British Columbia

What should be done with one of Metro Vancouver's oldest homes? It's up to the public

The fenced-off, derelict-looking old building on the waterfront of West Vancouver’s Ambleside neighbourhood may not seem noteworthy at first glance but behind the brambles hides a long history — one that some hope to preserve.

West Vancouver is looking at turning the Ambleside heritage house into nature centre

The Navvy Jack house sits next to John Lawson Park in the Ambleside neighbourhood of West Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The fenced-off, derelict-looking old building on the waterfront of West Vancouver's Ambleside neighbourhood may not seem noteworthy at first glance but behind the brambles hides a long history — one that some hope to preserve. 

The Navvy Jack house was built in the early 1870s and remained occupied until 2017 and is considered to be one of the oldest continuously-occupied houses in the Lower Mainland. 

Its future is now uncertain, though, as the District of West Vancouver decides what to do with the municipally-owned heritage house, which is in need of major repairs. 

"It's the oldest house in West Vancouver," said Donna Powers, spokesperson for the district. "So much of what [the original founder] was involved in is connected to, really, the entire building of Metro Vancouver."

The Navvy Jack house, pictured in 1957. (West Vancouver Archives)

The man who built the property, John 'Navvy Jack' Thomas, was a Welsh deserter from the Royal Navy who ran everything from a gravel business supplying the downtown core's construction to a ferry service.

The district is in the process of consulting with the community over what to do with the building. 

The District of West Vancouver is looking at turning the Navvy Jack house turned into a nature centre open to the public. Currently, there are signs warning people away from the site. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The options include restoring the property and repurposing it as a nature centre for public use, to pulling it down and turning the site into a park.

The cost of restoring the house ranges from about $2.3 million to $1.3 million, depending on how much of the original historical building components are used. 

Navvy Jack's three daughters, pictured in the early 1900s. Evelyn Lamont, the great, great grand-daughter, has spent a lot of time researching her family's history and describes the house as historically important because of all the people it touched. (Submitted by Evelyn Lamont)

Built out of love

Navvy Jack built the home for his wife Rowia, a Squamish Nation woman, where they raised four children before the property eventually changed hands. Over the decades, it acted as the location of the first post office, church service and wedding ceremony in West Vancouver. 

"There is an important connection with our pioneer history but also very significant First Nations history," Powers said. 

"Navvy Jack and his wife are the ancestors of hundreds of Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh and Musqueam families." 

The house pictured around 1914, pictured on the day when one of the later residents was getting married. Several different families passed through the doors and the home was occupied for more than 140 years. (West Vancouver Archives)

Evelyn Lamont is one of those descendents as the great, great granddaughter of Navvy Jack. She lives a couple of kilometres away from the house. 

"My grand-parents used to talk about [the house] quite a bit when I was younger," Lamont said.

"The house is kind of in disrepair right now … but it was very well built. I'd really like to see it preserved as much as possible because it was built for the love of his wife Rowia.

"It stood the test of time." 

Navvy Jack house in West Vancouver was continuously lived in for more than 140 years but now sits empty. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

West Vancouver bought the heritage house from a family who was living there in 1990, granting them life tenancy. The last owner died in 2017, ending a 143-year-old tradition of family life in the old home and the district took possession.

Public consultation about the heritage site has been in progress since March, when a general poll found a 50-50 split on public opinion about spending money on restoring the heritage home.

A chain-link fence was put up around the house to keep people out last week after several "close calls" brought up fears of the empty building being damaged, according to the district. 

An online public survey looking at the different options and their cost breakdown  is open until the end of the month. Recommendations based on public opinion is expected to go to council later in the fall. 

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