In the last year, the city of Vancouver has issued permits for the demolition of 974 single-family dwellings, many of which were built in the early 1900s. These houses represent the craftsmanship and architectural genius seen in Vancouver over the last century, and they hold more than just the long-lost secrets of past builders. They are ready-made museums, living documentation of our heritage that we can explore first-hand. Heritage homes are excerpts from lives that even our grandparents are too young to remember, and with their architecture they retain culture and historical beauty we could never see anywhere else.
Concerned by the rising numbers of demolished heritage houses (and after seeing the BCHFS alumni coordinator’s occasional Facebook posts about heritage houses), myself and a few of my friends decided to do a short documentary on Vancouver’s oldest homes and why these buildings are so important to our heritage. We interviewed two of Vancouver’s most passionate heritage advocates: Caroline Adderson and Richard Keate. In 2013, Caroline started a heritage-themed Facebook page where she posted pictures and updates about heritage homes, schools, and buildings that were currently being demolished. Eventually, the Facebook page evolved into Vancouver Vanishes, a beautiful coffee table book featuring all of the homes she had posted about, and more. Richard is involved in all sorts of heritage preservation campaigns around Vancouver including the Vancouver Heritage Commission, and he was an enthusiastic supporter behind the move to classify the First Shaughnessy neighbourhood as a heritage conservation area. This area is home to 316 heritage homes, all built in the early twentieth century during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, a train track that runs along the outskirts of the Shaughnessy neighbourhood. From 2005-2014, over two-hundred buildings in the Shaughnessy area were demolished and rebuilt as modern houses.
To really gain an understanding of the importance of these homes to Vancouver’s culture, we asked Caroline and Richard what makes the houses so integral to our city. “[These houses] were repositories of narrative,” Caroline says. “I look at one of these houses and I don’t really see the architecture. I see the lives lived in the house, and the people who made the house.” She tells us the story of her own home, a heritage house that she moved into not too long ago. Upon exploring the house, she discovered old relics in the basement, old wallpaper under layers of paint, and eventually, she was able to track the owners through the years and unravel the stories of how the house came to be.
Coming from a more architectural background, Richard has a slightly different answer. He talks about techniques that builders used in the past to ensure houses would last for years to come. “Our houses respond to our region; we’re a rain forest, unlike any other part of Canada.” Houses used to be built perfectly for rainy Vancouver weather, strategically placing overhanging roofs above windows to protect them from the rain. Richard laments over the way houses are currently constructed, protected only by thin tarps as workers brave the stormy weather to finish building as fast as possible.
His point is only further emphasized by Caroline. “We don’t have old-growth wood anymore,” she says, referring to a type of wood that comes from forests that have never been logged. There are very few old-growth forests left, but the reason old Vancouver homes are so rugged is due to the abundance of old-growth wood in the early 1900s from our successful logging industry. Because old-growth wood is no longer an option, houses are made using sheets of plywood, which are not nearly as resilient.
Old Vancouver homes reflect our culture, our heritage, and our history, none of which are things that can be properly done justice in photos or even videos of the houses. When these houses are torn down, the stories and struggles that the previous owners experienced are demolished with them. “If we eliminate them all, we end up with a housing form that can never retain narrative,” said Caroline, and she’s absolutely right. In one Vancouver heritage home, the windows are decorated with detailed stained glass depictions of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Richard reminisces about childhood homes that had grandiose brick chimneys, dumbwaiters for butlers, and ornate hand-stenciled floral decor.
If we don’t start taking major action now, we could be sacrificing everything that makes Vancouver the beautiful, culturally diverse place it is today. In the same way that a book isn’t a story until it’s filled with words, a house is not a home until it’s been filled with the experiences, stories, and lives of past owners. More than just an area to eat and sleep, our houses are places where we work, create, love, cry, celebrate, and grow up, and heritage homes commemorate decades upon decades of past owners doing exactly that. Although it could be argued that modern houses will eventually have the same stories and could then technically be called the heritage houses of the future, there is still no substitute for the rich culture and craftsmanship seen in today’s heritage homes. Says Caroline, “We are throwing out the silverware, and filling the drawers with plastic forks.”