The Vanishing Point

September 1, 2014

This story starts in the spring of 2013, when I was cycling along West 43rd Avenue. I spied two houses and, lacking proper architectural descriptors such as “elaborate vertical and curvilinear half-timbering” and “gable” and “English Builder/Tudor Revival style,” I pegged them simply as delightful, with their whimsical stripes, the variety and configuration of their windows, and the chimney rising from the middle of each roof. While each was charming in its own right, here’s what made me almost sail over my handlebars: the houses were mirror images, their porches looking across a shared driveway. Both were empty.

I went searching for the white survey stakes. These stakes, discreetly pounded into the corners of a lot, are the first harbinger of demolition. Later, a much more obvious orange corral will go up around the boulevard trees. In between these events, years may pass while the grass grows longer and the garden goes to seed and the house waits, holding in its stories.

Last year in Vancouver, 866 single-family homes were demolished — not derelict shacks or mildewed grow-ops. In my neighbourhood, Kerrisdale, the condition of most was good to completely updated, renovated, and spruced-up for selling. Even the rougher-looking ones were classic fixer-uppers whose last owner might have been a senior who passed away or moved to a care facility, the sort of “low value” buildings Jane Jacobs wrote about in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation…but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value buildings, including some rundown old buildings.” In housing terms, these are the handyman specials young or lower-income families could once afford to buy, update, add a mortgage-helper suite to, and later trade up, much as my husband and I did when we bought our 1925 bungalow. We bought it 15 years ago, and in staying we’re honouring the lives and stories of the house’s previous inhabitants, or so the novelist in me believes. Meanwhile, all around us, the bulldozers move in.

Maybe this story actually starts earlier, in the summer of 2011, when I got the idea to send pictures of the doomed houses in my neighbourhood to city council. Vision Vancouver had been re-elected on the promise of making this the greenest city in the world by 2020. Surely they would be as concerned as I was about the approximately 50 tonnes of waste each demolition sends to landfill (not including the concrete foundation and the garden). They weren’t.

After more than a year, I gave up and put my pictures on Facebook. The page I created is called Vancouver Vanishes. My “lament for, and celebration of, the vanishing character homes” in my city now has more than 4,600 “likes.” Each week I post two or three photographs of houses, along with a brief description: address, the year each was built, the names and occupations of the first owners. Sometimes I add an “after” shot showing a bulldozer crunching the rubble or the gaping hole the machine has dug.

In July 2013 Jen and Ben Ford, a Vancouver Island couple who move, restore, and sell houses, contacted me. They were looking for another house to move. I had started Vancouver Vanishes as a tool of protest. That it might actually play a part in saving a house hadn’t occurred to me, but I jumped at the chance. I sent Jen pictures of the twins.

Ben wrote the next day, obviously as delighted as I had been the first time I saw them. “We would have to have a house mover come… It always comes down to overhead line costs. It could be possible if the developer would contribute to those expenses.” He closed with this speculation: “Possibly both houses could be moved at the same time which would split the costs and save both houses.”

Rob Chetner, of the development company Trasolini Chetner, had bought the east house in 2012. He struck me as a decent person, notwithstanding the fact that he was going to tear down two houses I’d loved at first sight. “Not only are we building the two new homes here, but one is for me and my family,” he wrote when I contacted him about photographing inside the houses. A friend of his had bought the other. He replied immediately to all my messages and even lent me the key to go into his house myself. “They certainly are unique homes (especially in their day)!”

The interior had leaded glass doors, oak parquet floors, ornate fireplaces. And the garden! The rhododendrons were as tall as trees. The lot was so large there were actual garden “rooms.” I only peeked in the window of the west house, but the garden there was just as lovely.

Now, a month later, I contacted Chetner again. In collaboration with the Fords, I’d prepared a pitch on why he should help move the houses. “It will be cheaper than demolition,” I wrote. “Your company will receive the kind of media attention worth more than all the advertising you could ever buy.”

Again, Chetner answered promptly. “You can stop crossing your fingers — no need to break the bones! I love the idea! I am all for it.”

Two months later, Jen Ford wrote with an update: “We now have a rough cost on moving the houses. Rob says he will contribute some of his demo budget but we’re still too high for our end of it. Do you have any ideas where there might be funding or grants to help save the houses? They are B-listed heritage homes.”

