THE ROOF OVER YOUR HEAD | Getting To Know The City’s “Storybook” House Style

November 6, 2013 

3979-W-Broadway-1942-(Mary-Graham)

Vancouver’s architecture is often difficult to distinguish as many of its homes are adaptations or amalgamations of more recognized styles. By cataloguing them, we gain an understanding of our homes and neighbourhoods, which gives us all a sense of pride in our city. With this is mind, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation provides Scout with an exclusive series that we call The Roof Over Your Head.

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In North America, the period following World War I was a time of cozy, entrenched traditionalism. The “new” domestic architecture of the 1920’s-30’s unfolded at the height of the influence of the Hollywood movies, which had always depicted the exotic, the rare and the distant. This also led to widespread acceptance of the exotic and the picturesque.

As the economy improved after the War, more people had an appetite for a sophisticated approach to the picturesque. Bungalows were reinvented with whimsical elements such as Tudor half-timbering and multi-paned windows. Characterized by steeply-pitched gables and gothic-arched windows, the Storybook style is inspired by historical motifs but embellished with romantic elements.

The massing of Storybook houses is nearly always asymmetrical, with striking character-defining rooflines which are usually tall, and steeply gable. Everything from the clipped edge ‘jerkinhead’ roofs, to ‘Dutchweave’ eaves found on ‘Hansel and Gretel’ cottages, to the French Norman influence of turrets can be found on the Storybook home. Many Storybook houses adapted a one and a half storey massing to reinforce the doll-house look, with the roof hovering close to the ground.

The front entry is often arched and outlined with brick or stone. Pointed, rounded or shallow arched windows are common. Other windows are deep-set with leaded muntin-barred windows, dressed with shutters and window boxes. Side yard gates were often attached to the front plane of the house reinforcing the asymmetrical “cats-slide” roofline (where one side of a pitched roof angles towards the ground in a sweeping curve).

Storybook homes in Vancouver are few and far between now. Their whimsical styling was only popular for a few years and many were demolished, with a few notable exceptions. The homes lovingly referred to as the “Hobbit House” on King Edward and 3979 W Broadway are obvious starting places (both were designed by Brenton T. Lea.). However these character homes can also be found in Dunbar and around Point Grey.

OTHER ROOFS OVER YOUR HEAD

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Vancouver Heritage Foundation is a registered charity supporting the conservation of heritage buildings and structures in recognition of their contribution to the city’s economy, sustainability and culture. VHF supports Vancouver’s built history by offering educational tours, talks and lectures, courses, and special events. Launched early in 2013, the Vancouver House Styles Architectural Web Tool is a free online reference cataloguing Vancouver’s common architectural styles.

THE ROOF OVER YOUR HEAD | Getting To Know Vancouver’s “Craftsman” House Style

September 30, 2013 

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Vancouver’s architecture is often difficult to distinguish as many of its homes are adaptations or amalgamations of more recognized styles. By cataloguing them, we gain an understanding of our homes and neighbourhoods, which gives us all a sense of pride in our city. With this is mind, the Vancouver Heritage Foundation provides Scout with an exclusive series that we call The Roof Over Your Head.

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The Craftsman style is derived from the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century. It was a rustic style that builders could take on with or without the services of an architect, and generally used locally sourced materials, in Vancouver’s case that meant a lot of wood. Customized components and even pre-fabricated sections were readily available using catalogues such as Sears, Montgomery Wards and Aladdin. The style promoted simplicity with clean lines and evoked strength and quality in how the exterior components were placed. Several variations of Craftsman houses developed, three of which are particular to Vancouver; Traditional Craftsman, Vancouver Craftsman and Craftsman Bungalow. Each was influenced by builders’ budgets, changes in taste, and adaptations in design to suit both large and small lots.

The Traditional Craftsman house tended to be symmetrical in its proportions. It was at least two floors, sometimes up to three on large lots in neighbourhoods such as Mount Pleasant, Kitsilano and Shaughnessy. Craftsman’s can be identified by their gables (the triangular part of the wall where the roofline meets) and porches. The large traditional Craftsman house has gables on all four sides, with the roof intersecting in the middle. Deep full width porches, a carry-over from Edwardian Builder houses, were common. Sleeping porches were popular, usually centred above the front porch. The rooflines tended to be of lower pitch, particularly in the secondary gables and dormers.
Porch posts are square or slightly flared with lower sections of stone or stucco, wood balustrades, and wide stairs. Gable ends feature exposed soffits and diagonal brackets commonly known as “knee brackets”, with substantial roof overhangs and exposed rafter “tails”. Wood detailing known as “dentils” was often found at top of the front gable. Windows at the front were set in groups of three or four, and in more elaborate examples, the upper sash was stained glass.

