Vancouver’s Buried Houses

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A few weeks ago, Michael Kluckner ran a painting of a Kitsilano house on his FB page. I googled the address and was astonished to find that the house was still there on busy 4th Avenue, buried behind an ice-cream parlour. Michael tells me that only a handful of these buried houses remain, and he kindly wrote this story illustrated by his paintings from 2010 and 2011 that appeared in Vanishing Vancouver: The Last 25 Years.

By Michael Kluckner

In the interwar years, Vancouver’s commercial streets filled in with single-storey shops, many of them simple boxes with no decorative trim. They were the utilitarian independent stores of the “streetcar suburbs” like Grandview’s Commercial Drive and the West End’s Robson Street. A typical Vancouver commercial street, right up until the 1970s,  was a mix of shops, a few apartment buildings, and houses.

Especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s, owners of these houses tried to make their properties viable by adding commercial storefronts in what had been the houses’ shallow front yards.

Just east of Arbutus, 2052 West 4th Avenue (above) is a 1905 house with a 1927 addition on the front. Over the years it has housed a dry cleaner, a build-it-yourself radio shop, and a poster store catering to the hippies in nearby rooming houses. It was nicknamed The Rampant Lion, after the tenants’ rock band.

Visible only from Fraser Street and the back lane, the 1897 house at 708 East Broadway is hidden behind a storefront built by W.M. McKenzie. Later, an electrician named John Grumey, converted it into “Launderama.” It has been further subdivided with a tailor occupying half of the storefront.

708 East Broadway, where W.M. McKenzie operated a grocery store from 1932 to the 1950s. Michael Kluckner, 2010

​The best set of buried houses in the city are on Renfrew just south of 1st Avenue. The houses were built in 1937, 1921 and 1926 respectively, indicating the slow settlement of Vancouver east of the old city boundary at Nanaimo Street. A small retail hub developed there due to the Burnaby Lake interurban line stop which ended service in 1952.

Renfrew houses at East 1st. Michael Kluckner, 2010

There are other buried houses on West Broadway near Balaclava, on 4th Avenue just west of Burrard, and Granville around 13th.

Buried house at West 4th Avenue near Burrard, 2017

A buried house, probably built in 1907 with a horrid concrete-block shop/factory front attached to it is still at 350 East 10th Avenue, directly behind the Kingsgate Mall and next to a Telus parking lot.

350 East 10th Avenue. Michael Kluckner, 2010

Until a few years ago, a 1904 house was built at the back of its lot to allow for shops in front on the northeast corner of Broadway and St. Catherines. The shops were demolished a generation ago, the house a few years back. Townhouses now occupy the site.

Broadway and St. Catherines. Michael Kluckner, 2010

The most visible buried houses are the set on Denman Street just up from the beach.

A row of buried houses on Denman near Davie, 2017

Houses, just like other buildings, adapt or die. There is not a lot of old Vancouver, at least on the commercial streets, that can adapt to the new reality of land prices, taxes, the desire to densify, and the changing retail landscape.

Michael Kluckner is a writer and artist with a list of books that includes  Vanishing Vancouver and Toshiko. His most recent book is a graphic novel called 2050: A Post-Apocalyptic Murder Mystery. He is the president of the Vancouver Historical Society and a member of the city’s Heritage Commission.

 

 

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30 comments

  1. I lived in such a buried house – more a cottage – at 2291 West 41st in the late 60s. I checked a couple of years and was amazed to see it’s still there!

      1. Vancouver heritage architecture should be ” photo ark” documented before they turned into rubble. In my work as a realtor, & a 50 year resident of the city, I’ve photographed many distinctive older homes.

      1. You might be able to get a glimpse of it through the gate right to the south of the store (between Beckwoman’s and Santa Barbara). And it does abut the lane behind. If Bonnie Beckwoman herself is around, you might actually get to have a look/get a photo.

  2. My favourite Buried House is at 583 Richards Street. The main storefront on Richards Street just covers the house up, but it is accessible through a doorway on the north end of the property…Its currently run as a “hostel” which has 2 stars only. The last time I looked it was called the St Clair Hostel, and the house/building itself dates from 1911….I have watched this one over the years….my great grandparents owned a house at 540 Howe Street, and this building is the only remaining building like this north of Georgia Street…I havent looked at the back of this house for awhile, but will probably go down and take a few pictures again this weekend….just for the record…
    This building has been covered up so completely I am not surpised people dont know its there….and of course it isnt likely to be a candidate for one of Michaels watercolours….since its so hard to see, except if you look for the roofline.

    1. I know the house you mean. For photos google BC Stamp Works. There’s a good photo of the buried house at 583 Richards taken in the 1970s. But I’d suggest driving up the alley next time you are in the neighbourhood.

  3. These places are all so incredibly interesting. I spent some time in a hidden house on Fraser St . It was a beautiful house behind a Kelly Douglas Wholesale business. These are the opposite of some of the old facades in the West End that hide the new building behind. The Huntington on Beach Avenue.

  4. I have one at my property at 820 east pender. House orinally built in 1904. Moved to back in 1908. It’s still there.

  5. Interesting collection shown here by Michael. I can add one more: Maude and June Leslie’s former home that later was shared with their local bookshop, “Stanley Library”; extant as Black Goat Cashmere/Daniel chocolates on Granville near 12th Ave. (2818/2820 Granville):

  6. The Renfrew and First “Hiddens” are boarded up and going to be torn down along with the rest of the intersection.
    See them now.

    Several more such houses along Victoria Drive from 5th north to Pender if you look.
    Having a small shop, cigarettes, milk in the days of only home ice boxes, (and bit of of taking gambling bets on the side) was a common second occupation in a family up to the 1960s, when women had more opportunities for work.

  7. I lived a block south of that group of Hidden Houses on Renfrew near 1st in the early sixties and had a friend who lived in one of those houses where I visited often.

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