The Dales House at 414 Alexander Street circa 1890 CVA Photo SGN 490

Saturday, September 12, 2009

821 Keefer - The House That Harvie Built

You never know what you are going to find when you embark on the wonderful journey of house history research. Every house has a story. Some have secrets. And some, when you do the work, provide you with treasure of sorts.

A while back, some good friends of mine moved into the little red house at 821 Keefer Street. It was a charming little house with a nice back yard, with plenty of potential for a garden. My friends had plans to convert part of the main floor into a studio; one of them was an artist.

To help celebrate their move, I undertook a study of the history of their old house and gave it took them as a housewarming gift. There were about ten houses included in the study. Later, there was an opportunity to be interviewed about my work by the Vancouver Courier and I asked a number of clients and house history recipients if they would mind being interviewed. My artist friend was one of those who said yes.

Some weeks after the Courier article came out, my friend was contacted by Norah M., the great niece of Harvie Robertson, the carpenter who built the house. I was thrilled to know that there was family still around and asked my friend to ask if there might be any photos of the builder and his family. Norah very kindly invited me over to her home on the North Shore. There she showed me a number of photos of the builder and his strikingly beautiful wife, Hattie.
She even showed me pictures of Harvie’s old carpentry tools. Her brother owned them. Norah and I talked about how those tools might have actually been used by Harvie to build his house at 821 Keefer.

Over the next weeks Norah was able to send me scans of the photos I had seen, and here’s the treasure part I alluded to earlier. Norah told me that her brother was not attached to the tools in the photo and that he had expressed interest in selling them, possibly at a garage sale. He heart leapt in my throat. I croaked, “How much does he want for them? I am interested if I can afford them.” Long story short, a few weeks later, I was the very proud and awed owner of a set of beautifully made hand-crafted carpenter’s planes of a variety of sizes.

I treasure these tools. They are a tangible link to the pioneer folk who built my neighbourhood. Over the years clients have given me an antique whiskey bottle found under the floors of a miner’s cabin on the 800-block of Dunlevy. I was even given a cleaver and a nasty looking tool with many nails sticking out of it used by Chinese butchers to move pig carcasses hanging on tracks downstairs at a sausage factory on the 700 block of East Pender. But Harvie’s tools will always have a special place in my heart.

Over the last month or so, I have guided a number of history walking tours through my neighbourhood, Vancouver’s old East End. And whenever the tour stops in front of 821 Keefer, I take out the two largest of Harvie’s planes and show them to the group. I think Harvie would be pleased with the looks of awe and admiration his tools receive from the people on the tour. I know I am.

An Overview of the History of 821 Keefer.
Ontario-born carpenter Harvie Robertson built 821 Keefer in 1900 shortly after he moved to Vancouver from Ontario via the United States in. He built the house without a proper cement foundation. Like many house builders in the neighbourhood at the time, he laid out logs in a row on the ground, trimmed them, and built the house on top of them.

The 1901 Canada census indicates that Harvie made $600.00 a year working as a carpenter. Prior to that he had owned a business in the unit block of East Cordova Street where he and his partner sold tents and awnings to prospectors leaving for the Klondyke Gold Rush. (See photo above). By the time Harvie got around to building his Keefer Street home most of the lots in the immediate vicinity had already been developed. The occupants of the neighbouring houses were mostly British or Canadian born, but included a sprinkling of Newfoundlanders, Americans, and a bit later, some Scandinavians.

In 1910, a Japanese family moved in to 828 Keefer, across the street, and in 1911 a Russian family moved into 800 Keefer. The first Italian family to move in to the immediate neighbourhood arrived in 1915. It’s interesting to see that even in the boom years of 1908 through 1910 that the house next door at 827 Keefer stood empty for a full three years.

Harvie and his wife Hattie continued to live at 821 Keefer until 1912, when a single woman named Mary Ann Trainor moved into the house. Mary Ann Trainor was originally from Ireland. She only lived at 821 Keefer for a year or so. Municipal laborer John A. McLeod followed her in 1914. Then in 1915, the family of metalworker Alex Robertson moved in—Alex was in the army at the time—and lived there until 1918.

