The Gray Block – Homer Street (1)

Gray Block 1206 Homer 1928

There are a number of buildings associated with two brothers who are sometimes referred to as Grey – but whose name was actually Gray. They only arrived in Vancouver in 1906, but they quickly established themselves as investment advisers and developers of some substantial industrial buildings.

Vancouver’s warehouse district until the turn of the 20th Century was along Water Street and near the waterfront. By the early 1900s it was overcrowded and unable to absorb the demand for new larger warehouses, especially with rail access. The Canadian Pacific Railway opened up the wooded area below Homer Street next to their False Creek yards for warehouse development. With rail tracks laid into the streets and loading docks lining the western edge of each block the new area was purpose-built for efficient freight handling. The new warehouse district became known as Yaletown after the early settlement established nearby by the CPR men brought down from the town of Yale in the Fraser Canyon when the railway’s repair shops were moved to the end of the line in Vancouver.

The Gray brothers built several buildings in this newly available area, and here’s one of the bigger warehouse buildings in the area, a 1912 structure generally attributed to Thomas Hooper, but which we think was designed by H S Griffith. (That’s what the building permit says – we think the Hooper building was another Gray Brothers development). The six and seven storey concrete structure had several tenants when it opened – Office Specialty Mfg Co, Barber-Ellis Ltd (who later moved a little further down the road), the United Photographic Stores and Western Cloak and Suit Co. By 1920 Barber-Ellis are still there along with Western Cloak and Suit Co, and the other tenants are Carstens Ltd, wholesale tailors and Crawford Storage, as well as Gray Brothers themselves.

By 1928, when our photograph was taken, (in the middle of US prohibition) Barber-Ellis had been joined by His Masters Voice, Beach Foundry Limited and Joseph Kennedy Ltd, described as brewers and bottlers, whose headquarters were in the building. While bearing the name of the wealthy US industrialist (and father of the future President) the company was actually controlled by the Reifel family. A report of the Royal Commission on Customs and Excise published in the year the photograph was taken stated that the sole business of Joseph Kennedy Ltd was exporting alcohol into the US (and the picture shows that they were not exactly hiding their presence in the building). They were accused of forging US Revenue stamps, and the separate but closely related Kennedy Silk Hat Cocktail Co (whose offices were in the same building) were also accused of smuggling. The Kennedy in question was no relation to the eastern family with political aspirations, but rather Daniel Joseph Kennedy who was probably born in Nebraska, moved to Saskatchewan and eventually moved to Vancouver around 1918. He initially created a series of products that skirted the newly adopted prohibition rules, while maintaining a ‘healthy’ dose of alcohol. Later he marketed pre-mixed cocktails – export (to the US, not necessarily legally) was more important than importing.

Later in its life the building became the home of tea and coffee importers Murchies, who would stay long after many other companies had moved out of the area, until 1996. John Murchie arrived from Scotland in 1894, and initially established his business in New Westminster, but expanded into their new Vancouver premises after the 1950s. Once they moved out of the area to Richmond, Howard Bingham Hill designed the conversion of the upper floors to strata apartments, completed in 1997.

Image source: City of Vancouver Archives CVA Bu N288

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