Monday, March 4, 2013

Town And Country

Oblana, built in 1916 near Blackwood Station, on the Saanich Interurban line.

When Hubert Savage chose to build a country bungalow five kilometres from town in 1913, his was likely the first house on Blackwood Road and one of just a handful in that part of Saanich. The question is, why did he choose to locate his digs way out in the back of beyond rather than on some quiet, settled street near downtown? And, however did he get back and forth in those days, given the locale's remoteness and the need to commute to his work as an architect? Speculation about links between emerging forms of personal mobility and the early dispersal of rural suburbia is the basis of this post.

In his classic book Bourgeois Utopias, Robert Fishman recounts how modern suburbia evolved as a novel way of inhabiting unspoiled countryside, enabling people of means to flee the city without sacrificing their urban comforts. The impetus behind suburbia lay in the opportunity open country offers to breathe cleaner air, enjoy space for gardens and outdoor pursuits, and raise family at a secure distance from the clamorous city. Additionally, rural land was dirt cheap to acquire because, up to that point, it was either bush or farming.

Town in the country, house in a garden setting - the original idea behind suburban bungalows

Fishman says a wish to flee urban conditions drives the suburban aspiration, combined with the allure of a safe haven nestled in nature. But for urbanites, choosing relocation to the country means a radical severing of work and home, a step that was initially only feasible for those wealthy enough to afford personal transport. This choice could only be more broadly extended with the advent of cheap, accessible forms of mobility, like the street railways (or trams) that appeared in cities late in the nineteenth century. This new form of mobility brought about ready access to cheap, often picturesque lands, allowing settlement of surrounding farmlands and hillsides. Victoria's streetcar system, the third built in all of Canada and the first in the western provinces, quickly sprouted many small inner ring suburbs.

Los Angeles streetcar in 1908, serving dispersed suburban enclaves on a vast scale.

Fishman tells how suburbia came of age on a scale determined by the proliferation of stops along rail lines, initially as privileged suburbs in the era of steam locomotion, then more broadly with the advent of streetcars. The form rail-based suburbia took differs markedly from the more uniform shape it assumed when built for access by the automobile. But up until at least 1920, street railways stood as the principal form of mobility, giving rise to a pattern in subdivisions of larger lots with houses set back from the road and surrounded by landscape and gardens. Early developers in Los Angeles built street railways specifically to serve their speculative housing projects in often stunningly beautiful rural enclaves. Anywhere within walking distance of a stop qualified for suburban homesteading, serving to 'democratize' residential choice by opening up vast new areas for colonization.

Electric street railways triggered an initial ring of suburban outskirts clustered around denser urban cores. In Victoria, they began populating then-outlying areas like Fernwood, Fairfield, Hillside and Oak Bay. Towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, rising demand for suburban housing spawned an exciting extension of the street railroad in the form of 'Interurban' lines. These fast electric systems - essentially precursors of today's light rail transit (LRT) - differed from streetcars by running primarily in separated rights of way. Sleek, attractive additions to urban infrastructure, Interurban rail lines took cities by storm and rapidly accelerated the dispersal of people into previously unpopulated areas.

From horse and buggy....
To horse-drawn trams

To electric streetcars

And then to private automobiles, in just over two decades!

Hubert Savage's chance to live in the country and work in town arose when a newly built Interurban line made a commute of five kilometres feasible. As a city architect, he needed reliable daily transport from what was then a considerable distance. A recent ex-Londoner, he was probably accustomed to relying on mass transit to move around, a habit that would have helped him see living out along a railway line as practical. A trained architect, he'd also likely absorbed the rising English fascination with recreational use of the countryside, associated with a novel building type known as a 'bungalow' recently imported into Britain from India. Arts-and-crafts architect R.A. Briggs had popularized the idea of building small, artistic bungalows as recreational dwellings among the upper middle class; his Bungalows and Country Residences preached the benefits of 'free and easy living'  in spatially isolated dwellings built in picturesque locales. However, in England, this was a choice largely restricted to those with loads of money.

All these factors may have predisposed Savage to feel comfortable choosing an isolated building site in distant Strawberry Vale, itself part of a newly organized district municipality named Saanich. Saanich (an anglicization of WSANEC, a Coast Salish term meaning 'elevated') was comprised largely of sparsely inhabited rural lands once the territory of the Saanich First Nations. At the time, to a town eye, Strawberry Vale and neighbouring Marigold weren't much more than a few farms ringed with rocky outcrops and stands of native vegetation. One of its attractions was surely the cheapness of the land, another the chance to inhabit truly picturesque landscape.

