Articles

SUBURB IN THE SKY

A Vancouver man with a dream met a beer baron with millions. Result: a commuter’s heaven perched on a private mountain

JACK SCOTT November 15 1948
Articles

SUBURB IN THE SKY

A Vancouver man with a dream met a beer baron with millions. Result: a commuter’s heaven perched on a private mountain

JACK SCOTT November 15 1948

SUBURB IN THE SKY

Articles

JACK SCOTT

A Vancouver man with a dream met a beer baron with millions. Result: a commuter’s heaven perched on a private mountain

BACK IN 1930, when times were very tough and people were singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” a bald little man with big, hairy ideas set out to sell a real-estate dream.

He thought it would be a jim-dandy idea if someone would buy the side of a 3,000-foot mountain across the harbor from the city of Vancouver, clear off a few thousand wilderness acres, carve a golf course out of rock and virgin timber and make a pleasant place for people to live.

There were, of course, a few minor problems. To begin with, there was no way for people to get over to the mountain unless they took a small, shrill ferry boat.

The little man, who had a matched set of dreams, had one for this, too. He thought it would be a line idea to build a bridge.

The bridge has heen there 10 years now, a six-million-dollar suspension span that leaps out of Stanley Park across the narrow neck of the Vancouver harbor. And beyond its northern end, up on the evergreen southern slopes of the mountain, a surprising number of people are living very pleasantly indeed on British Pacific Properties.

In 1948 all this is taken pretty much for granted. Each Sunday several thousand Vancouverites climb into their cars and proceed to enjoy the result.

They roll through Stanley Park along a highway brightened in spring by borders of 110,000 daffodils, swoosh over the graceful parabolic curve of the Lion’s Gate Bridge 200 feet above the running tide, climb the lower slopes of Hollyburn Ridge on a hroad boulevard shaded by Japanese cherry blossoms and enter the slightly fabulous acres.

The sprawling hillside subdivision got its name as tribute to a unique combination: western Canadian imagination and some four million dollars in British capital. Owned by the stout-brewing Guinness’ interests of England and Ireland, the development has a potential value many times its original price. The property itself originally cost a mere $75,000 for 4,000 acres, would sell at present prices for more than $12 millions. But its owners never talk in terms of immediate profit

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since the investment was designed as a l»ng-term plan.

Everyone agrees that it’s quite a place. Seventeen miles of driveways and crescents curve about the mountainside from 250 feet above the sea to 1,200 feet up toward the snow line of the Ridge, a deceptively easy ascent that leaves the Sunday driver with a ringing in the ears. The drives skirt the green pastures of the half milliondollar Capilano Golf Course (named for the Chief who welcomed Captain Vancouver in 1792), dip by an artificial lake that occasionally attracts wild deer, pass long, low, big-windowed bungalows in the ranch-house style and unfold a view that stuns even sceneryhappy westerners.

The city, six crow-flight, miles and a 12-minute drive away, sprawls below like a view from an airliner’s window. Beyond it is the green delta of the Fraser River and the marshmallow cone of Mount Baker in the next-door state of Washington. Out to the west is the wide, wet expanse of the Gulf of Georgia and the snow-crested mountains of Vancouver Island.

“Above the Fog, Below the Snow”

Curiously enough, until recently this was all something of a flop. While the bridge was changing the map of Vancouver, touching off a series of realestate booms and opening a half a dozen quick-selling subdivisions, the Properties lay beautiful, but empty.

In 1939, three years after the first homesites went on the market, there were just 18 lonely homes in the 1,400 acres that comprise the initial development. Six more went up during the war years.

A year ago some changes were made. The Properties suddenly lost its air of dignified, come-and-get-it patience and set out aggressively on a selling spree that embraced everything from the fancier kind of real-estate promotion to some tasteful sex appeal.

A 300-acre patch of the mountain was stripped bare of forest, leaving a brown scar on the side of the Ridge t hat.

shocked the militantly tree-loving Vancouverites, but spread open that j highly commercial view for buyers.

Acre lots that sold (or didn’t sell) for ! as high as $12,000 before the war were j cut down to halfand three-quarter acre size, cleared and staked wit h price i signs ranging from $900 to $7,500 (15% cash, balance over five years).