The Vancouver Craftsman is a smaller version of the Traditional Craftsman, often only two stories, with less deep porches, and smaller sleeping porches. The Craftsman Bungalow was also a smaller version of the Traditional Craftsman in this case only one and half stories, with an asymmetrical design. The front stairs were narrower, often moved to the side, and with less substantial posts. Several added interior floor space with a half width exterior porch versus the full width normally seen.

Craftsman’s are all around Vancouver but Kitsilano and Kerrisdale are most commonly recognized as hotspots for the style.

OTHER ROOFS OVER YOUR HEAD

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Vancouver Heritage Foundation is a registered charity supporting the conservation of heritage buildings and structures in recognition of their contribution to the city’s economy, sustainability and culture. VHF supports Vancouver’s built history by offering educational tours, talks and lectures, courses, and special events. Launched early in 2013, the Vancouver House Styles Architectural Web Tool is a free online reference cataloguing Vancouver’s common architectural styles.

YOU SHOULD KNOW: The History Of The City’s Grandview-Woodland Neighbourhood

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by Stevie Wilson | When we hear the term “Grandview” we typically think of The Drive, cheap pizza joints, and the transit circus known as the Commercial-Broadway Station. With a geographical reach stretching all the way down to Burrard Inlet, however, the Grandview-Woodland area has plenty more to offer those who want to look a little further. One fun way to explore the neighbourhood is to try the Vancouver Heritage Foundation’s 11th Annual Heritage House Tour on June 2nd. They’re kicking off the sunny season with a fantastic walking tour featuring some of the city’s most stunning historic homes, five of which are conveniently located within walking distance of each other in Grandview. Before you head out to examine the sites, here’s a little more info about this expansive and culturally diverse region…

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Prior to the 1890s, the Squamish communities in the area referred to the stretch of Inlet shore bordering Clark Drive to Nanaimo as Khupkhahpay’ay, which translates to “cedar tree”. As evidenced by the number of dedicated centers and cultural representations, this area still features a strong First Nations presence (one in ten Grandview-Woodland area residents identifies as Aboriginal or Métis).

This area first saw significant development during the mid to late 1800s, when the original Hastings Mill was operating at the foot of Dunlevy. During the 1890s, this section of the Inlet was booming with industry, and with the completion of the interurban rail line from Vancouver to New Westminster in 1891 the region experienced a wave of residential and commercial settlements. By 1982, the Cedar Cove area – near the intersection of present-day Powell and Wall Street – featured the Columbia Brewery, several mills, a slaughterhouse, and other important resource facilities that attracted labourers. Naturally, this development boosted the demand for local residences and businesses, and soon thereafter several wealthy families began purchasing lots in the area of present-day Broadway. In 1891, Park Drive was completed as a skid road for logging and served as a thoroughfare accompanying the busy streetcar line. It was named after its terminus at Buffalo Park on 15th Avenue, which was situated on land donated to the city by E.J. Clark. By 1911, however, the City had renamed Buffalo Park as Clark Park. Park Drive at 14th also featured a Buffalo Grocery (circa 1908), so there were clearly some bovine fans in the neighbourhood!

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As for Park Drive, area merchants rallied in 1911 to change its name to Commercial Drive in an attempt to drive business interests to the area (go figure). It’s said that the name “Grand View” originated from a hand-painted sign located at the interurban stop on First Avenue in 1892, though city officials didn’t officially designate the modern scope of the area until 1969. Noted city archivist Major J.S. Matthews and other contemporary accounts suggest that it was indeed Edward Odlum who coined the term after noting how “grand” the westward views were. Early in the twentieth-century, local investors took advantage of the scenic landscape of the area and built large Queen Anne, Georgian Revival, and other grandiose-style homes.

Today, it’s one of Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhoods, featuring some remarkable architectural statistics: 57 percent of the homes in Grandview were built before 1946, with 44 percent of these built between 1911 and 1921. Landmark sites include the Brookhouse Residence on Parker (built in 1909), the famed Odlum Residence on Grant, the McTaggart’s home on Victoria Drive, and many more. As an area that has own grown enormously in density and popularity over the last decade, the story of Grandview’s rise as a residential and industrial center is weaved through the story of these estate homes as well as their more compact counterparts.

