Nelson’s oldest architectural firm has donated a large collection of plans and drawings to Touchstones Nelson dating back to the 1930s.
The cache from Fairbank Architects Ltd. consists of about 650 plans, including those for prominent buildings such as Kootenay Lake General Hospital, Mount St. Francis Hospital, and Notre Dame University, plus some that were never built, like an Art Deco city hall for Nelson proposed in 1940.
The firm also worked on schools, churches, homes, government offices, and commercial buildings.
“It’s really quite amazing,” says Touchstones archivist J.P. Stienne. “We’ve just started to go through them, but it’s clear there are some interesting things. It’s a great donation for Touchstones.”
It comes thanks to Christopher Fairbank, who closed the practice after suffering a stroke last year, and has been cleaning out the company’s Vernon Street office. He felt the plans should be preserved by the local archives.
The firm’s history began in the mid-1930s when architect Bill Williams came out from Montreal to supervise construction of the Blaylock Mansion. He was so enchanted by the area that he decided to stay and establish his own practice. He was joined by wife Ilsa, who was also an architect and became the first woman to practice the profession in Nelson.
The couple designed noteworthy buildings in Nelson, Trail, and elsewhere. After Bill died suddenly in 1947 at age 43, Ilsa completed many projects herself, including Mount St. Francis.
Nelson native David P. Fairbank joined the firm in 1950 and took over after Ilsa retired in 1957.
They were best known for their work on schools and hospitals. Kootenay Lake General Hospital, built in 1957-58, was one of their most significant and successful commissions.
At various times Fairbank had different partners, including Ron Sawyer. Two of Fairbank’s sons also became architects, and one of them, Christopher, joined the practice in 1978 and took it over himself in the mid-1980s. His own commissions included the Columbia Basin Trust office in Castlegar.
All the while, even beyond the requirements of the profession, the firm held on to its old plans, stored in wooden cabinets and attached to dowels like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Each dowel might have five pages or more depending on the size of the project.
Stienne was recently invited to see if they had any value to the archives. “It’s clear there was, and not just for Nelson businesses and homes but Kootenay-wide and over different decades,” he says.
All were labelled and roughly catalogued. Although the more modern plans have been transferred to another firm, everything 30 years old or more has gone to Touchstones, and will soon be supplemented by items related to the business, including photographs of the construction of Kootenay Lake General Hospital and some tools of the trade.
“There are all sorts of things that are important to the history, but it will take some more digging and sorting to get a grip on what’s there,” Stienne says. “Now we’re going through a process of cataloguing the collection, arranging it in a more coherent manner, and putting it into a database.”
Stienne says the collection is spotty from the 1930s and ‘40s but appears to be complete from the 1950s onward. Mostly it’s a mix of floor plans and mechanical drawings, but there are some sketches as well. Many show buildings the Fairbank office worked on but did not actually design.
While the plans will be publicly accessible, the Fairbank family will retain copyright to them.