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

Saturday, October 17, 2009


Okay! Don't get all flustered. This is a blog about Vancouver history and heritage after all. But now that I have your attention, I just thought I would share with you some of the books I am reading these days. One of these is fresh off the press. The others I have had on my shelf for a while, but take them down every now and then to reread and refresh my memory.

First, the new kid on the block. I am really enjoying reading Ray Culos' latest book, Vancouver's Shoeshine Boys: A Shining Social History. I am only part way through, but I am loving what I have read so far. Ray, for those of you who might not know, is Vancouver's premier Italian-Canadian historian and has written a number of books relating to the history of Vancouver's pioneer Italians. I love his books for a number of reasons. First of all, they are fascinating reads on their own. Ray's years of experience working as a journalist with the Vancouver Sun and Province, combined with his deep roots in, not to mention his pride in and passionate love for, Vancouver's Italian Community, his story-telling skills, and the wealth of archival images he is able to gather for his books, all combine to make some very readable and historically valuable books.

I love Ray's books because many of the people I have gotten to know through my research of the houses in my neighbourhood, Vancouver's old East End, which for decades was home to Vancouver's Little Italy, spring to life. Whether it is the Castricano and Di Palma families who lived across the street from me in the 1920s, or the Branca, Battistoni, and Trasolini families I have researched on Prior and Union Street, or the Lastorias on East Georgia, Ray has them all covered, both in story and photographs. To me, these books are a gift.

As you can guess by the title, Ray's latest book focusses on the lives and stories of enterprising young (mostly) Italian-Canadian Vancouverites who helped support themselves and their parents by shining shoes after school and on weekends. I have only read the first few chapters, but in flipping through the pages of this photo-filled book I have noticed quite a few surnames I am familiar with through my house history work, so I am really excited to get back to reading it tonight. If you haven't read any of Ray's books, you might want to begin here. The book costs $25 and is sold at the Italian Cultural Centre, People's Co-op Books on the Drive, and a number of other places throughout the city. Here is a link to Ray's website:

Another book I have at my bedside is Betty Keller's On The Shady Side: Vancouver 1886 - 1914. This is an extremely accessible, entertaining, and at the same time very well researched little book the focusses on the stories of the seamier side of Vancouver's pioneer period. The note on the back of book tells it all:

"It's time to open the closets ant let out all your ancestors: those devoted gamblers and demoted policemen, legendary rogues and ladies of the evening who are ignored in other histories of the city."

This book is not only an entertaining read, it has also helped me see a broader and perhaps truer picture of some of the people I have researched in my East End neighbourhood. Some of the houses on the 800 block of East Georgia (originally Harris) Street, were built by Newfoundland-born  policeman Thomas Henry Butler. I mentioned him in my earlier post on 831 East Georgia. Here he is in 1903 sitting with some of his cohorts in front of the old City Hall turned Police Station on the 300 block of Powell Street (CVA Photo POL P4). Butler is seated at the left beside Police Chief Sam North. Both of these men make appearances in Ms. Keller's book. Both men ended up leaving the force as the result of certain indiscretions which I hope you will be able to read about for yourself. Theirs is only one of a number of fascinating and entertaining tales of Vancouver's rough and tumble pioneer days included in this book. 

Sadly, On The Shady Side is out of print, but it may be available online second hand through or may be available at MacLeod Books on West Pender. 

Here is another book currently on my night table. Red Light Neon, by Daniel Francis, is a fascinating history of Vancouver's sex trade; a story that stretches back to Birdie Stewart, Vancouver's first madam, who in 1873 went into business in a small house near the corner of Water and Abbott. For a number of years, she plied her business in a house situated right beside the Methodist Parsonage. 

As Vancouver expanded southwards, its first red light district came to be situated on the unit and 100-block of Dupont Street (now East Pender), the same couple of waterlogged blocks where Vancouver's Chinese community was allowed to settle.

I have always been fascinated how Vancouver has dealt with its sex trade. During Vancouver's pioneer days, when Vancouver's caucasian population was predominantly male, there was a practical live and let live attitude. This attitude gradually changed as Vancouver's population grew, but for a number of decades there was no attempt to close down Dupont Street. In Vancouver's early days the fines exacted by the city from Dupont Street madams was an important source of civic income. Vancouver's sex trade was an unholy cash cow confined to a special isolated pen that was milked from time to time for the city's benefit. Policemen, like our stalwart Constable Butler mentioned above, also profited from the situation and in the end was caught and suffered the consequences.

