If you have time today, go for a walk around your neighbourhood.
Look closely at the house next door and the ones down the road. Look at symmetry and scale, at the pitch of the roofs and the window placement.
Is that little bungalow with the front stoop and gabled roof in Lower Lonsdale a Victory House, constructed for a worker in the booming North Vancouver shipyards during the Second World War?
Was the glass and raw-wood house that backs against the West Vancouver waterfront inspired by the West Coast modernist movement of the late 1920s and early 1930s?
Did the rambling cottage in Deep Cove once host summer vacationers before it was expanded and occupied full-time?
From the grand Edwardian mansions of North Vancouver’s early planned communities to the stripped-down modern ranchers of the mid-century, these old houses are our past. Even the most modest neighbourhoods hold our history and our identity, contained in its walls and roofs, wide lawns and treed streets.
“It’s hard to know about the essence of a city if you don’t know its past,” said Sharon Proctor, author of Time Travel in North Vancouver: A Peek into the Past.
Change is constant though. Styles shift and needs dictate that old houses be replaced. But are we doing it in a way that preserves the essence of our communities?
Today and for the next three Sundays the North Shore News explores the changing face of our streetscapes in a four-part series.
This week, we look at the home styles we grew up with and what they tell us about our history. In Part 2, we’ll look at what happens when homeowners build to the maximum square footage and setbacks that zoning allows on their lot. On March 20, Part 3 of our series uncovers the financial pressures that work against the notion of heritage conservation. Is there more that can be done to preserve the best of our history? In Part 4, we look to the future. The North Shore’s population continues to grow, but is there a way to make room for more people without losing our past?
Early 20th Century Housing
Although the North Shore’s first industry centred on logging, “North Vancouver really grew up around the shipyards,” said Peter Miller, president of the North Shore Heritage Society. “The development followed the streetcar line as it went up the hill through the trees.” The No. 1 line eventually stopped in Upper Lonsdale, the No. 2 line in Lynn Valley and the No. 3 Line to the west at the Capilano River.
Neighbourhoods of even blocks and boulevards spread north along the lines from the waterfront. The North Shore’s oldest remaining homes are located near those long-gone streetcar routes. Single and two-story cottages — often finished to evoke a traditional style, like Arts and Crafts, with banks of leaded windows, steeply pitched roofs and prominent chimneys — lined the ordered streets.
“People were trying to recreate their homes from the United Kingdom,” explained Miller. “So you saw a lot of Mock Tudor and that sort of thing.”
In the planned communities of Ottawa Gardens on West Sixth Street and especially Grand Boulevard, the lots were bigger, the intent being to draw wealthier families.
“They started those communities, and a few houses were built, but then the depression hit in 1913. The rest were built later,” Proctor said. Still, many of North Vancouver City’s most impressive heritage homes remain there.
Victorian-era styles, like Queen Anne, with corner turrets and “gingerbread” finishes; Edwardian homes with front gables and columns; and the far simpler exteriors of Craftsman-style homes could all be found in these early subdivisions.
To the west and the east — in West Vancouver and in Deep Cove — most construction was on summer cottages.
“You have to remember that while North Vancouver was a thriving city with street cars and shops and theatre, West Van was just the poor relation,” said Miller. “The growth of West Vancouver was as a cottage community along sandy roads. It was very humble.”
West Coast Style
In the 1930s, West Vancouver artist and teacher B.C. Binning helped to bring the modernist International Style of architecture to British Columbia. Though it didn’t have a rule book the way traditional styles did, it was based on structure and function rather than ornamentation. By the end of the decade, especially in West Vancouver, it had found an expression that was distinctly regional. According to the District of West Vancouver’s website, between 1945 and 1975 West Vancouver was a primary centre of Canadian residential design. “The innovative architectural design of these homes would eventually be referred to as the West Coast Style – an architectural style that embraced the region’s unique landscape, climate and contemporary culture.” The style would inspire countless interpretations in later decades, including informal post-and-beam homes in neighbourhoods across the North Shore.
After the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Second World War kickstarted the economy in North Vancouver. From 1942 to 1945, almost 20,000 men and women worked at North Vancouver’s shipyards. To accommodate them, the federal government helped build 752 Victory Houses — most of them 25-by-32 foot Cape Cod-style bungalows, with four to six rooms on a single floor, a tiny front stoop and a gable roof. Many of them were built on land the City had claimed after owners defaulted on their taxes.
The space-efficient style was popular in other neighbourhoods too, though they were admittedly larger. The idea was to cluster the kitchen, dining area, bedrooms, and bathroom around a central living area.
With soldiers returning from war, the North Shore’s population swelled. In 1946, the federal government created the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to administer mortgages and encourage simple housing for families.
Norgate was built as an affordable subdivision to accommodate many of these returning veterans. Just east of the Lions Gate Bridge — and therefore close to jobs in the city — developers cleared flat, straight streets and lined them with low-slung ranchers, single-storey homes with open floor plans inside.
After the streetcars stopped running in 1947 and the rate of car ownership started to climb, development began to spread farther up the mountains, with ranchers, bungalows and post-and-beam homes finding purchase in both North and West Vancouver.
It was in the 1950s that the split-level home made its sweeping debut. The lop-sided structures feature floors that are staggered, so that the main level, which usually contains common living areas like the kitchen and living room, is halfway between the upper and lower floors.
The December/January 2008 issue of Dwell magazine, a U.S. publication devoted to modern architecture and design, featured the makeover of a West Vancouver split-level by Vancouver architect Peter Cardew.
In the article, Cardew spoke of the cultural value of iconic post-war houses , but acknowledged that there won’t be many efforts made to preserve them “until the split-level acquires widespread cachet, which it currently lacks, or the stock becomes endangered.”
In A Guide to Canadian Architectural Styles, authors Shannon Ricketts, Leslie Maitland, and Jacqueline Hucker point out that there are periods in a building’s life when it is most vulnerable to redevelopment. The tenet holds true for modest homes even more than for buildings of architectural importance.
“Once a building reaches the age of 40 or 50 years, it begins to appear dreadfully out of fashion or in need of a major mechanical and electrical upgrade. This is when thoughts turn to demolition and replacement.”
Many of the post-war neighbourhoods in North and West Vancouver have recently reached that age or are just reaching it now.
Change is inevitable, but what of our identity? Is it inevitable that we lose that too?
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