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Abide with me: The story of the port’s little blue house...By Lea Edgar, Librarian/Archivist, Vancouver Maritime Museum

By BCShippingNews 20 December 2015
This is the history of a little building that persevered despite the relentless march of progress in the "forever new" city.

Vancouver is not a city known for its built heritage. The city has a habit of tearing down the historic to accommodate the modern. Because of this, Vancouver carries with it a sense of constant newness. That is why it is so surprising to find a quaint little craftsman-style building adjacent to the state-of-the-art Centerm terminal. The little house-like structure is overshadowed by the massive cranes and innumerable containers of the bustling port. How did this structure survive over 100 years? This is the history of a little building that persevered despite the relentless march of progress in the "forever new" city.

Photo above: Credit to Rick Horne.

The original context of this building is the historic site of Hastings Mill. This busy economic centre was essential for Vancouver’s early lumber industry. The sawmill, located at the foot of Dunlevy Street, started in 1867. Around the sawmill grew a company town complete with a general store and school. Sadly, many of the original buildings did not survive the tragic fire of 1886. The one exception was the Hastings Mill Store, now located in Hastings Mill Park in Kitsilano. The Hastings Saw Mill Co. eventually merged with the Royal City Planning Mills Company and the resulting company was called the B.C. Mills Timber and Trading Company. This company made its name with its patented system of prefabricated structures. These buildings were marketed to settlers allowing them to build a home quickly, easily, and inexpensively. Some were even already painted! It was sort of like buying your home from Ikea. A prime example of the quality of these pre-fab structures that B.C. Mills sold is our little building which became the company’s office, showroom, and sales centre in 1905. The building was designed by Edward Caton Mahoney. The design proved to be much more weather resistant than other competing pre-fabs of the time. Each panel was insulated and joined together with weather-tight joints which were then bolted together. To contribute to the show-quality of this building, each room was paneled with a different type of BC wood such as balsam, hemlock, fir, and red cedar. Regrettably, all the different types of wood panels were painted over in the 1920s.

In 1925, the Vancouver Harbour Commissioners purchased the land that made up the former Hastings Mill site. They decided to retain the B.C. Mills building as an office and stated in their 1930 monthly report, "The site on which the offices are located is one of historical value, for around it was built the City of Vancouver." Indeed, the B.C. Mills building is one of the only surviving structures associated with Hastings Mill. The Harbour Commissioners used the building from 1930 to 1936, and the successor organization— the National Harbours Board—also operated out of it from 1936 to 1973.

The current occupants of the building are the Mission to Seafarers, a Christian charity that serves merchant seamen around the world. In 1981, the building was sold to the organization by the National Harbours Board for one dollar. At that time the office building was converted into the "Flying Angels Club" and painted the distinctive Mission to Seafarers’ blue. One change to the building was the Port Manager’s office that was converted into a lounge. However, some original features are retained such as the brass fireplace. The original building also included a porte-cochère. Sadly, this was torn down due to substantial deterioration. Roughly in its place now is a monument dedicated to the history of the lumber industry in B.C. and the development of the city of Vancouver. Another interesting feature of this building is the vault. Shown on the 1906 building plans, the original vault is three stories high—one vault per floor. It was converted in 1960 to double as a nuclear fallout shelter. Included in the lower level of the shelter was a ventilation system, cold storage room, and escape hatch to the upper shelter. There is also some evidence to indicate that there may have been bunks. The first floor vault still houses multiple large wooden cabinets, likely used to store charts. These are just a few examples of the unique historical features of the Flying Angels Club building. Some new amenities offered at the club are a small shop, chapel, cyber café and billiards room. There are currently three chaplains at the Mission and mass can be held either on board a ship or at the club.

The fact that this little building has survived largely untouched is a Vancouver miracle. It is especially surprising in that it resides on extremely valuable and commercially active land. Likely, its ideal location close to the port facilities and use largely as an administration building contributed to its preservation. The building has evolved from a show home to a home away from home for seamen. The Mission to Seafarers organization is a most apt beneficiary of this unique heritage building. Surely, the charity will continue to serve the merchant seamen visiting Vancouver’s port for many years. And, with a bit of luck, the little blue building will remain as a memento of Hastings Mill, B.C.’s lumber industry, and the long history of a world-class port.

Lea Edgar started her position as Librarian/Archivist for the Vancouver Maritime Museum in July 2013. She can be contacted at archives@vancouvermaritimemuseum.com.