It's lights out for the Electric House
Demolition is set to begin for a Shaughnessy heritage landmark, despite efforts to preserve a unique moment in Vancouver's past
The loss of yet another heritage house in Vancouver is hardly going to send shock waves. After all, we've seen the loss of umpteen historically significant buildings over the years, particularly in the past five years, as rampant redevelopment destroys them.
Now, it's the turn of Shaughnessy's so-called Electric House, built in 1922 to showcase the household potential of electricity, an astounding technology then still in its infancy. In an era when most homes might have 10 electrical outlets, the Electric House had almost 200.
The Tudor-style home at 1550 W. 29th Ave. also had lights that would burst into life when closet doors would open. It was a pioneering "smart home," so high tech that it attracted 22,000 visitors through its doors when it opened to the public in October, 1922. It was a model home designed to encourage electricity use not just by consumers, but the building industry, too.
Heritage Vancouver has called the house's demolition "a stab in the heart" for Vancouver.
"The house was incredibly well preserved, both inside and out, which is very unusual, with the original woodwork in place," Heritage Vancouver's Patrick Gunn says. "The interiors were fabulous." When it was built, electric standards were still being developed, and the house was the impetus for that, Mr. Gunn says.
Electric House show homes were built across Canada in 1922-23, in Victoria, Winnipeg, Hamilton and Toronto, which had three. Vancouver had just the one.
On a recent visit to the house, Mr. Gunn taped a copy of an ad to the orange fencing that surrounded it. It was from 1922, inviting the public to attend a viewing of the house that ran throughout October of that year. Many of the original features of the house were then still intact, Mr. Gunn says, who led the charge to try to save the house – to no avail. It is currently being gutted and torn down. A 6,700-square-foot house will replace the 4,500-square-foot house that is disappearing.
"It's an example of everything that's broken in Vancouver," Mr. Gunn says. "From lack of heritage protection to land value only. It doesn't matter what's built on it. It's about loss of character, and loss of social history."
Mr. Gunn had found someone who would have moved the house to another location, but it was costly, and it would have taken several months. The owner, Crystal Xu, was willing, but the development schedule couldn't accommodate the move. Nickel Bros. House Moving estimator Dennis Langendorff says he needed around eight weeks lead-time. As well, the charge to move the trolley lines alone was $35,000, which makes a house move almost impossible for most people. He was disappointed he couldn't save it.
"We are just taking our whole historical heritage and putting it in a Dumpster," Mr. Langendorff says. "And we don't have that much already, right? It's sad to see [it] go. That was a beautiful home."
But market forces are simply too powerful, and the city's heritage-preservation toolbox too empty, to save a house such as the one designed by Townley and Matheson, the same architects that designed many of the grand houses in Vancouver, as well as City Hall, Point Grey secondary school and the old stock-exchange building downtown, which has undergone a major restoration.
It's not a stretch to see why the houses are coming down. A beautiful character house at 6976 Wiltshire St. near W. 54th Ave. was knocked down a few years ago. In its place, a new house now stands, listed for sale at close to $13-million. The lift to be gained from redevelopment is significant.
But we should all be concerned, not just because of the loss of history, but because a house that is torn down to be replaced with a much bigger house with a significantly higher resale value is everybody's problem.
There is no good reason behind the creation of massive single-family houses, other than one person's personal profit, or desire for sprawl. It is the antithesis of community and affordability. People say we in Vancouver are constrained by ocean and mountains, but we are also constrained by zoning that allows for ridiculously massive houses.
But the drive for massive houses wouldn't be so great if not for the inflow of global money. Average local incomes cannot compete with the offshore money flowing into the city and into these homes. That poses a huge problem for locals, and we see it around us. The West Side was once a middle-to-upper-middle class enclave, where people raised families. Today, the population there is decreasing and new houses are often empty or under-used. East side house prices are rising as the local population moves eastward.
