Interior of the Spanish Revival-style Patricia Theatre
One of the Townsite's characteristic tree-lined streets
The Old Courthouse Inn, built in 1939 and still hosting guests today
The Regional District office
Outside view of the Patricia Theatre
Stairs to the Rodmay Heritage Hotel
Historic photo of the Townsite
Powell River's Historic Townsite
Powell River, BC
"This is the coastal town that they forgot to close down," goes the lyric from 'Everyday Is Like Sunday,' one of Morrissey's early great hits. It's also the theme song for Powell River community radio host Bad Karen's Friday night show of the same name.
Like many rural BC communities, Powell River is a town in transition. Some might call it a revolution. Its history runs deep and proud, back to its early roots as a mill town established at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, it is a much different place, but one that remains conscious of where it's come from in charting a course to where it's going. The "Historic Townsite District", a defined neighbourhood located on the north end of Powell River city limits and along the shores of Malaspina Strait, is perhaps the neighbourhood that embodies this best. Filled with old houses and new energy, it nurtures the memory of the glory days when the mill prospered, while encouraging present-day revitalization. In this way, it's becoming a mecca for those in search of a rich quality of life, now home to about 1,500 residents. Visitors intending on short stays often become those that never leave.
At a time when the living and employment standards of labourers were largely neglected, the Powell River Company Pulp and Paper Mill aspired to something better. In 1910, it designed a community based on the principles of the Garden City and Arts and Crafts movements to create a self-contained neighbourhood. In this vision, agriculture, residences, commercial, parks, and greenbelts co-existed in balance with the industry that served as its economic engine. A high priority was put on Craftsman homes, street aesthetics, and attention to the finest details – still evident today.
For more than four decades, as the mill thrived, its owners built out their vision to provide a high standard of living for employees and Townsite residents. To address basic needs, a hospital was built and a health plan was provided (established in 1910, it was the first in BC). A gymnasium was constructed and an athletic director hired for programming. Cultural and social gatherings were given a venue when a cinema and vaudeville house was built. In the 1920s, the crowning jewel of the Townsite was created when Dwight Hall was erected – a timeless, Tudor Revival Arts and Crafts structure, complete with a sprung dance floor – to host the lively lineup of events put on by the Company and the community: school pageants, Lodge galas, amateur theatricals and all.
This era of careful and considerate planning ended when the mill sold off most of the residences to worker tenants after the Company’s controlling interest was purchased by MacMillan Bloedel in 1955. In the 1970s, the neighbourhood lost many of its original tenant families and became mostly rental units. As is the case in many such transitions, the neighbourhood slowly became known as "the wrong side of the tracks." For years following and into present day memory, the Townsite's glory was forgotten under the cloud of emissions flowing from the mill, and few measures were put in place to protect its heritage value.
But the collective memory of the Townsite was not lost. Emissions standards improved. The revival that brought life back to the Townsite was born out of the visionary strength of a few creative citizens. In 1989, the Townsite Heritage Society (http://powellrivertownsite.com/) was formed to restore and preserve the many unique features of the neighbourhood, its buildings, and homes. In 1995, the Townsite was designated a National Historic District (one of only 7 in the country at that time) by the federal government and over 400 original buildings remain today. With no formal heritage protection or bylaws in place to date, it has been the collective efforts and will of independent Townsite citizens that have restored the Townsite. They see the value of this well-planned, history-rich settlement and they understand the unique sense of community that is offered in such a place. What has been created is a neighbourhood with a story to tell, where "small is beautiful" is celebrated, and where heritage homes are within the financial reach of young families.
Today, the beautiful 1928 Spanish Revival-style Patricia Theatre (http://patriciatheatre.com/), with peacock murals and original hand-stenciled velvet curtains, stands where there had originally been dwellings, replacing the first theatre that was built in 1913. It's claimed as the oldest continuously operating movie theatre business in Canada, and is still providing an invaluable gathering place and entertainment resource for residents of Powell River. Nearby, many of the original homes and buildings still stand, carefully placed amongst century-old trees with vistas to the ocean and islands offshore. The spirit of "neighbourliness" abounds – in a way that you can only imagine the original designers hoped it would. On the average Townsite day, you might see a gaggle of kids playing on a tire swing in the front yard, more residents than not out tending their prized gardens, and a spirited pick-up soccer game being battled at Henderson Park. You could take in a gathering at the Rodmay Heritage Hotel (http://www.rodmayheritagehotel.com/) with its blossoming collection of venues and art spaces, snack at Magpies Diner (http://magpiesdiner.ca/) or catch the latest update on the soon-to-be-opened Townsite Brewery (http://townsitebrewing.com/).
City of Powell River officials and staff are picking up the vision and exploring suggested options such as a heritage commission, an expanded Community Heritage Register, and protective legislation to regulate in-fill/replacement building, which will preserve the character-defining elements of the 102-year-old neighbourhood. The Townsite was thoughtfully planned as a pedestrian enclave, and it still works remarkably well for residents and visitors alike.
Twenty-five years ago, the story of Powell River's Historic Townsite may have been that of "the coastal town they forgot to shut down" – one that was well beyond its prime. But today, it is very clear that this is a resilient neighbourhood that will thrive, prosper, and firmly establish itself as a centrepiece in the Powell River that is currently emerging. Its residents would have it no other way.