Here are two buildings with remarkably similar design. That’s because they were designed by the same architects for different developers, about two years apart. The older building, closer to us, was completed in 1911, for Albert DesBrisay at a cost of $60,000 (although there was an initial $2,000 permit for the foundation as well). The other was for Dr Alfred Thompson, next to Winter’s Hotel. It was a rooming hotel, completed in 1913 and also designed by Sharp and Thompson; today it’s known as The Gastown Hotel. The historic statement for the building says it was called the Thompson Rooming House – although we can’t find any evidence of this. When it opened in 1914 it was called the Newton Rooms, and initially it was run by Martina Noten, and in 1921 by Mrs J W Bacher. In 1922 it changed to the Butler Hotel, run by Mrs. Charlotte Withyman.
As far as we can tell Dr Thompson wasn’t a Vancouver resident when it was built. There were Alfred Thompsons living in the city, but none likely to build a $65,000 hotel, and none were doctors. Instead we think he was the Alfred Thompson who was born in 1869 in Nine Mile River, Hants County, Nova Scotia. He was raised on a farm and worked as a clerk in his uncle’s store – but he was educated at a public school by private tutor and graduated from Dalhousie University with a degree of M.D.C.M. in 1898. He went to the Klondike in 1899 where he practiced medicine. In 1902, he was elected to the Yukon Council, and sat three times in the Canadian House of Commons, representing the federal constituency of the Yukon. A Conservative, he first sat in the House between 1904 and 1908, taking the seat away from his main rival, former Yukon Commissioner Frederick Tennyson Congdon. In 1908, Congdon won the seat back, but Thompson won it back in 1911, and was re-elected in 1917, remaining the MP for Yukon until 1921. In the mid 1920s Dr Thompson seems to have moved to Vancouver – there was a physician of that name here from 1925, and the former Yukon MP gave the Confederation Address in North Vancouver in 1927. Dr Thompson died in 1940.
We think Albert Desbrisay (or DesBrisay or Des Brisay, in some records) arrived in the area around 1889. Ralph Nickson, in conversation with Major Matthews, recalled that “Where the Canadian Bank of Commerce now stands at the corner of Granville and Hastings Street, there was a one-storey grocery store” (DesBrisay’s.). We’re not quite sure when that would have been, (and Mr. Nickson’s memory might have been playing him tricks): the corner of Hastings and Granville had a 2-storey building with a third storey turret already completed in 1888. In 1890 it was a grocer’s Berteaux & Co; Alex DesBrisay had a grocery store on the corner of 7th and Westminster (in Mount Pleasant) in 1890 and 1891, and from 1890 he was shown as also having a grocery store in New Westminster. In 1892 Alex was a clerk, and Albert DesBrisay was the owner of the New Westminster store, on Columbia Street.
In the 1891 census Janet Des Brisay was head of the household in New Westminster; born in New Brunswick, with her father born in Scotland. There are five children living with her including Alexander (but not Albert) and two Scottish lodgers, including a schoolteacher, Louise Walker. Janet was shown as being 60, and her youngest child, also Janet, was aged nine – ten years younger than the next daughter, Helena, who was a bookkeeper in a grocery. Alexander was listed as a ‘retail dealer in groceries’, and so was Percy, another son. If we go back to 1881 the family were still in New Brunswick; Solomon Des Brisay was head of the household aged 34, Janet was aged 50, and there were nine others in the family including two called Mary, Albert, Alexander and Merrill Des Brisay. Janet had been born in Miramichi, New Brunswick, and married Alexander DesBrisay in 1855. They had nine children before he died in 1873, in Dalhousie, N.B., from small-pox, aged 45.
Albert Des Brisay was the third child, born in 1859 in New Brunswick, married Margaret Paterson, and they had at least four sons (Albert G, Alexander C, Merrill and Harold A), and a daughter, Margaret. His son Alexander was born in Winnipeg in 1890, so that’s where we suspect the family were in the 1891 census. Harold was born in 1893 in New Westminster.
M DesBrisay & Co, manufacturer’s agents who initially operated from Cambie and Water were in the city on and off from 1900 to 1910, identified in the street directory as being initially based in Mission. Merrill DesBrisay (who had also operated in Nelson) lived in the city in West End from the early 1900s. Solomon Desbrisay arrived in 1903, selling clothing on Granville Street. In 1904 Alexander Desbrisay opened a grocer’s on Granville Street in 1904. His mother, listed in the street directory as Jeanette, lived on Davie (identified as also being the widow of Alexander C Des Brisay). In 1908 Alex Des Brisay was in partnership with Henry Owens as a commissioners agent, Merrill was president of the Unique Canning Co, and Solomon was still running his clothing store. Percy Des Brisay was working as a cruiser for the Rat Portage Lumber Co. In 1910 there were even more DesBrisays in the city: two Alberts (one in a rooming house on Westminster Avenue, the other, Albert G des Brisay in partnership with Alex as A & A Des Brisay, commissioners agents). Alex still had his partnership with Henry Owens, and both businesses were shown located at the same address on East Cordova. Albert had obviously arrived back in town as a successful businessman: he commissioned Sharp and Thompson to design a Shaughnessy Mansion in 1910, and later had a $13,000 house designed by Downing & Kayll in Point Grey in 1923.
The Des Brisay building had a rooming house upstairs from the date it was completed in 1914. They were initially called The Colonial Rooms – the name they still have today. The Des Brisay business was based here, but so too was Beaver Transfer and Hamill Bros. In 1915 the Great Western Telegraph Co shared the commercial part of the building with the Des Brisay company, along with Golden West Baking powder. The Des Brisay company finally disappeared from the building in the mid 1920s, although the Colonial Rooms were still operating. Janet (or Jeanette) DesBrisay died in Vancouver in 1914 (aged 83), and Albert in Penticton in 1932.
In 1942 when this Vancouver Public library picture was taken, Donaldson & Co (manufacturer’s agents) were operating in the commercial space under the Butler Hotel at 110 Water Street, as well as Gow Yuen and Rowntree & Co, wholesale confectionery. At 118 Canadian Transfer were in the commercial space along with Fire Master Fire Extinguishers, while the Colonial Rooms were upstairs at 122 Water St.