In defence of Shaughnessy
A looky-loo’s guide to Vancouver’s first-ever heritage conservation area
December 11, 2015
Richard Keate is well into a two-hour driving tour of First Shaughnessy, winding around the wide boulevards and identifying the distinguishing features of early 20th-century homes. He is somewhat of a guardian here, having served for many years on the committee that advises council on what constitutes “heritage.” The humming engine of his hybrid car shuts down every time he pauses, as if in deference. “Picturesque,” he says, pointing out a gabled manor partially veiled by landscaping. “It’s an American style. What it means is a quality of delight and mystery and surprise. That’s what we want to keep.”
This is what he would rather lose: “Chateau Gateau,” he says, shuddering in front of a Disneyesque castle with round turrets and decorative plates fixed to the stucco. He points to the columns and explains how they don’t even look like they support anything. “People look at this and think, ‘There’s something wrong.’”
What is also wrong, in his mind, is that the palace recently replaced a Tudor-style home with red trim, window boxes, and nine-foot interior ceilings. The trade-off won’t happen as easily now, with First Shaughnessy recently designated as Vancouver’s first Heritage Conservation Area. The controversial plan, unanimously approved by council on Sept. 29, protects pre-1940 homes deemed “heritage” from being demolished. It also adds design guidelines to ensure that new houses fit in with the overall character of the area.
The City of Vancouver’s First Shaughnessy Heritage Conservation Area Design Guidelines
Protection of neighbourhood aesthetic is nothing new here. These massive and varying lots were first cleared of forest and sold by the Canadian Pacific Railway to Vancouver’s most socially elite families in the early 1900s. Sir Thomas Shaughnessy, president of the CPR, ensured his company retained control over the quality of the development, reviewing and approving plans for every house. That iron-clad control loosened over the years, and even guidelines approved by council in 1992 were no longer standing up to the powerful forces of Vancouver real estate. More and more old homes were facing the wrecking ball. Council finally drew the line last year, when 19 of the remaining 317 pre-1940 homes were up for demolition.
Keate has much personal investment in this neighbourhood, being a fourth-generation Shaughnessy resident. He also shows me the Dutch Revival Colonial mansion bought by his great-grandfather, a Minnesota senator, in 1926. Keate is a retired architect. His own home, which he built in 1989, shares a lot with a large British Arts and Crafts specimen and is marked with a neat sign: Downton Shabby.
But other residents, concerned more about their financial investment, are less enthusiastic. A large group of them wrote letters to council and have started legal proceedings to challenge the HCA. “It’s like the old days of kings and dukes,” says one disgruntled owner of a 1912 Craftsman-style home. “Noblesse oblige. The city can do anything they want. They can take your house.” He doesn’t want to be named or speak for the group, but he bought his home about 40 years ago and feels the pressure of the $20,000 property taxes and ongoing maintenance. He’s concerned about the additional maintenance requirements of the plan. This is his home, not a museum. If someone knocks down a home on his street and builds something that looks similar, that’s fine with him. He doesn’t want the city telling him, for example, what colour to paint his house. “People are idealistic that want to preserve everything. They don’t look at the property owner’s point of view and what you have to do to keep everything the way it has to be.”
As my tour with Keate winds up, it strikes me that his own interpretation of the new rules is not as stuffy as I expected. He estimates that 40 of the 317 homes could immediately be struck off the protected list because they’ve been irrevocably renovated. We come to the question of colour. “There’s sort of a rumour out there that colours are going to be forced on people. That’s not going to happen. We can offer them a grant and seed money for paint, and they can meet us halfway and do it in historical colours.” He points out a Tudor-style mansion used as a residential facility for mental health patients. It used to be painted yellow, the woodwork pink. The neighbour objected. “I thought it was great. It was cheerful. The poor people had enough problems.”