Capability Blair’s Beacon Hill Park

by Bill Dale - February 2000

Situated near downtown Victoria on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Beacon Hill Park is a tranquil, inviting place to enjoy the outdoors – a place to walk, rest and play. To many, areas like Beacon Hill Park are assumed to be natural landscapes, ones that have been protected and managed. Yet subtle features hint that humans have played a role in creating this landscape: dramatic views that link park spaces, a rock-lined lake edge, a stone bridge across the lake, a collection of rhododendrons strategically sited. How did Beacon Hill Park evolve? Is it natural, or is it a designed landscape? Like other nineteenth century landscapes across Canada, Beacon Hill Park is the creative work of an early generation of landscape architects. Beacon Hill Park is the realization of its designer, John Blair.

Born in Scotland in 1820, John Blair trained as a landscape gardener and then immigrated to St. Catherines, Ontario. He spent three years there working as a gardener before moving on to the Chicago area in 1854. Blair got his start in the United States designing the private estate of John Holland in Rockford, Illinois, followed by the design of the grounds of the Elgin Mental Health Center in Elgin, Illinois. By the 1860s Blair had become the Superintendent of Parks in Chicago where he influenced the design of a number of early parks, including Lincoln, Garfield, Humbolt, Douglas, Jefferson, Union and Ellis Parks. He left Chicago (later selling his home to an aspiring young architect named Frank Lloyd Wright) and by 1871 had settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Here he was employed by the founder of Colorado Springs, General William Palmer, to lay out parks, trails and major housing developments and to design Evergreen Cemetery and the grounds of General Palmer’s private ‘castle’, Glen Eyrie. In 1881, Blair moved to Victoria, British Columbia, eventually building a home near Duncan, B.C.

In 1889, at the age of 69, Blair entered a competition to design and build Beacon Hill Park in Victoria. By this time, Blair’s signature design style was fully developed. It included the use of rock features, combined with water and trees, to create natural looking landscapes. His design for Beacon Hill Park further articulated this style. He easily won the competition and was given the sum of $25,000 to do the job. One of Blair’s first decisions was to hire another Scot, George Fraser, as his foreman. (Fraser later became one of Canada’s foremost hybridizers of rhododendrons.)

In carrying out the winning design, Blair and Fraser began by lining a low-lying area with rocks and creating a lake. This wetland area is now a wildfowl preserve and home to countless ducks, as well as a pair of bald eagles that nest in a cottonwood tree (Populus trichocarpa) each year. Several local citizens were persuaded to purchase 2000 trees and shrubs from a nursery in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and today they form the basic canopy of the park. A hill covered with fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum) was left untouched and this native ground-cover can still be found beneath the Garry oaks (Quercus garryana) preserved in Blair’s plan. Blair’s design for the stone bridge over Goodacre Lake (resembling a bridge he designed in Colorado Springs and another in Union Park in Chicago) is still intact and provides one of the focal points of the park. For over 100 years now, Beacon Hill Park has provided Victoria residents with a green retreat, a place for individuals and the community to enjoy and cherish.

Blair died in 1906. His obituary said, among other things, "Mr. Blair has left the imprint of his genius on many places in the New World, and even those who never knew him are benefited by his work." Beacon Hill Park, Blair’s major work in Canada, demonstrates landscape architecture at its best. It brings people together with landscapes through design that lasts and evolves, both in spirit and in form.

This article is reprinted from ‘Landscapes/Paysages’, Fall 1999 issue, a publication of the School of Landscape Architecture, University of Guelph