Standing out like a sore thumb at the centre of historic Mount Pleasant is one of the neighbourhood’s newest and most controversial buildings, The Independent (aka ‘The Rize’). The incongruent 21-storey commercial/luxury condo development takes up an entire city block. But this isn’t a story of what is there now. Rather, this is a story about what was there before.
Stepping off the eastbound 99 bus at Broadway at Main, ignoring the unfortunate homogeneity that is “The Independent”, we are presented with one of the oldest structures in Mount Pleasant. Directly in front of you, across a small parking lot, stands a structure that was originally built around 1895 along the ravine of old Brewery Creek. This building was one of three family homes that once stood proudly facing Main Street (then called Westminster Avenue).
Its current state is adjacent to Watson Street (2528 Watson to be exact), hidden behind grey/brown vinyl siding on one side and a colourful mural on the other, oddly tethered to the rear of a commercial building built in 1926. A historical building permit entry reveals that the home was moved in 1912 to the rear of the lot, where it stands today; ostensibly to make way for one of the commercial spaces that were then beginning to line this section of Main Street. It is unrecognizable today when compared to what is pictured in the historic photo below.
This fantastic photo from ca. 1908 shows the intersection of Broadway and Main Street and the three ca. 1895 houses facing Main Street. You can just make out Watson Street (then Howard Street) running parallel to Main. In the background is Kingsway (then Westminster Road) and the large brick building is the old Mount Pleasant School. This property (owned by the Vancouver School Board) is now home to Kingsgate Mall. It’s interesting to see how this area of Mount Pleasant has changed over the years, as it transitioned from a mainly residential sector to the commercial hub it is today.
Watson Street is a hidden oddity. Only 33 feet wide, or half the size of a regular city street, it is one of the few alleyways in Vancouver that is also a residential street. This duality is likely due to the fact that Watson served as the historical boundary between John Webster’s District Lot 302 and H.V. Edmonds’ District Lot 301.
It was once home to several houses and cottages. These were homes for the working class population – BCER employees, teamsters, teachers, carpenters, shopkeepers – that made up the community of Mount Pleasant for much of its history. Only three of those early residences still stand today – one of them being our hidden 1895 house.
This house has played a very significant role in the history of the area and the city. The first occupant at 2520 Westminster Avenue was Ewen Henry McMillan, owner of Ideal Grocery (353 Carrall Street), lived there until 1898. Currently known in heritage circles as “Horne House”, after the famed “capitalist” J.W. Horne who once owned the property (ca. 1912), but never lived there. Personally, I think it should be now known as “Abray House”, as it was once the home to Jackson T. Abray, one of Vancouver’s first police constables and early hoteliers. Abray lived in this Mount Pleasant home with his family from 1898 to 1906.
Before the Great Fire of June 13, 1886 that nearly destroyed the newly incorporated city, Vancouver had a police force of one. All that changed after the fire. The details of the story differ depending on the version told, but the gist is as follows: the day after the fire, Mayor Malcom Alexander MacLean met Abray on the street and convinced/coerced him to become a police constable for the young city. Two others, V.W. Haywood and John McLaren, it seems, were “appointed” under similar circumstances. And so, led by Chief J.M. Stewart, Vancouver’s first police force was formed. Abray remained a police constable for three years until 1890. Following his career in law enforcement, he went into the hotel and restaurant business as the owner of the Cosmopolitan Hotel (101 W. Cordova), and later the Burrard Hotel (400 W. Cordova).
The “1895 Abray House” is affixed to the rear of a commercial building that was built around 1926, which is currently home to Caffe Barney and Bean Around the World. The building has the distinction of being the first location, from 1926-1947, of one of Mount Pleasant’s cherished long-time businesses, Bain’s Chocolates. In the early days, original proprietors William and Viena Bain lived at the same address – most likely in the house at the rear of the shop (I wrote about Bain’s Chocolates in an earlier Scout article).
