Securing the Heatley Block for the future
of the Strathcona neighbourhood
The announcement in the summer of 2008 that the Heatley Block had been purchased by the City as the site of the new East End branch library created an immediate groundswell of opposition to the plan. The Heatley Block Preservation Society was quickly created which worked with Heritage Vancouver and other community groups opposed to the plan to organize an anti-demolition campaign with posters throughout the neighbourhood, online and corner store petitions, numerous community forums, presentations to the Library Board, conversations with politicians and city and library officials, and a barrage of letter-writing. For eighteen months the Heatley Block faced what seemed like almost certain demolition.
Although it took a year and a half, this determined, coordinated community effort to save the Heatley Block and its two historic houses ultimately paid off. On February 3, 2010 the Vancouver Public Library announced that an alternate site for the Library had been purchased and that the Heatley Block had been saved. The Vancouver Library media release announcing the purchase of the alternate site for the library summed up the eighteen month process, saying: “The City of Vancouver had earlier acquired the Heatley Block, located on Hastings Street at Heatley Avenue, as the location for the library branch. After hearing from the community, however, the Library Board determined that an alternate site would be preferable.”
The Heatley Block, a two-storey, wood-frame apartment and retail block located on the southwest corner of Heatley Avenue and East Hastings Street in historic Strathcona, was built in 1931 by Italian-born hotelier Samuel Plastino. This landmark building, with its period red and cream colour scheme, its distinctive cornices and rooftop crenellations, five retail entrances facing Hastings Street and arched apartment entry gate facing Heatley Avenue, is the last building of its kind on East Hastings.
Few people are aware that prior to the construction of the Heatley Block, the site was the location of two wood framed dwellings, one built in 1889 and the other during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1898. These two houses, which originally faced Hastings Street, were not demolished by Samuel Plastino but were moved to the back of their lots and reoriented to face Heatley Avenue.
The Heatley Block is unique as a rare conglomeration of Vancouver pioneer architecture. The house at 417 Heatley Avenue is one of the oldest houses remaining from Vancouver’s Klondike boom years and the Heatley Block is the last remaining vital example of a wood framed combined retail and apartment block on this part of East Hastings. This and its unique social history makes the Heatley Block a significant property indeed.
From the Heatley Block Success Story – Heritage Vancouver
History of the Heatley Block
Samuel Giovanni Plastino was born in Italy September 8, 1886. He came to Vancouver from Italy around 1922. In 1931 he is listed as the proprietor of the Windsor Hotel at 52 East Hastings. He bought the property where the Heatley Block now stands on September 13th, 1930.
On March 10th 1931, Samuel Plastino applied for a building permit to develop lots 14-16 of block 68 district lot 196. This property is now known as the Heatley Block, 684 to 696 East Hastings. He had owned the property for six months, no architect is mentioned, no contractor was listed, and the block was to be built with “day labour” at an estimated cost of $9000.00.
Prior to the construction two houses stood on the property. Rather than demolish the houses, Samuel Plastino had them moved to the back of the property so they faced Heatley Avenue and split each house into two suites. 668 East Hastings became 417 Heatley and 676 East Hastings became 407 Heatley. Later on, these suites were further subdivided.
- 417 Heatley was built in 1889 and is one of very few houses of that vintage still standing in Vancouver. Though no building permit records exist for that year, it was likely built by the new owner, Ontario-born carpenter Charles C. Park. He later became a commission agent, then a dealer in patents, and from 1896 onward, a police constable. There is an 1899 City of Vancouver Archives picture of Charles C. Park in uniform with his bicycle on patrol in Stanley Park.
- 407 Heatley was built in 1898, during the height of the Klondike Goldrush by retired miner William Cameron McCord, born in Scotland on October 5, 1837. He came to Canada in 1840 and was instrumental in guiding and outfitting the Canadian Pacific Railway surveyor Walter Moberly through the Yellowhead pass through the Rocky Mountains in 1872 during his search for a usable rail route over the mountains.
The Heatley Block had 12 suites occupied on the second floor according to the 1932 City directory. The occupants were mostly working class married couples and single men and women. Half of the residents are of British origin and the other half are of Italian heritage.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, proprietors of the Heatley Block businesses lived behind their shops. There were also businesses facing Heatley Avenue. Up until 1942, two of the Hastings Street businesses were run by Japanese families. Many of the early businesses were run by Finns and Italians. The Star Fruit Market and the Elite Cleaners were run by Chinese families. The longest continuously running business, Frieda’s Beauty Shoppe, had a number of proprietors over the years from a number of ethnic backgrounds but none of them seem to have been named Frieda.
Contributed by James Johnstone, Historian