Red Light Neon is an illuminating read. My only complaint about the book, as someone who finds this subject fascinating, especially when it relates to specific locales, is that I was left wanting more, but maybe that is for another book...

Red Light Neon is readily available at a variety of local bookstores.

This last book, Working Lives: Vancouver 1886-1986, is another fascinating read. It is a collection of stories and essays by a number of contributors, compiled and edited by the Working Lives Collective, and chronicles a century of Vancouver's working class history. To quote the back of the book:

"Working Lives: Vancouver 1886-1986, celebrates the achievements and lives of those 'ordinary' Vancouverites whose skills and labour are the city's true foundation -- and whose vital role is usually ignored in standard history books. 

I find this book particularly fascinating as many of the stories included in the book took place in my neighbourhood, the East End. For anyone unaware as I was of this particular aspect of Vancouver's history, this book is truly an eye opener. I would say it is not only a great read but a "must read"  one that is supplemented with a treasure trove of archival photos, many of which were contributed by the various authors.

My hope is that one day, all these photos will make their way to and be preserved for posterity at the City of Vancouver Archives. This aspect of Vancouver's history is still sadly underrepresented. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

831 East Georgia: East End Newfoundlander Houses and Strathcona's RT3 Zoning

A while back some neighbours of mine came to me with a notice that had been mailed to them about a development permit application for a house around the corner on the 800 block of East Georgia. The site in question was occupied by a quaint little two-storey, turn-of-the-last-century house with beautifully faded blue shingles and white and cream trim.

The proposal was for the historic little house to be demolished and a quite modern-looking new house to be put in its place. The drawings of what the new house would look like and how it would "fit in" with the historic houses on either side were included. To be honest, the new house looked sorta neat in a Phantom of the Opera mask sort of way (half of the front elevation was a nod to the historic houses of the neighbourhood while the other half looked modern). In another location I would have thought, now there's an interesting house... an exciting piece of architecture... but in the middle of a relatively intact historic streetscape that includes some amazingly restored old beauties, including 827 East Georgia, the house where Jimi Hendrix's grandmother lived for a number of decades, to me at least, it was all wrong. The city was asking for feedback on the plan, but their community consultation survey had not been sent to me at all and I live close enough to see the house from my home office window. What was I to do?

My neighbourhood, known as Strathcona for the last 50 years, is actually the old East End, Vancouver's oldest neighbourhood, and it went through some very rough times at the hands of the City Planning Department in the 1950s and 1960s.

As part of a plan to rationalize the city after amalgamation with Point Grey and South Vancouver in 1929, Vancouver enacted its very first zoning by-law in 1931  zoning the East End from Dunlevy to Clark as six-storey industrial. With this change in zoning, the neighbourhood went through a number of decades of forced deterioration.

The combination of the effects on the bylaw--banks refused loans to people wanting to do upkeep on homes in an industrial zoned area--on one hand, and neighbourhood demographics on the other, resulted in the neighbourhood looking worse for wear here and there.

The situation in the East End came to be seen as a textbook example of "urban blight" and well meaning minds at City Hall thought the problem would be best solved with a drastic neighbourhood makeover.

This makeover involved the complete demolition of all of the neighbourhood's housing stock, from pioneer cabins, to carpenter gothic and Queen Anne Victorians, a broad spectrum of row houses and tenements interspersed with beautifully porched and columned Edwardian boxes, and replacing it with multi-storied concrete project housing.

Here are two links to a rather interesting NFB CMHC video called To Build A Better City:

Long story short, the whole plan was initiated without any serious consultation with, or input from, the people most affected by this plan, the people who lived in this neighbourhood. As you can see in the video, the first part of the neighbourhood to go was our one and only park, Maclean Park, bounded by Dunlevy, Union, Jackson and East Georgia. An entire block of historic homes and apartments bounded by Hawks Avenue, East Georgia, Heatley and Keefer was demolished to replace this park.

The entire neighbourhood between Campbell and the railway tracks was demolished and replaced with more project housing and moves were being made to demolish large swaths of historic Chinatown and Gastown and all the houses and buildings between Prior and Union to create a freeway that would connect the Trans-Canada with downtown Vancouver.