The two city lots adjacent to 2520 Main Street, now a parking lot, were once home to the suitably grand Broadway Theatre. Built in 1916 for C.M. Bowman of the Broadway Theatre Company Ltd., the theatre was designed by architect William Frederick Gardiner (1884-1951). Gardiner designed many institutional and commercial buildings in Vancouver during the course of his long and prolific career. This building was also host to several street-level businesses and offices on the second floor.
The photo above (left) from 1917 shows the Broadway Theatre on Main Street with a corner of the Abray House visible. The second photo shows the same view in 1930 with the house now obscured by the new retail space position in front of it
The east side of Watson, where “The Rize” now looms over Mount Pleasant, was once home to the original Cellar Jazz Club and the Jantzen Knitting Mills of Canada’s sweater & swimsuit factory. The Jantzen warehouse entrance was at 2542 Watson Street with the front entrance on Kingsway at 10th Avenue. It’s a shame that a heritage compromise (like the recently approved Hollywood Theatre heritage development) couldn’t have been reached to preserve the old Jantzen Factory while still meeting Vancouver’s new objective of housing density here. I think it would have looked really cool, especially if they incorporated the image of the Jantzen “red diving girl” in the design. Something like this…
For much of the second half of 20th Century, Mount Pleasant was the neighbourhood for jazz in the city, with establishments like The Hot Jazz Society and The Glass Sipper. All that jazz started with The Cellar, a co-operative founded and operated by members of the local jazz scene. Opened in April, 1956, The Cellar was officially located at 222 East Broadway, but the entrance to the basement bottle-club was at the side of the building at 2514 Watson Street. The subterranean space was built into the natural ravine of Brewery Creek, which ran across Watson Street between 10th Ave and Broadway.
Until its closing in 1963, The Cellar was known as “one of the leading jazz clubs in North America”. It hosted local jazz musicians and international jazz greats such as Charles Mingus, Ernestine Anderson and Wes Montgomery. While I was working at the CBC Vancouver Media Archives, I was fortunate to re-discover and digitize some of Franz Lindner’s photographs documenting the production of a jazz music programme filmed on location at The Cellar – a rare look inside the iconic jazz club. For more information about the Cellar and the Vancouver jazz scene, I recommend reading Marian Jago’s soon to be released book, “Live at the Cellar: Vancouver’s Iconic Jazz Club and the Canadian Co-operative Jazz Scene in the 1950s and ‘60s”.
Of course, jazz wasn’t the only genre of music that could be heard on the 2500 block of Watson Street. Punk rock also had its musical moment in this corner of Mount Pleasant. In the video clip below, DOA’s Joey “Shithead” Keithley reminisces about the time when DOA and TT Racer used a spot in the old Brewery Creek ravine as a practice space in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Located right beside the 1895 “Abray House”, the old ravine was featured in the video for DOA’s cover of Terry Jacks’ song “Where Evil Grows” (below). It was recorded in 1990 as a benefit single to fight the pollution and contamination of Howe Sound.
The parking lot in the 2500 block is currently owned by the City of Vancouver. It’s acting as a money-making placeholder for the new Broadway Line Transit station at Main and Broadway. The construction of this new station will ultimately destroy the only surviving bit of built history on this block. There’s no doubt in my mind that the property next door to the parking lot, at 2520 Main Street, will be expropriated and torn down to make way for the new station. This will mean the loss of the last tangible vestige of old Mount Pleasant Village on this piece of the city bounded by Main Street, East 10th, Kingsway and Broadway and centred on Watson Street. It will be a sad day, for there will be nothing left to remind us of what once was.
When talking about the history and heritage of a place, how do you balance the tension of what was, what is, and what might come? In this instance, the juxtaposition of one of the newest buildings in Mount Pleasant with one of its oldest is jarring but also interesting. The mix of old and new makes a stimulating visual tableau and lessens the “shock of the new” – homogeneity is only good in milk, not liveable cities.
For a closer look at Watson Street’s past and present, check out this digital picture story I made about Watson Street at a recent digital storytelling workshop held at Grunt Gallery.