by Stevie Wilson | Tucked away in the walls of the majestic Gabriola at 1531 Davie St. are numerous sweet and savory Vancouver histories that have come to define the architectural and economic landscape of our city. Before the doors were shut on Romano’s Macaroni Grill – the West End’s most extravagant spot to dine on cannelloni and doodle on paper tablecloth – the Gabriola was home to Benjamin Tingley Rogers and family, of Rogers Sugar fame. In 1890, at the young age of 24, Rogers relocated from New York and established Western Canada’s first refinery, also the first non-resource-based industry in the city. His west coast home, built in 1900, reflected the local standard of grand Victorian estate homes that decorated the West End in the late 19th and early 20th century. As a settlement for select upper-class families in proximity to the Granville Townsite (Gastown), the area was once known as “Blueblood Alley”, given its population of wealthy CPR executives with a penchant for Queen Anne and Edwardian-builder style homes. Several later stages of development in the West End, including the migration of said wealthy families into the Shaughnessy area, gave rise to the construction of small apartments on Davie, Robson and later along English Bay. Subsequently, this led to the demolition and reconstitution of these large homes into rooming houses for lower-income families and individuals along the new streetcar routes.
The grandiose design of the Gabriola was completed by architect Samuel Maclure, and would house the Rogers family for seventeen years until an English sojourn inspired the Sugar King (not to be outdone by those Brits) to move into a much larger ten-acre property and garden in Shaughnessy (like his contemporaries). Featuring stained glass accents detailed by the Bloomfield Brothers and sandstone exterior quarried from Gabriola Island, his original quarters was known as “probably the most lavish private home ever constructed in B.C.”, and has remained largely unchanged – commercial purposes aside – thanks to generous restoration efforts by tenants, including the aforementioned Macaroni Grill. The exterior, specifically, appears exactly as it did over 100 years ago.
The property comes complete with rumours of hidden tunnels connecting to nightclubs and finishing schools, rum-running anecdotes, and eventually was repurposed into a 50-suite apartment under the name The Angus in 1925. Until the mid 1970’s, when the building began its transition into a series of restaurants, the Gabriola Mansion fell into significant disrepair, and was at one point poised for demolition (naturally). Today, the home stands as the last vestige of the area’s grand mansions, a testament to our city’s selective heritage preservation efforts, and a unique multipurpose lieux de memoire. Rest assured that despite the incessant rises in condos and home prices, Vancouver’s housing history is alive and well, and waiting to one day serve you spaghetti again.
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.