Sometimes an old house whispers... and some houses even seem to shout... and even though some old houses come across as quiet, even silent, they each have their story. I pay attention... I listen... These are the stories I've heard, and now I am passing them on to you...
Monday, September 14, 2009
A WEST END STORY: 1550 Harwood - The Robert Mills Blair House
The fact that this 1921 house, modest in comparison to many of the stately homes that succumbed to the demolition ball on Harwood, survived is a very good thing. 1550 Harwood is both architecturally and historically an important building.
First, the history… 1550 Harwood, built in 1921, was one of the last houses to be erected in the area. The house makes its debut in the Vancouver city directories in 1922. Robert M. Blair, representative for Lyman Tube and Supplies, a railway and shipyard supply company with offices located at 508, 850 West Hastings, is listed as the first occupant. A Mrs. David Blair is also listed at this address.
Robert Mills Blair was born in Chicoutimi, Quebec on March 15, 1876, the son of Scottish-born David Blair and Margaret Eliza Harrower. At an early age Robert Blair developed an interest in guns and shooting. He bought his first rifle at age twelve and joined the 9th Quebec Royal Rifles at age 13.
In 1902, at the age of twenty-six, he went to the Yukon with six companions to look for gold. There he joined the Yukon Corps of Guides and was an active member of the Dawson Rifle Club. Blair moved to Vancouver in 1909 where he worked for a number of years in the firm Seymour, Allan, Storry & Blair, estate and financial agents and insurance brokers working out of an office at 412 West Hastings. In 1909 he lived in a house at 1105 West Georgia but by 1910 he had moved to 1117 Melville.
In 1911 Blair joined the newly formed '72nd Highlanders of Canada' which, on December 16, 1912 was redesignated the '72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Canada'. Blair served overseas as a small arms expert during the First World War. He became a major in 1915 and was seconded to Experimental Department Small Arms Branch of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in January of 1916 and served to the end of the war in Canada, England and France.
Blair returned to Vancouver sometime in 1919. The 1920 directory lists him as residing at 2910 West 3rd between Macdonald and Bayswater. This house still stands. The same year Blair joined the reorganized 1st Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada with the rank of Major.
Sometime in 1920-21 Blair hired the architectural firm of Twizell Birds and Twizell to build the house at 1550 Harwood.* The partners were Robert Percival Twizell (1875 to 1964) and his brother George Sterling Twizell (1885 to 1957) and Samuel Buttrey Birds (1871-1960). The Twizell brothers were both born in Newcastle-on-Tyne. They articled in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and trained at the University of Durham before immigrating to Vancouver in late 1907 or 1908. Twizell & Twizell, practised in Vancouver from 1908 to 1954. Throughout that time their name was synonymous with quality institutional and residential design.
They were responsible for a number of major houses in Shaughnessy Heights, including the J.W. Kerr, Walter Walsh, W. L. Coulthard, and M. P. Morris houses, all built in neo-Georgian or Arts & Crafts Style. They also designed ‘Fairacres,’ the Ceperley family mansion in Burnaby, and were responsible for many schools in Vancouver, including Prince of Wales High School and Magee School. They designed St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church, St. Augustine’s Catholic Church, St Peter’s Church in New Westminster and Canadian Memorial United Church as well as additions to St. Mary’s Kerrisdale and Christ Church Cathedral.
The Twizell Birds and Twizell partnership lasted from 1920 to 1923. And it is undoubtedly Samuel Buttrey Birds being in the firm that prompted Blair to choose them to design his house. Why?
Samuel Buttrey Birds was born April 23, 1871 in Morley Yorkshire. He moved to Toronto in 1907 and to Vancouver in 1908. During World War I he joined Vancouver’s Seaforth Regiment of Canada, (72nd Battalion). Prior to joining the army he had been a prominent member of the Vancouver Rifle Association. Birds fought at the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele. Captain Birds’ conduct at Vimy Ridge earned him a Military Cross and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his actions at Passchendaele and promoted to the rank of Major.
Birds returned to Vancouver and civilian life in 1919 at the same time as Robert Blair. In 1920 he entered into a partnership with the Twizell brothers. Their work together included David Lloyd George and Kerrisdale Schools, extensive repairs and renovations to Magee Secondary School, a house for William More and the house for Mrs. W.E. Blair, Robert Blair’s mother (the aforementioned Mrs. David Blair).
The researcher was not able to track down the house for William More. It may or may not have been demolished. If it has, the stuccoed two-storey house its simple but solid massing with side entry, first floor bay window and brackets for window boxes on the second floor may be the only example of Twizell, Bird and Twizell house architecture left in Vancouver. Bird’s Partnership with the Twizell Brothers ended in 1923. He left Vancouver for Los Angeles where he practised for the next six years.
Margaret Eliza Blair, Robert Blair’s mother, applied for the building permit for the house on September 23, 1921. The building permit number was 1890. The application lists the architects as Twizell Birds & Twizell and the contractor, a certain J. C. McLeod, who may indeed have been another Seaforth Highlander connection. The cost of the house is listed as $5000.00. Margaret E. Blair applied for the water service on September 24th. Sometime in late 1921 or early 1922 the house was completed and Robert Blair, his wife Dorothy, their sons David R. and J. W. Blair, and Robert’s mother, Margaret moved in.
Now back to history… In 1924 Robert Mills Blair was appointed second-in-command of the Seaforth Highlanders. He was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel and to the command of the battalion in 1928. Blair commanded the 72nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders from 1928 to 1933 and was awarded the “Colonial Auxiliary Forces Long Service Decoration” in 1928. He was considered the leading expert in small arms in Canada.
