Mercantile Building – West Pender and Homer

John Helyer, in partnership with his son Maurice, designed several of the city’s biggest buildings in the first decade of the 1900s. The Dominion Building from 1908 was easily the most prominent, but there was also the Metropolitan Building, the Stock Exchange Building, and this one – the Mercantile Building. There was a difference from those steel framed buildings, because this has a concrete frame. It was only a year after the first tall (six storey) concrete frame had been built in the city, (the Hotel Europe addition), and while for that building an American company were brought in to supervise that construction, here the General Engineering & Construction Co carried out the work on the $60,000 investment. It was run by engineer and sometime architect Kennerley Bryan, and was possibly related to a Seattle business with the same name.

Some sources claim this building was originally designed as the Board of Trade Building, “constructed for the Trustee Company under president James A Thompson, who was the owner and president of the Thompson Stationary Company.” We haven’t been able to find any contemporary references that show the Board of Trade were ever associated with the building. It was developed by the Trustee Company, Ltd., as this 1909 Directory entry shows, which was headed by James Thomson. He was one of Thomson Brothers, pioneer stationers who also had extensive real estate interests. James A and Melville P Thomson (not Thompson),  first established a stationery business in Vancouver in October 1886. They were already in business as Thomson Brothers in Calgary, and Melville arrived on the first train into Port Moody, although he hadn’t travelled all that far.

Born in Ontario, (James in Belleville in 1858 and Melville in Erin in 1860), they followed the CP line westwards, opening their first bookstore in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, in 1881. As the line reached Moose Jaw, so did the Thomsons, with Calgary next in 1884. The 1887 City Directory entry for their Vancouver store shows they didn’t limit themselves to books; Seth Tilley already had a bookstore in what was a tiny, but fast-growing town, so they also sold wallpaper, fancy goods, toys, and fishing tackle. (They were the Indigo of the 1880s). Adding printing to their business, they moved around on Cordova Street, to ever-larger premises, and then to West Hastings. They added a store in Nelson too, but by 1903 they had closed all but their Vancouver business, with both brothers living in the city from at least 1899.

The 1901 census inaccurately recorded one brother as Thompson. Melville lived with his Irish wife Marcella, and their two daughters and three sons, all aged under 12. They had an English ‘help’, Bessie Sorby, living with them in their house on Robson Street.

James Thomson had married Lillian Anderson in 1899 when she was 25 and he was 39. He had previously been married to Harriet Wood when he lived in Portage La Prairie, and they had three children before her death in 1891. In the 1901 census the family were living on Georgia, with James and Lillian, his three children, his sister, Florence, and his mother, Eliza. From 1903 to 1909 Lillian added four more children to the family.

In 1908 the brothers sold the stationery business (but retained their real estate portfolio). They became directors of The Trustee Company, a real estate development firm founded in 1908, and soon acquired a controlling interest. In 1913 the company was renamed Mercantile Mortgage Company Ltd., and the company and a spin-off business called Estates Investment Ltd. built up a significant real estate portfolio in the city and in other parts of British Columbia.

James Thomson died in 1926, and that year the street directory showed 55 businesses located in the building, with most employed as manufacturer’s agents, but others ranging from a clothing manufacturer, a camera repairer, freight forwarders and importers, wholesalers, the Aurora Silk Co and the office of Coast Publishing. His brother, Melville died in 1944, when the building had even more manufacturer’s agents, although there was a woolen jobber, a printer, a raw fur dealer, and Agnes Hughes made blouses on the 7th floor.

The Thomson family maintained control of Mercantile Mortgage and Estates Investment (whose offices were also here) until the early 1990s. Today the small businesses occupying the space include interior designers, architects, digital renderers, real estate management, a phone fraud detection and management business and a company manufacturing ‘handcrafted eyewear’

Image source City of Vancouver Archives copyright CVA 810-26

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Posted 9 May 2022 by ChangingCity in Downtown, Still Standing

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