If you travel over the Georgia Viaduct (opened January 9, 1972) from downtown towards the East End, you can see how it was originally designed so that the traffic would go straight ahead on a six lane freeway running between Union and Prior instead of vearing off on to Prior as it does now. Most people don't have a clue when they use the viaduct now but whenever I come home from downtown on the viaduct and see my car aim right at the houses on Gore Avenue I am still creeped out. Here is another great video.
The neighbourhood, under the leadership of Shirley and Mary Lee Chan, organized to fight against city hall and won! How it all happenedd is beautifully laid out in a chapter called Saving Strathcona in a book called CITY MAKING IN PARADISE: Nine Decisions That Saved Vancouver, by Mike Harcourt (who figured prominently in the struggle), Ken Cameron and Sean Rossiter.

After the neighbourhood was saved, measures were taken to salvage and protect the remaining houses that were left, first by providing grants for people to stucco their houses. Next, the community worked with the city to establish a special zoning for the neighbourhood, one that would provide incentives to homeowners to restore, rehabilitate, and or renovate, not demolish, what was left of the neighbourhood's heritage housing stock.

After a lot of thought, much community discussion, and a lot of hard work, Strathcona's special new zoning, called RT-3, was put into place. It covers an area bounded more or less by Gore Avenue on the west, Atlantic and Prior Avenue on the south, Clark Drive on the East and the alley between Hastings and Pender on the north. Click here for details:

The neighbourhood celebrated, and slowly over the past couple of decades, a large number of the old East End's dilapidated houses have been saved from the brink and restored to their former glory. You see them here and there around the neighbourhood, the 600-and 800 blocks of East Georgia, the 600 and 700 blocks of Princess. There is a stunning example of late 19th century decorative carpentry on a little house at 775 East Pender. The beautiful rosettes and spindles had been hidden under some form of protective cladding for years.

Then there's 844 Dunlevy, a house which if it had been bought by anyone else but the present owners would probably been torn down; it was so damaged by rain damage and decades of accumulated dog urine.  But instead of becoming landfill, 844 Dunlevy was painstakingly and lovingly restored, board by board, brick by brick. Looking at it today, you would never think that it once looked like some dilapidated haunted house. The transition is that remarkable. (I will be devoting an entire post to this house's story).

As bits and pieces of the neighbourhood began to be restored, Strathcona, what was left of the old East End, began to be seen as a desirable, even cool place to live. Every year in November a neighbourhood-based arts festival called the East End Culture Crawl brings thousands of curious arts and crafts seekers from outside of the neighbourhood. Among the visitors are sometimes neighbourhood oldtimers who reminisce about how everything was and looked way back when. But obviously most of the people you see and hear have never before, or rarely, been inside the neighbourhood. Perhaps it is the enduring perception that the East End is an edgy, dangerous, place that causes them to ooh and aah the way they do. You can almost see the thought bubbles above their heads, "Who knew?". (Note: The neighbourhood's transformation has been such that it has even been written about in the March 15/16, 2008 edition of the Financial Times. The article's title is "How Murky Became Quirky".

The neighbourhood has an evocative charm that is hard to resist. For many years part of that charm and attraction was that it was an affordable place to live, within walking distance of shopping in Chinatown, and a short bike or drive downtown or to The Drive. For some decades after the neighbourhood was saved, the lore and legend of how the neighbourhood rose up, resisted, and eventually won against City Hall was much talked about. It was a point of pride in the neighbourhood, and newcomers were all schooled in the stories. The East End's legend was properly passed on.

This level of awareness was reinforced by two books, one by Strathcona-based historian John Atkin called Strathcona: Vancouver's First Neighbourhood, and by a fascinating collection of aural histories compiled and edited by Carole Itter and Daphne Marlatt called Opening Doors: Vancouver's East End. Sadly, both of these books are out of print. Lucky are those who find them in secondhand someplace. A reprint of both books is long overdue.

But back to 831 East Georgia and the development permit application. I was stunned, first of all, that something like the demolition of a perfectly restorable Strathcona house would be allowed or disallowed by the results of a survey of the residents of only one block. I decided to talk to my neighbours to find what they thought. Contrary to my expectations, opinions were quite split. There were some who felt, as I did, that the prospect of losing another of our neighbourhood's historic old homes, when there were incentives in place to encourage retention of the house, was unacceptable. There were others who felt it was the right of an owner to do anything with his property, plain and simple. and I am sure there was a spectrum of positions in between.

I had researched a number of houses on the 800 block of East Georgia some years back. In fact, the houses on the western end of the 800-block of East Georgia was one of my first paying jobs doing house history research. But I had not researched as far as 831 East Georgia and that is what I next set out to do.
I wanted to find out all I could about the house, when and by whom it was built, and what sort of people lived there over the years. I hoped that if I could get the information out to the people in the neighbourhood, that they would take interest in the house and what happened to it.