Soon after, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Mills Blair became the toast of Canada when he took the King’s Prize and the Grand Aggregate awards at the British Empire rifle matches at the Bizley Rifle Range in 1929. This was a rare achievement, but not the first time a Canadian had done so. (The first Canadian winner of a Bisley King's Prize and Grand Aggregate Score was Rifleman Sam Perry, 6th Duke of Connaught's Own Rifles in 1904.) Blair was the first commanding officer of a regiment to win either prize.
Look up Blair in the newspaper indices on the 7th Floor of the Vancouver Public Library (Special Collections) and then check out the microfilm on the fifth floor and you will find dozens of articles describing Blair's accomplishment and the fame he won. King George V hosted a reception to celebrate his victory at Buckingham Palace. The King congratulated him and presented him with an autographed photograph.
‘Bull’s-Eye Blair’ was feted across Canada on his way back to Vancouver where a huge civic and military celebration awaited him. What follows is a transcription of an invitation to the celebration.
22nd August 1929
I have been requested by the committee in charge to notify you of the following arrangements made in connection with the civic reception to Lieutenant-Colonel R. M. Blair, V.D., winner of the King’s Prize and Grand Aggregate at Bisley, England this year.
At 3:30 o’clock, Saturday afternoon next, Lieutenant-Colonel Blair will arrive at the Cambie Street Grounds, to be received by the military authorities. He will here inspect the guard of honour and be tendered the congratulations of the militia. The City has nothing to do with this part of the programme.
Members of the City council, and few civic dignitaries, will assemble at the bandstand, Stanley Park, to receive Lieutenant-Colonel Blair, who should reach this point at 4.25. Dress for this occasion, morning coat and top hat. Programme follows:
O Canada, by massed bands.
Remarks on behalf of Militia – Colonel H. S. Tobin, D.S.O., A.D.C, O.C., 23rd Infantry Brigade.
Selection – Massed Pipe Bands.
Presentation of Bouquet to Mrs. Blair.
Welcome and Presentation on behalf of citizens by His Worship the Mayor.
Selection – “See Him Smiling,” by Massed Bands, (unannounced).
Reply – Lieutenant – Colonel Blair.
Selection – “See The Conquering Hero Comes” by Massed Bands
God Save The King.
A civic dinner will be tendered in the Hotel Vancouver at 7.30 o’clock Saturday evening, and it will be appreciated if you will consider this your invitation to same. Dress formal.
It is hoped the Council will be well represented both at the park and the dinner.
E. W. Dean
W. H. Malkin
The entire parade route and a number of streets were specially decorated for the August 24th homecoming. Jones and Son Tent and Awning Co. Ltd. quoted “$600.00 for street banners and decorations to be put up for the reception of Major (sic) Blair. The decorations will run from Hastings and Main Street to Davie and Granville Street, also on Georgia Street West from Cambie Street Grounds to Stanley Park….”
There are over thirty photographs of Blair’s homecoming celebration including his “Chairing” at the Cambie Grounds, the parade to Stanley Park and the ceremony held there. The celebrations were featured on the front page of the August 25th Vancouver Sunday Province (see newspaper clipping section). Everyone in Vancouver would have known about Blair and one can be sure that anyone living in the West End would have known his house at 1550 Harwood.
Shortly before retiring as commander of the Seaforths in 1933 the federal government named the Blair Rifle Range in North Vancouver in Blair’s honour. Blair’s two sons, David Robert Blair and J. W. Blair both served in the Seaforths under their father. David R. Blair went on to become city police commissioner and retired with the rank of colonel after commanding the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforths. His brother, J. W. Blair, a Seaforth company commander, spent two years in a German POW camp during World War II.
Robert Mills Blair lived to a ripe old age of 93. Ten days before his death, the Province Newspaper ran an article on Blair and his accomplishments on Friday June 9, 1967 entitled ‘93 and still top gun.’
Blair died early Monday morning on June 19, 1967. He and his wife had been walking the dog at 3am in front of the house when he collapsed from a heart attack. He was pronounced DOA at St. Paul’s Hospital. A funeral was held at St. John’s United Church on Wednesday the 21st. Blair’s body was buried in Ocean view Cemetery the same day.
Robert M. and Sarah Dorothy Blair witnessed the West End’s transition from a neighbourhood of mostly single-family dwellings to one dominated by rooming houses, three-storey walk-ups, and highrise apartments. After Robert’s death his widow remained in the house for a year but the house was transformed into a rooming house and then apartments soon after. Water records indicate that Mrs. Blair retained ownership of the converted house with five units at least until April 1, 1969, although she may have kept the house for much longer. Directory records seem to indicate that eventually there were as many as ten suites in the building.
Sarah Dorothy died April 26, 1982 at Altamont Private Hospital in North Vancouver. Her remains were cremated at Mountain View.
The Robert Blair House is an anomaly in the West End, a holdout from a bygone era in many ways. It is doubtful if any of the many residents and visitors to the West End realise its historical significance or even have heard of Robert Mills “Bull’s-eye” Blair and the glory and fame he brought to his nation, to Vancouver, to the Seaforth Highlanders and this house.
All B&W photos shown with this article are from the City of Vancouver Archives. Photos are:
Port P956 - George T. Wadds, photo
CVA 99-2189 - Stuart Thomson, photo
CVA 99-2196 - Stuart Thomson, photo
CVA 99-2201 - Stuart Thomson, photo
CVA 99-2203 - Stuart Thomson, photo
CVA 99-2206 - Stuart Thomson, photo