227 Union Street (Union was once Barnard Street)
[Drawing: Graham Elvidge]
When An Old House Falls
By James Johnstone
Everyones talking about the trees the wind knocked down in
Stanley Park. People are wringing their handshorrified that
nature can wreak such havoc with nature. Yes, we lost some great
old trees. Its sad, but with time the forest will rise again.
Its not the same with this citys old houses, though.
No ones talking about how in the same month developers knocked
down the last old house on the 200-block of Union Street, just north
of old Hogans Alley.
227 Union wasnt a mansion by any stretch of the imagination.
No rich people ever lived there. None of its occupants ever made
it into the news clippings. I know. I checked. So whats the
That house was over a hundred years old. It was built in 1900 by
a New Brunswick-born carpenter, John Bruce Smith, on a lot on which
a smaller cabin had stood from 1894. Smiths mother Isabella,
his sister Ada and his brother Peter and Peters wife Martha
lived there for just over a decade. Their neighbours were mostly
working class immigrants from Britain and Eastern Canada: teamsters
and laborers, laundry men and blacksmiths.
By 1913 the house was rented out to Joseph Lacterman, a Russian-born
Jewish tailor, and his English-born wife Bessie. The rest of the
block was undergoing changes as well. Union and Main Street had
become the nucleus of a growing Italian colony in Vancouver. The
Bingarra Block, which once stood on the southeast corner of Union
and Main housed Vancouvers earlier Italian consular offices.
[Bingarra was named for a place in New Zealand.]
Back on the north side of the street, the house at 209 Union, built
in 1891 and first occupied by New Brunswick-born dressmaker Mary
Marion Myles and her trader husband Robert Johnson Myles, had been
turned first into a boarding house, then into a restaurant by a
man named Thomas A. Kelly. This same house would, by 1948, become
the home of Robert and Viva Moore and as Vies Chicken and
Steakhouse become a Vancouver icon.
During World War I many of the houses on the 200-block of Union
stood vacant, as did hundreds of houses throughout Vancouver. Prior
to the war there had been a building boom, but with the outbreak
of war Vancouvers population dropped by 30,000. During the
war Bruce Smith moved back to 227 Union with his new bride Emma.
By then Bruce had become a pile driver working for Evans Coleman
and Evans, a large timber-exporting firm which built Vancouvers
first deep-sea dock. Bruce and Emma continued to live at 227 Union
until 1923. In 1924 a Chinese family rented, then from 1924 to 1933
Kansas-born Elijah "Lige" Holman became the first black
person to live in the house. Elijah Holman and a Mamie Holman owned
and lived next door at 221 Union from 1922 to 1924. Elijah Holman
was born in Kansas on March 8, 1875 and came to Vancouver in 1911
where he worked as a laborer for the city of Vancouver from 1932
to 1942. According to his death certificate he never married.
By 1934, Elijah Holman had moved back to 221 Union and from 1935
to 1942 227 Union was home to Italian-born laborer Alberto Barichello
and his wife Angelina. During the 1930s and 1940s the block was
a mix of Black, Italian and Chinese families.
From 1945 until recently 227 Union has been home to a number of
Chinese families, first the Shuen and then the Jang families. Elijah
Holman continued to live next door at 221 Union until his death
on October 25, 1951 at the age of 75. He is buried at Forest Lawn
A few years back at the time when I was trying to get my house-history
research business off the ground I thought it was important to have
a diverse selection of samples to show potential clients. In between
paying jobs I chose a number of houses that I knew I never would
be hired to research. I called these projects my orphans. They were
mostly small, neglected-looking houses in my neighborhood, the East
End, houses that I felt would soon face the wrecking ball, be knocked
down and be forgotten. Obliterated from the landscape and our memory.
227 Union was one of those orphans. I thought that if I could research
its history and show it had a story that the house would be saved.
The 227 Union project involved thirteen addressesfive on
the north side of the street, and eight on the south. As I gathered
and wove together the various strands and layers of data I collected
I was fascinated with the various changes this little slice of the
old East End had gone through. People came in waves, it seemed,
from all over the world to find a new life on this section of East
End Vancouver street. Digging deeper, I scrolled through hundreds
of birth, death and marriage records for the people who lived in
these houses. As I named their names in my head the feeling that
I might be the only person who was remembering these men and women
and their stories overwhelmed me.
To supplement the data I had collected I set out to find images
of the houses I was researching at the archives and the library.
In the end the only photos I could find were from the 1970s taken
from atop the Cobalt Hotel just after Hogans Alley was demolished
and the ramps for the new Georgia Viaduct were being built. One
photo was taken while the Bingarra Block was still standing. The
other, taken after its demolition, contains a clear shot of 227
Union and its neighbors, including 209 UnionVies Chicken
and Steakhouse. As far as I know it is the only archival photo of
that Hogans Alley icon in existence.
On a cold January morning as work crews struggled to clear the
jumble of fallen trees in Stanley Park and other workers raced to
repair the torn panels in BC Place Stadium an ugly two-ton backhoe
knocked down the last remaining house on the 200-block of Union.
A perfectly solid house which could have been saved and moved just
half a block to replace houses lost on Gore and Union to recent
I know it was solid because I snuck inside the week before it was
demolished. The stain glass windows had been taken out and some
trim salvaged but what remained was sound. It didnt need to
be taken down.
A neighbour friend of mine, who is an architect and a carpenter
and who, with his partner, had recently saved another old neighborhood
house that was in much worse condition than 227 Union, went inside
as well. He measured the dimensions of the entry hall, the living
and dining room, the kitchen, pantry, the four upstairs bedrooms,
and the bathroom and made an architectural drawing of the house
and gave a copy to me. I will add this treasured document to the
project I started years ago. 227 Union is gone, but the effort was
not in vain. Something was saved if only on disc and paper. I remember,
and others will too. When this project is completed I will give
a copy to the Hogans Alley Memorial Project people, and some
daywhen I work out the fundingthe information and archival
images I have found and the architectural drawings we have been
given will be used to resurrect, if only in virtual reality, the
lost streetscapes of Hogans Alley and the old East End.
James Johnstone is an East End-based
House Genealogist who has researched over 500 houses in Vancouver
and New Westminster of which over 200 are in what is now called
Strathcona. James is now actively looking for sponsors and other
funding sources and support to allow him to research the entirety
of Vancouvers old East End (district lots 196, 181, and 182)
and to put all the data and images collected on an interactive neighborhood
history mapping website. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
or check out his website: www.homehistoryresearch.com
There is a fine article by Lisa Smedman of the Courier
on James and his work here.
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