This past weekend I went along with my sister on the 2016 Vancouver Heritage House Tour – a self-guided tour inside some of Vancouver’s heritage and character homes. Growing up this was a favourite past-time of ours, especially on family vacations. Having grown up on the east coast, we went on many road trips throughout the New England area where I have vivid memories of touring historical mansions and manors. My sister and I also used to always play a game where we’d point out our dream-house whenever we’d drive through a small town. Needless to say, I have been obsessed with heritage houses from a very young age.
Compared to those on the east coast, Vancouver’s historical houses are relatively new, having only been built within the last century or so, but sadly they are becoming scarce among the newer condos and homes that are popping up like weeds. Vancouver is currently in a housing crisis and as a result, beautiful historic homes are either left vacant to decay or being demolished at the hands of foreign investors. For more on that, check out Vancouver Vanishes – a Facebook group where people come together to lament the loss of these beauties and post photos of some of Vancouver’s historical houses that have been torn down due to the real estate boom.
The Vancouver Heritage Foundation promotes the conservation of heritage buildings through lectures, workshops, grants and tours such as the one my sister and I went on this past weekend. We toured a total of nine character homes, ranging in age and size, giving us the chance to feed our burning intrigue and curiosity of what they looked like on the inside and who lived in them. By far my favourite home to walk-through was the Wilmar Estate; a 9,000 square-foot Tudor style mansion built in 1925 that had been vacant for over 10 years. Judith Jardine was the last owner after inheriting the house from her family. Not much is known about her as she lived alone in the house for over 20 years until her death in 2006. The house was in amazing shape for having been vacant for so long. Once we stepped inside, I could immediately sense the history of the house, almost like a heartbeat or electricity through the walls (maybe it was a ghost). I wish I would’ve taken more photos but I really was just in awe.
We also toured a house in Shaughnessy (Vancouver’s richest and oldest neighbourhood) and this is where the sad reality really set in. We decided to take a walk around the neighbourhood; the stillness was unsettling, almost resembling a ghost-town. Many of the houses so incredibly quiet you couldn’t help but wonder if anyone even inhabited them. It seemed like every other lot was fenced in and marked with a City of Vancouver ‘Under Development’ sign. The ultimate doom were the ones marked with the ‘death shroud’, houses entirely tarped up, awaiting demolition. We walked around, our hearts utterly sinking until we turned the corner and stumbled upon The Rosemary house, a 16,000 square-foot, 1915 Tudor Revival style English manor (one of the largest in Vancouver). This house (I say this very casually as this is clearly NOT a house but a CASTLE) was built for whiskey baron & lawyer, Edward Tulk, who named the house after his daughter, Rosemary. It was also home to a Lieutenant Governor of B.C. From 1947, the house was owned by the Order of the convent of Our Lady of the Cenacle until 1996, where it was used as a retreat. Since then, it has been vacant and used as the set for many movies and television shows.
This story however has a happy ending and sheds a different light on foreign investors, as a Chinese billionaire (and avid Downton Abbey fan) recently bought The Rosemary and is currently in the midst of spending millions to restore it to its original state. My sister and I just so happened to spot him walking off the property but didn’t know he was the owner at the time. Now we’re both kicking ourselves wishing we could’ve asked him first-hand about the house, and who-knows, maybe he would’ve given us a tour (one can only dream).
I sincerely hope stories like these inspire more investors to restore instead of destroy. I hope one day to be able to walk-through the restored Rosemary as part of the Vancouver Heritage House Tour. I also hope one day I will be able to own and restore my very own heritage home.