Why I care about Ross Bay Villa
– by Bill Turner
I first learned of Ross Bay Villa in early 1999 when members of Victoria’s heritage community raised the alarm. This amazing house – one of only 10 surviving 1860s houses in the region – had been the subject of a failed attempt to open a neighbourhood pub. It had now fallen into disrepair and the owners had applied for a demolition permit from the city of Victoria. The Villa stood in the middle of two residential lots and the owners now wanted it removed so they could build townhouses on those lots. Several meetings followed where the options for saving the villa were discussed and, in the end, it was agreed that TLC would attempt to purchase the house on behalf of the community. I contacted the owners and was able to negotiate a purchase for what was the value of the two lots on which it sits ($320,000 – the land value).
Thus began Ross Bay Villa’s new life, but not quickly. We inherited some “interesting” tenants (somewhere between 3 and 6 of them, we were never quite sure). The living conditions at the site were appalling: the toilet flushed freely into the crawlspace (without connection to the sewer); there were several derelict cars and a large wooden boat strewn about the site, living room furniture on the front lawn and a motorcycle in the living room, a house full of garbage (4 truck-loads) and an estimated 29 cats (as well as some dead ones). It took us about 8 months to help the tenants find a new home. We had to help them move and we had to dispose of the surplus boat, cars and garbage and find homes for the cats.
Finally we had possession of the Villa. This is when an amazing group of volunteers came together – a group who are now affectionately known as the “Ross Bay Villans”. The Villans did everything. They crawled under the floor, they replaced footings, they removed dead cats and rodents. They drove thousands of nails. They brought passion and energy to this tired old house.
Thus began the restoration of Ross Bay Villa. It has been a slow, steady, 14 years of progress, moving ahead in the most professional and diligent manner and based entirely on volunteer efforts. During those 14 years, virtually every Saturday of the year (and many other days as well), these exceptional volunteers have given their time, energy and expertise to researching and lovingly restoring the Villa. Heritage experts insist that it is the best researched 1860-era cottage in British Columbia and likely the best researched and restored historic site in BC.
But also during this time, the volunteers – most of whom did not know each other previously – have evolved into a wonderful community. I estimate that well over 200 volunteers have been involved in the Villa over the years, with the active group usually around 20. In addition to heritage conservation professionals and curatorial experts, these volunteers have included at risk youth, people doing ‘community service’, youth teams and service clubs. They have included police officers, computer programmers, specialist trades people, architects, engineers, homemakers and university students. Many have moved on, but most come back to visit, and most stay in touch. They all share a love for the site and a passion for the work they’ve been doing. And they can all truly share the accolades for the amazing restoration they have brought to this historical gem.
One of the consistent challenges for me over these 14 years has been to counter the naysayers – those people who (at least symbolically) drive by the Villa but never stop in. Those people who know little or nothing about what is actually going on at the Villa, but who, nevertheless, regularly express there “fears” that in some way it is “taking too long”, that it is “costing too much” or that it is “not worth it.” The reality, of course, is quite the opposite. The restoration of the Villa has moved ahead at the pace that comes from a weekly work party of volunteers. It moves at the pace of diligent, painstaking and detailed research, planning and evaluation. It is this level of care, passion and dedication which makes it so special. It is the community that has come together around this project that is special. In addition to protecting and restoring one of Victoria’s true historic gems, it has provided 14 wonderful years of community contribution and community building.
And has it cost too much? Not at all! Most of the labour and most of the expertise has been donated. Much of the cash required has come in the form of grants for heritage restoration, or from donations specifically directed for the Villa. More recently, it has been supplemented by renting some of the space out as offices for two compatible charities. This project continues to demonstrate that, with enough diligence, enough patience, and enough community support, resources for worthy public heritage projects can be found. Those resources don’t always come easily or quickly, but they do come. And this project also continues to demonstrate that the value a community receives from those resources vastly exceeds the expenditure.
In my view, the success of projects like this stems from a strong partnership of an effective, visionary coordinating body, such as a National Trust organization (or, in this case TLC – or, actually, what TLC used to be), an engaged and caring community, and a core of passionate, dedicated volunteers. Put those things together, and you can achieve wonders.
Ross Bay Villa’s community and its volunteer core are second to none. The Villans not only give up their Saturdays, but also organize “work weeks”, fundraising events, an annual Lawn Party for the public, and meet once a month to help keep the project on track. Volunteers also provide many tours for this remarkable building (every Saturday afternoon and at other times by appointment). The Villa and the volunteers have been the subject of many visits, conference delegations, university field trips and classroom projects. I have spoken about their great work at conferences around the world as an example of a how a community can come together and grow stronger through the focus of an inspiring project.
The community of Villans is what makes Ross Bay Villa so special to me. It is their dedication to the building, their research about its history, their creation of a family of volunteers and their love of the special place they have renewed. They want to share it with others.
Ross Bay Villa is a very special place, but I worry about what will happen to it, now that TLC no longer wants to have anything to do with heritage sites. I worry about what will happen to the Villans and the remarkable community spirit that has evolved around the site. With TLC abandoning its commitment, the risk is huge; but knowing the Villans as I do, and knowing what the Villa means to the people of this community, I remain hopeful that we will be able to find a solution.