Very old West Van home comes with a new lease on life

1913 Vinson House restored and protected in perpetuity

She may not own the house anymore but she still wants it to be a home.

When Carol Howie and her family thought about selling their 1913 craftsmen home in West Vancouver, also known as Vinson House, they feared that if they handed the keys over to the wrong people the house might end up as a mere historical footnote, rather than an enduring symbol from a bygone era.

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“We wanted to downsize, but we didn’t want the house to be bulldozed, which was exactly what was going to happen,” Howie tells the North Shore News during a recent tour of the house, adding that some Realtors viewed the place but seemed more interested in what they could do with the land rather than appreciate the house that had been standing tall at 1425 Gordon Ave. for more than 100 years.

“Some of them didn’t even want to come inside because they just viewed it as a lot,” she says.

Howie connected with planner and architect Michael Geller, who describes himself as a “glutton for punishment” when it comes to the arduous task of restoring a character home.

“We would like to encourage more people to save houses,” says Geller. “I’m a developer, but I’m also an architect. As an architect, I’ve always had an interest in old buildings, but I’m actually more interested in how old buildings and new buildings go together.”

Howie ended up selling the property to Geller, who promised that if he was the one to sell it he’d do right by Vinson House.

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Planner and architect Michael Geller chats with Carol Howie, the former owner of the Vinson House, at left, at the property site at 1425 Gordon Ave. in West Vancouver - photo Paul McGrath, North Shore News

In 2016, the District of West Vancouver guaranteed heritage protection for Vinson House through a heritage revitalization agreement that would allow Geller to add additional development to the property site in exchange for restoring the main house and protecting it in perpetuity.

Today, the redeveloped site includes two infill houses, a separate suite that has been added below Vinson House and, of course, the restored house itself.

While the suite has already been sold, Geller and Howie eagerly show off Vinson House in a bid to demonstrate it’s near seamless blending of old meets new.

“This was the smoking room way back when, and this was one little room where the maid slept,” says Howie during the tour, aptly demonstrating that if these walls could talk there would be much to say.

“This is the butler’s pantry, where they would have just passed stuff through.”

Valient Vivian Vinson built the house in 1913, one year after the municipality of West Vancouver was incorporated.

Vinson, a former reeve of West Vancouver who was elected to council numerous times, was also a renowned photographer, explains Howie.

“He took a lot of photos of dignitaries,” she says. “There’s this whole cool backstory which makes this house even more special.”

The house maintains its original wooden structure, and while Geller strove to keep the home’s charming character while restoring it, a discerning eye might notice modern flourishes.

The house has been rewired and the plumbing is new, says Geller. They’ve also made the old house a little brighter with the installation of a few ceiling lights here and there. There’s now sprinklers in the living room, but they don’t infringe on the space’s authentic look, in fact you’d never notice they’re there.

“We’ve insulated this house, there’s sprinklers in this room. Can you see them?” says Geller. “I think it’s very livable now.”

Howie, who is a collections assistant at the West Vancouver Art Museum and passionate archivist, recognizes that Vinson House is now out of her hands. But her love of history keeps her invested in its future.

“I was just so passionate about saving it that I’m really interested in its next life and what happens to it and trying to encourage people to come live here because it’s a piece of West Van history. It’s one of the oldest intact arts and crafts houses,” says Howie.

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