A South Richards Street Survivor

CVA 99-729 – American Laundry, 1339 Richards Street. ca1918. Stuart Thomson.

The very solid brick structure shown above was at 1339 Richards Street and seems to have been built circa 1914. To my surprise, given Vancouver’s record of demo-ing most buildings that stand for more than 50 years, this structure endured for nearly 100 years and many businesses called it home. [1]

Before the building went up, there was a residence at the address, I’m guessing similar in type and size to the building to the right (north) of the brick building. For some reason (a residential fire?), that building was pushed over and the brick structure went up in its place.

The original owner of the brick building was William James Thomas, a local architect and contractor. [2] Whether Thomas ever owned the American Laundry or if he was strictly the landlord for awhile, isn’t clear. By 1913, however, the American Laundry was identified (accurately or not) as being a “Chinese laundry”.

The operator of the business by 1929 (whether he was the owner, then, isn’t clear) was called Mock Sing. The only reason that we know this much is that the laundry was robbed in November, 1929 and the local papers made a tremendous fuss over the police constable who saved the day and booked the rascal who had threatened Mr. Sing and the P. C.

The robber was Lowell Chinn, a person who was identified only as an American recently arrived in Vancouver. [3]

A little Chinese laundryman named Mock Sing gave [P.C. Denis] Johnston his big opportunity. Mock had been having a hard time of it. On October 2, a bandit entered his shop at 1339 Richards street, pressed a gun against him and took $25. One week later, the same raider again victimized Mock Sing [and this time, presumably, Chinn netted little or nothing for his efforts].

The hold-up occurred at 8p.m. After the bandit rifled the till, he ran to the back of the shop while Mock, heaping Chinese maledictions upon his head, darted into the street. He caught sight of husky Denis Johnston patrolling his beat with measured tread.

“Lobbers ketchum help, bandits!” screamed Mock.

“Be asly, me bhoy,” comforted Denis Johnston. “I’ll get your bandit for ye.” [The P.C. was of Irish extraction, in case that isn’t obvious!]

Vancouver Sun 23 Nov 1929 (comments in square brackets are mine).

Chinn threatened P. C. Johnston with a cigarette case which he wielded as though it were a revolver and shouted to Johnston “Stand where y’are or I’ll drill ya.” The constable it seems to me was full of the blarney, knew how to make a good story better, and added a lot of detail about how he felt when Chinn made his threat (which I’ll spare the reader of this post). Chinn was sentenced for six years for the hold-up at American Laundry ($25), robbery of another Chinese gent (50 cents), and another, earlier, Chinese laundry stick-up on Hornby Street ($15). [4]

By 1930, American Laundry had closed its doors. Thereafter, until 1950, there was a pretty rapid succession of businesses in the brick building at 1339 Richards:

  • 1931, Patent Utilities Manufacturing had taken over the space. It didn’t last long.
  • 1932-34, the address was shown in the Vancouver directory as “vacant”.
  • 1935-36, Granolite Paint had its business there.
  • 1937-38 it had become Electrical Sales & Equipment.
  • 1939-40, Vancouver Stone Repair.
  • 1941-43, H K F Machines.
  • 1944-45, the building housed Aero Manufacturing machine shop and D. V. Manley manufacturers agents.
  • 1946-49, T. Woodward roofing had the building for its business.

From 1950-67, the first long-term occupant of 1339 Richards was also the first in a string of restaurants in the building, Monty’s Spare Ribs. (The original proprietor of Monty’s was Max King; he claimed that Monty’s was named for Monty Montaine, the maitre ‘d at The Cave Supper Club during WWII).

Monty’s was followed by the Original Spare Rib House from ca1967- circa1972. From 1973 until the mid-1980s, Edgar’s Dining Lounge occupied the brick building. And that was followed, evidently, by one of the last occupants I was able to track down: a high-end Italian restaurant called Pappa Al Pomodoro in the mid-90s, briefly, at 1339 Richards (which the Sun’s restaurant reviewer, Mia Stainsby, accurately described as “a charmless section of Richards Street”).

CVA 779-E07.29 – 1339 Richards Street (Sir Edgar’s Dining Lounge; formerly the American Laundry building), west side of Richards. 1981.

By the 2000s, 1339 and the rest of the southern end of Richards Street had succumbed to the trend for densification sweeping all downtown districts, and was redeveloped as condos.

Finally, the little old brick building at 1339 gave way to the wrecker.

As I’ve noted elsewhere in this blog, it seems to me that peripheral parts of the city (e.g., East Vancouver, and the southern extremes of Richards and Seymour) tend to be less likely to quickly demolish buildings. The central (downtown) district seems more likely to “re-develop” its property — ironically, as that is today the most touristy area and the one in which there is greater call now for retention of heritage property.

Notes

  1. This community at the south end of Richards has been, for most of the 20th century, a zoning muddle. In 1914, the year the American Laundry was apparently established, among the homes at the south end of Richards were these businesses: Pioneer Laundry (900), Pioneer Carriage & Shoeing (912), Albion Motor Co. (940), Imperial Art Glass (1059), Riggs & Higgins Sash Manufacturers (1067), Sing Lee Laundry (1068), Star Steam Laundry (1115), Berlin Dye Works (1122), Smith Co. Hardwood Lumber (1320), and Belt Line Transfer (1369). By 1929, when American Laundry was nearing the end of its life as a laundry, a much larger operation would be built a block away — Canadian Linen Supply (1200), known today as Choices grocers.
  2. There was a firm called “American Laundry” with a Canadian base in Toronto. They seem to have manufactured steam laundry machines during this period. It is possible that they also invested in some store-front operations like the one on Richards Street, but I could not find any evidence to confirm that.
  3. I find it interesting, that Chinn’s ‘voice’ — as attributed by the Sun — was stereotypically American gangster-ish! I assume this was done to help the reader keep track of the characters.
  4. The Lowell Chinn convicted of these robberies seems to be the same as the Lowell H. Chinn who turned up in Spokane by 1937. He also had some scrapes with the law in that city. He pleaded guilty in 1941, for instance, to a charge of larceny for passing a bad cheque. In 1949, a second-degree burglary charge against Chinn was apparently dropped upon his being arrested in Cheyenne, Wyoming on another (unknown) charge. By 1958, he was serving time in Utah on a larceny conviction. Chinn died in Seattle in 1986.

Thanks to Robert of WestEndVancouver for his assistance with some of the research for this post.

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2 Responses to A South Richards Street Survivor

  1. Terry says:

    Oh darn… I was hoping we were working our way through its history to end with it still being there.
    Thanks for telling us about it!
    Terry

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