In the meagre and undistinguished annals of British Columbia architectu-
ral history, there are only two practitioners who have grabbed the eye and designed buildings that have lived lives beyond the business that is transacted inside them. One is Arthur Erickson, whose designs for Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia’s museum of anthropology and the nearly completed, low-slung provincial court building stand out from Vancouver’s otherwise dreary, chock-ablock cityscape. The other was an oddball, driven designer, half mad, half genius named Francis Mawson Rattenbury. At the turn of the century he blessed the Inner Harbor area of Victoria with the gingerbread provincial parliament buildings as well as the fussy, elegant Empress Hotel. Vancouver has his stately pillared courthouses that today are the predecessors to Erickson’s design.
The macabre life of Rattenbury is detailed in a well-researched new biography, Rattenbury, by Victoria writer Terry Reksten. It is a story almost gothic in the sharp contrast between the promise and accomplishment of this alternately charming, waspish, often unprincipled man, the depth of his tragic fall and, ultimately, his murder in 1935 in a seamy British ménage à trois.
The grandson of a charismatic Methodist preacher, Rattenbury was born in
England in 1867. As a young man he apprenticed with a family architectural firm assisting on several drawings, one of which he would later claim untruthfully as his own. In 1892 his ambitions carried him to the new frontier of Vancouver, where the 25-year-old Rattenbury, with only a few small structures to his credit, won a contest to design the province’s new parliament buildings in Victoria. Construction did not go smoothly. He was investigated for accounting irregularities and design faults that included, among other things, the omission of a bathroom from the lieutenant-governor’s lavish suite of rooms. But when in 1898 they opened, it was to huge public acclaim.
A frantic hustler in his early days, Rattenbury nonetheless had an Albert Speer-like gift for the monumental and his designs (most based on a variation on the theme of a French château) fed and flattered the emerging province’s need for legitimacy. After an abortive Klondike adventure (in which he lost his starched shirt attempting to move prospectors by paddle-wheeler) and despite feuds with fellow architects and investigations, he continued to build the province’s most important buildings: Cary Castle (the lieutenant-governor’s residence), the Empress Hotel, the Vancouver courthouses among others. But the greatest scheme to seduce him was the plan of Charles Hays, president of
Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, to create a new transcontinental railway and to punch a northern spur through the Rockies from the Alberta border to Prince Rupert, turning that muddy, stump-filled village into a great metropolis, one that Rattenbury would design. By 1911, then, Rattenbury was at the height of his power, author of the noblest buildings in B.C., owner of 50,000 acres along the proposed course
of the GTP railway, president of the B.C. Architectural Association, designer of three grand hotels to be built along the length of the GTP line.
When disaster struck it arrived, suitably for Rattenbury, melodramatically. In 1912, Hays went down with the Titanic and with him the creative and promotional juices needed to make his railway survive. In 1914, as the line was finally completed, the outbreak of war scuttled hopes for tourists and settlers. Rattenbury’s land became worthless, his hotel designs retired to a trunk. By 1919 the GTP was bankrupt and taken over by CNR, Prince Rupert languished as a fishing village and Rattenbury, 52, was broken and despondent. It was here that his life took yet another soap-opera turn.
His marriage a shambles (he and wife Florrie had for years spoken to each other only through their two children),
Rattenbury took up with a young flapper named Alma Pakenham. When Florrie would not divorce him, Rattenbury left their house taking the furniture with him and cut off all light and heat, returning occasionally to dally with Alma in the parlor while Florrie suffered upstairs. Eventually divorced—and a social and professional pariah in Victoria—he married Alma and moved to England where his life became so dissipated by alcohol that Alma took their dull-witted chauffeur as a lover. Jealous at what he saw as Alma’s continuing affections for her husband, the chauffeur dispatched the unhappy Rattenbury with three mallet blows to the head. In a lurid aftermath, lovingly chronicled by a panting British press, Alma responded to her lover’s death sentence by stabbing herself to death on the banks of the Avon River. Some 3,000 voyeurs attended her funer-
al; only a handful had showed up at Rattenbury’s.
It was a suitably bizarre denouement to Rattenbury’s baroque life. Coincidentally, Rattenbury’s last days are about to be exhumed for the North American premiere of British playwright Terrence Rattigan’s 1977 play, Cause Célébré, based on the trial. Directed by Peter Coe, it will run at Edmonton’s Citadel Main Stage from Jan. 17 to Feb. 11 with Glynis Johns playing the sad Alma. Happily, what has also been preserved is the architect’s true legacy, the buildings. Even now Rattenbury’s visionary plan for a unified, spruced-up Inner Harbor in Victoria, dominated by his Empress and parliament buildings, is being acted upon. It is a thought that in the tortured, hungry brain of British Columbia’s first major architect would have supplied some momentary comfort. Thomas Hopkins
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.