Nelson utility boxes go from eye sore to eye candy

The project to turn the streetside Nelson Hydro electrical boxes in the downtown into informative historical pieces of art has been a success. There are still more to come. - Kirsten Hildebrand photo
The project to turn the streetside Nelson Hydro electrical boxes in the downtown into informative historical pieces of art has been a success. There are still more to come.
— image credit: Kirsten Hildebrand photo

A cultural development idea has taken utility boxes in the Heritage City from ugly and obtrusive to charming with a little history lesson thrown in.

When Nelson Hydro took their pole-top transformers and put them on the streets a couple years ago, Joy Barrett knew something needed to be done. As the cultural development officer for the City of Nelson reporting to the Cultural Development Committee, she proposed the boxes be covered using a historical theme.

“People are interested in the history of Nelson,” she said. “It’s a very fascinating place and heritage is part of who we are so it was interesting to pursue the history of Nelson Hydro and the history of the buildings that used to be here.”

Nelson Hydro “whole-heartedly backed it” and is footing the bill at an average cost per site of $2,000.

With graffiti and tagging on these types of utility boxes a common problem in cities, beautification has made a difference.

“In the long term it saves them [Nelson Hydro] money to put something like this on because they don’t have to be cleaning up graffiti and repainting them all the time,” said Barrett.

The first series of boxes on Baker Street’s north side is done featuring scenes depicting the history of Nelson Hydro. There are five sites with two boxes each. A second series is underway on the south side of the street and highlights the “lost” buildings of Nelson, structures destroyed by fire or simply destroyed.

“We looked at that location to see what buildings once existed there but are gone,” she says. “Once that whole series on the south side of Baker Street has been completed, you can walk down and get an idea of the history of what used to be there.”

Some buildings included in the artwork covering the 11 south side boxes are Peebles Motors, Nelson Drill Hall, the Madden Hotel, Nelson Opera House and Nelson’s first fire hall.

“It makes a big difference. They’re really getting noticed,” said Barrett. “The reception has just been phenomenal. It’s beautification, but it’s also education at the same time.”

Help on the project includes retired museum curator Shawn Lamb researching and Touchstone’s Laura Fortier and Lamb sourcing the images.

Murray Kimber of Speedpro is doing the designs, using the basic images and adding to them using his background as an illustrator. He felt the use of historical photos had been done and a twist on the theme was needed.

“People are used to seeing those black and white photographs so we wanted to contemporize these a bit so we introduced colour washes over all the images,” he says. “This is like taking the museum out onto the street because they’re information kiosks as well, so I wanted them to stand out and grab people’s attention.”

Artistic component considered, there’s a technical side that involves wrapping the utility boxes in vehicle vinyl.

“All that had to be arranged around some pretty uninviting changes in the surface of the boxes — some nasty little hooks, some odd little fins that come out of the back — so you’re working around things that you normally would not really think of wrapping in vinyl,” says Kimber.

Being able to do all the creative in-house makes it an interesting showcase project for the Speedpro crew considering the boxes are catching the eye of drivers and pedestrians alike.

“It’s been a showcase for us because these are high profile pieces, all related, and as far as wrapping stuff like this goes, it’s a trend that’s being seen in larger centres so it’s great for us to get to do these,” Kimber says.


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