So this is what I found...

831 East Georgia (Harris Street until 1915) was built in 1900 by Newfoundland-born carpenter, William Hutchings. According to the 1901 census and other information I was able to glean from the BC Archives Vital Events listings, carpenter Henry Hutchings was born in Newfoundland on September 10, 1866. His wife, Leah Badcock, was born in French's Cove, Newfoundland on December 15, 1867 the daughter of sealer and cod fisherman Josiah Badcock and his wife Olivia. At the time of the census they had three children living with them: six year-old Mildred C. Hutchings, born in Newfoundland on February 21, 1895, four year-old Jessie O. Hutchings, born in the USA on August 21, 1896, and two year-old James C. D. Hutchings, born in BC on February 7, 1899.

Several of the houses on both sides of the 800-block of Harris were built by Brigus, Newfoundland-born  policeman Thomas Henry Butler. (There he is, seated at right in the 1903 CVA Photo POL P4). There may or may not have been a connection. Either way, the Hutchings lived at 831 Harris until 1909.

In 1909, the house became home to carpenter and real estate dabbler Peter Stanger and his wife Annie May. Stanger was born in Surrey, England on April 24, 1872. His father’s name was Peter. His wife, Annie May Daugherty, was born May 3, 1885 in Fort MacLeod, Alberta. Her Irish-born father’s name was John Daugherty. Her Ontario-born mother’s maiden name was Bader. Peter Stanger came to Canada in 1894 and to Vancouver in 1907. The directory lists Peter Stanger both as a carpenter and as a real estate agent for Bishop Brothers. The bold face listing for the company reads: Bishop Brothers (R. L. Bishop and James Bishop) SUMMER HOMES, REAL ESTATE, LOANS, INVESTMENTS. Bishop Brothers had offices at Suites 118-119 in the Loo Building.

There is an ad on page 60 of the directory indicating the summer homes they were selling were available on “beautiful Gambier Island on our Easy Payment Plan”. The Loo Building was on the corner of Abbott and Hastings. The following year the Stanger family moved to 1863 Triumph. He went on to work as a pattern maker, retiring in 1942. Peter Stanger lived to the ripe old age of 100 spending his last years at George Derby Hospital. He died on December 5, 1972 at Shaughnessy Hospital and was buried in Mountain View. Annie May Stanger lived in later life at 4125 Canada Way in Burnaby. She died at Carlton Private Hospital on May 1, 1981. Her remains were cremated at Mountain View.

In 1910, the house was home to real estate broker Ernest Milton Akerly and his wife Ellen. Akerly was born in St. John, New Brunswick on November 25, 1868 and came to British Columbia in 1910. 831 Harris was the first Canadian home for the Akerlys. Ernest’s wife Ellen Henrietta Akerly was born in New Brunswick, the daughter of Scottish-born Donald Cook and Margaret Murchie. She came to Vancouver in 1906. They had at least two children: a son named Gordon and a daughter named Caroline Henriett Akerly. It looks like the Akerly’s were Baptist. Ernest Akerly went on to work as the manager of Hunting Merritt Lumber Co. (VPL Photo 4143 above) The family moved up the valley to live in Whonnock, BC. Ellen Akerly died there on June 7, 1946. Ernest went on to live at 6950 Yew Street but later died at VGH on June 12, 1953 at the age of 84, Both Ellen and Ernest are buried in Forest Lawn.

The first long term resident of the house was teamster George H. Sanderson. He and his wife Pearl lived at 831 Harris from 1911 to 1923. (In 1915, Harris Street was renamed East Georgia when Harris and Georgia were linked by the first Georgia Viaduct shown below in CVA Photo PAN N221).

George Sanderson was born in Ontario in December of 1885. His wife, Pearl, was born in Ontario in February of 1885. Early city directories very often only listed the head of the family and did not list the names of spouses or children or boarders. We know from the 1911 census that, for that year at least, two roomers lived with the Sandersons: Augustus Carter, a car starter for BC Electric Railway who was born in March of 1883, and carpenter Norman Irwin, who was born in Ontario in March of 1882. George and Pearl Sanderson were Methodists. Sanderson worked for a number of years for Champion and White, a building materials company located at 1003 Beach. (CVA 99-1400 below)

In 1915 he is listed as their stable foreman. Later on, he worked as a teamster for Great West Cartage located at 480 Prior Street. In 1923, the last year George and Pearl lived at 831 East Georgia, he is listed as the company proprietor.

