Vancouver heritage junkies, local history buffs and nosy neighbours, your cries have been heard. In an ambitious undertaking, staff at the City of Vancouver Archives have been busy digitizing nearly 7,000 black-and-white 35mm negatives — taken in 1978 and 1986 as part of two separate heritage surveys — for the public to access, ogle and explore online.
It’s a treasure trove of images, documenting thousands of Vancouver heritage homes at a time when few considered a house’s heritage. According to city archivist Heather Gordon, the archives has been digitizing its photographic holdings since 1997, mostly through grants and donations from groups such as Friends of the Vancouver City Archives. Digitizing the heritage inventory from 1978 and 1986 is part of the archives’ 2017 grant from the B.C. History Digitization Program.
“[The heritage inventory] was next on our list — some really cool photographs from the city where we held copyright, so we could easily put them online and make them available for folks to use and reuse,” Gordon says.
There are approximately 6,900 images in all — a third are from 1978, and two thirds were taken from 1985 and 1986, when the Vancouver Heritage Advisory Committee hired work students to take photos and document pre-1950s homes and structures around the city. While the 1978 survey focused solely on houses, the 1986 survey was expanded to include monuments, churches, community centres and lots.
According to archivist Kristy Waller, the work students tried using cars at first, but traffic and parking proved difficult. Apparently some things never change. “So they used bicycles,” she says. “They would go around [taking photos] and record the frame numbers and the addresses. And then go back and classify all the houses, regarding materials used and styles…They were looking for kind of unique houses and also ones that hadn’t been altered.”
The photos depict a rarely documented side of Vancouver, decades before social media and Google Street View, when the city was smaller, lower in height and far less populated. Streets were a little rougher around the edges and beat-up cars more common.
“The buildings themselves are really interesting, but you also get a sense of people on the street,” Waller says. “Sometimes people are waving at the camera. Sometimes there are lots of interesting cars parked. Signage. You really get a sense of the city in those [photos] as well, and not just the buildings.”
According to Patrick Gunn, a director at Heritage Vancouver Society, what makes the photos particularly significant is they capture a moment in time when people didn’t have the same reverence for heritage as many do today.
“It would be like someone in the 1920s looking at a turn of the century building as an old building and not necessarily as an architectural piece of heritage,” says Gunn, adding that the 1978 heritage survey was likely a precursor to the Vancouver Heritage Register and the heritage movement as a whole.
“Surprisingly, a lot of the structures still exist, obviously in augmented form,” Gunn says. “What really stood out for me was how many structures hadn’t been updated from their original form, where you could still tell the paint, if it was even there, had long ago disappeared. Even the well-kept houses were quite original in their form, which is quite different from what you see now, where they’re either gone or they’ve been fully restored so they are in pristine condition.”
Gunn says he has already spent hours online going down the digital rabbit hole of the heritage survey — what he describes as “a black hole of time” — and has high praise for the archives’ digitizing efforts.
“The CVA is such an extremely valuable resource,” Gunn says. “And I think Vancouver is so lucky to have the staff who continually are updating and adding material like this to document Vancouver.”
Gordon expects the archives will have most of the photos from the heritage surveys digitized and online by the end of the month. It’s a large dump of images, but a small fraction of the 1.6 million photographs the archives has in its holdings. By the end of this project, Gordon says the archives will have put close to 125,000 objects online.
“We’re probably one of, if not the largest users of city IT storage. Many, many tens of terabytes of digital storage for our digital archives.”
Speaking of digital archives, Gordon says there’s another benefit to putting so many photos of heritage homes online.
“You never know what you’re going to find,” she says. “You might find one of the places on the list or maybe just the property and be like, ‘Your condo is now sitting where this house once stood.’”
Patrick Gunn’s five favourite images (so far) from the heritage survey:
“Last vestiges of light industrial/commercial area at the entrance to Stanley Park, now parkland.”
2. Venables Street (demolished)
“Neighbourhood impromptu corner stores.”
3. 1843 East Second Ave. (demolished)
“Authentic in its simplicity, and a built style is rare today; utilitarian built form, patterned roof detailing.”
4. 1800-block Triumph Street (three of the five buildings remain, but the current streetscape is entirely different now)
“Streetscape in full context.”
5. 1278 East 12th Ave. (demolished)
“Character can be in the simplest of forms.”
Images from the heritage surveys can be found HERE.