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.
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 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.