From 1924 on, the directory records are sadly fuzzy. From 1924 to 1928 a Japanese family, or families, lived at the house. The 1929 directory lists Chinese occupants. Then from 1931 to 1932 the directories list “orientals”.

In 1932, a Jewish junkman named Morris Baltman moved into the house from a house at 617 Union. In 1933, the height of the depression, the house stood empty.

In 1934, Irish-Canadian laborer Hector Alexander Halliday and his wife Mary lived in the house. Halliday was born on Richards Street in Vancouver the son of Belfast-born James Halliday and Liverpool native Minnie Hildbrand. His wife, Mary Dolores Giardin was born at 343 Prior Street in Vancouver, the daughter of Giuseppe Giardin (spelled Jardine in the directories) and Anna Del Soto. On September 30, 1929, 23 year-old cook Hector Alexander Halliday married 22 year-old Mary Dolores Giardin at 246 East 11th Avenue. Hector was Anglican and despite her Italian roots, Mary is listed on the marriage certificate as Presbyterian. The Rev. Duncan McDougall presided at the wedding. Hector Halliday and his wife Mary moved to 757 Prior by 1935 and the house stood vacant for the remainder of the year.

In 1936 and 1937, 831 East Georgia was home to miner Peter Holyk and his wife Annie. Peter Holyk was born in the Ukraine on September 3, 1899. Anna Holyk was born in the Ukraine on May 30, 1900. Her maiden name was Slepic. She came to Vancouver in 1928. In later life Peter and Annie lived at 2440 East 3rd Avenue. She died at VGH on November 27, 1973 at the age of 72. Her remains were cremated at Mountain View. Peter Holyk died at St. Paul’s Hospital on January 29, 1977. His remains were cremated at Mountain View. A son, Michael John Holyk is mentioned on the death certificate.

In 1938 and 1939, logger William Martin and his wife Katherine lived in the house. They were followed in 1940 by miner Nicholas Briggs and his wife Rose in 1940. Here is an example of an immigrant family of non-British descent adopting a British sounding name. Nicholas Briggs was born in Roumania on August 19, 1894. He came to Canada around 1911 and to Vancouver around 1935 where he worked mostly as a mixed farmer until 1951. His wife Rose was born in Gardenton, Manitoba on January 14, 1903 the daughter of Ukrainian-born Mike Horechka and Lena Zvisvak. They had at least one daughter, Marion Briggs. In later life the Briggs family moved to 2611 Clinton (Penticton) Street. Nicholas suffered from silicosis for 15 years of his life, no doubt due to his work in the mines. From around 1949 he caught pulmonary TB. Nicholas Briggs finally died of pulmonary TB at Pearson TB Hospital on April 17, 1954 at the age of 59. He is buried in Mountain View Cemetery. Rose Briggs eventually moved to 6237 Clinton Street in Burnaby. She died at Royal Columbian Hospital on April 19, 1980 at the age of 77. For some reason, she was buried separately from Nicholas in Ocean View Cemetery.

The 1941 lists the occupants as “Orientals” but the 1942 directory lists Joe Hing, driver for Pacific Produce. It may be that Joe lived in the house in 1941. Joe Hing was born in China around 1895. According to his death certificate, he was single all his life—not unusual for Chinese men of the time who were prevented from bringing over new wives or even pre-existing families by the discriminatory immigration laws of the day. Joe Hing moved from 831 East Georgia to 112 Lorne Street. He died of myocarditis—brought on by syphilis—at Mount St. Joseph Hospital at 236 Campbell Avenue at the age of 50 on January 3, 1945. Joe was buried in Mountain View Cemetery.

From 1943 to 1950, 831 East Georgia was home to the Oraskovich family: Martin and Kate Oraskovich and a Mrs. Rose Oraskovich. The Oraskovich family was of Yugoslav heritage. During the war, Martin worked in the shipyards, working as a stager for Burrard Dry Docks (CVA photo LP 171 above). After the war the directories listed him as a laborer. Mrs. Rose Oraskovich worked as a dishwasher at the Hotel Georgia.

