For a very short while longer the building on the left of this 1981 image, on the corner of Drake and Seymour, is the home of ISS, the Immigrants Service Society who welcome new immigrants to Canada. They’re moving to new premises soon, but underneath today’s beige stucco (converted in 1988 by J A Rogers & Associates) is a much older building: the Johnson-Morrison Block completed in 1908 (Johnson & Co took out the Building Permit on the 2nd of January that year for a frame apartment costing $14,000). It first appears in the street directory in 1909, and while there is nobody called Johnson associated with it in the city that year, Katie Morrison was shown as running a rooming house at this address. Philo Johnson showed up a couple of years later, born in Ontario in 1868. In 1901 he was in Dawson City; he had been seven years in the Yukon at that time, and a 1902 edition of the Dawson News Golden Clean up Edition tells Mr. Johnson’s history in searching for gold, and his co-owned No. 49 claim on Bonanza Creek.
The 1911 census recorded him as a miner, but he was now living in this building in Vancouver; still single, aged 43. There were many other families living at this address, which seems to have been recorded by the census clerk as self-contained apartments rather than a rooming house, although Katie Morrison was still recorded as running furnished rooms here in the 1911 street directory. The change to apartments probably took place when Philo arrived in 1911 (to be included in the census, but not in the street directory for that year). Katie Morrison in 1912 is shown as living in apartment 12; Philo is the building manager and living in apartment 10.
Perhaps – but almost certainly not – coincidentally, this mirrors the 1901 Yukon census. Philo Johnson (aged 33) lived next door to ‘h keeper’ Katie Morrison (aged 23) that year. (According to the 1902 Yukon and Alaska Directory, Kate Morrison was a hotel keeper, jointly running the Adams Road House with Mrs. Ida V Gardner). We think Katie is shown as being born in Perce in Quebec, but the handwriting isn’t easy to make out.
Because the building dates from 1908, we haven’t managed to identify the architect: the building records for that era have been lost. We do know what stoves the apartments were fitted with – the makers of the Kootenay Range chose to advertise their installation in the Daily World in the summer of 1908 – although they got the spelling of Mr. Johnson’s name wrong. Philo is an unusual name, and there’s one Philo Johnson who features in any search; one of the elders of the Mormons, chosen by Brigham Young to help found Salt Lake City. Our Philo was recorded as a Methodist of Scottish family origin – so there doesn’t seem to be any obvious connection.
What happened to the people who gave the building its name is a mystery we haven’t solved. Philo last appears associated with the property in 1919. Katie Morrison seems to no longer be in Vancouver after 1912, (or at least not under that name, although there is a Kate Johnson who lived in the West End). The building continued to be known by the Johnson-Morrison name for many years: it was still known by that name in 1977 when City Council considered whether it was in full compliance with the city’s new Fire By-Law.
Image source: City of Vancouver Archives CVA 779-E07.24