Historically Speaking: Dunmore – A Labour of Love

by Valerie Green – 

A new column is always fun and, because of my love of history, this one is going to be especially enjoyable. Please join me through the year as I travel back in time to visit some old heritage buildings of interest including homes on the Peninsula, Greater Victoria and further afield on Vancouver Island. In addition, I will be exploring some interesting characters and stories from the past. I hope you will be pleasantly surprised!

The English Tudor-style manor house, Dunmora, off McPhail Road in Central Saanich, is possibly one of the best kept secrets on the Saanich Peninsula. It is a magnificent house situated high up on a bluff overlooking the Saanich Inlet and surrounded by acres of woodland.

Built by D.W. Burnett in the early 1920s and designed by architect J.C.M. Keith (who also designed Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria), it is one of the most spectacular homes in the area.

The current owners of Dunmora are only the sixth titleholders in almost a century of Dunmora’s existence. The first owners were Gerald and Léonie May, a young couple who fell in love at first sight with the view and surrounding 60 acres and decided to purchase the land in order to build their dream house. By 1922 they had moved into their home, which was comprised of 10,000 square feet with six bedrooms, formal living and dining rooms, wrap-around verandas, a sun room and large third-floor attic area. Dunmora’s red roof was a landmark from the Malahat across the Saanich Inlet.

Soon the Mays were raising their family of two sons and a daughter. Despite the isolation of the area, they enjoyed a blissful life, entertaining friends and being taken care of by many faithful Chinese servants, housekeepers and nannies. It was an ideal and rather typical existence for wealthy folk at that time in history until war intervened in 1939, the ravages of which even stretched to the idyllic lifestyle enjoyed by the Mays. Over the next two decades their life at Dunmora changed.

Due to Gerald May’s ill health, by the early 1960s they had sold the house and for the next decade there were two other owners, the Battys and the Simpsons. Like all Dunmora’s owners, they also left their footprints on the fabric of the house.

Then in 1969, Dunmora was purchased by Donald and Eivor Cormie whose political and legal connections meant that the home (which they had renamed Collessie) saw the comings and goings of the rich and famous. At various times, it was visited by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his wife Margaret and many movie stars including Jack Nicholson. Movies were filmed at the house and in the exotic grounds and one episode of the then popular Love Boat series in which actor Lorne Greene was featured.

The Cormies were also involved with the David Foster Foundation and hosted lunch in the gardens for many celebrities one summer at one of Foster’s Baseball Tournaments. Those celebrities included Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretsky, to name but a few. The Cormies stayed until the late 1990s. Another young family owned the house for a few years and resurrected the name Dunmora. After they left, the surrounding acreage was sub-divided and the house was restored and renovated with meticulous attention to its heritage by Grant Rogers of the Marker Group in Sidney.

The current owner, who purchased the house in 2015, strongly believes that it has an aura of mystery surrounding it. Any ghosts that might today reside at Dunmora (and there have been people who have felt a “presence” there!) would certainly be happy ones.

A book about the house is in production and depicts a story of love over nearly 10 decades.

Valerie Green is an author and historian and can be reached at valgee@shaw.ca.

Photo by www.nuttycake.com.

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