British Columbia

'An archive of colours': Decades of history preserved in historic cabin on North Shore

The Blue Cabin's undeniable vintage charm is at the at centre of a Grunt Gallery exhibition running to the end of July.

More than 50 layers of paint are visible after careful restoration of old squatters' home

Jazz pianist Al Neil on the deck of the Blue Cabin near Cates Park in Dollarton. Neil died at the age of 93 in 2017. (Jim Jardine/Grunt Gallery)

The last of the historic squatters' cabins that once lined North Vancouver's Maplewood Mudflats has been lovingly restored by the arts community, which hopes to use the space as an artists' residence.

The Blue Cabin, as it is lovingly known, was originally built as a floating home in the 1920s by a Norwegian immigrant who was living in Coal Harbour, according to Jeremy Borsos, an artist who worked on the restoration.

By 1932, the cabin's original owner had floated the cabin to the Maplewood Mudflats, a community near the Old Dollarton Highway and not far from the cabin's current home at Maplewood Farm.

That's where Borsos and his wife have been working tirelessly on the tiny building's restoration to save it from being demolished.

"It had plywood on the floor," he said. "Most of the walls we gone when we arrived."

Jeremy Borsos carefully hand sanded and sealed decades of paint left on the walls of the Blue Cabin. (Margaret Gallagher)

'Archive of colours'

Despite the state of the cabin when the work began, Jeremy Borsos and his wife were able to preserve much of the tiny home's history by embracing layers of paint that were added by decades of occupants.

"It's an archive of colours," said Borsos.

"I've counted them up and there's close to 50 different determined colours.... We've taken off what was loose, hand sanded everything and sealed what stayed on the surfaces, so that actually is a record of all of the different people that have been in here."

Former occupants include artists Carol Itter and her partner Al Neil, an accomplished jazz pianist and co-founder of Vancouver's iconic Cellar Jazz Club.

About 30 posters from the 1920s and earlier were discovered in the floor of the Blue Cabin. (CBC News)

Their time in the cabin solidified it as an "iconic" place in the local arts community, Borsos said.

The shape of Neil's piano remains visible through the layers of paint, as it was too difficult to move in the small home and was painted around for years.

"There it is in silhouette," admired Borsos, touring the cabin with CBC story producer Margaret Gallagher.

The cabin was originally part of a squatters' community known as the Maplewood Mudflats. (Margaret Gallagher)

Despite missing most of its interior walls, the cabin provided a unique glimpse into the past through the newspapers its occupants stuffed in its crevices to keep out drafts.

"They tell us the winter of 1937-38 must have been pretty darn cold because that's the era most of the papers came from. In 1950, a family moved in so there's an array of newspapers from 1950," said Borsos.

The Blue Cabin is at the centre of an exhibition at Maplewood Farms which runs until the end of July.

A speaker series will run throughout the exhibition, featuring a conversation with Carol Itter on July 7, 2018 and a presentation by the group of artists working alongside the Grunt Gallery to maintain the cabin as a floating artist residency.