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Oak Bay is one of Victoria's most popular and affluent areas, featuring many historical landmark homes, like the Robert W. Gibson's high, impressive home at 1590 York Place. In Georgian revival style, it was started immediately after the end of the First World War to designs started by Francis Rattenbury and finished by Samuel Maclure. Gibson, who founded the Beaver Lumber Company in Winnipeg, built it as his retirement home. After his death in 1946, it was converted into a duplex to provide separate accommodation for his widow, and for their son-in-law and daughter, lawyer J. Howard
Harman and his wife, Doris, who live there now. Several features in the interior designing, including elegant ornamented ceilings and gumwood panelling, reflect Maclure's - and Gibson's - tastes. Now retired, Harman himself has his connections in the English settlement of Oak Bay in the late 19th Century. Some of the oldest houses are naturally on the waterfront, he points out, as Oak Bay was a country resort rather than a residential area. He recalls that in the late 1880s his father, Arthur Harman, bought 1260 Beach Drive (now an apartment house) for his bride-to-be who was on her way from London to "the wilds of Oak Bay".
The Beveridges, who occupied 1256 Beach Drive in the 1880s and 1890s, were very kind to the young bride, and did much to make her feel at home. Further along, at 1512 Beach Drive, is a house, built for Arthur E. Haynes, which is reminiscent of verandahed homes built by the British in India. Set close to the roadway, behind a high hedge, it is unpretentious, pleasing in proportions, much bigger inside than it appears to be from outside, and looks remarkably modern despite its being one of the early permanent homes. The present owner, Walter Stenner, has the original drawings for this "proposed cottage" for Haynes, dated 1898, by Victoria and New Westminster architect J. Gerhart Frank, which were largely followed in the construction. Plans for alterations and additions, proposed in 1925 by Samuel Maclure but never carried out, also survive. Stenner has greatly improved the interior while retaining features such as the 11-foot-high ceilings, so that the house is probably more attractive now than at any time in the past.
This home, plus Tod House which basically long predates all other Oak Bay homes, and the Parsons house at 915 Island Road, are Oak Bay's only homes with heritage designation under the Municipal Act. All the homes mentioned here are but a sampling of landmark homes of Oak Bay. The subject could take up – in fact deserves - a book of its own. Out of another century For what is probably the oldest continuously-occupied dwelling in western Canada, the white cottage called Tod House at first glance looks remarkably in keeping with all the other, much more modern homes on Oak Bay's quiet Heron Street. Only after you open the shaky picket gate and walk past an ancient cherry tree onto the wood-slat, fan-design spandrelled porch and in the front door does the age of Tod House become apparent.
"Watch your head," caretaker Urs Ruegsegger cautions as he leads the visitor through doorways strangely low and wide. The floors are uneven, tilting; the glass in several small window panes is hand-blown, imperfect. The front living room, with its round-stone fireplace, is old enough. But the original part of Tod House is centred further back, in the kitchen, which has a low, slightly concave ceiling and again, a stone fireplace, this one with a small hearth that once served for cooking and heating. It is something out of another century. Deeper still into this extraordinary house, down a nar row staircase and into the crude basement, and the early period of construction is even more obvious.
Under successive ownerships it underwent renovations and additions several times until, finally, it was bought by the provincial government and Oak Bay municipality in 1975 for $65,000. Free of turmoil, the old house settled into companionship with the past. Yet today its charm readily evokes a picture of what it was like when built in 1851 for the Scottish-born John Tod, rough and ready Hudson's Bay Company fur trader who had just retired as chief trader at Fort Kamloops. After long, painfully hard service for his company, Tod became lord and master of this farmhouse and 400 surrounding acres of fields and oak trees.
In Tod House's earliest days, he would have ridden horseback, or driven a cart, from his country home along the cowtrail to Fort Victoria by way of present-day Cadboro Bay Road and Fort Street. Home and fort were five miles apart, but the distance would have meant nothing to a man who had travelled a continent by canoe. To the north of his farm was the Hudson's Bay farm called Uplands, and to the south, three other big private land holdings. In 1864, Tod's second daughter, Mary, was married at "Oak Bay house" to John Sylvester Bowker, and at about this time Tod is believed to have made over a portion of the farm to his daughter. But for years, Tod House stood alone in view of the sea. Today it is one house in a residential street. The neighborhood of Oak Bay Marina on Beach Drive, now ringed with apartment buildings, has long been a place where people come to stay, visit their friends, moor their boats - a hub of hospitality.
More than one hotel has looked across the water from here to Mount Baker. The most notable was the aptly-named Mount Baker Hotel, a palatial, multi-storey wooden edifice opened in 1893. The old Oak Bay Boathouse, demolished to make way for the present marina, actually belonged to the hotel. On the boathouse-marina site was a landmark now remembered in name only, Turkey Head, a point jutting toward Mary Tod Island and which had on its tip a hummock of rock that, in Ainslie Helmcken's words, "looked for all the world like a turkey's head." The Mount Baker was one of the best hotels in the Pacific Northwest, but too far ahead of its time. Oak Bay only began to come into its own as a residential area in the 1890s, and in that pre-auto decade the hotel wasn't close enough to downtown Victoria to attract much business in all seasons. Nonetheless, in its