A Snapshot in Time: Craigdarroch Castle
I don’t know about you, but when I hear about castles, I immediately think of far off places and fairy tales. Castles are the stuff of fantasy, places that exist only in the pages of a book, or in countries far, far away from the one I live in.
So when I read that Victoria, B.C. boasts not one, but two castles, the only question was which one to visit first. In the end, we settled on Craigdarroch Castle, not-so-humbly dubbed “Canada’s Castle.” Work on the building began in 1887, and was completed just three years later in 1890. The owner and commissioner of the project, Robert Dunsmuir, was a self-made coal baron, and at the time, he was said to the richest man in Western Canada. Robert passed away shortly before the elaborate four story home was completed, leaving the estate to his wife Joan and their children. In the years since Joan’s passing, the castle has served as a military hospital, a college, school board headquarters, and a music conservatory.
Designated a historic house museum in 1992 by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, the castle we visited is the result of over 30 years of restoration and conservation efforts.
Nadya and I walked to Craigdarroch, a mild uphill stroll from the Victoria Harbor. It took us about half an hour to walk the 1.7 mile route through the heart of downtown and up historic Fort Street, passing gorgeous Victorian-style homes and businesses as we got closer to our destination. Our thighs burned as we climbed the last hilly stretch to get our first glimpse of the castle, but we could already tell it was worth it.
Surrounded by modern day homes on all sides, the castle towered over the neighborhood, a living testament to the Victorian era. Its brick and sandstone construction, with its foreboding towers, narrow, stained-glass windows, iron detailing and sharply peaked roofs, lent the place an air of mystery. It reminded me at first of Thornfield Hall, the gloomy home and prison of Jane Eyre‘s brooding Mr. Rochester. As I looked up at the darkened windows, I saw a pale face vanish from sight, and in my Jane Eyre fantasy world, immediately thought it must be ghost. The face re-emerged, accompanied this time by a head and shoulders and a bored-looking husband, and I remembered that this castle was not famous for being haunted or scary.
It was known for its opulence. We climbed the stone steps to the front entrance, the same ones used by Joan Dusnmuir at the turn of the century, and gave the rounded front door a tug. A kind older lady welcomed us in, gave us guides and a brief introduction to the castle, and asked that we kindly clean our shoes before entering the home. Side note: are shoe cleaning machines a Victorian thing? A European thing? All I know is, I want one.
Any notions of the castle being spooky were immediately silenced as we giggled at the shoe cleaner and moved into the warm front room. The walls here were paneled in rich, gleaming wood, lit by the soft glow of modern-day electric chandeliers. I remarked that it felt like the interior of the Beast’s castle (you know, after he becomes a big old softie and we start seeing the warmer side of the castle).
The entry room featured a gleaming staircase to the upper floors, as well as entrances to some of the first floor rooms. A volunteer guide welcomed us to the home and laid out the basics. The four level home was organized by conservationists into two distinct sections to simplify the touring process. The first part of the tour took us through the rooms in the front half of the home, culminating on the fourth floor, where we could make our way through the rear portion of the home and back down to the ground floor. Details about the purpose of each room could be found in our guide pamphlets, on informational plaques in each room, and by asking volunteer guides scattered throughout the house.
First on our self-guided tour was the Dunsmuir’s private library, just off the main entry room. The wood-paneling theme continued here in the form of built-in shelving and an elaborate carved fireplace. Like the fireplace in the entry hall, this one had a quote carved into it: “Reading maketh a full man.” Nadya and I, big readers ourselves, loved this quote from Sir Francis Bacon, though historians believe the books and quote were more for show than because the Dunsmuirs actually loved to read. In the early 1900s, it was believed that home interiors could “exert moral influences on the inhabitants,” hence the emphasis on beautiful items and full bookshelves.
This theme continued throughout the home; beautiful rooms and stories of Dunsmuir exploits. Some of the informational plaques shared stories of rebellious daughters and family disputes over property and assets; others offered a glimpse into life during Craigdarroch’s military and college years.
For those extra-curious minds, there is even a dedicated room full of photos, relics, building plans, detailed family histories, and more. We spent plenty of time here reading up on Craigdarroch’s lengthy history, and discovered all kinds of details that added to our walking tour of the castle.
For example, the beautifully-detailed ceiling in the Dunsmuir family sitting room, seen in the photos below, is part of an ongoing restoration effort by The Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society. The ceiling was coated in “institutional” paint in 1935, when the castle was known as Victoria College, and it took one conservator twelve summers to carefully remove all the layers of house paint that have piled up in the decades since. Insane.
Restoration efforts are directed into making the castle look just like it did when the Dunsmuirs lived there, based off of limited plans, drawings and descriptions. Many of the furnishings, knick knacks and even windows are original to the home, while others are perfect replicas of items that once occupied the rooms.
And speaking of the rooms, there are 29 of them listed on the castle guide! Bedrooms, drawing rooms, dance halls, kitchens, antique bathrooms, servant’s rooms…all accessible on the self-guided tour. As impressive as each room was, the thing I loved most was the detail that went into even the less significant parts of the home. The wood-paneled staircase, for example, which spans four stories and uses the majority of the 2,128 oak panels used throughout the home. On each landing there was a modest sitting area comprised of chairs, flowers and even stained glass windows, making even the mundane task of climbing the stairs something to be relished.
While the castle is restored to suit the Dunsmuir era, traces of the building’s subsequent uses are frequently mentioned throughout the home. From 1919-1921, Craigdarroch Military Hospital housed returning WWI soldiers who were either considered incurable or in need of long-term treatment. The billiard room upstairs, which housed one of the largest patient wards, became a student assembly hall when the previously-established Victoria College relocated its campus to Craigdarroch in 1921. The Victoria College years (1921-1946) are the ones that fascinated me most. 160 students studied at Craigdarroch in its first year as a school, and while I found it hard to imagine so many people studying under one roof, the traces of student life were all over the castle. One room still bore carvings in the windowsill, vintage graffiti that has remained in place for decades. Another, the Dunsmuir’s dance hall turned student library, had buckled under the weight of shelves, books, tables, and more, and was roped off when we visited, a preventative measure until further structural support could be added.
While the focus of the tour and of this post are on the Dunsmuir, military hospital and college years, Craigdarroch served several other purposes over the years. If you are interested in reading more on the castle’s history, definitely check out Craigdarroch’s official website.
Here are a few more photos from gorgeous Craigdarroch Castle:
All in, we spent at least two hours wandering the four floors, poking around the lavishly-appointed rooms and reading up on how each room functioned over the years. While the rooms were gorgeous, it was the history that really had me hooked. The historic museum society overseeing restoration and tours really did a fine job blending stories from over 100 years of history, and making it enjoyable, illuminating and very cohesive. It told a story of the castle itself, through the restoration and everyday stories of its occupants over the years. Even better were the occasional glimpses out of the windows, modern day homes mingled with the same mountain views that existed in the early 1900s. It made me feel like we too were a part of the Craigdarroch story.
Thank you Craigdarroch for letting us be a part of history!
For more information (pricing, visiting hours, directions, and a very thorough overview of the castle’s history), visit the official Craigdarroch Castle website.