Of course they were on the register! But a place there wouldn’t save them. In Vancouver, the heritage register is merely a list of buildings, monuments, and sites deemed of historic or architectural importance. Being on the register offers no protection — just, as one Vancouver architect explained to me, “a speed bump.” If a developer submits an application for a property on which a registered building stands, a review from the City of Vancouver Heritage Commission opens up the tool box offered by a Heritage Revitalization Agreement — incentives to save the building. The fact that the houses were on the register would definitely improve my pitch to agencies that might help fund the move, though. Now they weren’t just a pair of houses, unique in their twinness; they were heritage houses.

I sent out photographs and letters. BC Heritage referred me to the heritage commission, which suggested I try the City of Vancouver Heritage Foundation or Heritage Vancouver, which recommended crowd-sourcing. In other words, there was no money.

“My first response is ‘Wow!’” wrote James Boldt, the Vancouver heritage planner who responded to my letter. “I recall seeing these houses years ago, but seeing them again makes me realize that this would be a big loss if both were to be demolished.” He offered to put out feelers to other developers who might be interested in some kind of project to save the homes I’d christened the Dorothies.

Then, two months later, word got out that Chetner, anxious to build his own house, was proceeding with his development application.

In a story, a house is usually a setting, and so it is in real life, too. As the years go by, it becomes a repository of family memories, and when these memories are shared, they become stories. Here’s my theory: if a house is old enough, if enough people have lived in it, the house — Jung’s dream symbol for the soul — starts to become a character. There are the materials: oak floors, old-growth beams, leaded glass windows. These are to the house what hair and eye colour are to a person. The way it’s built: essentially by hand, without power tools, nothing prefab from Rona. How the house takes the weather, how it settles over the years, gives it a personality. Add to all this the stories, layer upon layer of them, like the 80 years of paint and wallpaper I stripped in my own house. The lives lived in the house are absorbed; they get right into the lathe and plaster.

I dug out the story of the twins through the city directories, then I tracked down their last owners. Graham and Anne Cumpston had purchased the west Dorothy in 1979. When they met with me to share their memories, their pride in the house came through. They only put it up for sale because their neighbour, Mary Angus, had passed away. “Very much to our surprise, her son Ian mentioned the only interest seemed to be demolition. Call us naive — maybe stupid — but we never imagined there wasn’t someone interested in purchasing her house,” Graham told me. “We should have realized, having lived in Kerrisdale over 44 years, that everything 50 years or older is not worth preserving.”

“What bothered us more than moving,” Anne said, “was that you’d tear down a perfectly good house — ”

“A house that’s built better! The material in them!” Graham interjected.

 “It was heartbreaking,” Anne said.

Because of a giant Douglas fir and the rhododendrons, Mary Angus’s house was partially concealed from the street. She’d designed the garden herself, Ian told me a few weeks later. She moved in with her two dogs in 1994. “She always had revolving dogs with the same names: Bessie and Jock, and Will and Jenny. And later Kate, after Kate Middleton. Always Cairn terriers.”

She was a widow then. Her late husband, also named Ian, had been in the sugar business, which took them to Lethbridge and the Dominican Republic. They moved back to Vancouver in 1965 and lived in houses “all over the neighbourhood” as their eight children grew up and moved on.

Mary renovated in preparation for old age and to fit her large family, knocking out a wall to double the size of the living room. Then she started travelling with friends all over the world, from Antarctica to Mozambique to New Zealand. Many of the Angus kids had their 50th birthday parties in the house.

When Mary died, more than 300 people showed up at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club for her celebration of life. Her ashes were scattered in the ocean, like her husband’s. They’d met when he was in the navy all those years ago. If the Dorothies were demolished, with them would go the gardens, and the lives, and the stories absorbed by both houses. Everything landfill.

Then something unexpected happened. A Heritage Action Plan was presented to city council. In his opening remarks, planning manager Brian Jackson announced that the city’s heritage commission and Trasolini Chetner had found a solution that could see the Dorothies moved.

In my business, that’s what’s called a plot twist.

I wish Vancouver Vanishes had helped save the Dorothies, but the real saving happened at City Hall, Rob Chetner explained to me later. “I got a call from Brian Jackson. He said, ‘Would you consider doing a Heritage Revitalization Agreement on these heritage homes?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’” Chetner had no idea the Dorothies were on the register.

