When Sydney Black looks up Nelson City Hall, she doesn’t see a relic of 1970s architecture. What she sees is a canvas.
The white building, which is also home to provincial government services, stands in visual contrast to the community it has hovered over since opening in 1974.
“I think this building could be a lot more representative of our community, and potentially a large, greying, white building is not necessarily representative of the cultural mecca that we live in,” said Black, the executive director of the Nelson and District Arts Council.
That changes next spring when a five-storey mural will be installed over the entrance of city hall. The project is being funded by a $30,000 grant from Columbia Basin Trust as well as $7,500 from the city.
Mayor John Dooley, who has worked in the building as either mayor or councillor for 16 years, said he’s thrilled a splash of colour is coming to city hall.
“I’ve always thought that building has been a bit on the drab side for a long time, in fact probably from the day it was built,” said Dooley. “It didn’t really fit very well and I think it’s quite a large canvas and we might as well take advantage of it and demonstrate to the community and the world we support our arts community.”
Black said a call out for artists from the Columbia Basin, which is a requirement of the grant, will happen next month. The muralist will be chosen from an independent jury.
The mural itself, which will only cover a narrow band on the front of the building, will be on 15 panels of Dibond, a weather-resistant aluminum composite canvas that can be drilled into city hall. The unique canvas is necessary because of the building’s stucco exterior, which is ideal for the preservation of white elephants but not a good medium for art.
When it officially opened on Nov. 21, 1974 as a provincial government building, the structure cost $2.1-million (the equivalent of $10 million in 2019). It incorporated city hall in 2005.
One of the previous city halls also had a questionable aesthetic. Located at the bottom of Ward Street, the building served as the centre of municipal government from 1908 to 1960.
“In the beginning, an outstanding example of Victorian architecture. In the end, a public eyesore,” wrote the Nelson Daily News in 1962 of the old city hall.
“Now this one-time pride of Nelson has been condemned to violent death as hammer blows end the old Nelson City Hall life. The old City Hall building was like the man who came to dinner and forgot to go home. Like the persistent guest, only death could remove it from the lakeside landscape.”
Forty-five years ago, then-public works minister W.L. Hartley presided over the opening ceremony for Nelson’s current city hall. At the time, Hartley said he believed Nelson’s new city hall would “eventually blend in when it’s weathered to become more like native stone.”
Whether that happened is debatable.
“There was not a lot of beautiful architecture happening in the time this was created,” said Black. “So I think it’s a product of its time, a product of its era.”
Murals have become a common and celebrated sight around Nelson. Seventeen murals have been painted downtown since the annual Nelson International Mural Festival began two years ago.
“We’re just really lucky city staff and council have been so interested in supporting these kinds of ventures,” said Black. “It’s cool to see the community reclaiming spaces they weren’t using before, and this is just going to make this space much more bright.”