Heritage activists remain hopeful one of Vancouver’s oldest homes can still be saved and relocated even though its owner, Atira’s Women Resource Society, filed an application to demolish it with the City of Vancouver last week.
Located at 502 Alexander St., the wood-framed house was built in 1888.
It’s mentioned on Heritage Vancouver’s 2012 Top Ten Endangered Sites list under number 5, Strathcona North. The entry points out the house was completed two years after the city was founded. It’s also significant because it was built by John Baptist Henderson, who according to the entry was “an early settler and pioneering architect, contractor and entrepreneur, who worked in many western Canadian communities before returning to Vancouver where he died in 1931.”
But the home is located on the site where Atira plans to create 12 studio units for marginalized Downtown Eastside women using repurposed shipping containers. The society restored a Class B heritage building next door where 18 women live.
Society CEO Janice Abbott told the Courier it’s exhausted all options to save the heritage house over the past 15 months.
“Part of the condition to receive a development permit from the city was that we make significant attempts to find an alternative for the house,” she said. “Over the past year we have worked with a handful of potential recipients of the house—so folks that were considering moving the house to their property and restoring it. Two of those conversations were fairly serious conversations, but at the end of the day the cost was prohibitive.”
Abbott added that the prior owners did nothing to maintain the house, so it’s in a significant state of disrepair. “The only thing that would save it is public money and that has not been forthcoming—so some level of government being interested in its restoration,” she said. “It’s going to cost somebody money and a fair amount of money. As I’ve said to Heritage Vancouver all along, it’s not like we’re gleeful about doing this. I know we don’t have another option. So without somebody coming to the table with some cash to save it, it’s not savable and we’ve made enormous effort to try and find someone and so those other folks also couldn’t find a way to save it.”
Abbott added that Atira has owned the house for not even two years and the most surprising and “tragic” thing to her is that nobody noticed the house for decades as it deteriorated.
Heritage Vancouver’s president Donald Luxton told the Courier in an email that heritage advocates are still interested in saving it. He would like to see it relocated as close to the current site as possible. “But as long as it is preserved we would be happy—we don’t want such valuable heritage to be destroyed,” he said.
Luxton is convinced it’s not too late. “[The effort is] not lost until the building is demolished. There have been many last-minute saves. We intend to work on this one until it is resolved,” he said.
Barb Floden, a spokesperson for the City of Vancouver, said “the developer was asked to try to retain, relocate, reuse, salvage or deconstruct the JB Henderson House at 502 Alexander in the interest of heritage conservation and building waste. At this time, a demolition permit has been applied for but it has not been issued.”