Hubert Savage chose to inhabit a picturesque hilltop, courtesy of an Interurban line

A look around the area's built-out streets today reveals a collection of modest, mostly single-story houses from various eras, some tucked away on larger parcels of land. Built loosely on a grid pattern but with some culs-de-sac courtesy of the steep Wilkinson escarpment, it still retains a degree of natural landscape and native vegetation on its upland sites. A glance around now suggests its pattern wasn’t contrived by a single builder, but rather grew gradually from infill of an eclectic kind. Its primary assets today are an unpretentious diversity of housing and its residual greenery. 

Dwarfed and sandwiched between infill houses that occupy its once spacious grounds.

One does observe that the more recently built the home, the less modest and more mammoth the outcome. Garage doors appear and come to define facades, frontages come closer to the road. The biggest of these fully occupy small lots carved out of vestiges of an earlier suburbia, where houses were set well back from the road in generous landscape settings and built in harmony with the lie of the land. This idea of a house placed carefully in a distinctive landscape contrasts sharply with the more packed in and built-up feeling of both the urban core and later suburbia. Early suburban layouts were based on integrating town and country in a way that attained a balance, an objective of the arts-and-crafts movement.

If Marigold now resembles other 1950s suburbs, it was anything but that back in 1913. In Savage's day, the prospect of it being other than rural land only arose because of the building of the Interurban rail line. When intentions to undertake this major capital project were announced well before construction started, speculators quickly began buying up land in anticipation of rapid development. This subdivision came to be known as the Garden City, a brand intended to capitalize on Ebenezer Howard’s then-popular idea for self-sufficient garden cities. But beyond naming streets after common garden flowers, there's no evidence of any Howard-like thinking behind the scheme - just a desire to create a real estate bonanza on the suburban model. It was the coming of the train that put the country within reach of town.

A village-like feeling created by design in the first Garden City Suburb

The privately owned BC Electric Railway Company (BCERC) decided to build this chic commuter railway in order to open up what they believed would soon become thriving residential enclaves along the west side of the Saanich peninsula. Conceived at the peak of a prolonged economic boom, the idea of sparking suburban development with a frequent passenger service was gripping growing cities across North America. With its legislated monopoly to supply power and street-transport services in both Vancouver and Victoria, the BCERC already enjoyed great success with interurbans throughout the rapidly growing Lower Mainland. As operators of Victoria's successful tramway system, they were convinced Victoria's hinterlands were similarly poised for takeoff and were keen to be a catalyst.

Interurban railways were unlocking development potential in cities across North America

Operating at faster speeds than streetcars, electric interurbans vastly extended suburban possibilities into outlying areas. In Los Angeles, railway spines radiating outwards allowed masses of people to work downtown while retreating at night to the citrus groves dotting a vast metropolitan plain. The same phenomenon spread to other city-regions subject to rapid in-migration, including Vancouver. There was no reason to think anything different would happen in then-booming Victoria, where new developments were mushrooming all over too. The new areas made available for development were often as pretty as postcards, situated on Victoria's coastal plain or hilly fringes, with views to fields, inlets, straits, hills, lakes and mountains. Yet in the end, despite some scattered starts, this hoped-for real-estate bonanza along the corridor would simply fail to materialize. For the Savage bungalow, this meant that rather than serving as forerunner of a new housing trend, it would become instead a distant outlier - the remnant of a street-car suburbia that never came to pass. The Garden City failed to fill in around it as imagined, and the rural land it was to be taken from remained mostly cow pasture and rocky outcrops for decades to come. The form the neighbourhood took when it did eventually fill in derived from the primacy of automobile travel, embodying by then a much less romantic vision of suburbia than town in country.

Extensive streetcar suburbia in early C20 Los Angeles

None of this would have affected Hubert Savage’s plans for a rural refuge, which came to fruition in tandem with the Saanich line's construction (an effort costing nearly $1-million). Some 23 miles long, with thirty-one stops and sheltered platforms, this well-engineered line enjoyed its own rights of way north from Burnside Road to Deep Bay on the Saanich Peninsula. From Tillicum Station inbound, it shared Burnside Road as a street railway running to a convenient downtown terminus.

Dignitaries and loads of fanfare for the opening ride on the Saanich line

The first of the rural stops along the Saanich line was called Marigold, less than a kilometer from Savage’s new digs on Blackwood Road (now Grange). Its second stop was Blackwood station, a bit closer to the Savage bungalow but costing a nickel more for passage. I can easily picture a smartly dressed Hubert Savage walking a wee bit further each day to effect that significant saving and feeling pleased with himself for getting added exercise into the bargain.  

