The Marine Building and the Little House Next Door

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W.J. Moore’s 1935 photo of the Marine Building, the Quadra Club and Frank Holt’s cabin. CVA BU N7

It’s hard to imagine today, but when the Marine Building opened in 1930 it was the tallest building in Vancouver and stayed that way for more than a decade. If you look at the photo (above), you can see that when architects McCarter and Nairne, designed it, four of the 22 floors were built into the cliff above the CPR railway tracks. You can also see the second version of the Quadra Club, and then what looks like an old shack perched on the edge of the cliff.

I recently came across this war-time newspaper advertorial by Vancouver Breweries Limited. It shows the same 1935 photo, and circled is “the oldest building in Vancouver.”

According to the story, part of a series called “Do you know Vancouver!” the tiny house was used by CPR land commissioner Lauchlan Hamilton when he was surveying Vancouver in 1885. “Using the old cottage as a mark, Hamilton set the lines of our present Hastings Street, on which the street system of Vancouver is based,” goes the story. “When John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir visited Vancouver for the last time as Governor General of Canada, his attention was called to this shabby little relic of our past. ‘I hope the people of Vancouver will preserve it!’ he exclaimed, fervently.”

Well, no sir, we did not.

The little house was built in 1875 as a mess hall for Spratt’s Oilery and originally had five rooms. It survived the Great Fire, and in 1894, Frank Holt moved in. When the cannery moved out, Holt stayed on. When Frank found out that four of the rooms were taxable because they were on city property, he tore them down, and stayed in the one-room shack. He was still living there in 1943 when the foundations started to give way and the front porch fell down the embankment. Frank, who was 90 at the time, helped workers install a new foundation.

Then in 1946 a fire broke out and trapped Frank in the house. Miraculously, firefighters found Frank in the debris and carried him to safety. The house was not so lucky.

Marine Building, photo courtesy Pricetags blog

Frank came to Vancouver on the first transcontinental train. He was one of the founders of Christ Church Cathedral, and lived as a squatter in the one-room house in the shadow of the Marine Building for over half a century.

He died in December 1946, less than two months after his home burned down.

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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  1. This is a good one Eve….I am sending the link to my sister Mary Anderson, currently living in Glasgow, and hope she will subscribe. I get irritated when folks ASSUME they know details, and get them wrong….and I am quite tired of trying to suggest to some of those people that they should check their facts….even the facts they are basing their assumptions on….to the point where I generally dont hop in to comment on facebook or in meetings anymore.

    Yet I know that if I dont do something, silly things get perpetuated….I have just been through this over some things about the Gibson family…..If it werent that I have a long standing link with the younger Earson Gibson, ( who might turn into an extremely good writer one of these days) I wouldnt have bothered earlier….

    I appreciate the research….and the fact you are busy writing…..


  2. This story is right up my street, so to speak. John Atkin gave us a great tour of the area where all these private clubs were (and two still are). I learned that it was a cliff-front residential neighbourhood originally. Christchurch was the local place of worship. But within 20 years or so after their construction all the fine houses were torn down and replaced by commercial buildings. I may have the details wrong but I understand the CPR developed the area as tony competition to the commercial centre at Hastings and Main.

  3. My father worked in the Marine building in the 50s…Bill McKee, general manager of the BC Shipping Federation. When I looked at the picture on the right at the very top of this page I thought, “That could be my dad!” But this picture was probably taken earlier? Those were certainly the suit, coat and hat he wore…but though, didn’t all business men?

  4. Fascinating story Eve! One wonders if efforts would have been made to preserve that house if it hadn’t burned down…

    1. I doubt it, it was in pretty rough shape. And look what happened to the “oldest house in Vancouver” a few years back (actually I think it was the second oldest) – the one at 502 Alexander Street that could have been saved.

  5. That “old shack” by the Marine Building was there well before the Marine Building. It had been rented for 8 schillings per month by J.T. Taylor when he was just a working lad. J.T. Taylor, in case you don’t recognize the name, eventually became the owner of the Marine Building and was the person after whom Taylor Way was named. Taylor liked to look down on the shack from his penthouse in the Marine Building and say he had elevated himself 400 feet.

    1. Hi Craig, I wonder if we are talking about the same “old shack”? I hope so because I love the story, and it was certainly there long before the Marine building–55 years before in fact. But it was actually a mess hall/boarding house for the cannery before Frank Holt moved in there in 1894. He lived there up until 1946 when the shack burned down. AJT Taylor was born in 1887 so it’s unlikely he was renting anything before the early 1900s.

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