The roaring '20s gave birth to this classic structure, long a Victoria landmark, on the block behind the Empress Hotel. It was one of Francis Rattenbury’s last works, in conjunction with architect Percy James. Initially conceived of as a public amusement center by Victoria city fathers, the Crystal Garden was not the first joint effort between Rattenbury and James. Reminiscent of ancient Grecian and Roman temples, the architects designed Crystal Garden in the tradition of the great glass halls of Europe, with modernistic touches. A steel and glass roof provides continuous skylight throughout the building. Exterior walls are composed of red brick and white molding. White Ionic columns frame the entrance.
At its completion in 1925, Rattenbury and James were no longer on speaking terms. Though Rattenbury conceived the design, it fell to James to work out countless details and negotiate with Canadian Pacific Railroad, who funded the project. James did not receive the recognition he was due, much less the pay, and never worked with Rattenbury again.
Victoria society, however, couldn’t have been more delighted with their newest playground. The centerpiece and main attraction of Crystal Garden was a huge, tepid saltwater pool. There were changing rooms, lockers and showers for the swimmers, and bleachers for observers. Tea could be enjoyed on the mezzanine level. Separate men’s and women’s hot Turkish baths were on the north end, gymnasium, dance floor (complete with alcoves for orchestra), and banquet hall on the south end. A beauty shop and soda fountain rounded out the Garden’s offerings.
For more than 40 years, Victoria citizens enjoyed swimming lessons, play, and dancing in their pleasure palace, but by 1971, humidity and time had taken their toll, and a new municipal pool was built on the outskirts of the city.
In 1980, under the management of the Provincial Capital Commission, Crystal Garden, reconstructed and revitalized, was reborn as a "tropical paradise under glass." At the re-named Crystal Garden Conservation Centre, endangered species of birds, mammals and reptiles resided among luxuriantly growing exotic plants in this oversized greenhouse. While in Victoria in 1999, my daughter and I visited the conservatory, particularly to experience the butterfly room, housing 60 varieties of colorful butterflies. In the open, airy environment, both plants and animals seemed to be thriving.
Little did we know that, much to many Victoria residents' sadness and disapproval, only five years later, this second incarnation of Crystal Garden was to end. During our stay in Victoria in summer 2005, we learned that the bathhouse/zoo/botanical gardens were being replaced with a multi-media attraction, the BC Experience. Promoters describe it as an innovative, interactive, multi-sensory geographic tourism attraction that will incorporate high definition theatre, relief maps, object theatre, performers and children’s learn and play areas. This newest incarnation of Crystal Garden is due to open early summer 2006.