Local History Advent Calendar 2019 – Day 8 – 1895 Abray House

Last year I took on the challenge of the first-ever Local History Advent Calendar! For 24 days in a row, I presented random historical tidbits I’d collected over the previous year and presented them in the form of “treats” for my 2018 Local History Advent Calendar. This year, the “Heart of Mount Pleasant” was number 1 on Heritage Vancouver’s Top 10 Watch List for 2019.  So I decided to choose Mount Pleasant as the theme for the Vanalogue Local History Advent Calendar for 2019.  Each day you can “open” a new historical treat. Think of them as holiday cocktail party fodder – 24 facts about Mount Pleasant history that can be used as conversation starters at your next social event.

The 1895 Abray House in 2017. Photo: C. Hagemoen

On Day 4 of the LHAC 2019 we learned about the old Broadway Theatre that once stood at Broadway and Main – now a parking lot. Directly adjacent to that parking lot stands a structure that was originally built around 1895 beside the ravine of old Brewery Creek. One of the oldest structures still standing in Mount Pleasant, this building was one of three family homes that once stood proudly facing Main Street (then called Westminster Avenue).

Detail of Plate 37 of the Insurance Plan of the City of Vancouver from July 1897 (revised June 1901) showing Brewery Creek crossing the 2500 block of Watson Street (then Howard St.). Library and Archives Canada.

Its current state is adjacent to Watson Street, hidden behind grey/brown vinyl siding on one side and a colourful mural on the other; oddly tethered to the rear of a single-story, older commercial building. A historical building permit entry reveals that the home was moved in 1912 to the rear of the lot, where it stands today; ostensibly to make way for one of the commercial spaces that were then beginning to line this section of Main Street. It is unrecognizable today when compared to what is pictured in the historic photos below.

Looking southeast from the intersection of Westminster Ave. and 9th Ave. (Main and Broadway) from 1908. Photo: George Alfred Barrowclough, UBC Digital Collections

This fantastic photo (above) from ca. 1908 shows the intersection of Broadway and Main Street and the three ca. 1895 houses facing Main Street. You can just make out Watson Street (then Howard Street) running parallel to Main. In the background is Kingsway (then Westminster Road) and the large brick building is the old Mount Pleasant School. This property (owned by the Vancouver School Board) is now home to Kingsgate Mall. It’s interesting to see how this area of Mount Pleasant has changed over the years, as it transitioned from a mainly residential sector to the commercial hub it is today.

1908 photo showing Abray House, 2520 Westminster Ave., in the centre. Photo: George Alfred Barrowclough, UBC Digital Collections

This house has played a very significant role in the history of the area and the city. The first occupant at 2520 Westminster Avenue was Ewen Henry McMillan, owner of Ideal Grocery (353 Carrall Street), who lived there until 1898. In the past, it was called “Horne House”, after the famed “capitalist” J.W. Horne who once owned the property (ca. 1912), but never lived there.  Today it is known as “Abray House”, as it was once the home to Jackson T. Abray, one of Vancouver’s first police constables and early hoteliers. Abray lived in this Mount Pleasant home with his family from 1898 to 1906.

Wearing uniforms from Seattle, the four new police officers posed in front of the tent situated at the foot of Carrall Street in 1886. Jackson T. Abray is on the far left. Photo: CoV Archives, LGN 457

Before the Great Fire of June 13, 1886, that nearly destroyed the newly incorporated city, Vancouver had a police force of one. All that changed after the fire. The details of the story differ depending on the version told, but the gist is as follows: the day after the fire, Mayor Malcolm Alexander MacLean met Abray and convinced/coerced him to become a police constable for the young city. Two others, V.W. Haywood and John McLaren, it seems, were “appointed” under similar circumstances. And so, led by Chief J.M. Stewart, Vancouver’s first police force was formed. Abray remained a police constable for four years until 1890. Following his career in law enforcement, he went into the hotel and restaurant business as the owner of the Cosmopolitan Hotel (101 W. Cordova), and later the Burrard Hotel (400 W. Cordova).

1895 Abray House in 1978 (2529 Watson). In this photo, you can still see some of the original features of the house. Photo: COV Archives, CVA 786-61.03

The “1895 Abray House” is affixed to the rear of a commercial building that was built around 1926, which is currently home to Caffe Barney and Bean Around the World. The building has the distinction of being the first location, from 1926-1947, of one of Mount Pleasant’s cherished long-time businesses, Bain’s Chocolates. In the early days, original proprietors William and Viena Bain lived at the same address – most likely in the house at the rear of the shop (I wrote about Bain’s Chocolates in a March 2018 Scout Magazine article).

Let’s hope the soon-to-begin construction of Broadway Subway does not destroy the old Abray house and the building and businesses attached to it.

The juxtaposition of one of the newest buildings (The Independent) in Mount Pleasant with one of its oldest is jarring but also interesting. The mix of old and new makes a stimulating visual tableau and lessens the “shock of the new” – homogeneity is only good in milk, not liveable cities.

For the complete story on Abray, his house, and this section of Watson Street check out the 2018 article I wrote for Scout Magazine.

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