From 1951 to 1971 the house was home to Luigi M. Montico and his wife Emilia Pettovello. Luigi Montico was born in Italy June 26, 1903 the son of Angelo Montico and Angela Cancian. Luigi was a terrazzo worker. From 1955 to 1964 Luigi is listed as working for a company called Darlington Haskins & Co. Darlington Haskins & Co., located at 525 West 8th Avenue, were dealers and contractors in slate, ceramic, tiles, terrazzo, etc. Mrs. Emilia Montico is listed for a number of years as working as a dishwasher at The Italian Restaurant at 4411 Main Street. Luigi is listed as retired from 1965 onwards. Emilia continued to work at the Italian Restaurant until at least 1967.

Apparently Mr. Montico used to keep doves in a shed at the back of the house. Sometime in late 1971 or early 1972, Luigi and Emilia joined the eastward exodus of Strathcona’s Italian community and moved to 4545 Venables in Burnaby. Luigi died at St. Paul’s Hospital on May 13, 1976 at the age of 72 and was buried in the Horne 2 Section of Mountain View Cemetery in Plot BLVD/058/0001. Emilia lived until 1997. She was buried beside Luigi in plot BLVD/058/0002 in the Horne 2 Section of Mountain View on October 3, 1997.

According to the 1972 directory, 831 East Georgia was vacant. In 1973, the house was home to retiree Kit Seto and his wife Kinyee Woo. From 1974 to 1975, Kenneth Wong, a waiter at the Sheraton Hotel (probably the Landmark on Robson) lived there. Then from 1976 to about 1992 the house was owned and lived in by retiree Yui Qui Sem and his wife Chaukon. The current owners have lived in the house from 1993 to present.


As a result of a getting the news out to a broader spectrum of the Strathcona community, the city received a lot of letters regarding the demolition plan... And in the end, a significantly larger number of letters supporting retention of the house and against demolition was received by the city. The whole issue even made the pages of The Sun newspaper.  The reason for this, I believe, was that people in the neighbourhood saw that allowing the demolition of a perfectly restorable East End house would set a dangerous precedent... dangerous in that it had the potential to severely undermine the neighhourhood's hard won RT-3 Zoning. This was not being looked at as an isolated incident involving one house; rather 831 East Georgia was seen as standing in front of a long line of similar houses in the neighbourhood, and that if 831 was knocked down, the domino effect would have disastrous repurcussions for the neighbourhood.

Happily, the house that Newfoundland-born carpenter Henry Hutchings built at 831 Harris Street still stands. If you walk down the alley behind the house you will see a relocated and modified version of the house that was meant to replace 831 Georgia. The owners and their architect came up with a win/win situation within the guidelines of the RT-3 Zoning in which the owners got the modern house they wanted, and the Hutchings House--a little, but important piece of East End history was also saved. It is an interesting solution in that it reflects a two house on one lot tradition in the neighbourhood that goes back 100 years... except in most cases the older house is at the back of the lot.

* * *
Many thanks to Armida Beasley, niece of Luigi and Emilia Montico, for the photos of the Montico family and friends in front of 831 East Georgia, and to Patrick Gunn of Heritage Vancouver Society for the colour picture of 831 East Georgia. 

For those of you who read this far and care about credits, here's a special treat. The front porch of 831 East Georgia was closed in sometime after the Montico family moved away and was restored with the help of a community grant to restore the historical porches of Strathcona sometime after the current owners bought the house... The new pillars are beautiful, but if you look at Patrick's colour photo and Armida's B&W photo on the bottom left, you can see how the originals and the replacements are a bit different. (Remember you can enlarge each photo by clicking on them). Neat, eh?

2nd photo
CVA 780-361 showing apartment in Strathcona - location unknown
3rd photo
CVA 203-48 showing back of 248-250 Union Street
4th photo

CVA 780-310 showing back of a Strathcona house - location unknown
5th photo
CVA 780-307 showing interior of Strathcona house in 1960s - location unknown

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

4698 West 4th Avenue - South Sea Adventure and Shrunken Heads

A few years back I was hired by the owners of the two-storey, wood frame house on the SE corner of West 4th and Blanca. The house stands on high ground overlooking the waters of Spanish Banks and English Bay. Today, tall trees obsure the view, but I am sure that back when the house was built it would have commanded an amazing view of the West End and downtown, as well as the ship traffic in an out of Vancouver's busy harbour.

My first step in assessing a house's age and a starting point for my research in the old city and provincial directories is to do a water service application search. Most of the time, but not always, the date a house owner applied for water service to their property was the same or very close to the date they applied for a building permit. In the case of this house, a woman named Henrietta Burnett applied for water service on April 10, 1912. I searched the Point Grey building permit applications for April of 1912 and found Point Grey Building Permit Application #167, which listed a man named Frank Burnett as owner, architect and builder.

