314 and 320 West Cordova Street

We suspect that one of these buildings may be the oldest still standing in its original location in the city. That’s the building on the right at 320 W Cordova, today home to the Old Faithful Shop, (selling ‘well-designed, unfussy, and beautiful homegoods’) but back in the 1960s image, partly occupied by the Dressmakers and Milliner’s Supply House. This location is across the street from the 1888 Springer-Van Bramer block, designed by N S Hoffar. They commissioned another building a year earlier, probably on West Cordova, also designed by Mr. Hoffar.

It appears that this building predates the partner’s development on the north side of the street. It is clearly an early building, and in the 1887 Elector’s list, the owner of the lot that the building sits on was an architect, Thomas C Sorby. This was the only parcel of land that he owned in Vancouver. In August 1886 he placed a notice in the Colonist newspaper “Parties desirous of tendering for a two-storey Brick Block to be erected in Cordova Street, Vancouver, for Messrs Springer and Van Bremer can see the drawings in my office. The proprietors reserve the liberty of declining any or all tenders”. So it seems reasonable to conclude that Ben Springer and James Van Bramer funded the building on the site owned by Thomas Sorby, who also drew up the design.

Immediately after the 1886 fire a number of enterprising developers got to work on building fireproof buildings very quickly – in this case just two months after the city had been almost totally destroyed. Something similar happened with the Byrnes Block, which housed the Alhambra Hotel on Water Street. Rand Brothers, real estate promoters, commissioned the construction the handed the development to George Byrnes before it was complete – and his name was added to the cornice.

When it was built this was the 200 block, and lot 5 was numbered as 220 and 222. The 1889 insurance map shows a bakery with an oven on the western side of the building. By 1901 this had been renumbered as 314 and 316, with a clothing store on a building already enlarged to double its depth. On the 1912 map this was 320, the number it still has today.

Ben Springer was from Ontario, and in the city before the fire. After mining in the Cariboo in the 1860s he became book-keeper for the Moodyville sawmill on the north shore of Burrard Inlet in 1874, marrying in that year and becoming mill manager in 1882, moving to ‘the big house’ and retiring in 1890. Captain James Van Bramer was from New York, and was here from around 1860. He was part of the syndicate that built the Moodyville mill on the north shore. From 1866 he operated the Sea Foam, a steam tug which began regular ferry service between Brighton and Moodyville across the Burrard Inlet. His business interests included mines and property, and he settled in Granville, and then on the north shore, with his Katzie wife and three daughters. He ‘retired’ to California around 1888, and continued to visit his old haunts in his steam schooner, Eliza Edward. He was fined $1,400 for a voyage from Victoria to Santa Barbara, where he landed and left again without reporting to authorities. He was accused of smuggling opium and Chinamen, but with no proof, he was only fined for the non-reporting. The Captain died in the Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara in June 1895 aged about 60, not long after returning a further mysterious voyage to the Cocos Islands to search for buried treasure he believed was there.

Springer partnered Van Bramer in his 1860s steamship business, and as well as the Vancouver buildings they developed. They also shared ownership of the BC District Telegraph and Delivery Company, obtaining a 50 year franchise for the operation of district telegraph systems in Vancouver and Victoria

314 West Cordova on lot 6 was a mystery. The building was built a little later, probably in 1905. The site, unusually, appears to have been vacant until it was developed. While that unfortunately puts it into the ‘lost permit’ era, Patrick Gunn has traced the permit to R McLeod, who hired McDonald and McKenzie to build the $12,000 ‘brick and stone store & warehouse’ in 1905. There was a Roderick McLeod who was a carpenter, and by 1906 was a contractor, with a number of significant houses that he built in the early 1900s. If it was a local, rather than an absentee investor, Roderick is the most likely candidate. By 1911 there were four Roderick McLeods in Vancouver, so we have no was of being sure if the developer was still in the city when the census was taken.

A few years later, in 1912, the building was owned by ‘Thompson Bros’, and in 1923 ‘The Thompson Estate’ still owned it. In fact both buildings came into their ownership; they carried out repairs to 320 in 1914 and in 1920 and 1921. Thompson Bros were really Thomson Bros; James and Melville Thomson, who had extensive property interests in this part of town, as well as running a stationery business.

In the 1960s, when our ‘before’ shot was taken, it was home to a Danish furniture store, but today it’s come full circle and is home to clothing store Frank and Oak.

Image source: City of Vancouver Archives CVA 780-510

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