There is a quiet war being waged against Vancouver’s fine old houses, which are coming down at such an alarming rate that Kerrisdale looks like it’s under siege.
On a recent rainy day, award-winning novelist and short-story writer Caroline Adderson, who lives in an Arts and Crafts house with her family, took me on a walking tour of Kerrisdale.
Ms. Adderson is a small woman who bristles with anger as she talks about the neighbourhood that is transforming around her, and at her own powerlessness to do anything about it.
As we walked for more than an hour, it was difficult to find a street that didn’t have a freshly bulldozed house, or a house being prepared for demolition. The first telltale sign, she explained, is the appearance of the white surveyor stakes. After that, the orange fencing goes up. Then the house comes down and is sent off to the landfill.
“It’s constant,” says Ms. Adderson. “Any street you turn down, you see the orange fencing. Why is nobody talking about this?
“We take these houses that are beautifully maintained and restored, all up-to-date in many cases, with gorgeous gardens, and our green city, they say, ‘Go ahead. You can knock the thing down. Cart it to the landfill. And you can excavate within two feet of the property line and rebuild.’ Consider the environmental footprint of that.”
Let me be clear: These are beautifully crafted, perfectly sound houses, and many of them were renovated and upgraded. It’s a loss of heritage, and, as she says, an inconceivable waste, too.
“The area is being mowed down, no question,” says Heritage Vancouver’s Don Luxton. “But what is surprising is the rate of it.”
In 2011 and 2012, according to the city, there were 116 applications for demolition permits in Kerrisdale. That’s more than twice the number issued in years 2007 and 2008.
Ms. Adderson and her husband have lived in their circa 1925 Kerrisdale house on West 38 th Avenue since 1999, where they’ve raised a family. In an attempt to reach out to others who feel the way she does, Ms. Adderson recently started a Facebook page devoted to the loss of the lovely, high-quality homes that were built in the early part of the 20 th century and have been torn down amid the city’s latest boom – the one where we allow our city’s heritage to be destroyed for the sake of profit.
“These new houses are not only awful, but they’re empty,” says Ms. Adderson. “Several of them have sat empty for at least two years after being built.”
As a storyteller, the loss of the stories behind the homes, the history and the culture, particularly grieves her. She shows me a new house on her street, a tall, modern-day Arts and Crafts wannabe. She knew the 96-year-old lady who’d lived in the original house most of her life, a woman named Pearl King. Ms. King proved a vast wealth of historical information, and she put Ms. Adderson in touch with previous owners of her own home. Ms. Adderson learned that a magician had once lived in her house and kept doves and rabbits in the basement. She learned that detail from his 87-year-old daughter, who was thrilled when Ms. Adderson phoned and invited her to visit her childhood home, where she’d lived from six months old to marrying age.
But then Ms. King died in 2010.
“Pearl’s museum,” as Ms. Adderson called it in an essay she wrote for Geist magazine, was purchased in 1925 for $5,250, and sold for $1,633,000. Ms. Adderson watched Ms. King’s intact, perfectly solid house get bulldozed in less than half an hour.
The new house there now has been empty for more than two years. A lot of the builders are waiting for the market to go back up, explains Mr. Luxton.
“How can we disrespect the people who built our city and built our neighbourhood?” asks Ms. Adderson. “The things they left behind, that is our testament to them. People have lived in these homes for many years, and they end up in an old age home, and their home is ripped down. These houses are repositories of narrative. I shudder. I really shudder. Why is nobody talking about this?”
The other question is why the city is allowing it. As Ms. Adderson points out, the city extends a degree of control over private property, such as trees. Property owners are not allowed to clear-cut their properties. Why are they allowed to raze perfectly livable heritage houses?
It’s quite simple, says Mr. Luxton.
“We’re allowing it. There’s no question. We are allowing it.
“The mechanisms for preventing it are limited. But do enough Vancouverites care? I think that is the issue. We all talk about it. But when it comes down to it, would we support restriction on private property rights enough to do that?”
The disregard for these old beauties is evident in the swift and careless manner in which they are being taken down, as if they’re already forgotten garbage. On West 37th Avenue, just off Dunbar Street, a house with thick beige stucco still has a faded “Home for the Holidays” sign stuck crooked in the lawn, a sign that it was once loved enough to be included on the public tour of homes decorated for Christmas.
“What is the difference between this and a war? This is violent to me,” says Ms. Adderson, as we pick our way through heritage rose bushes broken in half and tossed aside. It does feel like a house that has been pillaged by hostile forces. The French doors have been removed, leaving the old flooring exposed to the rain. If someone wants a door or flooring, it’s theirs for the taking, she says. Nobody’s officially salvaging anything. Ms. Adderson’s garden is half filled with plants from demolished houses.
The house might have had old-growth timber moldings and fir floors, coved ceilings and those jewel-like glass door knobs, but all that will be replaced by a new house finished with medium-density fibreboard moldings and glossy engineered wood flooring – and sold for $2- to $3-million.
But you don’t have to go on a walking tour in the rain to see the “war zone.” Simply check out the listings on RealtyLink. A current listing boasts: “Your character home in the heart of Kerrisdale … the largest home on the largest lot in Kerrisdale for under $2,000,000. Live in this charming three-level, six-bedroom house on prestigious Mackenzie Street, or build your dream home … Build up to 5,400 sq. ft. based on permit approval from the city of Vancouver.”
Where is the sustainability in tearing down a perfectly sound house to build a new one that is 5,400 sq. ft. in size? Just how full is the landfill getting from all these razed houses?
For further proof of our loss, you could also check out Ms. Adderson’s ongoing Facebook archive of the lost houses, called Vancouver Vanishes. It is a “lament” and “celebration,” she says.
Two or three times a week, because it is time consuming, she posts a picture of a recently demolished old house. She hopes to include all Vancouver’s lost houses to her sad inventory.
To underscore her point that the loss is more than that of lath and plaster, she documents original owners’ names and occupations.
It isn’t an easy page to look at. I grew up in Kerrisdale, and I knew kids who grew up in some of these homes, with parents who were social workers or teachers, with Volvo station wagons in the garage. It was a middle-class neighbourhood, and everybody knew everybody.
The houses look like the ones you’d see used for a nostalgic movie set. Her page shows one lovely house after another that has come down, a heartbreak to anyone who appreciates history, or the city’s culture, or who cares about craftsmanship, or what goes into the landfill. It turns out there are a lot of Vancouverites who fall into this category. The response, she says, was immediate. Suddenly, Vancouverites are bonding over stories about their old family homes, or neighbourhood, adding to the narrative with details. It turns out we do have an identity, after all.
“I’m sure a lot of people don’t agree, but there are a lot of things more important than money,” says Ms. Adderson.
Out of frustration, she’s often told her husband that they should just leave Vancouver and move to a place that cares about its history.
“But I can’t move,” she says defiantly, “because my house would be torn down.
“So I’m staying. It’s going to be the last house.”