As with all of my house history projects, I attempt to provide a context by including the history of some of the neighbouring houses. Sometimes I find connections between the people who lived in the house I am researching and those in the neighbouring houses. Sometimes siblings or in-laws will build and live beside each other. In my neighbourhood, the old East End, I often find there is a job connection. Neighbours often worked at the same sawmill or the sugar factory. It ultimately creates a more interesting and valuable product for a client.
I searched for the water service records of the neighbouring houses and found that most of them were built much later than 4698 West 4th Avenue, with the earliest being built in 1924 while others were built in the late 1930s.
From what I could tell from the original legal description and the early fire insurance maps for the area, the lot that 4698 West 4th Avenue was built on was rather large, stretching a full half block east and as far south as what is nowWest 5th Avenue. Over the years, the original property was subdivided, gradually reducing in size to what it is today. So the house started out on a largish estate... but just who were Frank and Henrietta Burnett, and where did their apparent wealth come from?
I started to search through the city directories at the City of Vancouver Archives and what I found really didn't give me any clues as to the importance of Frank Burnett, his life and his legacy. For many years no profession is listed by his name. The years there is something, 1917 and 1918, he is listed as an insurance agent working out of an office at 447 West Pender--where MacLeod's Books is today.

I did a photo search at the Vancouver Archives and that is when I hit pay dirt. There were all sorts of photos relating to Frank Burnett. The one portrait that is included shows him surrounded by an amazing collection of artifacts from the South Seas. I followed my photo search with a search of newspaper articles at the Vancouver Public Library andthe gold mine just got bigger. So this is what I found.
4698 West 4th Avenue was built in 1912 by Scottish-born master mariner, one-time insurance salesman, farmer, grain dealer, private banker, police magistrate, real estate salesman, salmon canning entrepreneur, and later south-sea explorer, artifact collector, author, and amateur anthropologist Frank Burnett.

Frank Burnett was born in Petershead, Aberdeenshire, Scotland on February 14, 1852, the son of Peter Burnett and Henrietta Bond. He came from a seafaring family. His wife, Henrietta Cook was born in Quebec on December 15, 1852. Her father’s name was Val Cook.

According to the 1901 census, Frank Burnett came to Canada in 1890. He settled in Montreal where his maternal uncle, Bennett Bond, was Archbishop. It was in Montreal that he met and married his wife, Henrietta. Frank and Henrietta Burnett came to Vancouver from Winnipeg in 1895. In the five intervening years Frank Burnett worked as an insurance salesman, tried his hand at farming, became a grain dealer, private banker, the Reeve of Cypress municipality and became the first magistrate in that part of the country. It was apparently a turn in his personal health that prompted him to move to Vancouver.

In Vancouver, he took up again with the sea, becoming a pilot commissioner with the Vancouver Pilotage District (He is shown second from left on the bottom row of CVA photo LP 348 at left), then turned his hand back toward business, becoming a broker. His business prospered but his health remained poor. For the sake of his health Burnett took a cruise to the South Pacific. What Burnett saw and experienced during that cruise changed the course of his life. Burnett came back to Vancouver filled with passion for the South Seas.

He made immediate arrangements to buy a schooner and took his wife and family on a two year holiday cruise to the South Pacific. Burnett’s adventure captured the imagination of the local populace. Several articles about his planned trip and purchase of the Seattle-registered schooner “Laurel” appeared in Vancouver and Victoria newspapers. Originally, Frank Burnett had intended to rename the schooner “Henrietta Burnett” after his wife, but it was eventually renamed “Tropic Bird.”

Burnett ended up making several trips between Vancouver and the South Seas. On some of the longer trips he spent 10 to 18 months in the region. Burnett was fascinated with the various cultures of Polynesia, Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea. He could see that the indigenous culture was changing fast under the influence of European colonization and missionary work in the area. He set about amassing a vast collection of artifacts from the islands he visited. These ranged from carved ritual and religious objects, masks, weapons, and miniature boats to shrunken heads.

It was the need to house this ever-growing collection that prompted Burnett to move from the increasingly cramped family home at 1877 Comox Street to a new house that he built on a 2.4 acre lot on the extreme western edge of Vancouver at the corner of Blanca Street and University Avenue.

Henrietta Clarinda Burnett, Frank’s wife, purchased the 2.4 acres property comprising of Lot 1 of Block 143 of District Lot 540 on August 25, 1911. The total cost for the property was $2637.50. Henrietta Burnett applied for Water Service April 10, 1912. Around the same time, Frank Burnett applied for a building permit application. Point Grey Building Permit Application #167 lists Frank Burnett as owner, architect and builder.

