Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Monday, November 13, 2017

Making a Mole Hill out of a Mountain

I'm feeling homesick for Vancouver today. Missing a dear soul who still lives there, and who gives us a warm home from home when we visit. We spent one dull chilly April day in her company wandering the West End . It's the neighbourhood which provided the backdrop for my life for several years - but whose worthy houses didn't get the attention they deserved at the time. I made up for it that day.

The blocks bordered by Thurlow, Comox, Bute and Pendrell are a wonder indeed. The neighbourhood is called Mole Hill, and it has a story.

It's a distractingly wonderful walk - mossy damp everywhere, deep evergreens, lush exotic vegetation (palms in places), Craftsman and Deco detailing, Victorian and Edwardian houses in various stages of decay, or refurbished in bright colour against the grey sky. True Colours, a 1998 publication of the Vancouver Heritage Foundation, reveals the research behind the discovery and restoration of the historic colours of the Mole Hill homes, and outlines a grant program for owners wishing to return their homes to original paint. Astonishing!

The neighbourhood also features handsomely crafted 1930s to mid-century apartment buildings. And some hard glass apartment and condo development shouldering its way onto nearby streets. Here's a handy styles guide to accompany you on your walkabout.

The neighbourhood tilts slightly downhill toward English bay, and should you be able to tear your gaze from house facades, it takes in beaches and mountains and water traffic of all kinds - a very different way to live. Uphill is Thurlow and the coffee shop (one of dozens) where we warmed up after our exploring.

Mole Hill is home to 35 or so restored homes containing multiple dwelling units,  built between 1888 and 1908, and to see them standing (and quite well, thank you very much) in this high density neighbourhood which has seen waves of demolitions and high rise development over the decades - the past few years the most aggressive - is a wonder. Modern infill housing is a new challenge, as heritage types struggle to keep the heritage feel of the neighbourhood alive - an area which may or may not soon become a Heritage Conservation District. One gets the impression of a priceless architectural heritage barely holding on.

I found a handy history lesson about the neighbourhood on, of all places, an international skyscraper enthusiasts' forum. Worth a look at what skyscraper enthusiasts enthuse about.

West End 1903
However, a link directly to a Mole Hill post is probably more useful for our purposes. The host explains that these houses have been threatened with demolition since the 1950s. Indeed the neighbourhood does have a number of apartments from the 40s and 50s - all vintage now, and more aesthetically accessible than the hard bright glass towers encroaching.

A Vintage Vancouver article contains the amazing photo (above) of the residential neighbourhood being hacked out of the forest; the park and beaches created earlier were attracting permanent residents by the turn of the last century. I found this planning video which tells the tale with loads of archival photos.

painted in what's believed to be original colours x3

The no-pictures version of the Mole Hill story goes like this: After WWI, the large homes of the West End began to be divided into rooming houses, while the upper crust peeled off to Shaughnessy and other more posh suburbs. (Only one of the grand mansions remains.) Zoning changes in the 1960s led to mass (350) demolitions. The city block now called Mole Hill was likewise doomed, but the City blinked. Block #23 was slated to be replaced by a school and playing field, but the neighbourhood rose up and put a stop to it.
Den and Ronnie holding off the development threat in Mole Hill

The Mole Hill Community Housing Society manages most of the 30 or so survivors, all owned by the City of Vancouver. It's complicated. The vision: Heritage. Affordable housing. Public spaces. If you're inclined, here's their site.

 Me, I'd like a closer look at these buildings.And while I look, my lovely friends keep company.

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