CITY BRIEFS: On Dwarfing A Sugar Baron’s Heritage Mansion With Development Folly

September 14, 2012.

by Ellen Johnston | Last December I wrote an article that looked into the origins of Vancouver street names, focusing on the “who” and the “where” that have defined us as a city. But what I neglected to mention is that there are more to street names than the names themselves. There’s what comes after, whether it be “street” or “avenue” or “lane” or that most of elusive of thoroughfares, the “mews”. I recently found myself researching the controversial Shannon Mews development in south Vancouver, and before I could get too far, I couldn’t help but ask “what the hell is a mews?” There’s something about the word; unlike “street” or “avenue”, it just rings of affectation, of pretension, of something anglophilic or quaint, belonging to the same family as fake thatched cottages or ye olde Christmas shoppes, something found on southern Vancouver Island. I’m not downplaying oddball naming or anything (in general I approve of nomenclatural diversity, be it anglophilic or not), but the word “mews” just seems so out of place in our forward looking city of steel and glass, born of the jagged mountains and the rough and tumble philosophy of the Canadian west.

But Shannon Mews is not without precedent. Afterall, one of Vancouver’s most unusual (and oldest) streets, Gaoler’s Mews, lies right in the heart of our most historic district, Gastown. While it, too, may have been something of an affectation, a name given by a homesick Englishmnn to a street far rom Blighty (Gassy Jack was an English immigrant), Gaoler’s Mews seems consistent with the times. Or at least it seemed plausibly so, until I looked again at Elizabeth Walker’s Street Names of Vancouver and discovered that Gaoler’s Mews was not given its name until 1972!

So what is a mews? Traditionally, it’s a cobbled street, often a dead end, with two rows of terraced (linked) cottages or stables facing each other. And yes, it’s an English thing, and an old one at that. The word mews itself comes from falconry, of all things. A mews was a place where Royal Hawks shedded their feathers (mewed, or in modern English, “moulted”). Over time, the purpose of the mews shifted to the stabling of horses, and then much much later to the housing of people, often servants. While neither hawks nor horses abound in Gastown these days, and it may not be the original name of the street, Gaoler’s Mews still seems to fit much of the criteria for what a mews should be — while it’s not exactly cobbled, it’s not paved either. Bricks line the street. It’s a dead end, too. And for those who are unfamiliar with the English spelling of “gaol”, this was, indeed, the location of the city’s first jail. And it’s quite easy to imagine that this little street having housed the city jailer’s horses once upon a time. After all, Vancouver’s paddy wagons weren’t always motorized. So while Gaoler’s Mews may be an affectation in its own right, perhaps even (like the steam clock) an attempt to lure tourists with its olde-fashionedness to buy made-in-China knick-knackery, at least it’s pretty accurate as a historical and physical describer of the street. Most true mews were never actually named as such. They simply were what they were.

As it turns out, the word “mews” is more common in Vancouver real estate jargon than I ever would have imagined. Just type “mews” and “Vancouver” into a google search, and multiple developments come up: one in UBC’s Westbrook Village (known only as The Mews), another in Yaletown (on a street called Aquarius Muse. Who knew?), another near Granville and 52nd (Granville Mews, which claims on its website to be in “South Granville”) and another at Kingsway and King Edward (Cedar Cottage Mews anyone?). While some of these developments have built thoroughfares that actually sort of fit the previous description, they come off as disingenuous when you consider the age we live in, the money being made and the demographics of many of the sellers and the buyers. Not that I’m against density or nostalgia or the two put together, but the abundance of mewses in Vancouver seems to be some sort of modern urban equivalent of that old adage that says “Suburbs are places where they cut down the trees and name the streets after them.” If and whenever mews originally became living quarters, it was house by house, block by block, scattered around English cities to create some of the most unique and charming dwelling imaginable. If anything, the modern Vancouver equivalent would the laneway house, a redeveloped modern stable of sorts, and a mews itself would be a laneway where several individual laneway houses face each other. These condo developments, however charming the lifestyles they offer might be, simply don’t fit the same bill.

Which brings me back to Shannon Mews, because unbeknownst to me, and probably to most Vancouverites, it has exceptional heritage value on site. I have probably passed Granville and 57th a million times in my life. Ok, maybe not a million, but you get the point. Anyone who spent their childhood shuttling around metro Vancouver for soccer games or hockey tournaments or went to the airport pre-Canada Line has traversed this stretch of Granville Street a lot. It’s a pretty non-descript location, surrounded mostly by very large houses with very large hedges. It’s somewhere on the invisible boundary of Oakridge and Marpole and Kerrisdale, none of which can really be described as hotspots in the city of Vancouver. But it has two unique features. Firstly, the “mews” part, which is actually an Arthur Erickson-designed infill townhouse development (listed last year on Heritage Vancouver’s top ten list of endangered sites), and secondly, a forty room mansion built in the Beaux-Arts style that lies at the centre of the “Shannon Estate”. Say what? I didn’t even know we had estates in Vancouver!

The house was built by B.T. Rogers, Vancouver’s original sugar baron. After living in the West End for awhile, he decided in 1910 to buy ten acres in what was then the country, in order to build the largest house west of Toronto. Construction was inevitably delayed by the war, the economy and Rogers’ own untimely death, but his wife finally finished the building in 1925. The man who lived in it after her remained there until 1965, at which point it was bought by Peter Wall (of the Wall Centre), who hired Arthur Erickson to redevelop it, a move that resulted in 162 suites in two storey buildings. Despite being on Heritage Vancouver’s endangered list, City Council passed a motion last July to allow Erickson’s project to be replaced by a 706 suite one (though 891 were originally planned), with two tall towers (down to 9 floors from 14) and several mid-rise buildings scattered throughout the site. Mercifully, the mansion, coach and gate house will remain intact, as will some of the landscaping.

Unsurprisingly, in an area where density is often considered a dirty word, the neighbours are up in arms. It’s a tough nut to crack actually, because it could be argued that there is heritage in both the original and the Erickson site. This is the same city council that allowed for the destruction of amazing Pantages Theatre, remember. They don’t necessarily have the best judgement on these things, no matter how much a building might be in a state of disrepair. And while mid-rise density is exactly what this city needs more of, I don’t know if building it in a place with essentially no where to walk to and relatively poor transit service is a good first step. It seems, perhaps, like a much better move for the Cambie corridor, which remains shockingly low density, despite the success of the Canada Line. But whatever your opinion on the project is, it brings one piece of news that is absolutely fantastic for all Vancouverites: they’re opening up the site for public viewing. For those of us who had no idea that there was a Beaux-Arts mansion there, this is a chance to visit a truly unique piece of Vancouver architectural history. Whether it’s out of place in its glossy new high density context, we’ll just have to see.

Perhaps instead it will be a vision of cooperation to come between new and old as the city takes each precarious step forward in densifying outside the downtown core. Let’s just hope that they put a moratorium on the inaccurate employment of the word “mews”. If we’re going to go with quirky and charming, let’s at least bring on some more Leg-in-Boot squares. Somehow it just seems more fitting.

images via shannonmews.com

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Ellen Johnston considers herself a wanderer, whether tramping through the rain-soaked streets of Vancouver in an attempt to pry loose the layers of our urban fabric, couch-surfing across America, or getting lost in the souks of Marrakech. Since that is not a full time gig, she fills her days with music studies, writing, occasionally running her own cookie company Cookie Elf, and most recently studying Spanish in Mexico City. She grew up in Vancouver, attended university in Philly and London, and has now hopped to New York City for awhile, though Vancouver will always be home.

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