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This year’s Heritage House Tour offers attendees the experience to learn about local history, observe the distinct character of this unique neighbourhood, and a special opportunity to hear from the Grandview Heritage Group. In an area boasting 52% of the city’s renter population, it’s an interesting place to see what home owners have done to celebrate their houses’ distinct legacies. The tour is likely to sell out quickly, so don’t miss your chance to sneak a peek at some of the finest homes that East Van has to offer. For more information on the VHF Heritage House Tour and other events, visit http://www.vancouverheritagefoundation.org.

YOU SHOULD KNOW EVEN MORE

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Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to reveal to readers the many historial things that they already see but might not undertstand.

VANCOUVER DETAIL #279: The Sculpture At The Top Of Century House On Richards

January 22, 2013 

Even in the fog it’s easy to make out the sculpture on the top of the old Beaux-Arts building at 432 Richards Street. From a distance it might look like two beavers spraying clouds of musk on your second to least favourite chess piece (the feeble rook), but the reality of it is far less exciting. It’s really just the emblem of the building’s original owner, the Canada Permanent Mortgage Corporation; two beavers flanking a lighthouse being the early Canadian equivalent of Helvetica in lower case. Not exactly riveting, but a facet of our city’s history nonetheless.

We know it not only as Century House, but also as the Canada Permanent Building, an old pile that has hosted many an unsuitable thing since the suits vacated it in 1951 (everything from a bank to a book store). Its most recent incarnation was as a club/restaurant called Century. If you’ve never heard of it, you didn’t miss much except for a mural-sized portrait of Che Guevara and seven shades of Tuscan regret colouring the splendour of a shell that had been shucked 50 years previous.

The Class “A” heritage building’s glory days may have been on pause for a while, but its granite bones still project a sense of power and permanence, and the interior, with all its gleaming marble and vaulted ceilings, remains one of the most dramatic in the city. Good luck to whoever hopes to resurrect it next.

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Vancouver Detail is an offshoot of Scout’s regular Seen In Vancouver column. With it, we aim to share the less macro scenes of our city’s awesomeness, the things that some of our more hurried readers might miss, from hidden works of art to all manner of unlikely but cool things lying in plain sight.

EVERYTHING SEEN IN VANCOUVER

YOU SHOULD KNOW: How Its Tiki Tacky History Makes “The Waldorf” Worth Saving

January 15, 2013 

by Stevie Wilson | January 24th will mark The Waldorf Hotel’s 64th birthday. In light of the recent sale of the property to condo developers, it’s uncertain as to whether this particular milestone will be celebrated by Vancouverites. But thanks to an outpouring of public support over the last week, the future of the East Van landmark as a multi-purpose venue and historic site is gaining a lot of attention.

At the time of writing, nearly 17,000 people have signed a petition to the Mayor, asking that he deny any rezoning of the property. Dozens of publications have covered the story, and social media has seen the topic trend up like a rocket. When Scout broke the bad news, the response was so overwhelming that it shut down the website (The Waldorf’s site was shut down as well). People desperately want to save The Waldorf, and there’s hope that all of the attention may – finger’s crossed – just turn the tide against its demise.

Mayor Gregor Roberson’s recent press release stated that “to lose such a historic building would be a big blow, which is why we need to do what we can to protect it”. It remains to be seen what that will be (we should find out this week), but if you didn’t get the chance to experience The Waldorf prior to its 2010 renovation, it’s important to know that not much, aside from the clientele and the ability to smoke inside, was changed. The Waldorf has always been a unique spot, and despite a relative lull in its popularity during the 1970s through the 1990s (the “Grove Pub Years”, we’ll call them), it was always known for its legendary Tiki Bar, which was tucked away like a secret inside.

If anything can save The Waldorf, it’s this bar.

Oddly enough, the Tiki Bar wasn’t part of the original plan. Mercer & Mercer architects, a duo formed in 1940 by Andrew Lamb Mercer and his son John, designed the original Waldorf Hotel in 1948 on a budget of around $300,000. The founding owner, Bob Mills, was a local businessman from Fernie who also owned The Haddon at 606 Powell St., which later became known as the Drake Hotel (sold to the City for $3.2 million in 2007). Mill’s new spot was named after The Waldorf Hotel in Fernie, which was owned by his father (it, ironically, was recently turned into condominiums). Vancouver’s Waldorf featured a “Luxuriously Furnished Ladies’ Parlor”, 25 “Handsomely Designed Rooms”, and even a “modern” coffee shop to attract luxury-seekers across the city. When it opened in 1949, it could boast the latest luxuries of air conditioning and fluorescent lighting. Mills and his wife were the original management team. Their menu, featuring ‘Turkey & Cranberry Sauce’ and “Jello with Whipped Cream”, was typical of the time; a far cry from the more modern and worldly culinary offerings enjoyed today at the hotel’s Café Nuba.

