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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Roses and Bricks - Building History Into Our Patio

Our front garden with the Linden Tree
When my partner and I moved into our 1908 rowhouse unit on Hawks Avenue in October of 2001, Richard brought with him a number of roses he had had in pots on his West End apartment balcony. He had this big old dark red hybrid tea called Oklahoma, a bi-coloured hybrid tea rose called Broadway, a pink and white Italian-bred Bourbon rose called Variegata di Bologna and a dusky red single Gallica called Tuscany Superb. We had intended to plant them in the small 10'x12' garden in the front of the house. The problem was, there was a 30' high Linden Tree there with a rather established root system. It took me a number of hours with a pick ax to chop my way through the roots to dig holes big enough for the root balls of the roses. Fortunately, a year or two after we moved in, it was decided that the Linden Trees were a threat to the foundation of the house and a number of them were removed by the city and in our case replaced with a Styrax Japonica.

Our rowhouse originally had back yards or what passed for a back yard, but it was subdivided from our lot in the early 1980s when the owner of the rowhouse decided to sell the row and build a new house on what was our back yard. We have a narrow walk behind the house accessible from the basement, but only small balconies off the kitchen and upstairs back bedroom.

Our row as it looked in the 1960s
Our property line ends right in front of our front door. This old picture of the row taken in the 1960s clearly illustrates this fact, so I guess that having a smallish garden area in front of the house should be considered a bonus. The thing was, they way that everything was set up, once we got our roses planted there was no way to actually sit out and enjoy the yard. Of all the little gardens along the row, there was only one set up to actually sit out in it and have a drink or a meal. If we wanted to do anything like that, we would have to put two chairs and a tiny table on the short walkway to the side walk.

Henri Martin - Moss Rose
The first year or so we lived in the row, we tried to slowly transform what had been the previous owners' garden into our own. Both Richard and I love roses, so in addition to the roses from his west end balcony, we planted two moss roses: William Lobb and Henri Martin close to the house, a Damask cross called St. Nicholas, and a Gallica called James Mason.

These four and the aforementioned Variegata di Bologna and Tuscany Superb we all supported on metal rose pillar supports made by our metal and stone sculptor/artist neighbour Sandra Bilawich.

We also bought three gorgeous tree peonies from a nursery called Garden City Greenhouses on Cambie Road in Richmond just east of Garden City.

The fabulous tree peony
In the middle of this very crowded little space we began building a small sitting area using the bricks that the former owners had used to create a path through the garden. There weren't enough bricks for decently sized patio, just barely enough for two chairs, but we were content. At least we were inside our garden and had a bit of privacy from the nearby street.

Our neighbours in the row were known for their gardening and the gardens in front were particularly pretty in Spring. Our block won the Most Beautiful Block in Vancouver award for 2002-2003, the first time and East End block had been so honoured.

Soon after this first patio was started we got wind of a demolition happening on Richards Street near Robson. The old Montgomery Block was being torn down. This four-storey brick building is visible in this May 30, 1928 shot of BlackBurn's Garage at Seymour and Robson. It is the tall white building in the background.

CVA Photo Bu N274.1 by W. J. Moore
I didn't really know anything about the Montgomery block except that it was made of beautiful largish terra cotta coloured (as opposed to red) bricks. We talked to the guy doing the demolition and bought a number of bricks to enlarge our patio. Thus began my new hobby of collecting bricks from old demolition sites to expand our patio.

The bricks from the Montgomery block were in great shape and quite beautiful because of their size and colour. I dug up all the old bricks, bought some sand to spread under them and laid out the larger patio. I tried to lay everything out as flat as possible but of course it was not perfect and got even less perfect as the sand settled and tree roots grew under the Styrax. I edged the patio with other bricks and stones I had collected, including a "Clayburn" fire brick which a house history research client had saved from one of her childhood homes on Fleming Street.

Richard pitching in
A firm, but irregular foundation!
A couple of years passed and we decided to remove two of the tree peonies to enlarge the patio and make space for a raised bed for vegetables. The first couple of years we lived in the neighbourhood we had a plot in the Strathcona Community Garden. We raised tomatoes, carrots, peas and beans... the usual things. But after a while we let our plot go. We missed the immediacy of food grown in our own yard, and I was determined to rectify the situation. I got advice from a number of handy people about what to do and then proceeded to buy bricks and other materials from Home Depot. Of course, I totally screwed up on measurements and level stuff. Instead of having neat rings of bricks laid one atop the other, the first few courses were like spirals of bricks. It as early enough in the process that I was able to remedy the situation with some cement but a perfectly rectangular and level raised bed it certainly wasn't!

