Old Customs House
Courtesy of BC Archives C-03860
he Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) has recognized the Old Victoria Customs House as a rare, surviving example of a 19th Century Second Empire Federal Building, that is closely associated with Victoria when the City was the pre-eminent commercial centre on Canada’s Pacific Coast.
The Customs House was one of two buildings erected in Victoria by the Dominion Government following British Columbia’s entry into Confederation in 1871. It was to be “plain in character”, with a stone basement and upper floors of brick. The basement was allocated for use as an examining warehouse, with customs offices on the main floor. The upper floor provided facilities for the Department of Inland Revenue and Marine and Fisheries.
The Second Empire style of architecture was used by the Dominion Government to establish a federal image and provide necessary services in different communities, designed to impress on the observer the stability and permanence of the new nation. These buildings were to be symbols of the Dominion Government within the local community.
Standard features of the Second Empire style included stone as construction material; mansard roof with slate tiles arranged in decorative patterns on the slopes; pavilion massing with mansarded towers above; classicizing sculptural decoration including quoins, carved keystones, string courses, pilasters and attached columns; and picturesque roof effects like iron cresting, flag poles, clocks and oval dormer windows.
Construction began in the spring of 1874, with the stone foundations and brick works done by local mason and brickyard operator Maurice Humber. The firm of Smith and Clark were secured as the general contractors. It was completed and ready for occupation by mid-August of the same year.
The Second Empire architectural style institutional buildings, like the Customs House, was readily accepted in Victoria and emulated in such structures as the Victoria City Hall and the Government Street Post Office.
During the 1880s, the primary trade through the Port of Victoria consisted of local goods – timber, salmon and ore. Import and export commerce was tied specifically to the major cities on the West Coast such as Seattle, Tacoma and San Francisco.
The Fraser and Klondike Goldrushes
The announcement of gold in the Klondike in 1897 brought thousands of prospectors heading north. The Canadian government announced its intention to enforce customs regulations on foreign goods entering the territory. This created a greater interest in buying goods from a Canadian city. Victoria’s marine traffic soared with the influx of miners, coming to purchase supplies on their way north.
The Victoria Customs House became a focal point during the early years of the Klondike trade as people came to obtain certificates enabling them to pass through Yukon customs points without further delay. At the end of 1898 reported revenues had increased 25% over the previous year – the highest on record for the port.
In January of 1899 the customs’ offices moved to a new structure and the building converted into offices for the local harbour master, and other Federal departments.
In the mid-1940s, the building was pressed into service as a naval mess and re-named the Marine Building. In 1952,extensive renovations took place to house the headquarters of HMCS Malahat Naval Reserve and the structure became known as the Malahat Building.
Within the last twenty years, the building has been renovated and revived as office space for several firms.
The Old Victoria Customs House is the oldest federal building of its kind still standing in Western Canada. It is the major architectural landmark bearing a direct association with Victoria’s former stature as an important Canadian seaport. Its role during the Klondike gold rush marked both its final period of service as the city’s customs house and principal port before being usurped by Vancouver.