Japantown structure dates to 1888, when Vancouver had 6,000 people
Sadly it appears that this piece of history is slated to be demolished. If the walls could take I'm sure we could sit down to thousands of great stories.
This small heritage home at 502 Alexander Street is probably the second oldest house in the city but it is currently under a threat of demolition. This is a view of the rear of the house where an addition has already been cleared away.
Photograph by: Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun
VANCOUVER - The small house at 502 Alexander is pretty well hidden. It’s sandwiched between a couple of apartment blocks, and the front is barely visible behind a stand of trees.
Look closely, though, and you can see it’s very old, with drop siding and an unusual gingerbread design, both hallmarks of the Victorian era.
In fact, the address first appears in a Vancouver directory in 1888, only two years after the city was incorporated. It was built by John Baptist Henderson, and a story in the Dec. 31, 1888 Vancouver World newspaper says it cost $1,500 to build.
Somehow the house has managed to remain standing through 123 years of Vancouver real estate booms. It may now be the second-oldest house in the city.
But not for much longer. An addition at the back of the house was recently taken down during a renovation, which has rendered the house unstable. The owner is now applying for a demolition permit, and it will probably be torn down.
The house is owned by Atira Women’s Resource Society, which bought it along with a two-storey brick building at 500 Alexander for $850,000 last year. (Both structures are on the same lot.)
Atira’s goal was to renovate 500 Alexander and turn it into housing for young homeless women from the Downtown Eastside. The house next door was going to be a drop-in centre.
The brick building was gutted and rebuilt into 18 housing units. The exterior was restored, so it looks the same as it did when it was built in 1912.
The back of the lot at 502 Alexander was slated to be filled with six shipping containers that are being converted to residential use. Two of the containers were on display as examples of “green housing” during the Olympics by BC Hydro.
Crews took down the back of 502 Alexander, but in doing so, made the 1888 house in front unstable, because it was built with a “balloon” frame, where the support walls are the exterior walls.
“It’s a rather complicated story, but whoever previously owned the building put on a non-conforming addition in the ‘50s, and used the back of the house as a wall,” said Atira’s executive director Janice Abbott.
“So [they] took all the cladding down, and they made a mess of the house. When that addition came down, it rendered the house [unstable], it can’t stand on its own.”
Abbott said Atira has had several meetings with city officials about what to do with 502 Alexander. Abbott said Atira has already spent $1.4 million on the project, and as a non-profit, doesn’t have the extra resources to fix the house. She has proposed keeping the facade in a “heritage representation of the old house” that may include elements such as the fireplace mantle and the banister.
Don Luxton of Heritage Vancouver said it would be a “travesty” if the second oldest house in the city were torn down while the city is celebrating its 125th birthday.
“Our earliest buildings are the story of Vancouver being carved out of the wilderness,” he said.
“This house dates from the time when the train was just arriving and the city was growing – there was nothing here when this house was built. To look at the history of this building is like going to Rome and seeing a Roman house. This dates back to the establishment of the city, very clearly.”
Luxton said fixing up old wood frame houses like this “is not difficult,” but it does take money, which is in short supply for heritage buildings in Canada.
“It’s an unfortunate confluence of circumstances, “ he said.
“It happens with many institutions and service providers; they work on very tight budgets, and there are no identified budgets for additional priorities like heritage conservation.”
Modest as it is, the house has an interesting history. After Henderson moved in 1893, it was occupied by John Stitt, the manager of the Hastings Mill store, which is now the Hastings Mill Museum in Kitsilano. (The Hastings Mill store was originally located on the waterfront at the foot of Dunlevy, a block away from 502 Alexander. It dates to 1865, which makes it the oldest structure in Vancouver. The oldest house is 385 East Cordova.)
Alexander street is named after Hastings Mill manager Richard Alexander, who built a large house at 300 Alexander in 1888. His neighbours included fellow bluebloods Duncan and Henry Bell-Irving.
Early residents of 502 Alexander included a bookkeeper named Huddart, an accountant named Jackson and a restaurateur named Schuman. The seven-block long street went out of vogue with the monied class fairly early, though: Richard Alexander moved to the West End in 1907, when his mansion was listed as a “Japanese boarding house” in the city directory.
The street would be part of Japantown until Japanese-Canadians were forced to leave their homes during the Second World War. For a brief period prior to the First World War, the 500 and 600 blocks were also a red light district.
In 1911, Ruth Richards took over 502 Alexander, and a year after that, Dollie Darlington is the first listing at 500 Alexander. Which means 500 Alexander was probably built as a brothel.
In recent years both buildings had fallen into disrepair.
“[500 Alexander] probably hadn’t been touched by the previous owners in 45 years,” said Abbott.
“It was one of the grossest SRAs [single room accommodations] I’ve even been in. When you went in there, it smelled like dead bodies, it was just abysmal.”
The new residents of 500 Alexander are to be young women between 18 and 24.
“We will have young women who are currently living in the Downtown Eastside and homeless or at risk of homelessness,” said Abbott.
“I think it’s fair to say some of those young women, if not all of them, are being sexually exploited.”
The new residents won’t be there permanently: 500 Alexander is supposed to provide housing for up to 12 months, when it’s hoped the residents can move on.
“The goal is to try and support them to explore options they probably didn’t know were available to them,” said Abbott.
“And get out of [the Downtown Eastside] before they get entrenched.”
Vancouver’s planning director Brent Toderian said the city “did investigate some options” to try and save the house, but none worked out. Part of the problem is that Alexander east of Main is outside the officially designated heritage districts of Gastown and Chinatown, “so frankly the amount of [heritage incentive] tools that we had to offer in this particular case were limited.”
“Every once in awhile we get into these unfortunate situations where two goals of the city are conflicting [i.e., creating social housing and saving heritage buildings],” said Toderian.
“It’s usually our first hope to find a marriage between those two goals, to do something creative. but that just wasn’t possible here.”