During the years that Frank Burnett Sr. lived at the house, 4698 West 4th Avenue was more like a pied-à-terre—a home base to rest up between trips and a place to store and display his South Sea artifacts. The Vancouver City Archives has a number of photos of Frank Burnett’s collection. At one time, before the house was subdivided, there was one large room that had been especially built to display his collection. The photos in the archives were taken inside that room at 4698 West 4th sometime in the 1920s.

Frank Burnett not only collected artifacts, he collected trees and plants on his journeys. He landscaped the grounds of his estate at 4698 West 4th with these exotic specimens.

Since Frank Senior was away so much of the time, his son, Frank Junior and his wife, Anna Josephine, lived in the house. For those years the city directories list sometimes Frank Senior and sometimes Frank Junior.

Henrietta Clarinda Burnett died at St. Paul’s Hospital on January 25, 1917 at the age of 64 from complications arising from acute appendicitis. She was buried in the Jones Section of Mountain View Cemetery in plot 39/012/0003. Frank Burnett Sr. was appointed trustee of her estate in her will. Her estate was to be divided evenly between her son, Frank Burnett Jr. and her daughter, Nina Blackmore. In the event of either of their deaths, their portion of the estate was to be divided evenly among their grandchildren.

Frank Burnett continued to travel to the South Seas. He wrote four books about his travels: Through Tropic Seas, F. Griffiths, 1910; Through Polynesia and Papua: Wanderings with a Camera in Southern Seas, Griffiths, 1911; Summer Isles of Eden, Sifton, 1923; and The Wreck of the “Tropic Bird” and other South Sea Stories, Sifton, 1926.

In 1927, Burnett presented his 1,200 item collection to UBC where it was housed in the Library. In 1947, it became the core around which the Museum of Anthropology was established. Frank Burnett was awarded an honourary doctorate for his contribution to anthropology.

Frank Burnett Sr. died, as he lived, in rather dramatic circumstances. He collapsed in the midst of offering a toast at a Canadian Authors Association formal banquet at 700 West Georgia—the old Hotel Vancouver. He died of a heart attack at 8:30 pm on February 20, 1930 and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery.

The Toronto General Trusts Corporation and Frank Burnett’s grandson, James Mulhall Burnett became trustees of the Burnett Estate.

From 1930 to 1940 the house was rented out to a number of people. In 1931, it was rented to William Wade Denbigh. Denbigh, who was an insurance salesman and financial broker, moved to 4698 West 4th from a house at 4311 West 3rd. William Wade Denbigh was born in Nottingham, England on May 25, 1882 the son of Joseph Denbigh and Jane Hemstock. His wife, Kathleen Power, was born in Ireland on May 26, 1882.

In 1932, the house was rented to retired confectionery merchant Alfred Edward Jones and his wife Mary. Alfred Edward Jones was born in Ontario on June 28, 1873 the son of Welsh-born Edward Jones and Ontario native Lavina Ashton. He came to British Columbia in 1927. By 1933 he was living at 4736 West 4th Avenue.

From 1932 onward, 4698 West 4th Avenue went through a variety of owners and iterations. For a while it was a frat house for UBC’s Sigma Epsilon branch of Zeta Psi fraternity,then returned to being a single family dwelling before being turned into a rooming house for a while. The current owners assumed full title to the property on August 28, 1978. The house has been divided over the years into a number of suites. One wonders if the renters upstairs have had any inklings that their suites one housed , among other things, human skulls and shrunken heads...

CVA LP 348 Commissioners and Pilots of Vancouver Pilotage District 1879 - 1916, [ca. 1916]
CVA Out P647 Dr. Frank Burnett surrounded by his South Sea' artifacts c1920s
CVA Out P648 Dr. Frank Burnett's schooner Tropic Bird [1910s]
CVA Out P 658 Part of Burnett's collection of South Seas' artifacts, [1920s]
CVA Out P650 Dr. Frank Burnett's collection of South Seas' artifacts, [1920s]
CVA Out P 659 Part of Dr. Burnett's collection of South Seas' artifacts, [1920s]
UBC 1.1/1255 May 9, 1929 Frank Burnett Collection in UBC Main Library, Leonard Frank photo
CVA Out P 660 Part of Dr. Frank Burnett's collection of South Seas' artifacts], [1920s]