The original hotel operated primarily for motorists in the first few years, but upon Mills return from (his drunken escapades in) Hawaii, the hotel was redesigned. In 1955, Mills had the Mercer architects add a large lounge, restaurant, and additional rooms. He also put a Polynesian-inspired spin on the décor, and it is this that makes today’s Waldorf worthy of salvation. In addition to attracting working-class drinkers with one of the largest beer halls in the city, the Waldorf’s new Polynesian Room and “Menehune” Banquet Room (later “The Hideaway”) offered new guests a “unique South Sea atmosphere” which played to the popular post-war tropical aesthetic, complete with bamboo seats, Mai Tais, and a number of sensually-themed black velvet paintings, including original Edgar Leeteg works (much to the dismay of Mills’ wife). What’s more, the stunning murals were painted by noted artist Peter Hopkinson (who is best known for his White Spot advertisements). They were wild times for The Waldorf. Contemporary photographs suggest that a one particular staff party included a live cheetah. Because of course…

Over the years, The Waldorf has been managed in different ways. Most operators kept the Tiki Bar only for special events, and for a long time it languished as a satellite addendum to the infamous (and lacklustre) Grove Pub. But it was always – more or less – kept intact. When Thomas Anselmi et al from Waldorf Productions took over the lease in 2010, they brought it back to the fore, with great results. If the City really wants to save The Waldorf, making its redevelopment difficult would be essential. Designating the heritage status of its Tiki Bar would be the logical place to start.

Scenes From The Most Recent Renovation…

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Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.

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YOU SHOULD KNOW: The Fishy History Of 611 Alexander On The Downtown Eastside

December 21, 2012 

by Stevie Wilson | Nestled near the end of Railtown’s industrial promenade, the modern steel and glass elevator installation at 611 Alexander suggests the building hasn’t been in place for more than a few decades. Its contemporary facade, however, is deceptive; this wasn’t always a design and commerce center – it used to produce cans of fish. In 1913, the American Can Company acquired independent company Cliff & Sons, and thirteen years later a 363,000 square-foot plant was built at the intersection of Alexander and Princess. Architect and engineer Carl G. Preis designed the building, in additional to several other North American locations including Portland and Montreal. Featuring large windows and typically corporate-style design, it was, for many years, one of the largest reinforced concrete structures in the city. To build the tin can processing plant, rows of homes and popular brothels – indicated sometimes by madams’ names printed on the front tiles – were demolished. The busy Red Light District which encompassed the 500 and 600-block of Alexander would eventually move west into Chinatown and, later, to East Georgia, leaving this area to develop in its proximity to the port.

The site attracted workers from across the city, including newly landed immigrants taking root in the Strathcona North neighbourhood (perhaps because the clatter of punch presses was heard for blocks throughout the nightshift). During the Great Depression, the sprawling industrial landscape featured development nearby of shanties and dilapidated sheds housing out of luck WWI veterans and other poor on the site of the old Hastings Sawmill. These were described as the “’Jungles’ of 1931”, and contemporary reports by city archivist Major James Skitt Matthews indicate that at one point the population rose to two hundred and forty men. A July 1931 edition of the Vancouver Sun features a glimpse into the conditions of these sites.

In wartime, women accounted for half the work force at the ACC, where incredibly loud machinery necessitated the use of signals, lip-reading, and carefully observed routines. Earplugs were eventually deemed mandatory in later years (go figure). At its height, the ACC produced over 350 million cans annually, primarily related to fishing. The company did more than just can BC salmon though: apple sauce tins and beer cans were also part of production. It also built the canning materials for other local industries, including the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in Richmond.

