SECRET CITY: On How Union St. In Strathcona Got To Be So Weird

Welcome to Secret City, a column by Ian Granville that takes Scout readers across the city in search of its architecture and design secrets every week. Granville studied art history, human geography, and urban planning before completing diplomas in sustainable renovations and timber framing. This summer, he is working with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia to research and conduct the architectural walking tour program.

The south side of the 700 block of Union Street in Strathcona

by Ian Granville | The Adanac Bikeway is one of the City of Vancouver’s oldest and most heavily-used arterial bike routes. For daily commuters, the section of Union St. between Hawks and Princess is a blur of pre-1900 heritage homes and 1960s infill housing indigenous to Strathcona.

  • Union Street | Strathcona | Scout Magazine
  • Union Street | Strathcona | Scout Magazine
  • Union Street | Strathcona | Scout Magazine
  • Union Street | Strathcona | Scout Magazine
  • Union Street | Strathcona | Scout Magazine
  • Union Street | Strathcona | Scout Magazine
  • Union Street | Strathcona | Scout Magazine

However, the disparity in the heights of buildings along these three blocks punctuates the monotony often associated with homogeneous single family neighbourhoods and provides an opportunity to explore another architectural anomaly…

The north side of the 700 block of Union Street in Strathcona (note the height differential)

Eschewing the Vancouver Specials and other mid-century houses on the block, the majority of homes found on this stretch were constructed before 1893. The undulating roof peaks of the Edwardian, Queen Anne, and Cottage-style dwellings reveal the original topography of the neighbourhood…

Note the subtle step up in the levels of the house frontages in the 600 block of Union Street

Originally named Barnard Street, on February 27th, 1911, the City of Vancouver passed by-law #806, thereby changing the name to its present day moniker (it is said that the change was due to the phonetic similarity of “Barnard” to “Burrard”). Known as Vancouver’s first “Little Italy”, Union Street, like its Georgia Street parallel to the north, had the distinction of being a streetcar route.

Technology limits of the time dictated the grade in which the streetcars could climb, so the undulating hills of Strathcona had to be softened to accommodate the growing public transportation system. Between 1890 and 1913, major street releveling efforts took place along Union St. and throughout Strathcona. Traditional paving using old growth wooden cobbles topped with creosote and sand made up the foundation of the roadway and can be seen in spots where the more modern asphalt has worn thin.

The addition to the foundation at 658 Union Street in Strathcona

The foundations of those homes that predate the releveling, including the aforementioned strip of Union St., were largely unaffected. However, their relation to the street changed dramatically. The original street level is best observed in the foundation of the heritage building at 658 Union St. Upon completion of the street leveling in 1913, an addition was appended to the original 1893 building that responded to the new streetscape. It then served generations as a neighbourhood grocery. And today, commuting cyclists have the streetcar and its limitations to thank for their leisurely hill climb.


You can learn more about Vancouver’s historic Strathcona neighbourhood by joining Ian for urban explorations like this on July 22, 28, August 4, 11, 17, 24 and 30th. For more information on all six neighbourhood tours, please contact the AIBC at 604-683-8588 or visit their website.

There are 9 comments

  1. Ohhhhhhhhhhhh. That makes a helluva lot of sense. Had been baffled for years by this.

  2. Interesting post, unfortuately the location of the street car route through Strathcona was along Harris, later East Georgia, and ran between Main Street and Victoria Dr.

    Roads were levelled through out Vancouver to make it easier for horses and wagons (and streetcars) to travel through the city. Many of the new neighbourhoods emerging from the forest were criss crossed with old creeks and lots of hills and valleys, levelling out the roads was essential – wander up the lane between Union and East Georgia east of Heatley to get a feel for the extremes of original geography.

  3. From what I understand the houses were built before city engineers had time to grade the seweres and streets- a relic of our original (and continuing) building boom. Indeed the original Granville Townsite didn’t stretch to Strathcona. It was only on news that the terminus of the Canada Pacific Railway was to end in the soon to be named Vancouver that this real estate boom happened. The famous symbol of this early rush to purchase very cheap lots was a sign on a stump on Georgia Street that read, sarcastically, Vancouver Real Estate Office. This was one of the only places where real estate was being sold at the same time they were clearing the land.

  4. The Granville townsite was laid out in 1870, by 1884 lots were being sold east of Carrall by the Vancouver Improvement Company who owned every thing out to the original city boundary at Nanaimo. Water lines were laid as early as 1889, so the houses in Strathcona, built between 1889 and 1912 – the boom period – would all have had water service.

    One of the early orders of business for the new city council was the letting of contracts for grading of streets, and the early bylaws detail the extent of these, while early directories boasted the number of miles graded each year.

  5. Thanks for the clarification John. I knew it had something to do with a big boom. Wasn’t the Vancouver Improvement Company owned by a syndicate of land owners from Victoria? I seem to remember that even the mayor at the time, Oppenheimer, was an owner of the company…

  6. Your’re right. It was David Oppenheimer, his two brothers, Issac and Charles along with Isreal Powell (Powell River) C.D. Rand and a number of investors from the interior of the province including John Francis Hawks, Barnard of the BX Express Co etc that made up the rest of the company.

    Oppenheimer was behind an earlier attempt in the 1870s to market the West End as New Liverpool, but nobody invested.