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

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

1606 East 15th Ave - The House that Thomas Bell built

A few year's back I was called on by a very nice realtor  named Shelly Smee to do some research on a newly restored Cedar Cottage Arts & Crafts bungalow across from Clark Park. 
The owner had done an amazing job in bringing the house back to is former glory after years of it being quite run down and was toying with the idea of moving on. What you see above are some of the "before" pictures.
     I did some basic research and presented it to Shelly who then presented it to the owner. The information I dug up about the house so interested the owner, that  unfortunately for Shelly, she not only decided not to sell the house but hired me to do more in-depth research on the property. The final package contained the history of three houses on East 15th Avenue and three houses on Fleming Street, and was one of my most interesting jobs to date.
    There were several challenges associated with the project. for one thing, East 15th Avenue was the border between Vancouver and South Vancouver and depending on which municipality you lived in was numbered differently.  This caused me quite a few headaches researching the earlier years of the house's history.  Another challenge was that for many of the early years of the house's existence, the directory records for Cedar Cottage were rather patchy. But I persisted, and after much trial and error, I was able to piece together a rather interesting story.

3500-block Commercial Street in 1913 - CVA Photo LGN 504
The house at 1606 East 15th Avenue was built sometime around 1907 at a time when there were great expectations that the Cedar Cottage area would prosper and develop commercially. It is perhaps the grandest example of house architecture left in the district. Located on the height of land on the corner of 15th Avenue and Fleming Street, it was built for retired sheet metal company owner Thomas Bell, just across from the house plasterer John Fleming built. John Fleming’s family had been landowners in the Cedar Cottage area for many years. Fleming Street is of course named after him. Sadly, John Fleming’s original and historically valuable old house was demolished sometime in the 1950s to make way for the two duplexes that now stand there.
     Cedar Cottage and the Municipality of South Vancouver were not the main focus of the early city directories so we do not even know for sure the first year that Thomas Bell lived in the house (although this study has arbitrarily put him at the house every year the directories listed him as living in Cedar Cottage).
     What we do know is the Thomas Bell was born in Ontario and that he, his wife Georgina, and his son Frederick Ewart Bell lived in the house until 1918. Sometime in 1918 dentist Thomas Peden and his family lived in the house for about a year but by 1919 the house was bought by Scottish-born lithographer Frank C. Smith and his wife Margaret.
Pearl Dixon
     Frank and Margaret lived in the house until 1947 or 1948 when the house was sold to New Brunswick-born lumberman Frank King. Prior to moving into 1606 East 15th Frank’s first wife passed away. At some point before his death, if one of his obituaries and one directory listing are to be believed, he remarried a woman named Ella. It seems though that Frank lived alone in the house for most of the time he had it, but had a housekeeper named Pearl I. Dixon,  who may or may not have lived there. She is not listed in the directories as living there when Frank had the house. She is not listed in his obituaries, even though the non-present wife is. Whatever the story, and a good part of it remains a mystery, when Frank died he willed the house to his housekeeper Pearl who lived in the house from 1954 through 1960, marrying retiree Roderick G. MacKenzie along the way. This picture of the house and Pearl Dixon was presented to the current owner by a neighbour, Hazel Carter. What an amazing picture! click on it for a larger view.
Note the original Catholic Church across Fleming Street where the school is now.
When Pearl died the house was willed to the Catholic Church and for many years 1606 East 15th was run as a children’s home by the Catholic Children’s Aid Society. The BC government took over in management in 1974. By 1985, the Nisha Children’s Society was operating a group home there until 1996.
     For a number of years, the Thomas Bell House remained in limbo, threatened with the possibility of demolition or unsympathetic renovation by developers. That the house stands today, whole and restored, is a testament to the love and determination of its current owner. Whoever Thomas Bell was, I think he would be pleased.
1606 East 15th as she is today...


  1. I love reading about all these old interesting.
    S. L. Rooney :)

  2. This is the house my Grandparents built. Thomas and Georgina Bell. Beside Fred they had a daughter Edna Bell Anthony. She was born in 1910 and was my mother.

  3. Hello Cathi,

    Do you have any pictures of Thomas Bell and his family that you can share a scan of?

  4. I did send some pictures. In the previous post I meant to say that the Daughter was Edna (Kathleen) Broderick Bell Anthony.(1910-1965). The Brodericks lived on Flemming St and Sarah Lawrence Broderick, Mother of Georgina Bell), was a midwife there.