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Heritage Register
Gonzales

1964 Fairfield Road
Abkhazi Garden

Built 1946-48
Heritage-Designated

For: Princess Nicolas & Princess Peggy Abkhazi

Architect: John Wade


1964 Fairfield Rd

ARCHITECTURE:

The natural landscape is the defining characteristic of this garden. The glaciated rock outcroppings and the mature Garry oak trees show a strong sense of local distinctiveness that make the property unique to the southern tip of Vancouver Island.

Peggy Pemberton Carter (1902-1994) recognized the strength of the site when she bought the property in 1946. Others saw the limitations of the property, which was why it was one of the last undeveloped lots in Fairfield, but Peggy saw the possibilities. One of the first things Peggy did was to hire an architect, John Wade, to design her summerhouse. John Wade was a young professional who had worked in the offices of modernist architect Richard Neutra in Los Angeles. Neutra had a strong sense of the flow between interior design and the exterior landscape which became a hallmark of the California West Coast Style. The California landscape architects of the time also were expressing new ideas about landscape design. They felt that a garden could be “more than a collection of plants, more than an imitation of historical styles and that it could be, once again, an art form, expressive of its place, time and people.” Ideas such as these were new and had a strong influence on the young John Wade. They can be seen in his work at the Abkhazi Garden where the buildings and garden were designed to relate to each other as a complete composition.

His client, Peggy Carter, probably needed little convincing about these new ideas. They embraced much of the aesthetic that she was familiar with in the gardens near her former home in Shanghai. This must have been very appealing for both Peggy and Nicolas Abkhazi after their experiences in prisoner of war camps during World War II.

Abkhazi Garden is not a Californian garden or a Chinese garden, but both influences came together to play a part in this unique and modern creation. All the buildings on the property – house, summerhouse and garden shed- are modest in size and construction and appropriate in scale and material to the landscape. The paths are intimate and show a human scale appropriate for the private world the Abkhazis wanted to create for themselves.

The rhomboidal summerhouse was the first structure the Abkhazis built on this rocky lot, in 1946. It has a curved front, with French doors and a pergola above. Tradition has it that the couple sat here to plan the gardens, and the house itself. Wade designed this building, and then went on to build the main house and the matching storage shed behind it, emphasizing sympathetic local materials.

The single-storey Modernist bungalow hugs its rocky site, commanding magnificent views over the Gulf of Georgia. Stone facing and cedar siding are used to sheathe the house, and the paneled front door has glass block sidelights and a brick planter. The original cedar roof shakes have been replaced with modern materials. In retrospect it’s hard to imagine how a prosperous couple could function and entertain in such a small space, for although the house is 1500 square feet, it has no attic and no basement. The main focus was always the living room (now a dining-room), with fine views, originally enjoyed through four French doors (replaced in 1990 with an angled bay). The angled ceiling reflects the hipped roof of the front extension. Innovative fluorescent light fixtures are hidden in a trough around the perimeter, and the room is finished in blond plywood. Modern tiles have replaced (or covered) the original “Roman” brick chimneybreast, over the simple oak mantel. A charming period bathroom has black-and-white tile throughout, including around the raised bathtub. The shed behind the house matches, with stone and cedar sheathing, and comprises a storage room and a woodshed. The Abkhazis never drove, so made no provision for a garage.

ORIGINAL OCCUPANTS:

Peggy was born in Shanghai, China, as Marjorie “Peggy” Mabel Jane Carter. The first several years of her childhood were difficult, as she lost her parents and was left in the care of a relative. In 1907 Thomas and Florence Pemberton, who had no children of their own, adopted Peggy, and her name became Pemberton-Carter. They spent 10 years in England, but after Thomas died in 1918, Florence and Peggy began to travel the world. Peggy first met Nicolas Abkhazi (1899-1987) in Paris in the 1920s, where she was studying music. Nicolas and his mother had fled to France to escape the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Peggy continued to travel with Florence, but kept in contact with Nicolas. Florence died in 1938 and Peggy had returned to Shanghai by 1941, where she later became a Japanese prisoner of war. After her released, she came to Victoria using traveller’s cheques she had hidden, and lived with her friend Muriel Mackenzie.

In March 1946 Peggy purchased this property. She received a letter from Nicolas, who had been released from a German labour camp. They last saw each other in 1933, and had lost contact in 1940. Peggy went to New York to join Nicolas and marry him, then they came back to Victoria. The house was built the following year.

The gardens flourished under the attentive care of Peggy and Nicolas for nearly 40 years. Despite being private individuals, they opened their gardens to the public in 1949 and it was Peggy’s wish that the gardens be maintained even after her death.

OTHER OCCUPANTS:

After the Abkhazis died, the property changed hands several times. A developer purchased it in 1999 with the intention of building a townhouse development on the property. The house and gardens were saved in 2000 when The Land Conservancy of BC bought the property for $1.4 million and it is now operated as a public garden with restaurant and gift shop.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION & IMAGES:

• Gonzales History

• Gonzales Heritage Register

• Hallmark Heritage Society Archives

• This Old House, Victoria's Heritage Neighbourhoods,
Volume Four: Fairfield, Gonzales & Jubilee


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