The city offered incentives. “I started to run the numbers,” Chetner said. “Could I fit eight townhomes on this site? Would people buy in here?” In the end, he decided no, “because then I’d have to find a new lot for my family home. “I’d been trying to get my home designed for literally a year. It had caused me a lot of stress.” He was planning to tear down the east Dorothy in order to build “a sustainable, net-zero home.” But the city wouldn’t approve his design. Then, in October, articles about the Dorothies appeared in the Globe and Mail and the Province.

“I had some really bad emails. Two in particular, anonymous hate mail. ‘Be careful.’ ‘Watch your back.’ That type of stuff. And I looked at some of the blogs on the Globe out of curiosity and saw a lot of people spouting off. It’s easy to call a developer a big, bad asshole. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into building up all this.” He gestured around his office, where we were talking. “I can take the comments. But I did then get a call from one person, which led to another. And we talked to the city, had a bunch of powwows.”

“I’m looking for development opportunities here in Vancouver all the time. And here one — two — are sitting right under my nose!”

On March 17 — nearly a year after I first cycled past — the Dorothies moved down the road, one after the other. Fittingly for two very lucky houses, it was St. Patrick’s Day, sunny when the forecast had been for rain. I walked over that morning and saw 50 tonnes of house on the flatbed of a truck in the middle of the street, times two, and teared up, the way I always do at happy endings.

With the army of fluorescent-vested house movers, and the city workers there to direct traffic and lift the power lines, and the crowd of excited onlookers, Chetner got the big media event that made all this worth his blood and sweat. The Dorothies were moved two blocks north, where they’ll be restored. There will be garden suites under each of them and townhouses in the back. Houses saved: 2. Houses lost: 866.

Not every heart is warmed by this story. “A lot of people look at heritage homes and see nuisance, hassle, headache, impediment, roadblock, obstacle — all of those things,” Chetner told me. Saving the Dorothies had led him to an epiphany, but it didn’t mean he’d become a heritage advocate. “It’s opened my eyes to see opportunity.” He’s found a negotiating tool to get new development projects off the ground.

Regarding Vancouver’s demolition craze, he said, “They’re old homes that are unkempt and they don’t fit the bill of today’s society, and wants and needs. To get mad at people for tearing them down because we would like to see them saved, that’s a hard argument. Then you step up and buy it yourself.”

But how? Housing prices in Vancouver are the second highest in the world, with all the value in the land, not the house. Houses are purchased for the lot they stand on, one recent teardown in Dunbar for a record $3 million. Who can afford to buy, apart from developers and offshore investors? And then there are the owners who feel entitled to their windfall, like the one who sent me this message: “As long as you are also prepared to compensate me for the drop in value of our property you can save as many of these old homes as you want. Get out your check book and write one to us for $1.5 million or should we just eat our retirement nest egg?”

The Dorothies were saved by the heritage register, media attention, public outcry, a very smart developer who seized an opportunity, and the diligence of the heritage commission. But in the larger story of Vancouver’s original housing stock, where the conflict is between money and values — heritage and narrative — not easily commodified, the conclusion is foregone.

And if a house stands for the soul, if through time its stories give it that soul, what will happen to a city that casts off its houses so blithely?

 

A Hard Place

Their high land value has done West Side character homes few favours. Like hundreds of others, these standout houses didn’t make it

2820 WEST 41ST AVENUE

Built in 1910, this long-time (1954 to 2011) home to CBC announcer Tom Robinson and wife Jacquelyn was demolished in March to make way for the relocated Dorothies, plus eight townhouses made possible under the city’s Heritage Revitalization Agreement plan

1241 Harwood street

The Legg Residence, a 115-year-old mansion and one of the city’s 260 A-listed heritage homes, received national attention when its demolition was reported earlier this year. To accommodate a new 17-storey tower, either the house had to go or the 12-storey tulip tree adjacent. The house was knocked down in June

1510 West 36th avenue

Commissioned in 1962 by E.L. Sauder Lumber (forerunner to Interfor), this Ron Thom-designed showhome for the company’s range of woods was acronymically named the Elswood House. Sold last year (for $2.4M), the midcentury marvel has just been replaced by a large single-family home

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