A couple restoring a beloved piece of North Vancouver history uncovered a surprise when they reached the bowels of the Blue Cabin.
Since June, Mayne Island artists Jeremy and Sus Borsos have been carefully taking apart pieces of the fragile 90-year-old cabin, which once sat on the Dollarton foreshore.
The humble abode offered comfort to its inhabitants, who savoured a life of solitude by the sea.
For 50 years artist-couple Al Neil, now in his 90s, and Carole Itter, surviving stalwarts of the Dollarton squatter era, continued to live in their cosy cabin.
Inside it was furnished with a Farrand upright piano for Neil, a freestyle jazz musician. Outside the cabin was a collection of found objects Itter would turn into art.
Neil and Itter had to say goodbye to the Blue Cabin in 2015 when the old McKenzie Barge site adjacent to Cates Park was cleared for a new condo development.
Over the next two years the cabin sat six feet in the air, on skids, inside the Canexus chemical plant in the Dollarton industrial area.
The Borsos, who have a penchant for heritage preservation, first set eyes on the Blue Cabin at Canexus earlier this year. Rotted remnants of an old timber dock remain were still attached to the cabin after it was uprooted from the banks of the Burrard Inlet.
“It was tired,” says Jeremy, of his initial impression of the Blue Cabin. “But it was absolutely beautiful.”
The couple was commissioned by a group fighting to save the last remaining vestige from the squatter era, the Blue Cabin Committee, to work their magic on the relic.
Now plunked down in a sheep pasture at Maplewood Farm, the colourful, diminutive cabin with its distinctive curved roof and red shutters is getting a gentle makeover.
Flake off what’s loose on the cabin and leave what stays – that is Jeremy and Sus’ game plan for preserving the heritage.
Working alongside each other, the couple pulls out each piece of the puzzle individually, while making mental and physical notes of the cabin’s original blueprint.
Along the way they have found tiny hidden treasures of yesteryear fallen between the cracks of the cabin – marbles and buttons mostly.
But when Jeremy and Sus took up the weathered floorboards, they got quite a shock.
Everything looked “great” below the cabin floor and that made Jeremy nervous. Paint thickness can hide pests like carpenter ants, something Jeremy found out the hard way earlier in this project.
Digging farther down, the couple discovered layers of printed paper acting as insulation – at one end of the cabin.
Pulling up the boards one by one, excitedly making their way to the other side, Jeremy and Sus found frayed pieces of Vancouver history entombed in the subfloor. Invaluable paper souvenirs from a bygone era overlapping each other across the cabin.
Thirty of them.
The first poster that caught Jeremy’s eye was the only one turned face up: a magic act at the Orpheum Theatre, billed as the Wonder Show of the Century.
“So this is for a film called The Unwanted, and it’s like a newsreel,” explains Jeremy, carefully flipping over the fragile posters.
One of the posters promotes an event from the early day of the Pantages Theatre in Vancouver, built in 1907 and considered the oldest remaining vaudeville theatre in Canada until it was torn down in 2011.
“Chaplin performed there,” says Jeremy in awe.
Another poster advertises a film of the epic boxing match between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey.
Jeremy’s friend, a former sports writer, marvelled at the poster’s history, saying: “Wow, that fight – that was the famous long count.”
Each poster unveiled is like a Jeopardy! game where Jeremy guesses at the history.
He’s dated all the posters. All were printed with only a month and day on them, except one, which has the exact year.
That poster advertised a concert with American composer John Philip Sousa, known primarily for military and patriotic marches, who played the Orpheum in 1927.
“And yeah, so that just blew me away,” says Jeremy, of the unintended time capsule and, more importantly, timestamp for the cabin.
The speculation is that whoever built the cabin knew a printer or a paper dealer who provided the free insulation. Blank pages the size of posters were also found interspersed within the approximately 30 prints.
The public will get a chance to see a piece of Vancouver history when Jeremy and Sus bring the posters to the Seymour Art Galley for an artist’s talk on Oct. 3 at 7 p.m.
The plan for the old posters afterwards is to display them in an exhibition at Vancouver’s Grunt Gallery in June.
The Grunt Gallery and Blue Cabin Committee are the driving force behind the restoration project, estimated to cost $550,000.
A floating artist’s residence is the vision for the cabin once it’s restored.
“This is going to be North Vancouver presented to all sorts of places – and it’s as North Vancouver as you get as far as I can tell with a pedigree like being on the mudflats beside (Dollarton) Shipyard,” says Jeremy.
