February 6, 2012

A basement shrine in her 1920s home inspires Caroline Adderson to discover the past lives of her house and its inhabitants.

The house we bought had a shrine in the furnace room. I discovered it only after we moved in, when I made the room a catch-all for the things I’d been unable to part with during the move but that we didn’t really need. My son’s first crib, for example, which he slept in for the first three months of his life. I’d rescued it from the dump, stripped away its many layers of pink and blue paint, and now I was attached to it. I attach to things in general, particularly old things, not just sentimentally but out of a belief that stories accrue like an electrical field around even ordinary objects, stories about how and where the object was made and all the people who used it. I could picture the boy babies and the girl babies who once slept where my son also had. And now I had discovered a secret shrine in my house tucked around the corner of the chimney. If anything radiated a story, it was the long black rosary beads from Italy, and the wooden crucifix hung on two nails in a way that made the small bronze Jesus seem twice crucified, and the tin medal that read I will bless the houses in which the picture of my sacred heart shall be exposed and honored.

I wondered who had placed the shrine there, but I was busy with the move and a six-month-old baby and my vague dream of restoring the house, which had been built around 1925, but had been so wallpapered and brown-carpeted that little of its original character showed. Through our next-door neighbour I asked the people we’d bought the house from, an older Czech couple, what they knew about the shrine. They’d been aware of it, but not its provenance and, though not religious, they’d left it intact because, my neighbour reported, “They felt it was protecting the house.”

Over the next few years I peeled away more than ten different wallpapers. We took down the wood panelling in the living room and the mirrored wall tiles in the stairwell. In the tiny attic room that was to become my office, I catalogued these layers:

Pink paint
Green squiggled wallpaper with kelly green trim
Blue squiggled wallpaper with sky blue trim
Yellow paint
Jelly bean wallpaper
General Paint “Tequila” with Benjamin Moore “Elephant Tusk” trim

Layer 6 was me. Stripping and scraping, pulling up the blue shag carpet and discovering a beautiful streaky blue-green linoleum, then prying away those tiles and uncovering virgin fir floors, I felt like an archaeologist bringing to light the tastes and materials of each era. And I found myself wondering not just who had put up the shrine, but who had made these particular aesthetic choices through the decades.

Then, after four years of showerless living, we renovated our bathroom. During the ordeal the plumber cut a hole in the lath-and-plaster wall of the master bedroom to access the pipes. An extraordinary thing happened that night; a deep loamy smell filled our bedroom, so strong and so strange it woke me up. The house was exhaling, or so it seemed, releasing this graveyard odour. When I told the plumber about it the next day, he laughed. His grandfather had been a plasterer. The men used to urinate in the mortar, claiming it improved the mix. Even if it was just workmen’s piss, in my half-dream in the middle of the night I believed I was smelling the lives of all the people who had lived there before me. Now I was sufficiently curious to find out who they were.

The research turned out to be easy. There are annual city directories at the public library that list the residents of every address and their occupations as far back as you care to go. Our address first appeared in the 1926 directory. A retired William J. Richardson lived in our house. The following year there was a new owner, Walter M. Scott, a salesman for “Can Prod.” What was that? Canadian Products? Canada Produce? Because the old directories were on microfilm and most reels covered only one year, I had to keep getting up and walking across Special Collections to exchange the films. These little breaks created some suspense. Would my salesman with the literary name still be there? Yes, he was! Each time I was relieved he had stayed on. Then, in 1934, a Clela P. was added. He’d got married! Congratulations, Walter M. Scott, salesman! In 1937 he bought his own business, the None Better Dairy, but by 1939 he seemed to have lost it, as there was no occupation listed for that year. Luckily, he was able to start over the next year with “Scott Prod.”

It was sounding like a story. Walter M. Scott, salesman, was putting on flesh, his veins filling with blood. He was an industrious man, a risk taker who sometimes failed, but bounced right back. I pictured him in a fedora, Clela in a chignon (mostly because I like the word chignon), her arm wrapped tightly around his. They were devout Roman Catholics, of course.

1942—Dairy prod. and eggs, 2344 Granville
1948—mgr, Scott’s Prod.

