Maxine Dalfo lives in a house of dreams, a modest bungalow that once seemed as grand as a mansion.
In the dark Depression year of 1934, Vancouver fairgoers by the thousands gambled a thin dime on a chance to own the house.
It had cedar-lapped siding painted a dark brown with cream trim.
Inside, to the left of the doorway, French doors swung open to a living room with a fireplace. The main floor also offered a full kitchen (with that remarkable innovation the electric stove), a dinette, two bedrooms and a bathroom with a claw-foot bathtub and jade-green fixtures.
The unfinished second floor offered the promise of two additional bedrooms as well as a sewing room with a window in the gable dormer overlooking the front steps.
A team of horses hauled the bungalow along fir skids to its current location at 2812 Dundas St., a half-block from the exhibition grounds. The Dalfos – Victor and the former Maxine Sokowich – bought the home from a widower hardware-store owner 30 years later.
“It was still on stilts,” she said.
For almost a half-century, this has been Mrs. Dalfo’s home, where she raised a daughter and buried a husband. Victor Dalfo worked as a longshoreman. Maxine also found a job on the waterfront at a cannery, where she drove a jeep, kept tally and otherwise helped freeze and smoke salmon.
Each summer, she visited the nearby Pacific National Exhibition. “There wasn’t a ride we didn’t go on,” she said. “There wasn’t anything we didn’t try.” She played bingo and placed $2 bets at the horse races. She always made sure to buy tickets for the annual prize home.
Fairgoers hear a six-word mantra: “Win a house! Win a car!” The phrase is repeated endlessly by ticket hawkers.
These days it takes a lot of dimes to buy a ticket. The price is $25 for five tickets or $50 for 15.
When the gates open each morning, eager patrons race walk to the entryway of the fully furnished, 3,100-square-foot Craftsman-style house that is this year’s top prize. The three-bedroom, three-bathroom home comes with a theatre room, a wine cellar and a garage loaded with tools. Mrs. Dalfo’s home would fit comfortably inside the main floor.
After the winner is announced at the close of the fair on Labour Day, the home will be moved to a lot in Kelowna with a lake view.
The annual prize-home package reveals a lot about our consumerist desires.
In the first blush of post-war prosperity, the fair’s prize homes were prefabricated houses showing off the latest innovations from British Columbia’s wood products industry. Most were simple rectangles in early ranch style. In 1953, the first television set was included with a house.
One of the prize homes wound up on the University of British Columbia campus, where it was used as a dormitory for the athlete scholars Father David Bauer recruited for the 1964 Olympic hockey team.
An academic paper written in 2005 by Elizabeth MacKenzie, a UBC post-graduate architectural student, tracked down many of the early prize homes. These can still be found as far afield as the Capilano Heights subdivision in North Vancouver and along the Lougheed Highway in Burnaby.
In the 1960s, the homes became larger, though the fair’s managers and builders avoided becoming architectural trendsetters. The prize home remained a middle-class dream designed to “suit the tastes of the average person.”
A two-year flirtation with selling tickets for a $50,000 gold bar instead of a house resulted in lower ticket sales. The prize-home program was reintroduced in 1969.
After the energy crisis, a solar-powered home was offered as a prize, but these more modest designs soon gave way to ever-larger footprints. Now, the prize home is a mansion designed for a resort.
For a taste of the prize-home high life, one can rent Eagles Nest at Daniel Point, a 5,000-square-foot waterfront mansion on a peninsula overlooking Pender Harbour. The house boasts four bedrooms, a media room with pool table, and three west-facing decks. A week-long summer rental costs $2,600.
The 23-metre-long mansion was the PNE prize home in 2000. It was trucked from east-side Vancouver to a prime waterfront location on the Sunshine Coast by Nickel Bros., an industrial mover that has hauled the prize home for the past 25 years.
It must be odd to stay in a grand holiday rental that may have travelled farther than you have.
Mrs. Dalfo plans on buying prize-home tickets this year. Even if she wins, a one-in-1.545-million chance, she will not move from her home, which once offered the dream of a better life in a harsh time.
Special to The Globe and Mail