Update (June 2020)
Information on [J. F.] Langer is . . . difficult to find. There’s nothing on him in the City of Vancouver Archives, nothing in the Special Collections Division of the Vancouver Public Library, precious little elsewhere.
— Chuck Davis, “A Palace of Entertainment: Vancouver’s Orpheum Turns Seventy-Five”. British Columbia Historical News. Vol. 36, No. 2 (Spring 2003), p. 17.
I was re-reading Ivan Ackery’s memoirs, recently, when I came across mention of one J.F. Langer. He was the man who built the present Orpheum Theatre (B. M. Priteca, architect) and several Vancouver suburban movie theatres (none extant, except the Orpheum).
Why hadn’t I heard of this guy before, I wondered? Surely there must be more to his story. So I began to dig. And dig. And I discovered what Chuck Davis had learned earlier: that the smallest detail about Langer is hard won (1).
I make no claim to have written the ‘last word’ on Mr. Langer, but I think I’ve filled in a couple of public blanks about his life and career.
Joseph Francis Langer was born in Langendorf, Silesia, Prussia (now a village known as Bozonov, located in southern Poland near the Czech border) in March, 1872 to Eduard and Caroline Langer. Joseph was born into a Church of England family (although the family was registered in a Catholic parish). The Langer family didn’t stay in Prussia long after Joseph was born, however. By the time he reached 6 years of age, the family was settled in South Africa in the territory of Transvaal. Eduard owned Langlagate Royal Gold Mining Co. in Johannesburg.
During his time in South Africa, Joseph apprenticed as a bricklayer and began to take construction jobs. In 1891, Joseph (age 19) went to London where he established his own construction company. By 1893, he returned to Johannesburg where he continued in the construction business. Many of his jobs consisted of home-building. But there were other projects that supported the South African mining industry, including construction of a cyanide plant. I wasn’t able to find any details about this job, but then (as now) gold cyanidation was an important means of extracting gold in mining operations.
Langer married Henrietta Maria (Hattie) Van Coller in 1893 (1869-1932) in South Africa. She bore 9 kids. They were: May Helena, who was known as “Daisy” (1894-1995); Cecil Edward (1896-1962); Ivy Elaine (1897-1899); Dorothy Ivy (1901-1986); Clarence Basil (1902-1979); Elaine Bertha (1904-1937, who died from lymphnoma; an unnamed child who died at birth; Ivan Clifford (1906-1950s?); Dora Caroline (1912-2002). Dora was the last of the children born to Hattie and Joseph; she was the only child born in Vancouver.
In 1908 (when Langer was 36), he left South Africa for the San Francisco/Oakland area. There, he continued to build homes for a living. Sometime in 1909, he moved to Vancouver. He worked as a general contractor, principally on residential builds.
Shortly after the Great War began, Langer left Canada for England. He said of his financial status upon leaving for England in 1914: “I had no money when I went back” (3). Langer seems to have been telling a ‘porkie’ here. It’s true that Langer left several creditors in the Vancouver area. (4) But, according to his grand-daughter, Susan Oddy, “My mother [Dora Langer] said that the family lived in wealth until the stock market crash . Joseph may have had some financial ups and downs before that, but nothing serious. Certainly, he retained some of his wealth in his London investments.”
Langer claimed that he was ‘robbed’ by certain Vancouver interests while working here the first time (5). Precisely which firms Langer was pointing at with this claim is unclear, with one exception: he made it pretty plain that he held the architectural firm of Townsend & Townsend to blame for at least some of his financial woes (6). He doesn’t get into any detail about precisely how these architects ‘robbed’ him. It could well be that his antipathy regarding the firm was an extreme case of the not unusual ‘oil and water’ situation between architects and builders. It strikes me as odd that he lashed out at the Townsends, however, as there is no record in the online list of early Vancouver building permits of any projects on which Langer was builder on the same jobs as the Townsends were architects. Possibly, the online record is incomplete. It just isn’t clear.
Langer’s next nine years were spent in England earning, by all accounts, a lot of money in the construction business; his net worth, by his own admission, was in the vicinity of $2 million toward the end of his time in England (7). According to Douglas McCallum, he was a “pioneer in developing planned suburbs, which included sidewalks, gutters, sewers and street lighting.” (8). Presumably that was what he was what he was up to in England.
Setting Up House
By August 1923, Langer turned 51 and that year he took his millions and re-settled in Vancouver. It seems that his plan upon returning to the Canadian west coast was “not to do anything at all” (9). He was ready to put down tools and enjoy an ‘early retirement’ in the land of the Lotus.
Upon returning to Vancouver, Joseph and Hattie took up residence at 1715 Woodland Drive (near East 1st Ave. in the Grandview district); Woodland Drive was one of Langer’s planned communities.
A 5-minute walk from Woodland Dr., at Commercial Dr., lived a couple named Jennie and Harold Farley. Jennie and Hattie Langer became friends. Joseph and Jennie became something more than friends.
Shortly after arriving in Vancouver for the second time, Joseph married Jennie Louise Farley (nee Inns). Jennie had just divorced her husband, Harold Farley, with whom she’d had four kids: Jack (1904); Barbara (1906), Harold Jr. (1908), and Frank (1920). Hattie and Joseph were separated in 1924. Jennie and Joseph were married by a Justice of the Peace in Washington State in December 1925, and he divorced Henrietta on July 2, 1926.
Henrietta died from cancer January 15, 1932 and is buried in Acton Cemetary.
In 1924, Langer bought a new home for himself and his bride-to-be at 3290 Granville Street (in the tony Shaughnessy Heights district). This was a single family dwelling at the time (in recent years, it has been converted into condominium units). Langer bought the house from Mr. and Mrs. West, fully furnished. And judging from the value placed on the furniture by West and paid by Langer ($10,000), it wasn’t furnished cheaply (10).