During the war years the demographics of the neighbourhood began to change. Maronite Catholic Arabs from the former Ottoman Empire, Ukrainians from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Russian Jews mix in with the resident Scots, Irish and English. By the early 1920s a few Chinese families make their appearance. Victoria-born vegetable vendor Gow Yuen, who eventually ends up living in 821 Keefer from the late 1920s lives at 828 Keefer in 1921 and in 800 Keefer in 1923. The house that existed at 526 Hawks was listed as vacant from 1918 to 1920, and then seems to have been demolished around 1921.

In 1920, Scottish-born Vancouver School Board Assistant Attendance Officer Andrew Borland and his wife Annie move to 821 Keefer and live there until 1926. From 1927 on, the house is home to a Chinese family, possibly that of aforementioned vegetable salesman, Gow Yuen, who is officially listed from 1935. Although Gow and his wife Rose are officially listed as living at 821 Keefer from 1935 to 1945, they may have lived there from earlier on.

With the late 1920s came another shift in the demographics of the immediate neighbourhood with more Chinese, Jewish, Ukrainian, Yugoslav, and Italian families moving to Keefer Street. It is unfortunate that the information gathering customs of the time prevented the city directories from listing the name of the Chinese family that lived there from 1927 to 1934.

The immediate neighbourhood of 821 Keefer remained a pretty interesting social and cultural mix through the 1940s. Chinese, Jews, Italians, Poles, Croats, Swedes, Scots and Germans lived side by side. In 1946, the Wong family took over 821 Keefer from the Yuen family. Although Mrs. Kim Chow Wong is the only person listed, one can be sure that the house was home to a larger family. Perhaps a more careful checking of the Wong listings for each year will turn up more family information. The same year the Wongs moved in, the vacant lot on the Northeast corner of Keefer and Hawks became the site of the Western Cartage Company. It was the Western Cartage building that eventually became the better-remembered Koo’s Garage.

Even during the 1950s this section of the block maintained its social and cultural mix. During the mid-1950s a Japanese family moved into 827 Keefer and some Chinese families moved into 812, and 817. For a number of years 817 Keefer was home to the Priest serving the Good Shepherd Anglican Chinese Mission on the 700-block of Keefer.

There were changes though. 1955 saw the closing of the corner Montreal Bakery. Its old owners, the Zanon family continued to live at 800 Keefer and operated a corner grocery at the front of the house. In 1956, Austrian-born Willy Taferner opened Willy’s Bakery at the back of 800 Keefer.

While the sixties brought major disruption to other parts of the old East End, this section of Keefer enjoyed a period of stability. A number of newer Chinese families moved in but they stayed long term. Willy’s Bakery at 800 Keefer closed in 1967 and was succeeded by a series of food companies then was turned into suites in 1974. At 821 Keefer the Yuen family was followed by the Sam family, then by the Ng’s and then the Wu family. The city directories list Kam Lun Lum at 821 Keefer from 1971 to 1992.

In 1970 Western Cartage’s premises were taken over by Dave’s Auto Repairs. In 1973 Gordon Koo took over and ran Koo’s Automotive at 803 Keefer from 1973 up until the recent turn of the century.

After the Lum family moved away in 1992 it looks like the house at 821 Keefer was subdivided into smaller suites. This may have actually happened earlier, but the 1993 directory shows that there were at least four tenants in the house.

The 1990s brought new changes to the neighbourhood. The original commercial spaces at 800 Keefer were transformed into the Paneficio artists’ studios. One of the neighbourhood artists sharing studio space at Paneficio dreamed of having a studio of her very own—a studio that was spacious, art inspiring, garden surrounded, peaceful, and most importantly, her own…

In Memory of Diana Kemble

1 comment:

  1. One of our board members is a Zanon - I wonder if there's a connection (I might have to ask her, that would be cool.) Loving your blog James!