The heritage mansion at 3737 Angus Dr. looked like a write-off after it mysteriously went up in flames early on a Sunday morning last October.
However, the city has deemed that the house is very much salvageable, with more than 60 per cent of it intact, according to former Heritage Commission chair Richard Keate. The owner will have to restore it, not necessarily to its original state, but to an approximation of the original Tudor Revival that was built in 1910 by famous architect Samuel Maclure.
It's good news for heritage advocates, and not just because they like old houses. It sends an invaluable message that protected houses will be protected – and that a torched house is not automatically a demolished house.
From the get-go, the fire department had said the fire was "suspicious."
"Virtually 100 per cent of vacant house fires are deemed suspicious," says Captain Jonathan Gormick, public information officer for Fire and Rescue Services.
It has since been confirmed that it was indeed "maliciously set," he says.
Capt. Gormick said that contrary to initial reports, however, the arsonist did not light the fire in several spots around the house, but most likely in a single location.
He said the fire department did not have enough evidence to press charges against anyone.
The Angus Drive house had been added to the Heritage Register as an "A" category building in May, 2014. It is assessed at $14,216,000, and had been left empty for many years, except for a brief spell when it was rented out to a group of people. No one was living in the house at the time of the fire.
Capt. Gormick says empty houses are a particular risk to firefighters because of the unknowns. Firefighters must assume someone could be inside the house, either lawfully or unlawfully, so they have no choice but to check, putting themselves in danger. As well, they run the risk that the house might be missing walls or doors, which would normally help contain a fire. If the house is unoccupied and neglected, it could have unstable staircases or holes in the floors. And an empty house that catches fire poses an obvious risk to neighbours.
The restoration of 3737 Angus Dr. is not off to an easy start. The house has remained uncovered throughout the winter months. With a good deal of the roof gone, the house's previously pristine interior has been exposed to rain, sleet and snow.
Mind you, further damage doesn't mean the house won't be saved, civic historian and consultant John Atkin says. He says that leaving the house vulnerable to further deterioration is only going to cost the owner further expense in his requirement to rebuild and restore it as it was.
"It won't alter the fact that what goes on that site will look largely like what is there now," he says. "It seems silly to not protect it in some way because you are just adding to the overall cost of everything."
Heritage expert Don Luxton doesn't understand why there's been a four-month delay in covering the roof. "The movie industry could have covered that in a day," he says. "The issue was you have to stabilize it and keep the water out. That was supposed to happen. If it hasn't, then they are dragging their heels."
The city ordered the owner to install a protective covering over the house on Nov. 1. The owner had asked for two extensions and was ultimately given until Feb. 16 to comply. The reason for the extension had to do with structural hazards and WorkSafeBC requirements. As of Sunday, the house remained uncovered, its interior subject to a fresh layer of snow.
The Angus Drive house had been much loved and was a pristine example of old-world craftsmanship; a historic beauty, both inside and out, with its peaked gables and half-timbered exterior.
Miaofei Pan and wife Wenhuan Yang are listed as the homeowners of 3737 Angus Dr. A year prior to the fire, Mr. Pan was in the news after he hosted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a Liberal Party fundraiser at another house he owns on the west side. At the time, he told The Globe and Mail that he lobbied Prime Minister Trudeau to make the process easier for wealthy investors to come to Canada from China.
Mr. Pan is a real estate developer and businessman with a complicated history both in Canada and China. He has owned two other homes in Richmond. Those houses had been the subject of safety infractions in 2011 and 2015, as reported by Globe reporters Kathy Tomlinson and Xiao Xu. The houses were held by Mr. Pan's company and, despite the hazards, had up to 13 people living in them. Ms. Tomlinson and Ms. Xu also found out that Mr. Pan and his wife had been on a Chinese government "list of dishonest persons" because they had disobeyed a court order to pay out a $2.2-million loan from an asset-management firm that they had personally guaranteed. Mr. Pan had a long history of alleged debts and lawsuits in China, according to online Chinese language court records.
