One of British Columbia’s most celebrated institutional architects was a man who inspired many things away from architecture including high end London plays starring famous actors, a legal case taught to many young lawyers to this day, and a number of novels. His life was filled with almost every kind of sensationalism that could inspire Hollywood filmmakers for years to come: lying about his credentials, illicit sexual affairs, dizzying fame and recognition, alcoholism, the fall from Grace and, finally, murder. Who was this man? Francis Mawson Rattenbury created such architectural wonders in British Columbia as the Empress Hotel and the BC Legislature Building in Victoria; the Court Houses in Vancouver, Nanaimo and Nelson plus numerous other buildings in the province. Before Arthur Erickson, another famed BC architect who began his illustrious career in the 1960s, it was Rattenbury who set the bar of excellence for institutional building design in British Columbia. However, for some, his enduring legacy is undoubtedly his complicated and very tragic personal life.
Francis Mawson Rattenbury was born October 11, 1867 in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. His father had been a foreman in a textile mill in nearby Bradford and young Francis studied textiles while at school to prepare him for a career in the industry as well. He was not particularly brilliant in school and appeared to be quite bored and even frustrated with his studies. It was Rattenbury’s maternal uncle, William Mawson, who had seen something very artistic and creative in his nephew. Mawson was one half of Lockwood and Mawson Architects based in Bradford which started operations in 1849 and had gone on to be one of the most successful architectural firms of the nineteenth century in northern England. Together, their firm was responsible for both the designing and construction a number of iconic buildings in Yorkshire including the Kirkgate Market of Leeds in 1878, the Saltaire Mill built in 1853 which is England’s oldest and best preserved textile mill of the Industrial Revolution, The Wool Exchange of Bradford and the Bradford Town Hall. Mawson saw that Rattenbury was a fine artist and was quite skilled at architectural drawings in general.
He suggested to Rattenbury that he take an apprenticeship with his firm and the young man quickly agreed as it seemed far more exciting than standing at a textile machine. For the next six years, between 1885 and 1891, Rattenbury learned a great deal about architecture, architectural design and the process of competing for contracts against other bidders. Henry Lockwood died in 1878 and William Mawson died in 1889, leaving the architectural firm to Mawson’s son Richard and a few other partners. So in 1891, with both his mentors deceased, Rattenbury decided it was time to venture out on his own to become an independent architect and he chose to relocate to British Columbia where he felt there were more opportunities and fewer architects competing for contracts.
If there was one thing about Rattenbury that many of his contemporaries could completely agree upon it was that he was a persistent self-promoter. Within days of his arrival in Vancouver, he contacted the Vancouver Daily World newspaper (later to become the Vancouver Sun in 1924) to announce that he had “arrived in Vancouver to begin work”. Intrigued, the paper did a story on him where he proclaimed that he was an architect from Leeds who was personally responsible for the creation of several nationally recognised buildings in England including the Saltaire Mill and the reconstruction of York Castle in the city of York. Though the firm he worked for, Lockwood and Mawson, was responsible for these projects, they were, however, completed long before Rattenbury was even born! As Rattenbury was trying to drum up business and recognition, he came across a contest in the Victoria Daily Colonist newspaper calling for architectural designs to be submitted for the construction of the new Legislature Buildings in Victoria. Immediately he saw this as his opportunity to shine and spent the next month working and reworking his design vision. He submitted his plans to the contest organisers and signed them “A B.C Architect”. Rattenbury was shortlisted and was asked to submit more thorough designs including interior floor plans and a landscape plan for gardens around the exterior of the building. Again, he sat down to create his designs and this time signed his work “For Queen and Province”. At the age of 25 and with no Canadian works to back him up, Rattenbury’s Romanesque Revival plans were chosen by the panel as the winning submission.
His plans budgeted for a total construction cost of $500,000, but the project went severely over budget to $923,000, a staggering miscalculation of budgets even for the 1890s. Despite this oversight, the building was completed two years later than anticipated in 1898 to great fanfare and it immediately catapulted Rattenbury to the top level of architectural excellence in Western Canada. He had gained the recognition he had been seeking since arriving in British Columbia. The new commissions began flooding in from all over the province and many part of Canada. However, he chose to practice only in British Columbia, feeling there was enough work there to keep him occupied. Across the Victoria Harbour from the Legislature Building is the Empress Hotel, which Rattenbury built between 1904 and 1908. He also designed and constructed the Vancouver Courthouse (now the Art Gallery) in 1906, the Nanaimo Courthouse in 1895, the original Government House in 1903 and a number of well known residential buildings in Victoria. Rattenbury was now the toast of the province among the elite class and had an ever widening circle of clients, patrons and admirers. So, when he got married in 1898, the social elite class raised their eyebrows at the choice of woman he made for his wife. With all the accolades, female admirers, and contracts coming his way, people thought his choice was very curious.
