227 Union wasn’t a mansion by any stretch of the imagination. No rich people ever lived there. None of its occupants ever made it into the news clippings. I know. I checked. So what’s the big deal?
That house was over a hundred years old. It was built in 1900 by a New Brunswick-born carpenter, John Bruce Smith, on a lot on which a smaller cabin had stood from 1894. Smith’s mother Isabella, his sister Ada and his brother Peter and Peter’s wife Martha lived there for just over a decade. Their neighbours were mostly working class immigrants from Britain and Eastern Canada: teamsters and laborers, laundry men and blacksmiths.
By 1913 the house was rented out to Joseph Lacterman, a Russian-born Jewish tailor, and his English-born wife Bessie. The rest of the block was undergoing changes as well. Union and Main Street had become the nucleus of a growing Italian colony in Vancouver. The Bingarra Block, which once stood on the southeast corner of Union and Main housed Vancouver’s earlier Italian consular offices. [Bingarra was named for a place in New South Wales, Australia.]
Back on the north side of the street, the house at 209 Union, built in 1891 and first occupied by New Brunswick-born dressmaker Mary Marion Myles and her trader husband Robert Johnson Myles, had been turned first into a boarding house, then into a restaurant by a man named Thomas A. Kelly. This same house would, by 1948, become the home of Robert and Viva Moore and as Vie’s Chicken and Steakhouse become a Vancouver icon.
During World War I many of the houses on the 200-block of Union stood vacant, as did hundreds of houses throughout Vancouver. Prior to the war there had been a building boom, but with the outbreak of war Vancouver’s population dropped by 30,000. During the war Bruce Smith moved back to 227 Union with his new bride Emma. By then Bruce had become a pile driver working for Evans Coleman and Evans, a large timber-exporting firm which built Vancouver’s first deep-sea dock. Bruce and Emma continued to live at 227 Union until 1923. In 1924 a Chinese family rented, then from 1924 to 1933 Kansas-born Elijah "Lige" Holman became the first black person to live in the house. Elijah Holman and a Mamie Holman owned and lived next door at 221 Union from 1922 to 1924. Elijah Holman was born in Kansas on March 8, 1875 and came to Vancouver in 1911 where he worked as a laborer for the city of Vancouver from 1932 to 1942. According to his death certificate he never married.
By 1934, Elijah Holman had moved back to 221 Union and from 1935 to 1942 227 Union was home to Italian-born laborer Alberto Barichello and his wife Angelina. During the 1930s and 1940s the block was a mix of Black, Italian and Chinese families.
From 1945 until recently 227 Union has been home to a number of Chinese families, first the Shuen and then the Jang families. Elijah Holman continued to live next door at 221 Union until his death on October 25, 1951 at the age of 75. He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery.
A few years back at the time when I was trying to get my house-history research business off the ground I thought it was important to have a diverse selection of samples to show potential clients. In between paying jobs I chose a number of houses that I knew I never would be hired to research. I called these projects my orphans. They were mostly small, neglected-looking houses in my neighborhood, the East End, houses that I felt would soon face the wrecking ball, be knocked down and be forgotten. Obliterated from the landscape and our memory. 227 Union was one of those orphans. I thought that if I could research its history and show it had a story that the house would be saved.
The 227 Union project involved thirteen addresses—five on the north side of the street, and eight on the south. As I gathered and wove together the various strands and layers of data I collected I was fascinated with the various changes this little slice of the old East End had gone through. People came in waves, it seemed, from all over the world to find a new life on this section of East End Vancouver street. Digging deeper, I scrolled through hundreds of birth, death and marriage records for the people who lived in these houses. As I named their names in my head the feeling that I might be the only person who was remembering these men and women and their stories overwhelmed me.
To supplement the data I had collected I set out to find images of the houses I was researching at the archives and the library. In the end the only photos I could find were from the 1970s taken from atop the Cobalt Hotel just after Hogan’s Alley was demolished and the ramps for the new Georgia Viaduct were being built. One photo was taken while the Bingarra Block was still standing. The other, taken after its demolition, contains a clear shot of 227 Union and its neighbors, including 209 Union—Vie’s Chicken and Steakhouse. As far as I know it is the only archival photo of that Hogan’s Alley icon in existence.
On a cold January morning as work crews struggled to clear the jumble of fallen trees in Stanley Park and other workers raced to repair the torn panels in BC Place Stadium an ugly two-ton backhoe knocked down the last remaining house on the 200-block of Union. A perfectly solid house which could have been saved and moved just half a block to replace houses lost on Gore and Union to recent arson fires.
I know it was solid because I snuck inside the week before it was demolished. The stain glass windows had been taken out and some trim salvaged but what remained was sound. It didn’t need to be taken down.