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Historic Vancouver home may be saved

City orders heritage inspection to assess its value

Heritage Vancouver is welcoming news that the city has issued its first ever heritage inspection order to determine if one of Vancouver’s historic houses merits conservation.

The owner of the home in question — located at 1550 West 29th Ave. — wants to redevelop the property and is seeking a demolition permit to knock it down.

When news of that possibility emerged more than a month ago, it ignited public concern.

Townley and Matheson designed the Tudor-style home, which was built in 1922. They also designed city hall.

Electrical Services League of B.C. used the house as a show home to demonstrate how a house could be wired for electricity.

Illustration courtesy Heritage Vancouver
Illustration courtesy Heritage Vancouver

The heritage inspection order affords it temporary heritage protection while the city assesses its heritage and character. The order remains in effect for 30 days. Results of the inspection are expected to be presented to council May 31.

“What we’re really encouraged by is the city taking action on something,” Patrick Gunn, a spokesperson for Heritage Vancouver, told the Courier.

Jane Pickering, the city’s director of planning, said its value is worth investigating. 

“We just got authority to use the tool in September, when the bylaw was passed, and this is one of the first homes that we feel bears further investigation,” she said.

Pickering said the inspector will be looking at the home’s historical value, including physical components that reflect the time in which it was built, as well as the architects who built it and the people who lived in it.

“Because often times who lived in the house or whoever built the house can be very important, so we’ll be detailing all of that out,” she said, adding, “Sometimes the heritage value lies in the physical landscape of the area or landscaping, so they’ll be detailing all of that out so we have a clear picture.”

Once the report is completed, staff will assess next steps, which could include giving the house heritage designation or asking council for another 120 days to assess options.

“The way the legislation works is the city can designate, but the owner can request compensation for that designation,” Pickering said. Staff have been in contact with the owner. “Their reaction has been, thank you for your concerns but we would still like to bring the house down.”

Gunn said said the house is valuable both because it was a model electric home and the fact Townley and Matheson — who were among the top architects in the city in the 1920s and 1930s — designed it. A Heritage Vancouver survey found only between 40 and 50 per cent of the houses they built are still standing.

“So far, we’ve confirmed about 69 homes remain,” he said.

Townley and Matheson homes landed in eighth spot on the organization’s recently released Top 10 most endangered sites list.

Gunn said a typical house in the era the home was built had about 20 or 25 electrical outlets, while it featured more than 120 sockets.

It was open for public tours for a month.

“It was a sales tool to get people to buy more electrical appliances,” he said. “So it’s an incredible house just in that fact.”

Gunn also said the woodwork was locally milled.

“It’s the most made-in-B.C. house you could probably come across.”  

Illustration courtesy Heritage Vancouver
Illustration courtesy Heritage Vancouver

A person whose family owned it for 51 years provided Heritage Vancouver with details about its history. The person’s mother bought it in 1954 for $24,000. It was sold in 2005 for $1.6 million. The lot value now far exceeds that.

A plaster frieze above the fireplace in the living room matches one in Government House in Ottawa.

The first owner was the Anderson family, followed by the Browns, who were grandparents of Peter Brown of Canaccord.

“Even Mackenzie King would come to visit and have meetings at that house,” Gunn said. “So it has a really interesting social history as well.”