Columbia House – Powell Street

Powell & Columbia

These days this building is called Columbia House, and it was converted to housing in 1986, run by Affordable Housing Societies with 85 rental units. Back in 1910, when it was built at the corner of Powell and Columbia it was a warehouse. Usually the Heritage Description on historic properties helps identify the building’s history – but that isn’t really the case here. There it’s called The Fleck Brothers Building – but they were the last company to be associated with the building, not the first. The statement says it was built for Boyd and Fordham, a hardware and chandlery supplier. Those are the names on the 1910 Building Permit but there seems never to have been a company of that name.

Boyd Burns 1902Boyd Burns & Co were John Boyd (living at 411 Hastings in 1911 and 1020 Georgia from 1902) and Frederick Fowle Burns, from Glasgow (in 1901 he lived at 1260 Barclay Street). The company was founded in 1894, dealing in plumbing and engineering supplies, including Portland Cement. (They started as John Boyd & Co, with Burns as an employee, but he was a partner by 1900 along with Arthur A Burns, his brother, who had already  left the firm by 1902). In 1900 the Yukon Plumbing Heating and Engineering Supplies Company was formed to be based in Dawson City with $24,000 in capital by John Boyd, both Burns brothers and three other partners.

We can find the Burns family in the 1901 Census; Fred, his new wife Mae from New Brunswick, ten years younger at 22 and his father, John along with brother Arthur. John Boyd appears to have avoided censuses – or was recorded inaccurately. In 1902 the company expanded by opening a ship chandlery department. In 1907 Boyd Burns had a new warehouse on Alexander Street designed by Parr and Fee. They sold their company to Crane Co, a Chicago based company in 1908. Crane retained the plumbing interests, but sold the ship’s chandlery part of the business to a newly formed company, Simson-Balkwill Co. Ltd. Ship Chandlery and Engineering Supplies.

Calvert Simson, born in Penrith, England, in 1862, left London in 1883 and sailed to Victoria, arriving in 1884. From Victoria he went to New Westminster, where he worked as a night watchman for the Dominion Sawmill. He worked as a shopkeeper on the beach in Granville and later as a storekeeper at Hastings Sawmill until 1891. He was also Granville’s last postmaster, from 1884 to 1886. Simson managed the Chandlery Department of T. Dunn and Co. from 1893 to 1902. In 1902 he moved to the Ship Chandlery Department of Boyd Burns Co. (Dunn sold his hardware business to Boyd Burns, so that was probably when he moved over). In 1908, Simson and Arthur Balkwill opened up their own company, and that was the year they took over the Boyd Burns chandlery business.

The warehouse seems to have been built in two phases, in 1910 and 1911. The 1910 half of the building cost $50,000 and Boyd and Fordham are recorded on the Building Permit as owners and architects, with J M McLuckie as builder. The owner and builder of the 1911 building was J G Fordham; the architect was listed as J M McLuckie and it cost $37,000 to build.

The first occupants in 1912 were Simson, Balkwill & Co, mill suppliers, (where John Fordham worked) and they were there until 1929 when they sold their interest to Gordon and Belyea Ltd – our photograph shows the building in that year painted with the new owner’s name. The new owners abandoned the CPR branch line and built a 3 storey building alongside the warehouse designed by Townley and Matheson in 1933. That has since been demolished. In 1951 Gordon & Balyea had 190 employees in the city.

John Gurney Fordham had arrived from England in 1904, and in 1911 when the building went up was aged 34. His wife, Corisande, had been born in BC, and they married in Victoria in 1904. He married well – his wife was the daughter of Dr Israel Wood Powell, an early and enthusiastic investor in Vancouver. Dr Powell was another of the many former Simcoe, Ontario residents (in Port Colborne). He was a politician, and Superintendent of Indian Affairs as well as the first President of the Medical Council of BC. Corisande was his sixth child, and her wedding was important enough to receive extensive coverage in the British Colonist. Her husband was born in Kensington but his well-connected family also lived in Cambridgeshire. His parents were ignored in the wedding story – rather he was described as the nephew of Sir Wilfred Lawson, Bart, Member of the House of Commons, although his father was a barrister. The list of wedding gifts ran to two columns, and the people giving the gifts was a who’s who of British Columbia society.

The newlyweds apparently headed to Vancouver; in 1908 John was working for Boyd Burns & Co. By 1911 they were living at 1325 Cardero, with their five year old daughter and their nurse. They had a house designed for them in 1909 by McLure and Fox on Harwood Street, but it isn’t clear if they lived there – their home address remained on Cardero until at least 1920. In 1913 the directory shows that John continued with the new occupants of his building as he’s described as Manager of  Simson Balkwill Ltd.

It’s clear that John Fordham’s financial interests were not confined to  Simson Balkwill. In 1914 he applied to wind up the controversial Alvo von Alvensleben Limited company as he had loaned them $31,000. The company had debts of $3,500,000 and assets of around $1,000,000, so he probably didn’t get his money back. He enlisted during the First World War, and was a Lieutenant by 1916, and later promoted to Major. The Fordham’s stayed in the city for many years. John Fordhams’s sudden death was recorded in 1940, when he was considered to be a prominent member of the province’s banking community. His wife died in England in 1965.

Fleck Brothers were in the city from early in the city’s history as well. J Gordon Fleck and Bryce W Fleck were running their company in 1908, operating as manufacturers agents for Roofing, Lumber, Paper etc. from an office on Seymour Street. They operated on Alexander Street for many years, and took over from Gordon and Balyea in the 1960s

Image source: City of Vancouver Archives Bu N275, W J Moore

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