British Columbia

Was the Englesea Lodge set on fire so Vancouver's seawall could be completed? 40 years on, the mystery remains

The demolition of the Englesea Lodge happened 40 years ago. But echoes of the controversy and mystery behind its sudden end can be seen in debates happening now. 

There's long been speculation that the fire in the building overlooking English Bay was deliberately set

A crowd gathered around English Bay to view the fire at the Englesea Lodge on Feb. 1, 1981. (CBC)

Ask people what defines Vancouver, and you might get a few answers like open view corridors to the mountains. But one particular part of the city's design — that of a walkable seawall — comes up often.

"The big success story ... is open space and walkways and bike paths, all the way around from the central waterfront to the University Endowment Lands," said Mike Harcourt, who was a Vancouver councillor (1973-1980), mayor (1981-1986) and B.C. premier (1991-1995) for much of that evolution.  

"It was part of a long-term dream that Vancouverites have had — to open up what's great about Vancouver — the mountains and the greenery. And we did it."

In the middle of that evolution, there was a building where Stanley Park begins and English Bay Beach ends. It was the Englesea Lodge, built in 1912. For 69 years, it stood as a defining feature of the city's skyline. 

Until, suddenly, it didn't, after a fire destroyed the building. 

The demolition of the Englesea Lodge happened 40 years ago. But echoes of the controversy and mystery behind its sudden end can be seen in debates happening now. 

The Englesea stood out along English Bay for several decades, along with the English Bay Pier. (Vancouver Archives)

From homes to seawall 

While the first third of the City of Vancouver's history was marked by settlement and industrialization of land directly around False Creek, the middle third was marked by work to reverse that.

"From 1926, there was a city plan, and it was to make Beach Drive into a pleasure drive, so that people could see, not the houses, but the beautiful views on English Bay," said Eve Lazarus, a local historian and author of Vancouver Exposed: Searching for the City's Hidden History. 

"The depression, the war got in the way, and it wasn't until the 50s that the city was able to buy back all the houses and demolish them, until the only standout was the Englesea Lodge." 

For many years, the fate of the Englesea was tied up in one of those periodic battles between the city — which owned the land — and the independently elected park board, which wanted to see its long-held plan of a fully completed seawall along English Bay come to fruition.

"It's quite frustrating to deal with council," said Russell Fraser, who was park board chair at the time.  

"Council seemed to have the idea that they're king of the castle when they aren't. People are king of the castle, and the parks board is very close to the people."

Harcourt was elected mayor in the middle of the controversy and saw it differently, voting several times to save the apartment building and preserve its housing units, rented at approximately $700 a month in today's dollars. 
"Guess what: we had an affordable housing problem then, and we do now," said Harcourt. "And I thought we could do both … build around Englesea Lodge and maintain housing.

"When you're on council, [parks board] is a bit of a pain in the butt." 

On Feb. 3, 1981, council was scheduled to debate the future of the building and whether to pay for needed seismic upgrades.

On Feb. 1, in the early hours of the morning, a fire started.  

By the 1960s, the Englesea Lodge had become older and was in need of repairs and was the only property directly on the waterfront. (Vancouver Archives)

Fire alarms not working   

"It was one of the bigger fires of the 80s," said Raymond Durante, one of approximately 100 firefighters called out to the blaze that day. 

There are certain facts of the fire beyond dispute: it started in the basement, many people believing it was near the elevator shaft. The fire alarms were not working that morning, despite them often going off in the past "for no apparent reason." 

Several firefighters on scene said they believed they were making progress on the fire, only to be told to pull back by their superiors, believing the cause to be lost.

The circumstances and timing of the fire, two days before the key vote, led many to believe the fire was suspicious. The only handwritten diary from a fire hall documenting the day's event says "probable cause … suspicious," citing its location and speed of growth. 

Then there was the fact the Englesea was directly across the street from park board headquarters — now with an uninterrupted view of the seawall.

"I interviewed the superintendent," said Deborah Schildt, an Emily Carr student who made a documentary about the fire.

"He almost gloated over his open view, and how that open view just was sort of the icing on the cake of Stanley Park, now that there weren't any structures in the way." 

The Englesea was derelict for several months before being torn down on Nov. 10, 1981. (CBC News)

Investigation quickly curtailed

However, less than a week after the fire, a police investigator said there was "absolutely no hard evidence" of arson. The Vancouver Police Department has no archives of the investigation.

Fraser laughed off the idea of wrongdoing. 

"That's a wild rumour. I doubt that it's true. No parks board person would do a thing like that," he said. 

Harcourt agreed the fire was suspicious, and brought up the fire of a Jericho Beach hangar in a similar dispute with the park board two years prior. 

"We debate which buildings to keep or not keep, and a bunch of them just happen to burn down," he said.

Still, he acknowledges the lack of firm evidence. 

"Being an old criminal defence lawyer, and sensitive to libel and slander laws, you don't want to make any accusations of people. But in any event, it solved the problem," he said. 

The tenants of the Englesea, virtually all of whom had no fire insurance, were dispersed to housing across the city. The seawall is now an anchor of any highlight reel that showcases the city.

The housing crisis is still ongoing.

On Nov. 10, 1981, the remains of the Englesea Lodge were torn down. No plaque exists to acknowledge it.   

"It was sad for the tenants, particularly the elderly tenants," said Harcourt. 

"We've been too successful in becoming a city that people want to come to or to stay in and we're still victims of our own success."

Which may be true. But something that will scarcely cross the mind of anyone jogging the seawall across the boundary from Stanley Park to English Bay.


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