turn, led to CPR running the center by special arrangement until 1964.
Under its glass and wood roof, the people of Victoria found a multi-purpose amusement center. Visitors could choose from a variety of activities: they might dine in the restaurant or tea room, swim, take in installations in the art gallery, attend events in the Garden’s two full ballrooms and much more. Special events included beauty contests, business conferences, art shows and military training exercises. Through every season, there was something to draw visitors to the Garden and it was just as popular with the locals as it was with tourists.
When it opened, the Garden was home to the largest salt water swimming pool in the British Empire. Imagine taking a trip to Crystal Garden in 1928. You could don wool swimsuits and swim caps to take a dip. Men and women had the options of additional hot salt water pools as well. Leave the pool behind and cool off again with an ice cream or take a turn through the arboretum to admire the gardens. Stay for tea in the tea room, burn off the calories in the gymnasium and generally enjoy the day in style.
After the lease with CPR expired in 1964, the Garden reverted in ownership to British Columbia where it went to the management of the Provincial Capital Commission. Sadly, the Garden was closed in 1971, a last remnant of a bygone age. For years it lay dormant while plans were debated.
In 1980, the Garden reopened again, this time as a tropical garden and conservation centre. Since then, the Garden has been twice renovated, restoring the historical glass roof and bringing up the building to modern seismic and snowload standards. Much of the building’s original structures have been repurposed over the years, playing host to a number of social events and conferences.
Visiting the Crystal Garden today may not take you back to the days of swimming pools and elegant military balls but those wishing to experience the truly historic and memorable Garden are still be able to enjoy the renovated space as an extension to the Victoria Convention Centre.