The cryptic listing for 1954 read: Scott, Mrs. CP Clela P wid. WM prop. Yorkshire Smokes 512 Hornby. I hunched before the microfilm reader trying to decipher this.  Finally I understood; Walter M. Scott was dead. He’d bought a smoke shop and then he died. I felt a little pang for him, this person whose existence I knew only through a strip of celluloid, yet to whom I was connected through the rooms we had both inhabited.

Clela lived on in my house for another year, then Rodney G. Dove, passport agent, moved in with his wife Helena. From 1960 to 1967 John F. Kerk-Hecker, an engineer, lived there with his wife, Jean, and his widowed mother, Rosemary. Mrs. Jean Kerk-Hecker became the secretary treasurer of the Vancouver Ticket Centre in 1964 and John the president and managing ­director. After that, J. Gordon Henderson, a teacher, moved in with his wife Philomene, who had an MA. Then, in 1982, Josef Lampa, an engineer with BC Hydro and his wife Ivana, an aesthetician, lived there. These were the people we’d bought the house from.


February 6, 2012

Comments (8)

Comment Feed

preserving older houses

Washington DC architect Carl Elefanté spoke in Vancouver saying society cannot afford to keep carting all its outdated structures to landfills. He has done wonders preserving older structures. His talk is here:
We have to be taught how to preserve buildings as an alternative to tearing them down. There is too little intelligent guidance for the public on how to preserve older buildings, and usually nightmare stories about people who tried.

Rosemary Eng 223 days ago

Thank you

Your story was amazing! I wish more people loved and appreciated the history in these old home. Keep up the good work!

Maris more than 1 years ago

We need people like you!

Put onto your story by Kathy Page, SSI. My husband and I moved into a house on Wiltshire St. that looked very much like this in Feb '65 and sold it to move to Australia in '69. A wonderful home on a quiet street in 'old' Kerrisdale area. Thanks so much for the memories and for following the mystery and marvels of your old home. I'm passing the story on to my daughter in Nanaimo who 'came home' to our place 47 years ago!

Patricia Fraser more than 1 years ago

Lives of the House

My stepdad currently lives in a house that he and my mom had purchased back July 1978. The house is over 100 years old and has been lifted and added to so much. I know that when he does decide to sell it, it will be another bit of Vancouver history gone. This one is in the Fraserview area. The two previous houses I had lived in were torn down and it will be sad to see it to go. Your story helps my memory go over all that has happened in my childhood home. :)

Janine more than 1 years ago

City Directories

I loved your story Caroline. Just for future reference (and because I loathe microfilm) the oriignal city directories are available at the Vancouver Archives at Vanier Park and BC addresses are online thanks to the Vancouver Public Library until 1940 at

Eve Lazarus more than 2 years ago

thank you

Thank you for taking the time to find out the past of your home.. the stories that would have been lost had you not taken the time to do so I have two old houses in Alberta one is 1917 we bought off the grand daughter of the original owner , so we know much of the history .. the other is a 1907 home which has had many changes from a 6+ bedroom home to a boarding house to eventually made into apartments.. we know the step daughter of the original builder she liver accross the street but so many stories we do not know thanks for peeking my interest to indeed find out more..

Jamie more than 2 years ago

House Full of memories

Our home is on a tree lined street in Toronto's Leaside neighbourhood - a smalltown-like enclave undergoing a mad rush to renovate and expand. In our home, I have removed and refinished all the original door knob plates and the solid brass hinges. Keeping its original charm is important to us. There is no shrine. There is no story of families past. Perhaps we will be that family and leave our story in its walls. Thank you for this story - it was charming, memorable and rich in melancholy from start to demolition finish.

Son Roberts more than 2 years ago

Lives of the House

What a heart-achingly beautiful; article. I have long felt that a piece of me has been left behind in each house I have lived and have treasured each artifact I have found of previous residents. From layers of wall paper to a hand-crafted clothes peg box attached to the side of a Kits house- in my mind lovingly constructed by a husband to make his wife's laundry chores a little easier. The current trend to decorating to "lifestyle" magazine standards makes me wonder what traces will be left behind of our lives in the homes we live now.

Susan Goldie more than 2 years ago