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A one-of-a-kind Vancouver home saved from demolition Add to ...

A one-of-a-kind Arts and Crafts house has not only been discovered, but it’s been saved from the wrecking ball.

Thanks to the perseverance of a Vancouver woman who wishes to remain anonymous, the house, dated 1912, will be relocated to a temporary site until she finds a property for it. It sits on a double lot on the city’s west side, and it had been purchased for development. It would have been bulldozed and sent to the landfill like the other 1,000 houses that end up there each year.

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail
Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

But thankfully, word spread about its pending doom, and the heritage-loving citizen stepped forward and worked out a deal with the builder. She now owns the house and its surrounding lush garden, which is also being moved.

(The exact address is not being disclosed because of fears the empty house might be damaged. There is a 24-hour security system in place.)

Heritage Vancouver’s Donald Luxton has seen a lot of Vancouver Arts and Crafts houses in his time, but not one like this. He’d always known about the house because of its unique log exterior, which earned it a Heritage B category, but he’d never been inside it. He finally got the chance last week.

“It’s unbelievable. I was blown away,” says Mr. Luxton. “It’s completely unique. I’ve never seen one like it in Vancouver. You see them around San Francisco and the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

“This is high Arts and Crafts, a whole other aesthetic. They used natural materials and flamboyant, dramatic ways of design with this house. We are just starting to piece together information on it.”

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

Mr. Luxton knew the house had a California connection the moment he stepped inside. The dark stained wood, with an “amazing” built-in grandfather clock, a fireplace made from clinker bricks and lava rock, strange animal motifs, built-in lamps, and a unique stained glass window of two birds, referenced famous California architectural work by Julia Morgan, who designed Hearst Castle, and brothers Greene and Greene.

But what was this house doing in Vancouver, he wondered.

This week he got a clue when he found the water hook-up permit dated April, 1912. The name on it is W.A. Doctor, an architect from that time. In his short stint in Vancouver, the American architect William Alexander Doctor designed a Beaux-Arts Vancouver Police Headquarters in 1913, which is now long gone. He lived in Vancouver from 1908 until1918, but his career here was cut short when he was drafted into the First World War. Afterward, he moved to Berkeley, Calif., where he died in 1949.

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

“A lot of people left at that time of the war because the economy was so bad,” says Mr. Luxton.

It turns out that the unique house was Mr. Doctor’s home, and for decades it survived intact, except for an update to the kitchen. The buyer says she’s paying around $100,000 to move the house, which involves moving power and telephone lines. It’s higher than the usual moving fee because she’s moving it twice – to a storage lot, and then, hopefully, to another west side property. She just has to find it. The buyer, who is a software developer, intends to live in it with other family members, who are also investing in it.

“What I’m trying to do, city willing, is put two strata suites in the basement so that it always has enough revenue and value with her, so that in the future, no one will tear her down.”

Builder Bob Cheema, who purchased the property to build two new houses, says he’s also happy that the house will be saved.

“If we can save houses, why not?” says Mr. Cheema. “It’s going to delay our project for two months and cost me money, but I will feel good. My kids will feel good. It’s something special – a gift you are leaving. It’s priceless. You can’t buy that with money. My daughter goes to Crofton School and my son goes to St. George’s, and their friends will come and watch [it be moved]. Everybody is so excited.”

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

It is indeed a happy news day that the house was saved, but it makes you wonder what has already been lost in the mad rush to redevelop.

Because houses are under valued and land is over valued, there is a huge push to build massive new homes. Inexplicably, the craftsmanship of the old houses is overlooked in the scramble.

“Her house is one of the most amazing historic buildings I’ve seen,” says Jeremy Nickel, of Nickel Brothers House Moving, the company that will move the house. “These Craftsman style homes built between 1902 and 1928 belong to a tremendous period. They built some of the nicest construction you’ll find anywhere,” he says.

“But there are so many more homes – just good, solid utilitarian homes being demolished to make way for buildings of lesser quality. I recently counted 22 houses being demolished on 41st Avenue, just in the span of a few blocks. Many of them are very well built.

“Society has a hunger for new,” he adds. “They are exchanging true quality and craftsmanship for plastic.”

Forty per cent of homes demolished from 2009 to 2013 were pre-1940s, according to the city. An average of 50 tonnes of material goes to the landfill for every 1,200 square foot house that comes down. Because a house that size was built from about 60 old-growth trees, Mr. Nickel calls the demolitions “inner city clear-cutting.”

“It’s one of the worst forms of waste there is, because you are losing on both ends, to replace that housing.”

But Mr. Nickel has also seen a recent increase in business, as more people step up to save houses. They are realizing that it may cost upward of $35,000 to move one, but it’s far cheaper – and often better quality – than building new. And people never have to pay for old homes that are slated for demolition, because they’re reducing the developer’s costs by removing them.

As a result, he is seeing a new wave of interest this year alone, he says. There is a momentum building within the community.

Ben Nelms for The Globe and Mail

He’s now moving about 300 to 400 houses a year, many of them to the U.S., where Americans are taking advantage of our dollar.

The city is also attempting to address the crisis. City staff released a report that goes to council on Tuesday, recommending a bylaw amendment that would require 90 per cent recycling of a demolished pre-1940s house that is deemed as having character. The idea is that it will act as a disincentive for demolition.

However, the report focuses on recycling instead of the outright protection of heritage houses, which are more vulnerable than ever before. The historic A-list Legg House in the West End is scheduled for demolition this Thursday. All of its solid cedar doors and oak flooring will go to the landfill.

Mr. Nickel says that if someone chooses to tear down a perfectly solid house, the City could charge a fee of 5 per cent of the assessed value. That fee, on top of the standard $30,000 or so it costs to demolish, would probably make demolition less convenient.

As well, it’s necessary that the city stop subjecting old house renovators to the draconian new building code that makes it almost impossible to save old houses. Just moving an old house subjects it to new building codes, says Mr. Nickel. The irony is, the old house has already been standing for 100 years without crumbling or rotting from leaks. Meanwhile, many of the poorly constructed new houses might last 20 years.

“The city holds so much power over saving these buildings,” says Mr. Nickel, who applauds city staff for kicking into action to help figure out a way to save the Tudor twins, the Dorothies.

“There are different ways in the zoning of the properties that could see the buildings saved. If the city wants to be environmental and not just in word, but in deed, they have the power to do so.”

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