To beat the curse of buildingmaterial shortages discouraging potential buyers, the Properties put up a dozen medium-cost homes oí its own and promptly sold out. The plans for an elaborate drive-in shopping centre were prepared. Gaudy brochures promised “longer days” on the southern slope “above the fog, below the snow.”

A $50.000 ultramodernistic “House of Ideas,” with patio and barbecue pit built in the glass-walled living room, was put, up on a choice-view lot, furnished down to the last home laundry by a department store and has been visited by 60,000 citizens, some of whom swiped the plastic ash trays, some of whom decided to spend the rest of their lives in those parts.

The sex appeal came in the decorative, size 16 form of Mrs. Muriel May, j who looks like a glamour ad in a fashion magazine and sells property with an almost religious determination. As the Properties’ first full-time sales representative, the 36-year-old Mrs. May put $25,000 in the bank as her commission last year and expects to do twice as well in the next 12 months.

Today there are 41 homes on the slope, another dozen under construction and 80 other homesites sold, one of them to a heat-hating South African who had looked the world over for “a cool view.”

The bald little man with the big ideas is not around to see his dream come into its own. He was Alfred James Towle Taylor, whose death at | 57 in New York in 1945 ended a career in the Horatio Alger pattern.

The son of a Victoria clergyman, Taylor made a religion of imaginative engineering. He accumulated a sizeable fortune in engineering and construction, lost most of it in the ill-fated building of a narrow-gauge railway into the Dolly Varden silver mine in northern British Columbia, began all over again

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[when he acquired Swedish machinery (patents.

His closest friends speak of him now as a supersalesman, a talent he considered of no consequence.

Taylor made it a creed in all his ventures to hire “nothing but the best.” He retained the world-famous Olmstead Brothers of Brookline, Mass., to landscape t he propert ies, hired Stanley Thompson of Toronto to design the 6,850-yard Capilano golf course where the small t rout rise in three lakes and a hooked hall may flush a blue grouse or pheasant.

“Big, Western, Impossible”

Taylor was not the first of the dreamers. As early as 1.909 Vancouver had a delirious, Florida-style realestate hoorn in which hundreds of mountainside lots, inaccessible except to brown bears and Alpinists, were bought sight unseen by investors. The early plans for this “subdivision” show imaginary roads going die-straight up the mountain, a grade that would have taxed a Brazilian burro.

The next mountain buyer came along in 1928. He was Harry H. Stevens, later Minister of Trade and Commerce in the Bennett Government. Backed by some well-heeled northwestern American financiers, Stevens opened negotiations with the municipality of West Vancouver, then a cluster of summer cottages hugging the shore line along the foot of Hollyburn Ridge.

West Vancouver was delighted to talk any kind of business involving the mountain, hitherto valued only for its fine, fat blueberries. For $12,500 t hey gave Stevens an option on a belt of 1.000 acres of land stretching across eight miles of the mountain.

A year later those startling things happened in Wall Street, brokers leaped from high windows, the depression was born and Stevens’ American angels folded their wings and retired from the plan.

It was then that A. J. T. Taylor entered the picture. By chance he and Stevens met on a train going to Ottawa and Stevens described his purchase and its precarious position. Stevens says now t hat a kind of strange and happy light came into Taylor’s eyes. “It. was the kind of thing lie liked to handle,’ one of Taylor’s associates explained recently. “Big, visionary, western and quite likely impossible.”

Taylor conceived the idea for a British Columbia Riviera, carried it to England and sold it there to the Guinness family, described by one writer as “easily the most colorful of all the tribes of the British Isles.”

The Guinness fort une was founded in the 18th century when one Arthur Guinness arranged a 9,000-year lease at £45 a year on some property near St. James' Well in Dublin and began to brew ale.

Nowadays Guinness’ Stout—“Guinness is good for you” is next to Ford tractors and bacon in Ireland’s exports and the wealthy clan has divided into four groups, the Political Guinnesses, the Socialite Guinnesses, the Studious Guinnesses and the Mechanical Guinnesses, who go in for small racing cars and large yachts.

Part of their combined fortune is handled by a “finance committee” whose life work is scientifically to invest the Guinness gold in long-term Empire investments. Buying a mountain 6,500 miles away was the kind of thing that brought the roses to their cheeks.

