The last vestige of a Downtown Eastside diner that epitomized the era of vibrant working-class life on East Hastings is in danger of being demolished, in spite of a plea to retain at least part of this piece of history.
Vancouver’s heritage commission recently passed a last-ditch motion to ask BC Housing, the owner of The Only Sea Foods café, to at least try to dismantle and then reconstruct the façade of the historic restaurant, as well as restoring its memorable seahorse-embellished neon sign on the front.
But commission chair Michael Kluckner is not hopeful, in spite of the agency’s past record of restoring many of the area’s historic hotels, such as the Pennsylvania and the Rainier.
That’s a loss for the city, he said, because the Only and the Loggers Social Club on the second floor were landmarks in a neighbourhood that was home to B.C. forestry workers for decades.
“This would make a connection with the community about a building that goes back a century,” he said. “This was the earlier version of the Downtown Eastside.”
Heritage expert John Atkin is even more dismayed by what has happened to the building, which was vandalized by scrap-metal salvagers and drug dealers after the café was ordered closed by the city in 2009. That came after a series of health violations, along with a police raid that found drugs on the site.
“It kicks the teeth out of the streetscape, which continues with a dismissal of the neighbourhood,” said Mr. Atkin.
BC Housing has said the structure is not safe for housing and it is planning to allow an open-air market on the site once the building is demolished. That market will replace the one that operated for several years at 58 West Hastings, which is now being developed as social housing.
“Although we work to avoid the loss of any historic site, a recent significant structural failure has rendered The Only structurally unsafe as a source of housing,” the agency said in an emailed statement. “A structural assessment undertaken immediately after the failure has also determined that the building could be in danger of collapse and safety is of utmost importance in choosing to proceed with demolition.”
The neon sign is being stored by the Vancouver Historical Society, the agency said.
The Only, as it was always called, was a popular and eclectic place to eat when it was open, attracting a wide mix of patrons, from professionals working nearby to homeless people. Its tin ceiling and 1950s-style stools and counter were familiar to many looking for a bowl of chowder or fried fish.
It was started in 1917 and then was taken over by the Thodos family in 1950, whose various members ran it until the 1990s.
The Loggers Social Club was a place for the many ex-forestry workers living in Downtown Eastside hotels to hang out and was described in 1974 as one of the biggest gambling joints in the city.
The Portland Hotel Society bought the building in about 2011 and talked about starting up The Only as a social-enterprise restaurant but nothing happened. BC Housing took it over after the society’s leaders were kicked out as the result of a spending scandal.
Since then it has been boarded up and has slowly deteriorated.
“The salvagers got in, they stole the pipes and flooded the building. It got trashed and trashed and trashed again,” said Mr. Atkin.
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