By 1975 the number of labourers had dwindled to just over 300, due to advances in technology and the export of canning production to Ontario and Quebec. In 1988, the building was repurposed. Celebrated BC architect Bruno Freschi (of Expo ’86 fame) transformed the site into office and studios: a “chic design centre” where, according to historian Harold Kalman, the old and new was “mated”, as it were, as a reimagined commercial and artistic space. Currently housing the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts, Anne Star Textile Agency, and Artizia’s head offices (among others), this unique building continues to play a role in the city’s vibrant commercial industries. Legend has it that sometimes at night, when the moon is full, the old punch presses can still be heard, softly clacking away. Just kidding.

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Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.

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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. Read more

YOU SHOULD KNOW: About The History Of Sunrise Market On The Downtown Eastside

August 28, 2012 

by Stevie Wilson | Situated on the corner of Powell and Gore in Nihonmachi, the Japanese name for the Powell Street area, Sunrise Market and its neighbours offer a complex narrative that blends modern and historical identities to produce one of our city’s most unique palimpsests. Although recognized as a landmark in Vancouver’s Japantown (an area yet to be heritage-designated by the city), founder Leslie Joe and his wife Susan actually immigrated to Vancouver from China. Accounts suggest that the business may have actually been started by Joe’s uncle, prior to him taking ownership in 1956, and had been located elsewhere on Powell (perhaps without an English name) before moving to its current address. Inspired by the local demand for tofu in the Asian communities, the Joes began producing small batches in the back of the shop. Today Sunrise Soya is the top producer of tofu in Canada, with a large manufacturing plant housing 200 employees. Sunrise Market has stayed true to its community roots, and continues to attract a wide variety of shoppers of all cultures and cuisines.

The location of Sunrise at Powell and Gore on the Downtown Eastside is an especially important feature of its decades-long success and contributes heavily to its status as a landmark in the community and beyond. In the grand scheme of Japantown’s incredible history – one that cannot begin to be detailed in a short article – Sunrise is a relative newcomer. The busy market stands along a stretch of buildings and businesses that tell a long and intricate history of the success, oppression, racism, and expansion experienced (not necessarily in that order) by the Japanese community in Vancouver and surrounding areas – including the 7th September 1907 attack and subsequent riots by the Asiatic Exclusion League.

Prior to the establishment of the market, the address was home to Suzuki Fruit & Liquor in 1920, Yamamoto Fruits in 1936, and Kawasaki Confectioner, which boasted a wide assortment of Japanese treats. Sunrise has expanded next door into the Fuji Chop Suey Building at 314 Powell. Fuji Chop Suey was heralded as one of the important locales contributing to the development of the area’s rich multiculturalism from 1931-1942. Like Sunrise’s diverse Asian marketplace, this establishment focused on Japanese-style Chinese cuisine and was one of the only restaurants at the time where Japanese-Canadian women and children could enter. Later, the federal government used the banquet hall to organize the displacement of Japanese-Canadians during the the Second World War.

Founded well after the end of the war, Sunrise has contributed to the cultural revitalization of an area that never fully recovered from the property confiscation and internment that the Japanese community was subjected after Imperial Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Despite the Chinese background of the founders, the Joe family has made a significant effort to celebrate Japanese and numerous other cultural influences in their business, not least of which being the fantastic commissioned murals referencing Japanese ornamental motifs, Chinese dragons, and a native moon mask commemorating the murdered women of the Downtown Eastside. Layered with several complex histories, and contrasting associations and memories, the market was built upon and perpetuates a historical and heritage lineage that has changed and developed over time. Plus they offer great deals on fruit, too!

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Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.

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YOU SHOULD KNOW: About The History (And Controversy) Of North Van’s Air Raid Siren

February 23, 2012 

by Stevie Wilson | Contemporary Canadian notions of the Cold War often conjure up images of stern-voiced American politicians, missile crises, and foreign-language propaganda posters of impending doom (we know it’s Russian because they have those backwards Rs). Indeed, despite our city’s penchant for heritage promotion and preservation, an accessible history of our Vancouver’s civil defense efforts and politics during this period of immense fear and political anxiety is surprisingly hard to come by. Illustrating this point is the recent controversy surrounding the 1960s-era air raid siren in North Vancouver – a surprise to many who were previously unaware that one even exists. Heritage and history buffs might agree that this is – ahem – cause for alarm.

The city of North Vancouver’s decision to re-install a 52 year-old air raid siren in Victoria Park resurrected an interesting and complex dialogue between the people who lived through the Cold War (and are apprehensive about being reminded of it), and those which wish to monumentalize it. Built in 1960, and permanently de-activated in 1988, the last remnant of North Vancouver’s Cold War heritage was removed from its post in September of last year for repairs and maintenance, much to the relief of those who considered it a troubling relic of the anxieties of decades past. To others, the former harbinger of an inbound nuclear attack was, despite being a piece of our history, no more than a public nuisance.