Premier McBride on hand to drive the last spike, a setpiece of Canadian railway openings

Construction of his house was likely in full swing around the time rail service commenced on June 18, 1913. There was plenty of boosterism around the big opening, the train festooned with ribbons and laden with a large cargo of dignitaries for the inaugural ride. It even featured a ceremony with Premier McBride driving a last spike out at Deep Cove, where the BCERC had built a chalet-restaurant to draw sightseers. The initial service was a two-car train with comfortable seats and a smoking section, offering many return trips per day.  If Savage caught the 7:30 at Blackwood, or the 7:32 at Marigold station, he was downtown by 7:50 and at his drafting table by eight. The return would be equally convenient, punctuated perhaps with a stop to purchase groceries or sundries at one of two country stores near Marigold junction.

Jud Yoho design, built in 1912 for a realtor, near Marigold Station on the Saanich line

It's speculative but entirely plausible to suggest that Savage’s choice of building site was determined by this new and convenient method of commuting. Access to town water and electricity may also have played a role (the new number one water main was buried in nearby Burnside Road). But it's certain that just this sort of suburban homesteading was what the Interurban assumed would generate its future clientele and the reason for making such a big investment in in passenger service. And, it was just the sort of artistic, low-slung bungalow Savage designed that was proving a highly attractive lifestyle choice to the droves of newcomers filling North American cities. 

The sort of artistic, low-slung suburban bungalow attracting city folk in 1913

If privately owned electric railways were conceived in order to open up access to cheap country land, real estate speculation was central to the equation. Interurbans were faster and more reliable than competitor railroads from the steam era, and as modern an idea as the distinctly horizontal houses finding favour with the new suburbanites. Sometimes, in bigger centres like Los Angeles, the railway promoters were directly linked to the development interests that prospered from access to cheaper rural land. Where the formula worked, development mushroomed around the stops on patterns of convenient walking access. The Interurban's effect differed only in degree from the patterns set up by the earlier streetcar system, which also grew neighbourhoods around stops but much closer to the urban core. The impact of covering greater distances more rapidly was to disperse suburbia ever further outwards. 
However, to the dismay of its backers, the Saanich Interurban line didn't spur galloping growth despite all the fanfare and sustained efforts to market its advantages. While it prompted some new starts like Savage's, the boom petered out just as competition from other wheeled vehicles emerged to compete for its business. And picturesque little Victoria (population perhaps 40,000), distant from the major movements of goods and people, would never be the people-magnet that the port of Vancouver was quickly  becoming. So it would transpire that, just over a decade after its opening, the Saanich line's prospects would dim to the point where it had to be shut down. Soon after, its trackage was ripped out and its skookum right of way made to suffer the ultimate indignity of conversion to country road. The boom that went bust after 1913 wouldn’t return to Victoria until well after the Great Depression and a second global war, decades away. 

Seattle Jitneys: they appeared in every city, taking passengers from the street railways.

In 1913 the immediate threat to the Saanich Interurban was cut-throat competition from vehicles making free use of the public roads provided by civic tax revenues. If electric railways easily bested the older steam railways, they in turn were quickly trumped by the introduction of gas-powered automobiles. Almost the moment the Saanich line opened for business, dozens of ‘jitney’ cabs (or buses) appeared out of the blue to compete for its clientele ('jitney' was slang for a nickel, the uniform price of a ride). By November 1913, over fifty jitneys were operating in Victoria. 

Travel choices: Burnside car or Gorge Road Jitneys

With low costs and door-to-door service, jitneys posed a running threat to streetcars systems everywhere. Drivers cruised the stations in advance of the trains, scooping up riders with their cheap fares and the chance to ride in these strange self-propelled contraptions. Widespread use of jitneys thus contributed to the early demise of many Interurban lines, whose high capital and operating costs meant they couldn't compete on fares without virtually bankrupting themselves. Jitneys not only established prototype taxi and bus services, they also helped pave the way for the rapid spread of the private automobile, by far the deadliest competitor for any form of mass transit.

