Skip to content

MEMORY LANE: Archivist helps history live forever

Recently a pair of robins hatched their family in a nest they built on the wreath that decorates the front door of a North Vancouver home.

Recently a pair of robins hatched their family in a nest they built on the wreath that decorates the front door of a North Vancouver home.

Suzanne Wilson, born in Wisconsin and now a Canadian, and her husband Alan, West Vancouver born and a retired elementary school librarian, raised their family in this home in the Cloverly neighbourhood where they have lived since 1972. Suzanne recorded the story of the robins and their offspring in their twiggy home in a series of photographs. It's what she does. Her vocation as a documentarian of North Vancouver homes began in the year 2000 with Y2K. "When Y2K came along, I realized we were living in interesting times," she says. "I began thinking about what I could do to mark this time."

She set out to photograph 2,000 homes in the City of North Vancouver in one year. To accompany each photograph in the Your House/Our Home project, Suzanne recorded as much about the house and its occupants as she could learn. She began on New Year's Day with the home of Percy and Marjorie Barber at 1835 Westview Dr. The Barbers purchased the lot on View Drive, as it was known then, in 1955. It had taken the family 14 years, with Percy walking every day from their rented wartime house to his job at the shipyards, to save enough money to buy the lot and build a home. The full story of the house and the Barber family is at the North Vancouver Archives.

As heritage houses become more rare and interest in them grows, the value of these records and photographs, in colour for the first time in the archives collection, will also grow, says North Vancouver archivist Janet Turner.

For the next project, Demolition and Construction, Suzanne focused her camera's eye on buildings scheduled for demolition and kept it there for 10 years, expanding her scope to include North Vancouver's non-residential buildings.

Suzanne processed the film - yes, black and white film - in her basement darkroom, which doubled as the laundry room, just as her father, a hobby photographer, had done back home in Milwaukee.

Her blog, Demolition Mama, documents the place these buildings occupied in the community through photographs and, where possible, a record of the building and its occupants.

When the demolition project closed, Suzanne found herself "with all these churches." Every Sunday for three years, Suzanne posted photographs and records of North Vancouver churches in her Churches on Sundays blog. Even those long gone are in a category she calls "Posthumous." Recently, Suzanne collected the posts in a series of booklets - Deep Cove, Lynn Valley, the City and the District, First Nations lands and Posthumous - and donated them to the North Vancouver Archives. "This compilation of Suzanne's blog postings of North Vancouver churches of different denominations is an invaluable asset to the community record," says Turner. "Usually such records are maintained in their respective church archives. Suzanne has contributed a unique portrait of North Vancouver churches - interiors, exteriors, architectural details and stories. The value of these records will grow enormously."

Suzanne's documentary projects have found a permanent home in the North Vancouver Museum and Archives.

"In my experience," says Turner, "the most common reference question is 'Does the house have a story?'" In combining photographs and histories of the houses and buildings of North Vancouver, Suzanne has created a unique documentary record of lasting interest and increasing value to her community.

"Suzanne has a passion for built heritage, skill as a photographer, and the determination to see a project through to completion," says Turner. "She's had the vision, in all her projects, of making the photographs and research she has accumulated available for future generations. The North Vancouver Archives is very grateful to Suzanne for the donation of these invaluable resources to our holdings."

Your House/Our Home, Demolition and Construction, and Churches on Sundays are Suzanne Wilson's tribute to the people of North Vancouver who lived, worked and worshiped in these buildings, and her gift to the community where she raised her family.

"This entire community is our home," she says. "This is our history, and it needs to be collected, preserved and shared."

Laura Anderson works with and for seniors on the North Shore. 778-279-2275