In keeping with Canadian national policy pursuant to the Soviet nuclear threat, sirens were installed nation-wide between 1952-1955 with accompanying streamline response instructions and routines for citizens. As a perceived target zone, Vancouver was additionally supplied with 56 sirens up until the year 1966. Featuring two unique alert signals – a “steady blast of three minutes or more” and the notorious “rising, falling note on sirens” (to indicate increasing immediacy of attack threat), the sirens were but one piece of an extensive civil communication strategy employed to educate and protect Vancouver’s growing urban populace. These sounds were identical to those of American defense policies – the result of a standardized North American initiative in the mid ’50s. In 1979, Alderman Gary Watkins launched a successful opposition to the sirens in the suburb of Surrey, which garnered much public support due to a severe issue with malfunctioning sirens and accidental siren soundings. With the anxiety and fear of impending nuclear attack decreasing with the advent of detente, the sirens had become taxpayer burdens and irrelevant eyesores.

In 1994, the North Shore Emergency Program utilized the precedent set by Watkins to call for the removal of the siren in Victoria Park. A federal removal initiative the same year began the task of alleviating the community of these weather-worn, defaced, and aging remnants of the past. North Vancouver citizen R.G. Scott subsequently headed a successful campaign to preserve this unique
piece of our Cold War heritage, leading to Council’s acquisition of the siren from the Department of National Defense.

The debate over the value of these sirens highlights an interesting caveat of heritage study and promotion: the worth of historical artifacts is always relative, and not necessarily what our leaders choose (or choose not) to designate. The objects may be as unsightly as they are unnerving, but they’re the only remaining pieces of our past that come with their own ring tone, and that’s got to count for something.

MORE THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW

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Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.

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YOU SHOULD KNOW: About Vancouver’s Weird Relationship With Neon & Lit Signage

January 23, 2012 

by Stevie Wilson | In the wake of Vancouver council’s recent protest against the ridiculously bright advertisements adorning BC Place, I’d like to make mention of the Museum Of Vancouver’s fantastic exhibit highlighting Vancouver’s ‘complicated’ relationship with lit signage. Neon Vancouver/Ugly Vancouver is a compelling yet informative display featuring an extensive collection of Vancouver’s neon patronage. Since its opening last October, it’s been a popular spot for those looking to take a peek into the bright sights that once permeated the shadows of our greyest, dampest streets. Curated by Joan Sidle (who is conveniently hosting a Curator’s Talk & Tour this Feb 2nd), the exhibit is a great way to get in touch with some of our city’s coolest (and most controversial) heritage.

In recent years there has been considerable effort on behalf of the city and private investors to protect and revitalize many of Vancouver’s neon landmarks. While the exhibit includes much signage that most of us are too young to remember, the team at MOV have created an intriguing retrospective that appeals to a wide variety of heritage-savvy individuals (you don’t really have to care about history to enjoy staring at colourful lights).

With the restoration of iconic city sites like The Only and Save On Meats (to name just a couple), I think we as citizens have proven our aptitude for nostalgia. These sites and signs are a welcome piece of retro-Vancouver kitsch for residents looking to re-live a past they never got to experience, or to repurpose old memories into new ones. All across our city are re-inventions of the past that cater to a growing taste for trendy, accessible “heritage”. Even if the neon signs on display at MOV aren’t attached to your favorite spot for a cheap pork sandwich anymore, the statements they make against the black backdrop of the exhibit are indicative of what they truly are: pieces of art. Presented simply and without novelty, these artifacts are original pieces of Vancouver’s commercial and community past, and many of them have amazing stories to tell (seeing D.O.A playing the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret probably isn’t the ‘history’ your grandpa remembers).

Neon wasn’t just a staple of Chinatown or Hastings Street – the exhibit features signs from all over the city (which once boasted over 19,000 of them), with additional displays incorporating other characteristics of past decades. Think retro cars, kitchens, clothes, and more. The exhibit – if you haven’t already soaked it up – runs until August 2012. That’s plenty of time for you to work up the courage to ask your friends to go to the museum with you.

Images courtesy of the Museum of Vancouver and Walter Griba.

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Stevie Wilson is an historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to show you the things that you already see. Just nod your head and pretend you’re paying attention.

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