So far the committee has raised $210,000, through funding from B.C. Museums Association, the province, B.C. Arts Council, City of Vancouver and the District of North Vancouver.
How much more money the committee needs is dependent on the going rate for a barge and whether they go the new or used route, the former costing close to $200,000.
Back at the farm, Jeremy and Sus have been getting plenty of attention from curious kids and resident animals drawn to the rectangular cabin.
“We are greeted by the sheep every morning – who we adore,” says Jeremy of the unconventional work environment. “It’s lovely. It couldn’t be a better place.”
Banging and sawing noises around the cabin are countered with baaing and mooing.
The project has been an exacting, yet fun exercise for the couple, who devotes their life to preserving history. Their home on Mayne Island is constructed out of old buildings demolished in Vancouver and Victoria, including the oldest metal foundry in B.C. dating back to 1889.
“We’re losing a lot of this stuff (heritage) so when you find something like this, this traces it back – this is the thread we hang onto,” says Jeremy of the posters and the Blue Cabin itself. “I think it’s kind of sad that that era has passed in a way, in that it’s not really that possible to just go and squat in an area in terms of a cultural alternative to, you know, having to pay gigantic rent for a studio.”
Sus is from Denmark, where history still reigns supreme.
“It’s not very normal that houses get torn down – towns and cities look the same,” she says.
With the Blue Cabin, Jeremy believes it’s rare to preserve a piece of history that’s not a landmark in an urban centre.
“It’s a shack on a foreshore at the forest’s edge – that’s not the sort of thing that gets saved, so how fantastic is that?”
Through the renovation process, the Borsos breathe and take in the creativity that permeated the cabin for close to a century. They have admired Neil’s collage work. Itter, meanwhile, was awarded the 2017 Audain Prize for lifetime achievement in the visual arts.
Culminations of found objects on the Cates Park and Dollarton foreshore heavily influenced Itter’s art.
“What a fantastic place to be when you’ve got objects literally floating up to your front door that you can compile into these wonderful assemblages,” says Jeremy.
Itter has visited the couple while in the throes of heritage restoration and offered them praise – along with some insight into her past life in the cabin.
“There’s a cupboard in the corner that she said, ‘I never got to that,’” says Jeremy.
One side of the cabin is unpainted, it’s just white.
“And it’s because it was up against a bank where there’s all sorts of brambles growing and she (Carole) could never get it to paint it – so we’re keeping that. It talks about the point in the geography that it occupies.”
It seems there were other areas of the cabin where paint couldn’t reach either.
“You see the keyboard,” says Jeremy, pointing to the upright’s outline on the cabin wall. “We’re leaving that.”
Meanwhile, a metal chimney and cast iron stove, which provided warmth on those chilly winter evenings for Itter and Neil, collapsed and broke in two when the Borsos removed it this summer.
A light hand is required for this delicate renovation project aimed at preserving history.
“It’s pretty difficult in terms of deciding how far to go because you want it to be functional but you don’t want to erase the past,” says Jeremy.
The challenge is to recreate the eccentric details masterminded by the cabin’s last inhabitants, artists Al Neil and Carole Itter, during the 50 years they lived on the shore near Cates Park.
Any additions were often done on a whim and without architectural consideration.
One time Neil wanted more natural light in the cabin so he talked his friend with a chainsaw into coming over to carve out a window frame. Neil then promptly found an old pane and stuck it in.
The Borsos have now come behind and added some support. There’s now a lintel around the window. The cabin has also been outfitted with an all-important rainscreen.
Over top of the original ceiling the couple put in plywood and nailed it down – so it’s now a strong structure. Under the floor originally were single 2by12s going across – now doubled up with wood reinforcements.
Because the Blue Cabin was very close to the water – barnacles covered part of its exterior.
“It wasn’t great on the sea side,” says Jeremy.
When there was a King Tide or high tide crashing on shore, Neil and Itter would float in extra posts and stick them under the cabin for some protection from the water.
For their part, Jeremy and Sus are confident their handiwork will preserve the cabin’s history.
The couple, who been hard at work seven day a week, ten hours a day, plans to leave the farm in late October – but the finished cabin will remain on-site until a barge is found.
Individually numbered, the floor boards will be the last piece of the puzzle to be put back together. The couple will clean the edge-grain Douglas fir planks and lightly sand them.
Standing back and looking at the Blue Cabin, Jeremy and Sus can’t help but smile.
“Oh, it will be good for another 80 years,” says Jeremy, who plans to put some current newspapers under the floorboards as a surprise for another generation.” ■