The Windermere apartments started life as the Balmoral Apartments, built for (and by) Mason & McLeod and designed by William Francis Jones in 1910. Completed in 1911, they cost $80,000 to build and stood on the corner of Pendrell and Thurlow, close to St Paul’s Hospital which was a block to the north.
Mason and McLeod doesn’t appear to have been a company, just a development partnership, and there are no other building permits under those names. There are so many McLeods and Masons in the city in 1911 it makes it almost impossible to work out who either might be.
There’s a possible clue in Charles G Mason who lived at Apartment 3 in the Balmoral Apartments in 1911 (when they first opened). Charles was from Nova Scotia, aged 53 and retired, and lived with his American wife Hariet who was 13 years younger. The family don’t seem to be in the city in 1910, and we have no way of telling whether they had anything to do with the development of the building.
There is a contractor, Samuel McLeod who seems to have had the capacity to build something as big as this, but there’s a more likely contender in William Mason, who also built another apartment building also designed by Jones in 1910, and others in the West End.
Some of the suites were huge by contemporary standards – with four and five bedrooms. The advertising for the building stressed the modern conveniences and the central location. Sadly, that didn’t extend to the safety equipment. The Apartments were the scene of a tragic fire, detailed in Alex Matches’ book ‘Vancouver’s Bravest’
On the warm evening of June 20, 1920, the druggist on the corner of Davie and Thurlow Streets thought he saw smoke coming from one of the basement windows of the Balmoral Apartments, at 1148 Thurlow Street. Within moments, a neighbor next door to the apartment heard a muffled explosion and a cry of “Fire!” He immediately called the fire department.
Fire Alarm Operator Tom Burke, who tapped out Firehalls No. 2 and No. 6 to respond, took the alarm at 10:44 p.m. Both companies were somewhat hampered by the gathering crowd, but they were able to have several hose lines on the fire within five minutes of their arrival. Soon, the fire had gone through the roof of the six-story building. Assistant Chief Thompson said that he could see the fire as he left No. 2 and thought that there must have been some delay in turning in the alarm, but the fire had spread very quickly.
At 10:54 p.m. the chief put in a second alarm then called for a third alarm at 10:59. Ladders were raised to effect rescues and for operating hose lines, and other lines were advanced from the ground floor to the roof, floor by floor, until the fire was knocked down. Finally struck out at 2:10 a.m., the fire had claimed five lives.
The first loss of life occurred when a man jumped to his death from an upper floor before the arrival the fire department. The next man was encouraged to jump from the fourth floor into a life net being held for him by a group of misguided bystanders who had taken the nine-and-a-halffoot (3-m) Browder life net from No. 2 Truck. He jumped, hitting the edge of the net and fell to the sidewalk, striking his head. He was then carried across the street to St. Paul’s Hospital where he later died of his injuries. Chief Thompson ordered the men not to use the net again as they were untrained and not using it properly.
The next two victims, a man and a woman, were found on the sixth floor. They had died of smoke inhalation, and it was felt they would have survived had they not refused to go to the roof and await rescue with one of the survivors who had encouraged them to do so.
The last victim was the building janitor, Mr. S.A. Spencer, who, upon discovering the fire in the basement, ran through the building alerting people to the fire because the building did not have a fire alarm system. He managed to get through the building before he perished on the sixth floor, a hero who had saved many lives.
It was never determined exactly how the fire started, but the rapid spread was caused by combustibles in the furnace room, the lack of a fire door at the bottom of the elevator shaft, open stairways, no fire gongs, and flammable wall coverings on the first two floors. Total damage was $93,600.
When it reopened, the building was renamed, our 1933 Vancouver Public Library image shows what it looked like. In 1976 the Windermere Apartments were owned by the Greater Vancouver Regional Hospital district, and proposed for demolition and redevelopment. Alderman Harcourt proposed the building should be renovated instead, but in 1978 it was demolished, and Pendrell Street no longer reaches Burrard Street. Instead the ‘modern’ addition to the hospital (designed by Underwood McKinley Wilson Smith) was completed in 1983. It’s the part of the precinct that will probably be replaced if and when St Paul’s is finally redeveloped.