Once Ms. Xu builds her new home, she may find Shaughnessy a lonely place. Next door to her house is a mansion that is forever decorated for Christmas, with a wreath on the door and several snowmen decorations around the front entrance. There are no signs of occupancy. It's been that way for more than a year, Mr. Gunn says.
On the other side is a massive house under construction, one of many in Shaughnessy. Someone has spray painted "scum" with dollar signs on the plywood cladding.
People are angry. Vancouver endures a housing crisis and a near-zero vacancy rate, and yet the houses in this neighbourhood grow bigger and emptier. And, maddeningly, this neighbourhood that is emptying out is also one of the most central neighbourhoods we have, a short distance from downtown workplaces, shopping and parks.
The Electric House just missed the updating of the heritage register, which was in process when Ms. Xu and her architect made their building application to the city. The city assessed the property as an A-list building, but without a legal designation, it could only negotiate with the owner to retain as much of the house as possible. And that clearly didn't work out.
"It's very frustrating, because if only this was ahead of the curve, if only the city had stronger tools to save it," Mr. Gunn says. "Vancouver is going to become a city of plaques and photographs."
The outcry over the demolition has been surprisingly loud, considering that most people are growing desensitized to Vancouver's never-ending demolition season. The uproar prompted the city to put a temporary hold on the application last March. The city used every tool at its disposal, including the allowance of a much larger house as long as the heritage aspect was retained. However, the plan that came back to the city didn't have enough heritage fabric to justify a heritage revitalization agreement, Mr. Gunn says. It was a proposal for a 9,200-square-foot faux-heritage house with an underground six-car garage. When the city told the owner it needed more retention, the owner went back to the original plan to demolish and build a 6,700-square-foot house instead. And so the house comes down.
"This one touched an incredible nerve," Mr. Gunn says. "People were generally saying, 'You can't save everything, but this one should have been saved.'"
Jeffrey Moore grew up in the house. His mother purchased it in 1954 and sold it to another family in 2005, for $1.6-million. But eventually, it became just another empty Vancouver holding property, flipped several times before selling to Ms. Xu. By then, it was listed for nearly $7.3-million.
Mr. Moore has no animosity towards the owner, and he loathes the hateful graffiti that someone sprayed on the house a few months ago. But he believes the city needs to clarify its position on such houses and whether there is a will to save them.
He'd also prefer that the house had been converted for multiple-family housing, instead of a bigger, sprawling house. In the 1950s and '60s, many Shaughnessy mansions were carved up into apartments because their size simply didn't make sense anymore. Ironically, in this period in which people are starving for housing, the houses are becoming ostentatious, bloated caricatures instead.
"Everybody seems to be mad at the owner, and that's absolutely wrong. I think she tried hard," says Mr. Moore, who is El Salvador's consul general. "I really believe that people who buy a property can and should be able to do what they want, as long as it's within the bylaws of the city. Where I think this whole situation has fallen flat – and where people get frustrated and angry is [when] people don't know what the rules are. "The city has not made it clear when you preserve, and when you move forward. No one knows where the goalposts are."
Mr. Moore says the house has been empty and neglected for so many years he's almost relieved it will soon be put out of its misery. This was a house, he says, that once played host to Prime Minister Mackenzie King back in the day, prior to his family taking ownership. It was a house in a neighbourhood where everybody knew their neighbours, and kids played in the streets.
When he heard the house was to be demolished, he contacted the owner, who gave him permission to take the plaster frieze above the fireplace. It is a reproduction of the frieze from Ottawa's Government House. He's grateful that he also got a final tour of the old house. Now, he has no desire to return.
"I realized a long time ago that I was not going to live in a home of the calibre that my parents brought us up in," says Mr. Moore, who lives in a condo. "But I feel really concerned about young people, and how are they going to live in the city. The city needs to be vibrant. The city needs different levels of humanity, meaning young, old, and everything in between."