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Buildings that weren’t: Kootenay Lake Hospital, 1910

Updated: Dec 17, 2023

Nelson has had three Kootenay Lake Hospitals. The first, built in 1893 near 40 High Street, had a dozen beds. According to Dr. Lorris E. Borden, it was

really primitive … On the ground floor was the admitting room and the kitchen; the second floor had a medical ward and the operating room which was very small and narrow; the bird floor was for surgical patients which was considered a poor arrangement [because] there was no elevator and all surgical patients had to be carried upstairs by the orderly. (Quoted in A Brief History of the Hospitals and Ladies Auxiliaries of Nelson, BC 1893-2009, J. Simard, 2009)

I’m only aware of one photo showing this hospital, seen below centre, beneath the Gyro Park bluff. It’s part of a panorama taken from the water.

The building’s shortcomings were readily apparent and plans for a replacement with 40 beds were afoot by 1908. Things progressed as far as a concept drawing, published in the Nelson Daily News on Sept. 24, 1910. I don’t know who the architect was but it was never built.

I asked local heritage consultant Robert Inwood about the architectural style. He replied that the rendering “gives good evidence as to how it was easy for the modernists to denigrate the Victorian period architecture.”

The concept sketch is a real hodge-podge of styles and looks more like a prison or CPR hotel than a hospital. Given the date of the concept it would fit into the Late Victorian period — wherein the Beaux Arts Classical Revival was in vogue. There are some elements of the typical Beaux Arts Neo-Classical symmetry displayed in the front elevation, but also some asymmetrical elements thrown in that hearken back to the earlier High Victorian period. 
Decorative details such as the half timbering allude to the Tudor Revival but there are also Italianate features in the arched arcade, and Chateauesque elements in the turret-like towers, although the building lacks the vertical grace of the Chateau form and is almost Medieval in its squat castle-like appearance.
It might be noted that this hospital concept exemplifies one of the unique characteristics of Nelson’s heritage inventory: the tendency to display older styles beyond the time line in which they flourished in other parts of the country! By the first decade of the 20th century architects were moving towards the Proto-Modern styles in the Eastern parts of North American but Nelson was more influenced by the Late Victorian styles still popular out west in places like Victoria, Seattle, Spokane, etc. The Nelson hospital design proposal would classify as one of these somewhat anachronistic concepts.

I don’t know exactly why this plan fell through, but it was probably financial. In 1911, the hospital board decided to build a new $60,000 hospital, although by the following year it was characterized as a 60-bed addition to the existing hospital of the same value. According to a report in the Daily Building Record of March 20, 1912, “It is expected that sketch plans will be ready to be submitted in about two weeks.”

The plans were to be designed by Vancouver architect S.B. Bird and the work carried out under the supervision of Nelson architect Alex Carrie. However, the low bid came back at nearly $90,000, so it was back to the drawing board to come up with a scaled-down concept.

Carrie designed a 55-bed building, estimated at $70,000, of which the provincial government would be asked to pay $50,000 and local taxpayers would pick up the rest. For whatever reason — the outbreak of World War I probably didn’t help — it took until 1916 for the government to agree to pay $31,000 and work finally began. I assume Carrie’s design is the one that went ahead. It was completed on Oct. 14, 1918 at a cost of $111,000. Although the government kicked in another $7,500, fundraising was required to pay much of the difference.

Here’s what it looked like in the 1920s, on a postcard published by Gowen Sutton Ltd. It was much taller yet more compact than what was proposed in 1910.

A new wing was added in 1938. The hospital remained in use until 1958, when it was replaced with the current Kootenay Lake Hospital. The building was converted into Columbia College by the Catholic Diocese but was demolished in 1975. It’s now the site of the High Street Place condos, built in 1993.

The present hospital, designed by David Fairbank and Ilsa Williams (her last project before retirement), is seen below in a postcard taken within a few years of its construction.

In its last throes of government in 2001, the NDP announced it would build a $62 million hospital on the existing site of Mount St. Francis — land purchased by the local health council two years earlier for that purpose. However, the proposed Nelson health campus was a casualty of the change in government that fall.

A concept sketch by Ray Goldsworthy, seen below, was published in the Nelson Daily News on Sept. 15, 1999.

Updated on May 12, 2020 to add the above image of the health campus.

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