A neighbourhood created by the CPR
At the turn of the century, Vancouver was booming. Its population nearly quadrupled in a decade, reaching just over 100,000 by 1911. Prairie wheat poured into Vancouver by the boxcarful. And in return, the city's entrepreneurs scrambled to supply western towns with timber, fish, and consumer goods. They tapped new markets within British Columbia too, as settlements struck it rich with mining or lumbering. In downtown Vancouver, well-paid newcomers fresh from the east opened up branch offices of banks and insurance companies.
The Canadian Pacific Railway, the city's largest landowner and real estate developer, had its nose to the wind. It noticed that the traditional home of the city's elite, the West End, was losing its exclusive character. New apartment buildings were crowding the family mansions. In 1907 the CPR embarked on an ambitious plan to develop a tract of forest into a Garden City suburb.
The railway commissioned Montreal landscape architect, Frederick Todd, and Danish engineer, M. Davick, to lay out curving streets and generous lots of one-fifth to one-and-one-half acre. Before the lots were sold, sewers were laid and sidewalks paved. Lot prices were comparable to other Vancouver neighbourhoods, but the CPR protected Shaughnessy’s exclusive character by requiring that any house built cost at least $6,000 (at a time when a standard bungalow might cost $1,000).
Vancouver's more affluent residents found in Shaughnessy a neighbourhood that reflected their wealth and status. They appreciated its location on the edge of the city, a dignified distance from their downtown offices. After all, they could afford to keep carriages and horses, or motorcars, and live all the way out in Shaughnessy. The CPR ensured that they could enjoy favourite pastimes, sponsoring the nearby Vancouver Tennis Club, the Lawn Bowling Club, and eventually the Shaughnessy Heights Golf Club. So successful was Shaughnessy's appeal to the city's elite that the CPR also developed adjacent acres to the south as "Second Shaughnessy" and "Third Shaughnessy."
A glance at the photographs in this tour reveals the character of the First Shaughnessy residence: large, grand, and reminiscent of other older houses built elsewhere – in Renaissance England and in colonial America. Architects such as Samuel Maclure translated their clients' desires for status and stability into "revival" styles, such as Tudor and Classical, that invoked English and American values. These values were also evident in the large, private gardens and significant landscaping features.
Shaughnessy reveals the impact that deliberate planning and restrictive zoning can have on neighbourhood development. The CPR took pains to protect Shaughnessy's exclusive character, and thereby the value of its lots. Prior to 1929 when the current boundaries of the City of Vancouver were established, Shaughnessy was part of the municipality of Point Grey. In 1914, the railway tried to withdraw Shaughnessy from Point Grey and establish it as a separate municipality. But the provincial government refused. Instead, it passed the Shaughnessy Settlement Act of 1914, permitting only single-family houses in the area. In 1922, the Province enacted the Shaughnessy Heights Building Restriction Act, prohibiting new subdivisions of lots and permitting only one single-family dwelling per lot.
The streets and parks of Shaughnessy were as carefully planned as its houses. The CPR hired the Montreal firm of Todd and Davick to design the subdivision. They were inspired by the work of Frederick Law Olmsted, who had designed Central Park in New York City. With curving streets, offset intersections, and broad planted boulevards, the landscape architects created a restful landscape within the city. In Shaughnessy's open, pastoral acres, the well-to-do could feel safely distant from the noise, congestio, and diversity of city living.
The magnificent elaboration of manners and social customs during the Edwardian era was mirrored in the many specialized public areas of these houses. Carriages drew up under porte-cocheres, guests were received in huge furnished halls. There were reception rooms, music rooms, ballrooms, and parlours of every description. One look at these houses suggests the large staff required to stage these lavish entertainments. Imagine the many servants who trod miles of corridor and climbed thousands of steps in any one of these houses. The back doors of these houses were usually busier than the front entrances – with deliveries of food, fuel, flowers, and ice, and streams of messengers, tradesmen, and applicants for under-parlour maid.
The Depression of the 1930s hit Shaughnessy hard. The huge houses were expensive to maintain and property taxes were held at high, pre-Depression rates. As the CPR repossessed house after house, the area was nicknamed "Mortgage Heights." The Tait House, for example, was valued at $75,000 in 1920 and sold for $7,500 in 1939. Many wealthy residents fled to other parts of the city, and despite the provincial restrictions, many single-family houses were converted into rooming houses or multiple-conversion dwellings.
In 1938, residents who remained began to lobby for stricter enforcement of the building restrictions of 1914 and 1922. The Shaughnessy Heights Property Owners Association successfully petitioned to extend the restrictions on multiple-conversion dwellings, and created a complaint process for prosecuting offenders. But the World War II housing shortage eroded the property owners' gains, as the federal government opened many districts, including Shaughnessy, to more multiple-conversion dwellings.
After World War II, the problem of Shaughnessy's future arose once again. An association of landlords of rooming houses squared off against the Property Owners' Association. The Province compromised, allowing all multiple-conversion dwellings from before 1955 to remain, but keeping the Building Restriction Act of 1922 on the books. In the 1970s the act finally expired. For the first time, Shaughnessy was subject to the give-and-take of the City's zoning decisions that had shaped other Vancouver neighbourhoods. The boom in land values created new pressures to subdivide. Many of the newer houses on smaller, 75 foot-wide lots were built during this period.
In 1981 the City passed a bylaw creating the First Shaughnessy Official Development Plan, which attempts to preserve the area's pre-1940 estate image and single-family character while allowing some infill and conversion to multiple family use. Now applicants for development permits must demonstrate compatibility with the plan's guidelines. Once again, Shaughnessy's special character is protected by special legislation.