‘The Smallest Building’ in Vancouver

Commercial Hotel (Churchill Arms:Pub 340), the little former Barber Shop, and the Cambie Street arm of the Flack Block (MDM Photo, 2018)

Commercial Hotel (Churchill Arms/Pub 340), the tiny former barber shop, and the Cambie Street arm of the Flack Block. As it appeared in early 2018. (MDM Photo, February 2018).

As I spent a recent evening paging through the various editions of Exploring Vancouver (1st ed, 1974, 2nd ed., 1978, and 3rd ed., 2012) by Harold Kalman, I noticed an entry that I must have read at some point in the past, but which I had not really paid attention to. The write-up pertained to the tiny structure which nestles between the Commercial Hotel and the Flack Block on Cambie, just north of Hastings Street.

I’ll allow Mr. Kalman to speak from his 1st and 2nd eds.  He is writing about the Commercial Hotel and only incidentally about the un-named little building² adjacent to it (neither made an appearance in his 3rd ed., for some reason):

This ruggedly textured brick and stone building was long known as the Commercial Hotel¹; the name used to appear on a pointed gable at the top. Ponderous ground-floor arches are now mostly concealed by the new front. The tiny barber shop next door, probably the smallest building in the city, has occupied the gap between the two large structures ever since the beginning of the century. (Exploring Vancouver, 2nd Ed. (1978), UBC Press, p, 36. Emphasis mine.)

A Brief History of Occupants

According to Kalman’s 1st and 2nd eds., the Commercial Hotel was erected in 1896 and was designed by an unknown architect. However, the Biographical History of Architects in Canada identifies the architect as being the same person who designed the Flack Block (which was built later, in 1899), William Blackmore.³

The first mention of the Commercial Hotel in Vancouver directories seems to have been in 1898. Over the years, the street numbering systems along this stretch would vary and different numbers would be assigned to the hotel and to the small structure between it and the Flack Block. In 1898, the Commercial was 338 Cambie. There is no evidence of any building adjacent to it on the south side at this time: neither the tiny building nor the Flack Block. As is shown in the photo below (which is roughly dated by CVA staff as being ca1895), aside from the Commercial, the only other structure on the Cambie/Hastings corner is the first YMCA (located roughly where the Ormidale Block would be built not too many years later, and remains today).

Str P67 - [View of the corner of Hastings Street at Cambie Street] Bailey Bros. ca1895

CVA Str P67 – [View of the corner of Hastings Street at Cambie Street] Bailey Bros. ca1895. (Note the ‘pointed gable’ on the Commercial Hotel, as mentioned by Kalman).

By the time the photo below was taken sometime in the first decade of the 1900s, however, the Flack Block was standing on the corner and so was the tiny building between Commercial and Flack. And, as M. Guibord points out in his comment below, there appear to be three barbering poles out front.

M-3-27.5 - [Flack Block, northeast corner of Hastings and Cambie] 190-?

CVA M-3-27.5 – [Flack Block, northeast corner of Hastings and Cambie] 190-?

There is a difference in how the wee building appeared at this early photographed date and how it appears now. If you refer to the first image in this post, you will note that a curved gable feature is evident atop the wee shop. This wasn’t present in the 190- image, nor indeed, in any of the other photos shown below. (There is a photo taken in the 1980s or ’90s that seems to show it for the first time, however). To look at that feature today, you’d swear it was original to the shop, as it is covered with moss and seems to have generally aged far more than its actual, perhaps, 35 years. Just what function the upper storey performed isn’t clear to me. But I suspect that it was built with the intention of creating a bit of storage space.

In the 1910 directory, there is mention made of Morris Levine, who apparently was the first barber to occupy the little building. In the 1930s and ’40s, the shop was identified anonymously as the “Commercial Barber Shop”. No proprietor was mentioned in the directories that I viewed over these years. And by the ’50s, it was known as the Lux Barber Shop.

Bo P365.5 - [Officers of the Chilean training ship Presidente Pinto at cenotaph wreath ceremony] 1952 Charles Wishart

CVA Bo P365.5 – [Officers of the Chilean training ship “Presidente Pinto” at cenotaph wreath ceremony] 1952 Charles Wishart. Note the signage for the Lux Barber Shop is just visible behind the heads of the Chilean officers.

By the 1970s (probably starting in the 1960s), the “Rose Bros.” had taken over the tenancy of the barber shop. The Rose Bros. appear to have been, probably, father, Samuel (1881-1973) and son, Joseph (1913-1978) — both of whom were born in P.E.I.

Former entry to the smallest bldg in Vancouver on Cambie near Hastings

Gated and locked former entry to the ‘smallest building in Vancouver’. MDM Photo, February 2018.

It isn’t clear to me whether there were other barbering tenants of the small shop after the Roses died.

The building patently is unused today for much of anything except possibly storage. The entry is thoroughly gated and locked to prevent anyone from thinking it might be a suitable place to bed down.

It is even less clear why the little structure was created in the first place. Was there a deliberate decision to allow this space to stand as a “buffer” between the hotel and Flack? Why? If not a deliberate act, was it accidental? Did an early civic surveyor neglect to measure the lots twice (or thrice) and so got either the Commercial or the Flack lots a little smaller than they ought to have been?

We can only speculate. Whatever the actual reason, it seems to have been lost in the mists of time.


¹I’m guessing that the space within the structure is perhaps 100-200 s.f.

²In the 1970s, the Commercial Hotel was renamed the El Cid Hotel and at some later time, it became known as the Churchill Arms/Pub 340. It remains so, today.

³Oddly, the Biographical History identifies the source of this information as being Kalman’s 2nd ed., and claims that the Commercial was built in 1895.

This entry was posted in Bailey Bros., Charles Wishart, hotels/motels/inns, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to ‘The Smallest Building’ in Vancouver

  1. Helen Aqua says:

    Not sure the Morris Levine information is correct. If he was born in 1893 kinda doubtful he got married in 1905 at age 12 (before he even had his bar mitzvah?) .
    And the Rose brothers were born 32 years apart?? Not likely. Maybe they were father & son?

    • mdm says:

      Thanks so much for catching these errors, Helen. I should have noticed that something was amiss with the Morris who married Rose vs ‘our’ Morris who married Eva and later Esther! You are also doubtless correct about the Rose ‘brothers’. Thanks again for your eagle eye!

  2. lhhouben says:

    Now I’m going to have to make sure to check this out the next time I visit Dressew’s; one of my favourite shops still there on Hastings. A most fascinating read; thanks!

  3. mguibord says:

    Re. the CMA M-3-27.5 photo: It seems there are already three barber poles on the small building and the Flack Block.

  4. Huligansblog Luke says:

    Fascinating story, thanks! Do you know the measurement of the street frontage? It looks about 2 metres, maybe 2.5.

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