The finished raised bed with Alex's tomatoes (Juliet) freshly planted
But it was a raised bed and it was less than three meters instead of three blocks away from our front door. We immediately planted tomatoes and cucumbers and threw in some carrot and radish seeds for good measure. A friend of mine had grown some heirloom tomatoes from seed and gave us about a dozen of them. He didn't know which plants were which so as the summer progressed we had some pleasant surprises. Most of the tomatoes ended up being of a variety called Juliet. But there was Tigerella as well as Jaune Flame and a number of other great tasting varieties.

Bounty from the raised bed - 2010
We ended up saving seeds from a number of our favourite varieties and promised ourselves we would plant them the following year. The two areas where the tree peonies had been were hastily bricked over (not the best job) but we had a larger patio than ever for our regular summer company from Calgary. A proper re-lay of the bricks could wait for next year.

It was a good thing we waited, because while this was going on something unhappy was happening in our basement. The water pipe leading into the house somehow sprung a leak and in the late fall we discovered water dribbling down the East wall of our basement. We called Milani, and one a very cold and wet day two of their staff dug a trench through  our patio and under our foundation to replace the leaking pipe. The patio was a mess. We were heading into winter though and had planned to relay the patio next year anyway, so we left the craterized patio the way it was through the Winter months and into the Spring.

Dominion Brick - all the way from Saskatchewan!
All through the late summer of the previous year and throughout the intervening months I have been on the look out for more bricks. Some neighbours down the street were unhappy with their old bricks they had so I collected about fifty from there. I also scored a brick with the word "Dominion" printed in its recess when the old Coca Cola factory at Richards and Smythe at 898 Richards was being demolished. I was on my way home from a fund raiser for Heritage Vancouver Society at the Penthouse Strip Club. It was during the lead up to the Olympics, and here I was, drssed in a suit, walking through streets heavily patrolled by police with a brick in my hand... No one stopped me, but I am not sure if anyone would have believed my story if they had stopped to question me. My prized Dominion Brick, by the way, came from the Dominion Fire Brick & Pottery Company which was located in Claybank, Saskatchewan and was active from 1916 to -1954.

Another source of great bricks was my Dad. Over the course of a number of decades Dad had collected a good number of bricks from various demolition sites across Greater Vancouver. Every time I went out to help in the garden or mow the lawn I would mooch a brick or two, sometimes more. Dad's bricks particulary fascinated me as many of them had the imprint of the factory that made them pressed into the indentation. By the way, this indentation is called a "frog", the same as the frog of a horse's hoof.

Baker Brick from Victoria, BC
Dad had a lot of bricks with the name "Baker" and "BBB". Baker bricks, it turns out, were made in my old hometown, Victoria, BC, by the Baker Brick & Tile Company from 1890 through to the 1950s.

BBB stands for Bazan Bay Brick & Tile Company Ltd. which was in Saanichton on Vancouver Island which operated from 1907 through to the 1950s.

Another brick my dad had lots of were from Clayburn in Abbotsford. I knew about Clayburn, not from the bricks, but from the famous candy store and tea shop located in the old Clayburn General Store. We took my daughter Jayka out there a number of times. Clayburn was British Columbia's first "company town". The brickworks were established in 1905 and just ceased operations this year. By the way, note the half brick with the letters GARTC just above the Bazan Bay Brick. I am very curious to know where that brick came from, but have not been successful in an online search. The other thing I am curious about is the brick with the striations to the right. I have come across a number or examples... Pure decoration, perhaps? You tell me.

Clayburn Village circa 1925
I have a number of different bricks from Clayburn, including some standard wall bricks with deep frogs, some yellow fire bricks and even some bevelled bricks, all with "Clayburn - Made In Canada" stamped on them.
Red Clayburn wall brick in the patio

Walkway to the patio with a number of Clayburn and other named bricks
I can't remember from where I got it, but one brick that had mortar stuck in its frog revealed a surprise. One end of the frog was free of mortar, and in that mortar-free space what looked like an "I" was visible. As I chipped and scrubbed and brushed and chiseled away at the mortar, an "X" and then an "L" were revealed.

I had heard about an IXL Laundry that used to be in operation in Vancouver and wondered if there was any connection. It turns out that IXL bricks were produced in Medicine Hat Alberta by the I·XL Brick Company. Originally founded as the Medicine Hat Brick Company [1886-1912] the I·XL Brick Company was established in 1912 and is still operating. And duh! IXL is of course a play on words, "I Excell!" I didn't figure that out until recently. 

Another set of bricks I was happy to find came from closer to home from Anvil Island in Howe Sound. There were a number of brickworks on the island. The two I have have very different stamps in their frogs and may come from two different brick works.

Anvil Island brick in the raised bed
Here you can see the brick with the words "Anvil Island" stamped into the frog. This next brick, obviously from Anvil Island as well, has an image of an anvil pressed into the brick.

