What’s the story of Duncan’s Round Building?

Queen Elizabeth II visited in 1971, but it wasn’t for the Round Building’s grand opening.

A reader wrote us to ask about the history of the famous Round Building, at 236 Government St., in the heart of downtown Duncan. This piece of history is still a matter of vibrant local discussion, as recent comments in Duncan Facebook groups make clear. I too am curious about the history of everyday places that we may see or visit.

The Round Building was built as office space for the provincial government in 1970. Jim Quaife, who passed away in 2014, was the mayor of Duncan at the time. I spoke to his wife Marlene about the Round Building and her late husband’s legacy.

How did the Round Building replace Duncan’s Chinatown?

The Round Building has a controversial past because it was built on the land that was home to Duncan’s former Chinatown. Chinatown was demolished from the area in the late 1960s when Jim Quaife was the mayor.

Some of the building material from Chinatown was repurposed in the construction of Whippletree Junction, a commercial centre just south of town. 

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“My husband never wanted Chinatown to be replaced,” Quaife recalls. “It was done according to the city council’s process. There was a referendum and a vote, and so the building was constructed.”

Mayor Jim Quaife
A photo of Duncan city council, with Mayor Jim Quaife in the centre. Quaife served three terms, beginning in 1967. Photo courtesy of Marlene Quaife

A column by local historian T. W. Patterson looked back to the news coverage at the time. The mayor is quoted to have said that in 1963 “a dream was born to solidify the downtown area. It is just unfortunate that in fulfilling this dream we must destroy part of the history of this area.”

Marlene Quaife says the destruction of Chinatown is a loss for the community today. “It would have been a famous tourist spot, especially among Asian tourists.”

The adjacent building, constructed at the same time, would house provincial law courts. Together, they cost $1.3 million.  

Round Building Duncan
B.C. Premier W.A.C. Bennett and Duncan Mayor Jim Quaife hold a painting of the Round Building. Photo courtesy of Marlene Quaife

When was the opening day?

The Round Building officially opened on October 21, 1970. The ribbon-cutting ceremony was attended by B.C. Premier W.A.C Bennett, NDP MLA Robert Strachan, Duncan Mayor Jim Quaife and other officials. 

Many recall, falsely, that Queen Elizabeth II attended the opening ceremony of the Round Building. In fact, she came the following year, in May 1971, to attend the laying of the cornerstone for the seniors’ centre and library at 198 Government St. The Round Building is pictured behind the Queen and Prince Philip in photographs from the event.

Round Building Duncan
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip with Mayor Jim Quaife, centre, at the ceremony to lay a cornerstone for the seniors’ centre and library. Photo courtesy of Marlene Quaife

“He was the one who brought in the Queen and the Prince for the opening,” Quaife recalls. “They were on a trip to Victoria for some other work or opening. He phoned and arranged their visit and they came in.”

Jim Quaife mentions this moment in his blog, calling it his biggest thrill and honour to host the royal guests.

“His energy and excitement made this happen,” says Quaife.

A legacy continues

Upon the opening of the Round Building, Mayor Quaife joked that perhaps the builders had done too good a job. “Imagine the Leaning Tower of Duncan! It would be the Ninth Wonder of the world — the Eighth, of course, being British Columbia.”

Fifty years on, the building hasn’t tilted, though it’s had other issues, including challenges related to asbestos remediation. 

Flaws and all, Marlene Quaife still sees the building as a tribute to her husband, who did everything he could to help the people of Duncan. “He was the best mayor,” she says. “He fought for everybody in distress … He was a good guy.” 

Editor’s note, Sept. 23 2020: A previous version of this article said the B.C. premier present at the opening was Bill Bennett. In fact, it was W.A.C. Bennett. 

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