Taylor, who had the benign, precise mien of a country schoolteacher, moved in with his plan and a fine flair for the

dramatic. When the first party of

Guinnesses and advisors came to Canada, he saw to it that a private railway car carried them across the country. On the arrival of the party he whisked them to the exclusive Vancouver Club for a lunch of fresh-caught B. C. salmon, poured his guests some imported Irish whisky none of the Guinnesses drank stout), then led them to the rear of the club where the windows look out across the harbor to the Lion’s Gate and the mountain he was asking them to buy. It was a nicely timed unveiling and the party was entranced.

Taylor envisioned the Properties as a rich man’s retreat and planned to attract the wealthy and retired from all over the world. He saw to it that space was set aside for a polo field and riding academies, projects now abandoned.

While the Properties were being developed Taylor became fascinated with a sugar-loaf pinnacle of rock known as Sentinel Hill, which stands between the Properties and the water front. He went as far as to sketch plans for a revolving restaurant atop this mound. It. would slowly rotate full circle, like a carrousel, in the time it takes to eat a five-course meal, thus affording the dizzy diners every possible vista.

Taylor carried on negotiations with the West Vancouver municipality where H. H. Stevens had abruptly left off and it was in 1981 that an agreement was completed. The British Pacific Properties agreed to pay $75,000 for 4,000 acres, most, of it tax-sale lots, stretching across Hollyburn Ridge from the Capilano River to a point near Horseshoe Bay.

The first big fir hit t he ground late in 1982 and in late 1986 the firsl formal, reserved advertisements appeared in the newspapers with almost no response whatever.

The work had proceeded without ceremony and wit hout, publicity. Except for Sunday strollers who stumbled by accident on a maze of bulldozed roads slashed through the timber, most Vancouverites either knew nothing of the development or were disinterested.

I n the midst of a depression it seemed a reckless undertaking and there was even some magnificently misinformed talk of “fly-by-night” promoters.

Battle of the Bridge

The workers themselves, aware that this was “English capital,” were frankly under the impression t hat some crazy British millionaire was being taken for a ride.

Their confidence in the English wasn’t strengthened any by the discovery of a weird, cedar-paneled mansion of logs erected in the heart of the Properties area. 'Phis had been the retreat of Harvey Haddon, a wealthy and eccentric English recluse, said to have run away from it all after an unhappy love affair.

The workers found “Haddon Hall” deserted and in poor shape, but there was evidence that the master had lived like an English country gentleman, with flower gardens, rustic ornamental bridges and a retinue of Chinese servants, although entirely surrounded by a solid wall of evergreens. Today the magnificent clubhouse of the Capilano links stands on the rocky knoll where the “Hall” was built.

In all the long-range plans for the development the bridge; figured as a necessity. Taylor had gone ahead confidently with the initial steps, purchasing the franchise of two promoters who had been doing a little previous dreaming themselves (one of them contemplated a splendid tunnel under the harbor).

Bridge schemes had popped up as far back as 1890, four years after Vancouver’s incorporation. Ratepayers had voted four times against various schemes, but in the face of the new development across the harbor it was expected that approval would he a mere formality. It soon became apparent that the span would he built only over several dead bodies.

The first wave of attack centred on the “murder” of trees in Stanley Park necessary to build the approach road to the bridge. In Vancouver, xvhere the pruning of a boulevard maple may excite hot controversy, this was a psychologically devastating approach.

When it waned, the bridge opponents turned to a heavy shelling of the structure as a menace to navigation, a point of view manfully supported then by the Vancouver Board of Trade, shipping interests and the Merchants’ Exchange, some of xvhose members xvere on hand later when the first giant Empress liner glided under the completed span with ample head room.

Popular With Suicides

Taylor and his associates, with the j enthusiastic support of West Vancouver, j finally received the necessary clearance from the provincial government and an obstinate Vancouver City Council, after forcing a plebiscite in which voters endorsed the bridge two-to-one.

The federal government’s okay was necessary in the form of a license to bridge navigable xvaters and this proved a tougher leap. In the face of vocal opposition from British Columbia groups Prime Minister R. B. Bennett adopted a policy of “extreme caution” in sanctioning the construction and the required permission was repeatedly shelved.

It was not until the Liberal election of 1935 that the approval xvas won.

