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Francis Mawson Rattenbury

While British Columbia is often touted for its breathtaking natural beauty, it is also home to a number of stunning works of architecture. From the Emily Carr House in Victoria to the Vancouver Court House turned Art Gallery and the Buntzen Power Plant in Indian Arm, iconic structures can be found in all pockets of the province. The common denominator in each of these specific buildings is one Francis Rattenbury, an architect whose life was as storied as his work was striking.

Rattenbury entered the British Columbian architecture scene with a sensational debut; at 25 he won a competition to design the Parliament Buildings in the provincial capital. Architects from around the world had vied for the opportunity, but of the 66 applicants Rattenbury had been selected. The impressive buildings of neo-Baroque style are today home to the Legislative Assembly of B.C.. The structure incorporates symmetry, domes and granite imported from Nelson Island on the Sunshine Coast.

Originally from England, Francis Rattenbury would spend a great amount of time in Canada before returning to his home country. The events of his life, both in B.C. and across the pond, are filled with intrigue, drama, infatuation and, even, murder--the story of a man whose strange history is preserved in the unassuming facades and walls of some of the province’s most eminent buildings.

Rattenbury’s successful bid to design Victoria’s Parliament Buildings would spur over two decades of prominent architectural work in Western Canada. Along with his designs in the Lower Mainland and on the Island, he would construct buildings in the Okanagan and the Kootenays and also serve as a railway architect for the Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk Pacific Railways. His latter appointment would be cut short due to the death of company president, Charles Hays, who perished aboard the Titanic. Still, Rattenbury would be responsible for the conception of two of Canada’s grand railway hotels, the Empress and the Chateau Lake Louise.

During this period, Rattenbury would meet and marry Florence Nunn and father two children, Frank and Mary. He would embark on a variety of financial endeavours, some were lucrative, others were not. Though successful in his professional life and personal life--by this time, a fixture of Victoria’s society set--his reputation was one of a controlling, erratic and abrasive individual, who seemed to live up to his moniker, “Ratz”. As is evident in his designs, he possessed a certain genius, but with it a dogged and ruthless ambition.

With the conclusion of World War I, the charmed life of Francis Rattenbury was upended. Dissatisfied with his marriage and losing out on prestigious architectural contracts, he took to drinking and brooding. But an opportunity to design a swimming pool for the city of Victoria arose and Ratz set to work designing what would become Crystal Garden. Extravagant and opulent, the project boasted a salt water pool, a restaurant and an art gallery among other attractions. And it would be at an event held in the Empress dining room to honour his work that he would meet a Ms. Alma Pakenham.

For the time, Alma Pakenham led a scandalous life. When the twenty-seven year old met the fifty-six year old Rattenbury, she was once widowed and once divorced with an infant son. She drank and smoked and was strikingly attractive. She was intelligent and musical and once played the violin and piano with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Ratz was immediately smitten. 

The fact that he was married didn’t stop the two from beginning a very passionate, very public affair. Florence initially refused a divorce, but after Ratz began entertaining Alma in their house, she relented. He and his mistress eventually married, but his behaviour ultimately drove them out of Victoria. They would return briefly, during which time Alma would give birth to their son, John, who would grow up to become an architect, himself, working with Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West Institute. In 1929 the trio would relocate permanently to Bournemouth, England.

In Bournemouth, the family suffered financially and Rattenbury sunk again into a deep depression. After some time, Alma took up with their hired chauffeur, eighteen-year-old George Stoner. The liaison would prove to be lethal. In March of 1935, Rattenbury would be found in his sitting room, his head bloodied and battered, later determined to be the result of a mallet attack. He would succumb to his injuries.

The murder caused a media spectacle and the fallout was grievous. Initially, both confessed to the crime and were arrested, but Alma would later recant. Stoner was sentenced to death by hanging, but a 300,000 signature petition suggesting that Pakenham had manipulated the young man into killing Ratz, lessened his sentence to life in prison. He would ultimately serve seven years. Alma was cleared of all charges, but would commit suicide days later, stabbing herself in the chest six times. 

Francis Rattenbury was buried in an unmarked grave not far from his home in Bournemouth. In 2007, a family friend would erect a proper headstone to memorialize the once-acclaimed architect whose work still stands in seaside cities and mountain towns on the other side of the world.


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