Anvil Island Brick in the patio 
The Anvil Island Brick company was active from 1910 to 1917 but there was another company making bricks on Anvil Island earlier. In 1897 the Columbia Clay Company opened a plant that was rated the largest in the province by 1905 and continued to produce until some time after 1912. I am wondering if the brick with the image of the anvil might have been produced by them. If anyone knows, please post a comment.

In Maple Ridge in the Fraser Valley, the Port Haney Brick Company Ltd. operated from 1907 to the 1970s. I only have one brick from that company and was glad I was sorting my bricks on a sunny day because I almost missed this brick. Haney Brick is pressed in very small letters on the side of the brick, notthe frog, like the others I have. In order for the name to be visible, I had to dig deeper and lay this brick on its side.
A Haney Brick and Bazan Bay Brick in the patio
Another brick I have comes from Somenos north of Duncan on Vancouver Island. This brick's frog imprint has been worn down or was perhaps a sloppy press. it's hard to read, but bricks were made in Somenos by a company called Jennings & Son from 1908 to 1932. There was also a Chinese-run brick factory in Somenos. I have no idea which company made this brick.

Somenos Brick in patio
There are other bricks rescued from houses I have researched that had to be demolished. All of these were bricks without names and I am not sure where they are in the patio. Here and there are a few bricks from 828 Royal Avenue in New Westminster, a little Royal Engineers Sapper's bungalow that survived the Great Fire of 1895. I have a small pile of brick from 828 Royal left over to give to a former resident. 

Around the edges of the patio that are not delineated by the raised bed or the front of our house are two lines of old cobbles. Between the house and the raised bed is a line of brick cobbles. These are the same brick cobbles used to pave the linear park in our neighbourhood.

Denny-Renton brick cobbles
I had never really looked too closely at these bricks but found a name pressed into the side, Denny-Renton

These cobbles were produced by the Denny Renton Clay and Coal Company [1905-1927] in Renton, Washington. In 1901, two California entrepreneurs, James Doyle and J. R. Miller, discovered that the shale overlaying the coal seams at the coal Renton mine produced a high-quality clay. Tests indicated the material would make excellent brick, and with Seattle investor E. J. Mathews, Doyles and Miller organized the Renton Clay Works. They developed a plant on the south bank of the Cedar River. The Renton plant specialized in fire brick, brick cobbles, terra-cotta, and decorative terra-cotta. In 1905 the plant was purchased by Denny Fire Brick Company and the entire company was renamed the Denny-Renton Clay & Coal Company. By 1910, the Denny-Renton Clay and Coal Company was one of Renton's most important businesses. By 1917, the Denny-Renton Clay Company was reportedly the world's largest producer of street paving brick!

The second line of cobbles are not made from clay at all, but were sawn from first growth timber and originally formed the road surface of the 200 block of Union Street near Hogan's Alley. I wrote about these in another blog posting. Large sections ofthe road bed had been disturbed during the recent construction of the V6A Condo complex. I salvaged a number of these not knowing what I would do with them other than that I didn't want them used as land fill. They now rim the East End of our patio. Another little piece of history saved.

100 year-old Wooden Cobbles from Hogan's Alley

A historic "East End" edge for the patio
Little more needs to be done with the patio. The cement slabs that form the border of the herb bed round the Styrax need to be glued together. There are a few high bricks here and there that should be tapped down, and sand needs to be swept between the cracks to stableise everything. I have researched the origins of every brick I had that had a name stamped in them, but I am still left wondering how it is that so many bricks from outside the Lower Mainland and even outside the province made it to Vancouver. Bricks from Abbotsford, Haney and Anvil Island I can understand, but how is it that so many old Vancouver buildings were made with bricks from Vancouver Island and far off Alberta and Saskatchewan?

I will still keep my eyes out for stamped bricks from other brickworks around the country. If you like this blog and my idea of a brick history shrine and have a stamped brick from locales I have not included in the patio, I would love to have any samples you could spare. For people interested in old bricks and brick collecting there are a number of interesting sites online: Brick Collecting, International Brick Collectors Association, California Bricks. There is even a Brick Collector Blog. Oh! And here is a link to historic bricks from England. You find a lot of these imported bricks, especially from Darwen in Lancashire in old Shaughnessy houses.

I wonder what they are planning to do with the bricks from the demolition of the Pantages Theatre? It seems a shame that they will all be so anonymously recycled, especially after the long and difficult fight to save that landmark historic building. If it were possible, I would love just one. Perhaps the City could sell the bricks at $10 a piece to raise funds for heritage preservation. I would buy one... even without a stamp.

In Memoriam
For all those great old historic brick buildings across this country,
gone too soon, especially The Pantages Theatre.

CVA Photo LGN 999 The Pantages Theatre when that block
 was filled with life and light