The bridge set something of a construction record in speed and safety. There xvas only one unexpected delay. Members of the Squamish Indian tribe sadly pointed out a curiously shaped stone at the south approach of the bridge and explained that this xvas Sa-nuz. wife of Teich, who had been changed into stone to become the famous Siwash Rock, all of which is another story. The bridge designers promptly changed the south piers to spare the lady from being broken up by jackhammers.

In November, 1938, the first paying pedestrian, a 73-vear-old long-distance walker named Abe Lomas, who had hiked in from New Westminster. 20 miles away, strode across the span. A week later the funeral cortege of a West Vancouver woman paused briefly at the crest of the bridge xvhile the ] mourners gazed out across the Gulf of j Georgia, a last request of the deceased, j Six weeks later the first of a series of j suicide leaps into the rushing t ide water was recorded and the bridge settled down to work.

Almost overnight it opened the xvay for an unprecedented shuffling of Vanj couver’s suburban population. The i hillside and xvater frontage of West I Vancouver, sloping sharply into the bright outer bay of the harbor and facing the sun, became the choice place to live. Today there are 8,000 homes in that municipality and 500 buses crawl daily over the Lion’s Gate bridge.

While this land rush was going on and several “poor men’s Properties” were briskly selling acreage, the Properties themselves remained little more t han a sight-seeing phenomena.

One of the first houses put up was huilt in 1938 by a Vancouver barrister, who chose a perilous incline 1,200 feet up the side of the mountain. This mountainside home, halfxvay up the

Ridge, is still the highest homesite 4 the Properties and a perpetual puzzj to tourists. Viewed from the city, appears to have been dropped by para] chute into the wilderness.

Another early settler xvas Kenn) Black, former Canadian amateur gol champion who reached his propert originally on a blazed trail. He cleare his lot of heavy timber on week endassisted by volunteering friends an occasionally supervised by a larg brown bear who, Black maintains, too a personal interest in the project.

The change in policy that’s bringing Black a swarm of new neighbors xva largely carried out by 43-year-olil Charles Peregrine Heathcote Drum-: mond Willoughby, manager of th Properties since 1945.

Part of the new deal is to overcorn the popular conception of the develop ment as a Shangri-la exclusively fo] the rich, a stigma particularly distressing to the ebullient Muriel May.

“It, looked so exclusive and so erupt up there,” she recalled the other da in her chic sales cottage on Moyn Square. “When I’d take a client u¡ there in my car he’d always ask wha was xvrong with the place. Why wen there so few houses? I used to think ‘Oh, my, if only there were more ranct houses with t he people sitting out or their red-tile patios with tall drinks in thier hands!’ But now—now it's wonderful.”

Most of the new buyers are still in the well-to-do class with a high percentage of lumber executives. Several wealthy Americans and British have bought acreage for retirement purposes. A contractor recently purchased nine properties in a roxv, has started putting up homes as a kind of subdivisionxvi thin -a -su bd i vision.

The cost of the houses built in the last year runs from $10,000 to $60.000 The ax'erage Properties’ home costs $15,000 on a $2,500 site. The management, which has outlawed billboards, boardinghouses and bistros, looks over each of the plans in advance to keep out any architectural freaks. Twostory homes are discouraged on the theory they might, block some future home-owner’s view.

A Dream Coming True

With the Properties, the bridge and the Marine Building, an office building in Vancouver, each of which operates as a separate company, the Guinness British Columbia investment is now in the neighborhood of $10 millions. Until recently none of it looked healthy.

The bridge, which charges cars a 25-cent toll ($1.25 a week for commuters), never made money until 1946 xvhen it showed a profit of $123,000. The deficit at the end of 1947 stood at $785,000. The bridge company has another 41 years to get in the black and make a few dollars. In 1989, under the terms of the agreement, the City of Vancouver may purchase the span at its then appraised value.

The Marine Building, purchased in 1932 when the original builders xvent broke, lost money consistently until 1946. Now there’s a waiting list for its office space.

The boom in the depression-born Properties, themselves, is only the beginning of a scheme that may conceivably go on for the next hundred years. Only 1,100 acres have been made accessible with a potential of 600 homesites. Another 3,000 acres, surveyed hut still as wild as they were in the days of Chief Capilano, stretch across the mountainside waiting for the future.

The little man’s dream is beginning to pay ofT. -k