1915-6 Packard Jitney bus, similar to those competing for the Saanich line's customers 
While the Interurban trains effectively linked regional centres, the new settlement patterns they sponsored were spread at larger intervals along their longer lengths. This pattern of growth leapfrogged a lot of unbuilt residential land closer to downtowns, land that was potentially cheaper to service with shorter commutes once there was an alternative to streetcars. Rapid extension of paved roads by municipalities made it easier for people to adopt automobiles, which helped open the many unbuilt areas in between existing streetcar lines. Many of these locales came with rural, hillside and seaside settings too, giving them a resort-like or country feeling that in Victoria still persists to some extent to this day.
Trains used as streetcars wouldn't survive the onslaught of the automobile

If Hubert Savage was counting on a train-based extension of suburbia to rapidly expand his architectural practice, he was doomed to disappointment. My guess, however, is that he chose this locale for its intrinsic merits, knowing his own family could enjoy a pretty spot far from the crush of newcomers for a great many years to come. The idea of retreat to the country was very much 'in the air' at the time, made practical using the novel housing type called 'bungalow' as its basic building block. R.A. Brigg's writings triggered a middle class interest in moving into the English countryside, following his suggestion to find a pretty spot to inhabit in order to enjoy a lifestyle 'of rusticity and ease'. The bungalow would prove the perfect medium for this outward movement across land-rich North America, providing a safe, comfortable haven in gardened settings.
To return to the rapidly changing mobility equation: if the low fares offered by the jitneys bled the Interurban lines, the rapid rise of the private automobile delivered the coup de grace. Streetcar historian Henry Ewart says that jitneys served to introduce people to the idea of car travel while demonstrating its utility. The car's advantages of flexibility (on your own schedule) and convenience (weather protected and secure), coupled with its continually falling pricetag, made it unstoppable once municipalities got into the business of paving their roads.
Model Ts coming off the world's first moving production line: Ford Nation emerging
In a deeper irony, unknown to either electric railway builders or suburban homesteaders in 1913, Henry Ford was at that very moment introducing the moving production line to car manufacture. His pioneering leap into automated production cut the time needed to build a car chassis from 12 hours to just 2.5! This dramatically increased output while lowering prices, guaranteeing growing markets for the private automobile. It also allowed Ford to introduce the $5 working day (leading his competitors to accuse him of being a socialist!) which meant his own workers could aspire to buy the fruit of their own labours.
Streetcar line still servicing the Ford plant - not yet put out of business by the car

We don't know at what point Hubert Savage abandoned the train and began commuting by car – but the Interurban option was gone by 1924, just 11 years after startup. Even the extreme measures taken by cities like Vancouver and Victoria to formally ban jitneys from cruising rail stops wouldn’t prove sufficient to save the Interurbans. It was perhaps prophetic that Saanich, home to the region's first and only electric interurban, took no action to curb jitney cabs and buses. Perhaps the Council of the day was early to recognize that automobile travel was the way of the future?  

A remnant of the Saanich line's corridor, now Interurban Railtrail, near the observatory

So the owners of the rail-inspired Garden City suburb had little choice but to adapt to the car from early on. Yet at its distance from downtown in a slow-growing small city, this meant incremental rather than rapid buildout. Of course, Savage's bungalow was quite indifferent to how it was accessed, and it certainly didn't require a built-up neighbourhood crowding in upon it. Its placement in the country only demanded some form of viable mobility to transcend the distance from jobs and services. If suburbia does involve an element of escape from the crowding of town conditions, its precondition is always some form of convenient mobility. Without it, suburbia can't exist.

Suburbia remade for the car - city without the services, country without landscape features

At the time it was built, the Savage bungalow would have appeared sleekly modern and entirely novel  radically horizontal in contrast to its Victorian forbears, forward-looking with its motion-minded kitchen full of new electric appliances, isolated geographically but in touch with a broader world by telephone (services and friends) and radio (news and entertainments). While fully modern, in true arts-and-crafts fashion it was consciously styled to appear rooted in past traditions that worked with the land and used locally derived materials.  

Yet the bungalow could only embody this novel combination of town and country (and secure the new suburban lifestyle) because of the transportation revolution occurring in the first decades of the twentieth century. The scale of this revolution, and particularly the advent of the private automobile, would quickly downgrade the vision behind Savage's choice and slowly but dramatically alter the look and purpose of suburban housing. Unwittingly, Hubert Savage designed and built an outlier that quickly became an anomaly rather than a representative form. Today it stands as a rare example of a true country bungalow, built on a suburban model embracing the integration of town and country, just before that model was trumped by the car.
And the winner is the private automobile: comfort and convenience prove irresistible
This post is the second in a series celebrating the centennial of Hubert Savage’s arts-and-crafts bungalow, which turns 100 in 2013. Others are planned irregularly for the year. Ideas are those of David Cubberley, and are only loosely based on 'facts' as there is almost no evidence from Savage family history. The author may be contacted at

Vestiges of the Interurban line:

Commemorative sign at the former Tillicum Station, Saanich Interurban line
Former car barns (now bricked in) from Victoria's electric street railway era

Former head office, BC Electric Railway Company, designed by Francis Rattenbury

Cyclist enjoying a ride on the Interurban Railtrail, built on the original right of way

No comments:

Post a Comment