In 1887, British Columbia’s richest man began construction on an opulent mansion overlooking the City of Victoria. This “bonanza castle”–– one of the gigantic mansions built for wealthy entrepreneurs during the Industrial Age –– seemed to cry out to all nearby the importance of the Dunsmuir family who owned it. Inside the home, the intricate details similarly signalled the Dunsmuirs’ incredible wealth. Aptly named Craigdarroch Castle, the mansion sported sumptuous stained glass windows, intricate woodwork, and luxurious Victorian furnishings.
Although the house only took three years to build, Robert Dunsmuir, the coal baron for whom it was constructed, would not get to enjoy its luxuries––he died in 1889, shortly before Craigdarroch was completed in 1890. It was up to his wife, Joan, and their children to enjoy the castle on the hill. Joan lived there until her death.
Craigdarroch Castle is an example of Medieval Revival, an architectural movement that had started in the mid 18th century and had gained force during the 19th century. The Dunsmuir home exemplifies a particular type of Medieval Revival, “Richardson Romanesque,” one that combines various aspects of medieval architecture, including the sometimes bizarre fusion of sacred and secular elements such as turrets (found in castles) and stained glass windows (found in churches).
After Joan Dunsmuir’s death in 1908, Craigdarroch Castle went through many incarnations before becoming the museum that it is today. Initially, it was sold to Solomon Cameron and Peter Clarke, and Cameron’s brother lived in the home until his death in 1917. Later, Cameron lost the house due to unpaid debts.
In 1919, with the end of WWI, the house was extensively renovated and converted into a military hospital. The original ceiling frescoes were painted over with white (later to be meticulously restored, where possible).
The military hospital was short-lived, and in 1920, the castle housed Victoria College, an affiliate of Montreal’s McGill University. Now more renovations had to be made to accommodate students instead of injured war veterans. Classes continued to operate here until 1946, when returning soldiers from WWII raised enrolment to 600, a number that was intolerably high for the building. The college was therefore relocated.
At this point the Victoria School Board then moved in, and the castle’s once elaborate rooms became roomy office spaces.
By 1959 the Heritage Society was created in an effort to preserve the castle as a site of cultural heritage. Under James Nesbitt, this society finally gained access to the castle in 1969, but to do so they had to share the space with a tenant. This tenant turned out to be the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and the students poured in with 30 pianos in tow.
In 1979, the conservatory experienced the sort of growing pains that the college had felt decades earlier, and they vacated the castle. It wasn’t until 1994, however, that the City of Victoria finally handed over the entirety of the castle to the Heritage Society.
The Heritage Society has made every effort to restore the home to its original glory, purchasing period furniture, and even tracking down items previously owned by the family. Since only one interior photograph from the time has survived, this has been challenging. Photos of the castle’s exterior have helped landscapers to restore the grounds. Craigdarroch’s restoration projects are funded by revenue generated by admission to the house and sales from the gift shop, as well as donations from individual supporters.