According to McCallum, during Langer’s second time in Vancouver, he retained his very fruitful business in England. Apparently, among his assets (not necessarily located in the Vancouver area) were “a gravel pit, a cement plant, real estate and mining interests,” his home at 3290 Granville, a black stallion named Salvador that was so impressive that he’d lend it to the City Police for use in parades, and two cars: a Rolls Royce and a maroon Daimler complete with a matching maroon-liveried chauffeur (11).
By 1925-26, despite his later claim that he had intended to “do nothing” in Vancouver, he had built several (cookie-cutter) suburban theatres: the Kerrisdale, the Alma, the Victoria, the Fraser, the Grandview, and the Windsor. These theatres together, briefly, comprised the Langer Circuit. (12) He built the Orpheum in 1927 and leased it to the Orpheum Circuit.
In 1929, on bad advice, Joseph sold his theatre interests to Famous Players Canadian Corporation and invested in a gold mine. Susan Oddy says: “At the time, gold was the standard currency, so when the stock market crashed, the price of gold dropped way down, too.” He returned to England shortly thereafter in financial ruin.
In 1932, there was a report in the Oakland Tribune that Jennie Langer was filing suit against J. F. Langer for “separate maintenance” of $400/month against him. She said that they had been separated since November, 1931.
In describing her husband’s ability to pay for her support, Mrs. Langer states that Langer owns a $50,000 home in Vancouver, B.C., a $20,000 interest in the Bonanza mine in Amador county, $60,000 worth of stocks and bonds bought during the last year, mining machinery in Canada worth $12,000 and the annual income from England of $100,000. (15)
Langer died in 1948 at age 76 in circumstances that hint at suicide (as far as I know, there was no autopsy). Langer’s body was found beneath the bedroom window which he’d apparently leapt from; it was in the home of his son Basil in England.
Jennie lived until 1954. During her final years alone, her accommodation in Vancouver changed every couple years, evidently slowly declining in quality — from 4911 Blenheim St. (1938) to 1400 W. 8th (1940) to 1465 W 14th (1942) to 1006 W 16th (1943) to apartment living on the east side at #7 – 111 E 26th Ave. (1947) and then back to the west side at 1336 W 13th (1951) and to 4151 Rumble in Burnaby (1954) then to 7042 Bellcara Dr (with her son, Frank) in 1954 and, finally, to the Home for the Aged in Coquitlam, where she died later that same year.
1. I am indebted to Robert of westendvancouver for contributing to research for this post, and I’m very appreciative for her many memories and family records to Susan Oddy, one of Joseph Langer’s grandaughters (born to Dora Caroline Langer and Gerald Oddy in 1948). I’m also appreciative of the notes and records kept by Ken Royston, great-grandson of Joseph, and those kept by Barbara, grand-daughter of J. F. Langer.
2. There is an odd twist to Langer’s life during this period in B.C. which I haven’t been able to fit into the narrative. The source is a single paragraph in the Omineca Miner (a Hazelton, BC publication) of January 10, 1914. It reads as follows: “J. F. Langer of the B.C. Contracting Co. has returned from a business visit to Vancouver accompanied by Mrs. Langer. They have taken possession of their new residence opposite the Anglican Church. ” There are at least a couple of interesting features in this brief blurb: First, it seems from this that Langer had a home in Hazelton which he shared with “Mrs. Langer” — presumably not Jennie Farley at this very early stage. Second, it strikes me as odd that Langer would be buying a property in Hazleton presumably while owning his Vancouver lot at 1715 Woodland, given his story some years later of being stone broke by the time he left Vancouver in December 1914! (In a follow-up note from Susan Oddy, she notes that Joseph and Henrietta did live in Hazelton for a time. No details were provided, however).
3. Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) Joseph Francis Langer v. McTavish Bros. 1931, Record of Proceedings, p.121. This appeal by Langer to the JCPC of a BC court decision in favour of the McTavish Bros. is a treasure trove of testimony in Langer’s own words. The details of the case aren’t particularly germane to this post, but if interested, they can be found in the early pages of the Record of Proceedings.
4. They included: Everett Sash & Door; Cullen builders’ Supplies & Equipment, Clarke Bros. Hardware; Kydd Bros, Hardware; Wright-Cameron (don’t see this firm in the 1913 city directory); Williams & Co. (this might have been the A. R. Williams Machinery Co.; and Northern Electric.
5. JCPC Langer v. McTavish Bros. 1931, Record of Proceedings, p.122. Note: Upon returning to Vancouver in 1923, he made a deal to pay his creditors; this wasn’t for the full amount owed, but for some fraction of that amount.
6. JCPC Langer v. McTavish Bros. 1931, Record of Proceedings, p.123.
7. JCPC Langer v. McTavish Bros. 1931, Record of Proceedings, p.123.
8. Douglas McCallum. Vancouver’s Orpheum: The Life of a Theatre. City of Vancouver, 1984, 9.
9. JCPC Langer v. McTavish Bros. 1931, Record of Proceedings, p.123.
10. BC Reports Langer v. McTavish Bros. 1932, p. 494.
11. McCallum, p9. Ivan Ackery, Fifty Years on Theatre Row, Hancock House, 1980, p. 84.
12. McCallum, p9.
13. Ackery, p.90.
14. McCallum, p.9.
15. “Wife Sues for $400 a month,” Oakland Tribune 4 Non 1932, p.12.
16. Ancestry.com. England & Wales, Civil Registration Death Index, 1916-2007 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2007.