Rattenbury married Florence Nunn, a very quiet woman who appeared to have no discernable talents other than being quiet and agreeable. Some people in the elite class had sniggered remarking that her maiden name was appropriate for her demeanour. Ambitious men like Rattenbury usually married society women who would aid in furthering their husbands careers with their connections and abilities as a society lady and hostess. Florence appears to have been none of these things. They had known each other a long time before they married, so perhaps the marriage was based on a kind of comfort level and familiarity he felt with Florence. They were married for 25 years and as that time passed, Rattenbury became more and more disillusioned with the marriage until they had stopped talking to each other all together. The couple had two children, Francis Jr. and Mary, who hardly saw their father growing up. He immersed himself in work and he was known to seek the company of a number of women of the elite class in Victoria, both married and unmarried. Then, during the Great War years, Rattenbury’s fortunes began to change. Rattenbury’s favoured style was the Romanesque Revival style with some heavily influenced elements of Baroque and Richardson Romanesque. As British Columbia’s tastes in architecture were beginning to change and adapted to new influences from America, he suddenly found that his architectural style was no longer in demand and the contracts began to dry up. Had he simply adapted to the changes, he would have continued to flourish. Increasingly frustrated, Rattenbury began to turn to alcohol to ease the pain. He was able to secure some contracts, most notably the Crystal Gardens Pavilion in Victoria, but they were not as plentiful as the heady days after the building of the Legislature.
His conduct in public was also drawing the attention of Victoria’s society elite. His flirtations with Victoria’s society ladies reached their peak when in 1925, at the age of 58, he left his wife Florence to marry 27 year old pianist Alma Parkenham, whom he met at a recital at the Empress Hotel. It was not just the flaunting in public of this new mistress, but it was the way in which he left his family. He ordered the Victoria Electric Company to cut off all power to the family home when he moved out, leaving Florence and the children stranded with no means financially to hook the power back up or support themselves. It was vindictive actions such as this, more than his marriage to Alma, that angered a number of Victoria’s residents and people of influence. As a result, Rattenbury did not get a single contract again in British Columbia and he was made a virtual outcast among the powerful provincial elite who had 25 years previously hailed him as a modern hero of architectural excellence. In 1929, after suffering financial hardship after her divorce, Florence died of a heart attack. Rattenbury’s two grown children who were now leading lives of their own refused to acknowledge, let alone speak to, their father. Dejected, disgraced, and financially strapped, Rattenbury decided there was no point in remaining in British Columbia. He, Alma and their newborn son, John, relocated to Dorset, England in 1929. They settled into a small cottage they called “Madeira Villa” in Bournemouth while Rattenbury tried to secure local architectural contracts. He was no longer the man of his hey-day in British Columbia. Ill health, advancing age, and alcoholism were beginning to take their toll on him physically and mentally. He became increasingly irritable and began to ignore Alma altogether, causing her great sadness and loneliness. Then, in 1934, an ad was placed into the local paper that would change their lives forever.
The Rattenburys were looking to hire a young man between the ages of 14 and 18 to do light housework, yard work and some chauffeur work. Seventeen year old George Stoner answered the ad and was hired. Within a few short weeks, Alma initiated an affair with Stoner. As the months went on, Stoner became jealous of Rattenbury’s fame as an architect and he was particularly angered by the attention Alma continued to show towards her husband. Then, one night in March 1935, Stoner entered Rattenbury’s study and clubbed him repeatedly on the back of the head with a carpenter’s mallette while Alma and son John were upstairs. The force was so strong that the back of Rattenbury’s skull had been fractured in several places, causing severe brain trauma. Rattenbury died in hospital a few days later and both Stoner and Alma were charged with the murder. The courts at the time put the full blame on Alma and accused her of “manipulating a youth” thus naming her s the main instigator. When Stoner was convicted and sentenced to death, Alma committed suicide by stabbing herself repeatedly in the heart.
Because even the public believed Stoner was only guilty of being manipulated by a “vindictive, hateful woman”, a mass appeal was launched to have his sentenced reduced. By this time, the Second World War had started and after only serving seven years, Stoner was released to the British Army. At war’s end in 1945, Stoner was granted a full release from prison for his act of courage in the war and he went on to marry, have children and grandchildren and lived a quiet, peaceful life until 2000 when he died at the age of 83. This particular case is still studied around the world for many reasons. Among these reasons are: it investigates motive for the attack, the question of how to determine who instigates an attack and also serves as an example of gender bias. British society at the time was still more likely inclined to be sympathetic towards a male rather than a female accused person, despite motives, reasons, mental facilities, or abilities. This story also has inspired a number of plays and dramas including Cause Célèbre, starring Helen Mirren and a number of novels have been written with this story serving as a backdrop. So what happened to John, who was orphaned at age six with the deaths of his parents?
After bouncing around from relative to relative on the Mawson side in northern England, he eventually came to Canada in his early teens to live with his mother’s relatives. He went on to architectural school and attracted the attention of Frank Lloyd Wright, who became a father-figure and mentor to young John. Rattenbury became a key member of Wright’s architectural firm and worked on such iconic buildings as the Guggenheim Museum and the Price Tower in New York City. Now 82, Rattenbury has retired from architecture, but still remains active by presenting at conferences and helping to mentor up and coming architects of the Frank Lloyd Wright school in Arizona.
Despite the tragedy, bravado, and social inappropriateness he displayed, Francis Mawson Rattenbury is perhaps British Columbia’s most recognised architect for the public buildings he has left behind and arguably the province’s most tragic figure of the early twentieth century. And who says Canada doesn’t have intriguing stories?