Skip to main content

The unusual structure in Vancouver's prestigious Point Grey neighbourhood at 3979 West Broadway Ave. looks like something right out of a fairytale book. In fact, the house - located at the end of a street shaded by a cathedral of giant plane trees - is a rare example of what is known as "storybook architecture."

The style, popular from the 1920s to the early 1940s, had a range of influences, from European cottage architecture to Hollywood movies and Walt Disney's fantasy creations.

The 2,500-square-foot bungalow, which sits on a pie-shaped corner lot on West Broadway Avenue, is still sound but in need of major repairs. At one point earlier this year, there was talk of demolishing it, but now plans are under way to save it from the wrecker's ball.

The house, built in 1942, was sold in June for $1.65-million, according to city records, after changing hands the year before for slightly more than $1-million. The new owners want to preserve the house, and plan to carry out a total restoration and a modest expansion. They also want to subdivide the lot and build another small, but taller, residence.

A large team is being assembled for the project, which requires written architectural plans on returning the house and landscaping - as much as possible - to their original state, according to Heritage Vancouver's Donald Luxton.

The distinctive multilayered, "sea wave" cedar shingle roof alone will cost "well over $100,000" to restore, says Mr. Luxton, who is overseeing the project. The roof is what makes the house special. It is several layers deep and expertly designed to look like an old English thatched roof.

"We've worked on roofs like this before," he adds. "They are very complex and a huge expense to do properly - but the house isn't the same if you don't have that roof.

"This kind of roof [cedar shingle] was much more common - it's just that they are all gone."

The bungalow, designed by renowned Vancouver architect Ross A. Lort, is modelled on Anne Hathaway's Tudor cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was constructed by master builder Brenton Lea, who was born on Prince Edward Island, and learned his trade in Boston. Mr. Lea's Welsh wife had challenged him to build her a house that looked like the childhood cottage of Shakespeare's wife.

Mr. Lea's daughter, Mary Graham, remembers her mother digging out a photo of the Hathaway cottage and handing it to her father.

"I have the picture that she had saved since she was a child, and she handed it to him and he did a copy of that," says Ms. Graham, who is 85 and living in Nanaimo. "It turned out very close to it."

She remembers that her father "built a bonfire in the front yard and had a big pot of water and he steamed the shingles and curved them."

Ms. Graham, who was 14 at the time, says that even in 1942, the house stood out as a curiosity.

"I was annoyed because people with their cameras would come up and look in the windows, and if the door was open they would walk in," she recalls.

Mr. Lea later built two other storybook houses, also designed by Mr. Lort: one in South Cambie at 587 West King Edward Ave., and another in West Vancouver at 885 Braeside. Ms. Graham still remains in contact with the owner of the South Cambie house.

She lived in the Lea residence for only a year or two before the family had to move again because of the nature of her father's business of building and flipping houses. She had become so attached to it that, in later years, she always made a point of driving by when in Vancouver. Ms. Graham, who is an artist and miniaturist, even built a small replica of the Lea residence, complete with furnishings.

When she and her family were living at the cottage, property in Vancouver's west side was cheap enough that her father could buy several rows of lots at a time. He built his cousin a house on West Broadway near the cottage, and she remembers playing in the many empty lots that surrounded the homes. He also built many of the luxury homes in the city's upscale Shaughnessy neighbourhood.

She gasps when told that the Lea residence sold for $1.65-million last June.

Today, a bungalow on a property that cost $1.65-million doesn't make economic sense. But Ms. Graham doesn't like the proposed plan to subdivide the lot.

"I'm glad my parents aren't alive today to know that," she says, sighing.

Mr. Luxton emphasizes that an application has not yet been made for the development of the Lea residence. As a result, the city planner working on the project did not want to comment for this story. The new home owners, who have previous experience with infill buildings, prefer to remain anonymous.

"Anything we say about the final project is preliminary at this point," Mr. Luxton says.

He commends the new owners for attempting to maintain the heritage site and make it economically feasible, too. The plan is to add a master bedroom to the house, but otherwise keep it the same.

"Over all, I think it's a real win-win that we could do this," he says. "There's no real downside to it. You just end up with two smaller houses instead of one bigger house, but you keep the heritage house.

"And the neighbours have been really interested. ... They want it to stay. Sometimes you don't always get that."


The Lea residence at 3979 West Broadway Ave. in Vancouver is an "outstanding example of 'storybook architecture,' " according to U.S. house designer Samuel Hackwell.

The style, he says, is making a comeback as people turn away from the big, boxy houses that have been popular for the past decade.

"We absolutely love this style and the original European cottage styles that it originated from," Mr. Hackwell says.

Six years ago, he started a design company in Lynden, Wash., to take advantage of the renewed interest. Called Storybook Homes, it has a website ( that offers photos of existing homes built in that style.

After studying the original 1942 photo of the Lea residence, Mr. Hackwell says everything about the cottage makes it an ideal example of the storybook style - the unusual chimney pots, the "sea wave" cedar shakes and rolled eaves, the leaded diamond-pane windows, the irregular stone and clinker bricks, the uneven stucco and half timbers.

The rolled eaves and roof ridges were designed to mimic thatched rooftops. But the distinctive "sea wave" cedar shingle roof is an artistic embellishment, Mr. Hackwell explains.

The storybook style was an offbeat trend from the 1920s to the early 1940s that began on the West Coast of North America. The picturesque and fanciful houses, which often looked like European thatched-roof cottages or castles, were based on old French and English architecture. The extremely whimsical examples were influenced by the rise of Hollywood and its fantasy swashbuckler movies and animation.

"Nowadays, people want to be different," Mr. Hackwell says. "They want to live in something they've always dreamed of living in but have most likely never been able to find."

Kerry Gold