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

Friday, September 25, 2009

909 Richards - The House that Andrew Edward Lees Built

Many years ago when I lived in the West End and worked downtown I went to a gym called The Nautilus in the 900 block of Richards. I used to walk there from the Bentall Centre where I worked taking various routes but would always turn south on Richards from Smythe and walk by an old ochre yellow house that had a little concrete bunker like structure in front of it that was for some years a ticket office and other years a hair salon called the Best Little Hair House in Vancouver.

This was years before my first forays into house history research. For me, the old yellow house and its concrete addition was a curiosity at most, one of a few and dwindling number of old houses in the Yaletown Downtown South area, a reminder that this part of Vancouver, then rapidly transforming into a high-rise dominated zone, was once a residential neighbourhood filled with beautiful old Victorian houses.

Flash forward to 2005. I am living in the East End and trying to make a go working as a house history researcher. I can't remember exactly how it happened, perhaps it was through a contact at City Hall, but I was contacted by a developer who had permission to demolish the old yellow house and replace it with a five to six story condo block.

For some reason, as part of his deal, the developer had to contract someone to do research on the building before it was demolished. I was hired to research the property for $2000. I was very glad to have the work, but it was the first time I was involved with researching a building that I knew was going to go.

As part of the deal, the city sent me the title search results for the address. By some slipup, they actually sent me all the title searches for every remaining house in the South Granville area. It was a fascinating read. From that package I found out two things: First, that the house I was researching at 909 Richard was the oldest house left standing in the downtown south area, and the second oldest was the house beside the Penthouse strip club on Seymour Street. Hmmm.

What I Found Out:
909 Richards was a two storey frame house on a stone foundation. It was built in 1889 directly opposite the original Pioneer Steam Laundry at 1912 Richards by Ontario-born sawmill owner and real estate broker Andrew Edward Lees. Lees had lived previously in New Westminster and Nanaimo where he worked in the sawmill industry. He owned an interest in New Westminster's Royal City Planing Mills and the Nanaimo Sawmill.

After briefly dabbling in real estate, Lees took a new direction in life, operating a men's furnishings store at 26 Cordova, then at 156 W. Hastings in the Flack Block for a number of years. There are quite a few pictures of this store at the City of Vancouver Archives and the VPL Special Collections.

Lees was Vancouver's Parks Board Commissioner from 1902 to 1915 (according to Vancouver City Archivist Major James Skitt Matthews' note on his portrait at the city of Vancouver Archives. his nomination papers for the 1906 election lists 909 Richards as one of three properties he owned in Vancouver at the time. During his tenure as Parks Board Commissioner, work commenced on both the Stanley Park Seawall and the Stanley Park Zoo. Lees Trail in Stanley Park is named after him. Lees lived at 909 Richards with his wife, Anna Elizabeth Lees, and their five children from 1890 to 1906.

Well this was exciting. Andrew Edward Lees seemed to me to be a pretty important man in our early history for a variety of reasons. So, what were we doing tearing down his house?

A look at the 1901 census records show us that Andrew Edward Lees was born on December 10, 1855 in Fallbrook, Ontario. He and his family were Methodists, and he made $1000 a year. His wife, Anne Elizabeth Playfair was also born in Ontario on January 29, 1863.  Their eldest son, William Frederick Lees was born in Nanaimo, BC on February 8, 1888. Their eldest daughter, Mary G. Lees, appears to have been born in rural Ontario on August 21, 1890. Jessie Lees was born in Vancouver on August 12, 1896. While the youngest, Laura Marjorie Lees, was born in Vancouver on April 11, 1899. Given that most births were home births back then, we can assume that Jessie and Laura were born at 909 Richards. Andrew Edward Lee's brother, George A. Lees, is also listed in the house by the 1901 census. He was born in rural Ontario on October 15, 1876. George was a merchant and made $600 a year.

In 1907, the Lees family moved to a house in a more fashionable part of the West End, 1270 Nelson (near Jervis), but continued to own the house at 909 Richards. In 1910, they finally sold the house to the family they had been renting it to from 1907, the DeGraves family.

The DeGraves family immigrated to Vancouver from Australia around 1903. Joseph DeGraves was a baker and ran a bakery at 2313 Granville Street near 8th Avenue. It was Joseph's wife, Eliza Jane (née Eizenhardt) DeGraves, who bought the house from Andrew E. Lees in May of 1910.

In 1911, the DeGraves family moved out of the house and some members, including Eliza and son Norman live at a house at 1150 West 12th. Another son, No. 10 Firehall Chief John Henry DeGraves lives with his wife Elizabeth at 725 West 14th. The house was rented out for a number of years before the DeGraves family returned to 909 Richards in 1915.

Joseph and Eliza DeGraves had four sons of which three were prominent in Vancouver history: Port Customs Collector, Norman J. DeGraves, Alderman and later newspaperman Harry J. DeGraves, and Fire Chief John Henry DeGraves. I will include some newspaper clippings detailing the lives and exploits of these three men later on in this post.

Of particular note is the pre-world War II article on the Japanese threat to British Columbia by Alderman Harry DeGraves. He was decidedly anti-Oriental. There are also a number of articles concerning then Assistant Fire Chief John H. DeGraves and his part in a scandal involving the firemen of Firehall No. 2 who supposedly taunted and insulted Vancouver policemen during the Post Office Riots of 1938.

The DeGraves family continued to live at 909 Richards until 1920 when it was turned into a rooming house. Perhaps "turned into" is not so accurate a statement. A look at the 1911 census shows a woman named Pearl Cullen living there with 15 lodgers. Two of them were female, the rest of them were male. If you look at the following pictures you can see that the house was divided into quite a few rooms or suites. This may have happened as early as 1911, otherwise it is hard to picture 15 lodgers living in a house that size.

