Skip to content

West Vancouver's Navvy Jack House to be restored as cafe

It’s the oldest house in the Lower Mainland and it has a new future as a waterfront cafe.

The house that Jack built will live on.

Navvy Jack House – the oldest home in Metro Vancouver – will be restored and converted to a waterfront café, District of West Vancouver Mayor Mark Sager has confirmed.

Sager made the announcement at the outset of the March 27 council meeting, following an in-camera vote held earlier in the evening.

“Two years ago it looked as if the Navvy Jack House would be torn down and here we are today with a viable plan to restore and repurpose the house as a waterfront destination,” Sager said.

The house on Argyle Avenue, which was built 1873 and lived in by John ‘Navvy Jack’ Thomas, and his Sḵwx̱wú7mesh wife Sla-wiya, was set for demolition in 2020, when the previous council deemed there was little interest from the public to spend money on a restoration and no obvious way to repurpose the building.

Following pushback from heritage advocates, council halted the demolition and committed $1 million in community amenity contributions to help restore it – but put the responsibility for remainder of the fundraising for the estimated $2.6 million bill on the Navvy Jack Citizens Group. Their pitch was for the site was “Coffee, muffin, and a side of history.”

That’s pretty much exactly what the house will be getting, Sager said, after council reviewed two very attractive expressions of interest from contractors to take over the house.

“The person that we are awarding the deal to is extremely qualified in heritage restoration. The other proponent was a very good operator of small coffee shops,” Sager said. “What we’re actually doing is trying to put the two together and get the best of both worlds and just make it even better.”

Under the agreement, the restoration partner (who can’t be named until all the details have been negotiated and contracts signed) will handle the capital improvements at their own cost. In return, they will have a 25-year lease at nominal cost to operate a coffee shop at the site.

Sager said the terms of the tentative agreement are so favourable, it should absolutely be viewed as a donation to the municipality.

“It will be a lovely place to go and have coffee, at no additional cost to the taxpayers, so I think this is a nice outcome,” Sager said, adding that thanks are owed to everyone who spoke up on behalf of Navvy Jack House over the last few years.

John Mawson, said he and the rest of the Navvy Jack Citizens Group members are ecstatic to see their education and advocacy work yield results and that the building will be preserved for future generations.

“It is just absolutely fabulous for the house. Fabulous for the community. I think this is very, very good news, indeed,” he said

Mawson said the rest of the community will appreciate council making Navvy Jack House a priority when they’ve had a chance to have a glass of wine on the patio while looking out on the water.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” he said.

Indigenous descendants grateful

Squamish Elder Andrea Jacobs, the oldest living direct descendent and great granddaughter of Thomas and Sla-Wiya, said she was moved to learn the house would be saved.

“Oh, I was so happy,” she said.

For years, Jacobs would pass by the house on the Seawalk, not fully grasping its importance. Once, while the previous tenants were hosting a garage sale, she popped in.

“I got this feeling like I’ve never felt before,” she said. “We found out that Sla-wiya passed away in the house. She gave birth to a son and passed away in the house. They buried her but her soul is still there.”

Jacobs said she was in tears after learning in 2020 that the house would be torn down. It brought back memories of her grandmother who often spoke of wanting to go back.

Before the house is renovated, it will need some spiritual work first, Jacobs said, “to make her one person again, up there,” she said. “It’s just our ways.”

More than seeing the Navvy Jack House as a place to get a coffee, Jacobs she’d like to see half of the house dedicated to showcasing the culture and selling the artworks of the Indigenous people who also have a deep connection to the place.

[email protected]