The couple rented out their Angus Drive mansion to a group of young people who used the house for parties and events in 2016.
Mr. Pan and Ms. Wang have made no public comment about the house, nor have they advised the city of their intentions.
The previous owner had done a painstakingly sensitive and meticulous update to the house, the interiors of which can be seen online in a realtor video. They'd proved that a heritage house could be added to without compromising its historical value, Mr. Atkin says.
"They had really done a superb job on the house and treated it with great respect, and yet added a substantial amount to the property that most people couldn't see," he says.
The house became one of the 317 pre-1940 houses covered under the First Shaughnessy Heritage Conservation Area (HCA) in September, 2015, protecting it from demolition. Vancouver got its very first HCA because the old houses had become targets of rampant redevelopment over the years. It took significant public consultation and was met with angry pushback from homeowners, who feared a drop in property values.
If the owner had wanted to bulldoze the house, he'd have to prove that it was unsalvageable.
Heritage experts worry that if Mr. Pan had been allowed to build new, it would have sent the message to other heritage-home owners that a neglected house – or a burned-out one – is an effective way to get around conservation rules.
"There is a concern about vacant houses," Mr. Luxton says. "The city doesn't want people to see this as a solution to getting rid of buildings they don't want, because it's dangerous. This is serious stuff."
As part of the Heritage Action Plan, the city also introduced a Heritage Property Standards of Maintenance by-law that requires an owner of a house in the HCA to repair and maintain the house, and to prevent water penetration. The by-law targets owners who might use "demolition by neglect" in order to justify the removal of a heritage house.
"Certainly for Shaughnessy, because a number of houses have been left abandoned for years and years, that kind of demolition by neglect thing is a strategy," says Michael Kluckner, chair of the Vancouver Heritage Commission.
"You've got to maintain the site, and the house. Currently, with the new vacant house rule, that is adding another level to it," he says, referring to the city's new Empty Homes Tax of 1 per cent of the house's value, if left vacant. "But potentially that amount of money is not significant to people," he adds.
It's the first time that the city will be put to the test when it comes to enforcing the bylaw that protects historic houses within the First Shaughnessy Heritage Conservation Area, he says.
"We will see. In a way, it's 'who will blink first?' as to whether the city will stand up for the HCA. When I look at the way the city enacts bylaws and then doesn't enforce them … it doesn't give me a huge amount of confidence. But I hope they will send the clear message that these buildings are here to stay."
In an e-mail, the city suggested it would push for the owner to rebuild and reconstruct any damaged parts of the house. In order to do any major work on the house, he'd have to apply for a Heritage Alteration Permit (HAP).
"The director of planning could refuse a Heritage Alteration Permit application to significantly alter/demolish/replace the protected heritage building because it would negatively impact the building's heritage value/character," city staff said, "but would support an HAP to rebuild/reconstruct damaged components."
Mr. Atkin says that even though Mr. Pan will have to restore the house, it won't necessarily be true to its Tudor Revival glory: The authenticity of materials and workmanship isn't a requirement. While HCAs usually follow strict federal conservation guidelines, the Vancouver version doesn't.
"There isn't a benchmark for conservation," says Mr. Atkin, who was an outspoken critic of the omission at the time the Shaughnessy HCA was established.
As a result, the houses can be turned into replicas.
"It's volumetric preservation, which is preserving the volume of structure there, but in the end you have a new structure."
He cites a large house on Hudson, off the Crescent, which has been undergoing a two-year renovation. The interior was gutted and rebuilt, the exterior replaced with a "very good exact replica."
"What you have standing there is a house that, for all intents and purposes, is brand new," he says. "So it is really about rooflines and volume, but I think it's a misnomer to call First Shaughnessy a 'conservation area,' because almost no conservation is being done there."
With files from Kathy Tomlinson and Xiao Xu.