Eliza DeGraves actually continued to own the house until 1928 when it was bought by a man named James Johnson Logan. No owner lived in the house until 1941 when it was sold to Italian-born George Battistel.

On December 23, 1946, Ruth M. Powley buys 909 Richards. She and her husband Lloyd H. Powley move in and operate a rooming house there until 1974. In 1953, Powley built the little concrete addition in front of the house which appears for the first time in the city directories as Lloyd’s Barber Shop.

Then from 1975 to 1979 the house and the barber shop stood vacant.

I should point out here that, of course, 909 Richards had other houses on either side of it. It had been part of a neighbourhood. 905 Richards lasted until 1935. 913 Richards lasted until 1949, then was demolished and turned into a parking lot. 911Richards lasted until 1963. There were shops and apartments along the 500 block of Smythe behind the Dufferin Hotel up until 1962.

909 Richards shows up as occupied again in the 1980 directory and was operated as a rooming house or apartments up until 2005. The little barber shop is converted into a jewellery store called The Chain Factory. This becomes the General Clock Repair in 1982. Then from 1983 to 1984 it operates as a real estate office for Scott Primrose, president of Town Group Heath Realty and Roseberry Estates. According to the title search information I had, Scott Primrose bought 909 Richards from Ruth Powley on June 1, 1981 for $200,000. Scott had “Roseberry House” painted in the transom window above the front door of the house.

From 1985 to 1992 the little building in the front is known as The Best Little Hair House In Town. Then from 1995 to 2000 it is the One Stop Ticket Shop.

The last year I included in my research project was 2001. That was the year the last of the so-called Criss Cross Directories was published. The 2001 listing for 909 Richards has the little shop once again as a beauty salon, this time it is called The House of Envy.

The fate of the oldest house in Downtown South was sealed on May 31, 2004 when Park Place Development Co. Ltd. bought the house for $800,000.

During the course of my research of the property, I got to tour throughout most of the building, including the rat infested basement. What I saw I documented with a digital camera. I was astounded at how solid the house was… how intact the original baseboards, door and window moldings, banisters, landing railings and the newel posts were. What was going to happen to all this treasure? Could any of it be saved?

I asked Nizar Manji of Park Place Development, the man who hired me, what was going to happen to all of the interior wood detailing. He told me that the demolition company had first rights to anything that was salvageable.

I would have loved to have saved a newel post or two and some of the door and window frames to use in my house (a 1908 rowhouse stripped of its interior detailing when it was renovated and turned into a strata in 1984). There was a beautiful sink in particular in one of the downstairs suites that I would have loved to have had but it seemed there was nothing I could do.

Even if the demolition people didn’t salvage anything, I really didn’t have the wherewithal or experience to salvage anything myself. The one friend who could have helped me was himself overworked and almost to the point of exhaustion, working to restore his own home on Dunlevy Avenue (that’s another upcoming post), so all I could do was wait and watch what happened.

I found out from someone, I think it was John Mackie from The Sun, that the house was going to be demolished the next day. So I drove downtown to see if I could get inside one last time to see if anything had been saved. I walked into the foyer and nothing had been taken. There were a couple of holes in the wall and some of the stair railings were broken, probably the last defiant gesture of some disgruntled displaced tenants, but nothing, absolutely nothing had been salvaged. The newel posts, the beautiful Victorian window and door trim. The beveled baseboards, and that beautiful sink; they were all there. The next day, all of it was smashed. All of it ended up as landfill. All that is left are these pictures.

Portrait of Andrew Edward Lees is City of Vancouver Archives Photo Port P1661.4

Photos of the Flack Block showing Andrew Edward Lees store are Vancouver Public Library Photos 5367 and 6675, both by Philip Timms.

Photo of Firemen standing in front of Firehall #2 on Seymour Street (where the Telus Building is now) is CVA Photo FD P. 30. Mayor L. D. Taylor (with top hat) stands beside the Fire Chief. Assistant Fire Chief John Henry DeGraves stands on the right.

Photo of Alderman Harry DeGraves pinning something onto an unidentified lady's coat is CVA Photo Port P816.

Second and third colour pictures courtesy of Maurice Jassak (See My Links for Maurice's other photos of heritage houses and buildings in the Lower Mainland). 

All other photos by author.


  1. I remember The Best Little Hair House! (I thought it was so clever...) This is heartbreaking that nothing was saved. I hope you have learned to carry some handy tools with you now and have some small-scale demolishing abilities :)

  2. I actually stayed in the rooming house in back of the hair salon for about 6-months in 1998. Thank you for preserving the history of this property.

    --Bill Eatock

    1. Bill, it is my pleasure... It is so great to hear from people who have a connection to the houses I have researched and blogged about.


  3. Hi James. I loved that little house. I had the chance in the late 80's or maybe it was early 90's, I'm not quite sure at the moment, to do some work in that house. I was hired to fix a few holes in the walls. The only problem was I was using Gypsum board which was thicker than the plaster, but I did manage to hide most of that with the mud paint though. I for one surely miss all those old houses.

    Oh and I love this site. It's very informative. Thanks.

  4. This is very interesting! My Great, Great Aunt was Jesse Lees. Jesse married my father's Uncle: Charlie Bickford - and they have quite a history in Kamloops having owned a large Tomato Cannery. I am told by Father who is now 91 that Jesse was the first woman to drive in Vancouver. My Father has a decorative Porcelain ( I think) pipe which was given to Andrew Lees by the Mayor of Vancouver.

  5. Hello,
    I have enjoyed reading your brief write-up on Andrew Lees.
    Somehow I acquired a promotional card from A.E. Lees & Co. - "The Cash Clothiers" and an internet search of his name led me here.
    Keep up the great work!