British Columbia

How 1 family helped a Vancouver block keep its historical roots

Starting in the 1970s, the Davis family began restoring and maintaining historical homes in Vancouver. Now, a handsome row of colourful heritage homes lines a block of West 10th Avenue.

Since the late 1970s, the Davis family has restored and maintained several heritage Vancouver homes

John Davis stands in the common area behind four heritage homes that his family restored in the 1970s. Davis and his 95-year-old mother live in one of the suites in the yellow house. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

John Davis was a young man in his 20s when his family bought an old house in the 100 block of West 10th Avenue in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood. The year was 1973, and the house was already 80 years old. 

"It had a gorgeous spiral wooden staircase, and we were hooked," said Davis, now 71.

At the time, his father, also named John, and his mother Nita "Pat" Davis were living on the city's west side, and it took the family a couple years to finish restoring the house before they could all move in.

The house, at 166 W. 10th Ave., was the first building in the city to receive heritage status — the plaque next to the front door has a small number one marked in the corner.

Before long, houses all along the south side of the block would be marked with heritage plaques. Several were on homes the Davis family purchased and eventually restored.

At the time, the homes were being marketed for redevelopment, so the work the Davis family put into restoring them and obtaining historical designations saved the houses from being altered.

Each of the houses the Davis family has restored has its own character and heritage architectural flair. The row of homes along 10th Avenue in Vancouver is "an oasis in the middle of urban chaos," according to resident, Beverley Harnett. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

In 1977, a set of four run-down houses on the block came onto the market. They were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s — one was home to a grocer who had a small stable for his horses in the back.

"It was being marketed as a development site," said Davis. "We just thought we'd jump in and buy them and save them, because they were all in original condition."

"They had been neglected for a long time," he said. "They needed foundation work ... all the mechanical systems redone, roofs and structural upgrading."

He said his father was in the 6th Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers during the Second World War, and his engineering skills and talents as a draftsman proved invaluable during the restorations. Nita Davis worked tirelessly, stripping individual pieces of woodwork and carefully refinishing them.

Eventually, the Davis family rented out the houses, dividing them into suites.

The Davis family has collected antique pieces, like this vintage gas pump, which are found all over the properties. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

John Davis Sr. died not long after most of the work was done, but Nita Davis, 95, still lives with her son in one of the 15 suites the family operates in the houses they own on the street.

The restoration continued, one house after another. After the set of four, the family borrowed more money and restored other houses on the block.

Tough years

The 1980s brought a series of challenges for the Davis family. First the death of John Sr., followed by skyrocketing interest rates on the loans — as high as 22 per cent.

"It felt to us like the sky was falling for sure," said Davis. "But we have always stuck together, and we made it."

Then, the neighbourhood became a hotspot for the local sex trade, something that Davis, raising two daughters, found disconcerting. He formed a bit of a neighbourhood vigilante group that would harass johns, pimps, and sex workers.

According to Davis, it wasn't necessarily the sex work itself that he found abhorrent, but what it did to the neighbourhood, scaring off investment and renters, all while attracting other things like the drug trade.

After a few years, in the early 1990s, the trade moved on to other neighbourhoods.

Today, the family is still paying off a mortgage, but interest rates have cooled off and the properties are worth millions of dollars.

John Davis points to a photo framed in his apartment showing a vigilante group surrounding two sex workers that occupied the neighbourhood in the late 1980s. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Surrounded by low-rise apartments

Beverley Harnett has been a tenant in one of the family's houses for 32 years. Her second-floor, one-bedroom-plus-den apartment is beautifully maintained. The rent has crept up from $800 to $1,350 over the years — still a low amount for the neighbourhood. 

According to Harnett, the Davis family seems more like friends and neighbours than landlords, and they've managed to save the block from the fate of the surrounding area.

"[Without them], it would look like the apartment building across the street," she said, referring to the grey, rectangular building.

Beverley Harnett stands on her patio in one of the heritage houses in the 100-block of 10th Avenue West in Vancouver. She says she loves the friendly, community feeling in the neighbourhood. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Davis has spent much of his life taking care of the houses. He's critical of the the lack of support he gets from the city for his family's efforts.

And Davis said if he had his way, the city would keep a much higher standard, when it comes to the type of architecture that receives development permits.


Is there more to this story? Email rafferty.baker@cbc.ca

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated that John Davis, Sr. served in the First World War. In fact, he served in the Second World War.
    Apr 29, 2019 8:52 AM PT

About the Author

Rafferty Baker is CBC Vancouver's mobile journalist. Follow him @raffertybaker

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