Battle For The School Site, 1940-1955


The northwest corner of First and Commercial must today be considered a prime retail location. For most residents of the neighbourhood, except for those with memories stretching back more than thirty years, that intersection is Il Mercato Mall with a VanCity credit union on the corner itself. But before the mid-1980s, when the Mall was foisted on us, on that site there had been a supremely unimpressive mid-century standard one-storey retail structure called the Benholme Building erected with fanfare in 1955. This essay tries to tell the tale of how we got to the Benholme, and why that was important.

In June 1903, thinking well ahead of the developers and house builders, the Vancouver School Board quietly purchased lots 13-24 of Block 63 in Grandview. This comprised the southern half of the block bounded by First Avenue, Cotton Drive, Graveley Street, and Commercial Drive. By 1905 they had built and opened the Grandview School.i

It must have seemed an imposing structure amid so little else but stumps and smoke from log burning when it was built. But the neighbourhood rapidly filled in around the school and by 1930 the school had added additional classrooms and gained a section of “grounds” in the block west of the school. The Grandview School of Commerce flourished for several decades as a vocational annex to Britannia High School.

Until the First Avenue Viaduct was completed in 1938, First Avenue had been an insignificant roadway. It began life at Clark Drive, came up the hill to Commercial, and essentially fizzled out a few blocks east of Victoria. It was a local street and not very well maintained. The Viaduct changed all that, with First Avenue becoming, quite suddenly, a major regional traffic artery carrying cars and trucks from city limits in the east to downtown in the west. At the same time, First & Commercial became a major intersection and thus of significant interest to merchants and others concerned with Grandview’s future.

From 1940 until 1955, the site was the subject of protracted and unpleasant negotiations between the Vancouver School Board (VSB), the Vancouver Library Board (VLB), and various neighbourhood groups, most especially the Grandview Chamber of Commerce. Some of the Chamber wanted the school demolished and replaced with commercial and retail businesses more suitable to such a major intersection; others were reluctant to see more building. The School Board kept changing its mind as to whether it needed the current space, and the Vancouver Library Board kept changing its mind about whether they would become a tenant in any new building that came about. Eventually, the VSB closed the School in 1950 and, to make matters worse from the Chamber’s point of view, they allowed the main building and various sheds and playgrounds abutting Commercial to fall into ruinous disrepair.  At the same time, the VLB decided that Grandview didn’t deserve a library at all.

By the late-1930s, many local businessmen had publicly “deplored” the fact that such valuable commercial property, on the corner of an increasingly important thoroughfare, should be wasted on school grounds. It was, they said, “a detriment to local business.” And they had some evidence to back them up. The Vancouver School Board hadn’t had the money during the Depression years to keep up the grounds and the building. By 1940, the school had also erected some ramshackle buildings along part of the Commercial Drive frontage, the wooden fence had fallen into disrepair and, of course, there were no lights in the evening, making it dark and uninviting. A survey in April 1940 had revealed pedestrians were specifically avoiding that corner, with ten persons passing the Bank of Commerce on the east side of Commercial for every one that passed the school grounds.ii

The general idea being discussed among businessmen at this time left the school building as it was and concentrated on the development of the Commercial Drive frontage. This was clearly understood by the Vancouver School Board when, in the same month as the pedestrian survey, they agreed to tender for leases “for the construction of business premises” on the site. The lessee would have to demolish two small buildings and build a wall between the new commercial development and the remainder of the High School grounds. The potential lessee, Griffith, Lee, & Wilson Ltd., offered $800 a year for 20 years plus taxes. They would spend $15,000 building a one-storey building to house 6 small stores and a larger corner store, and the property would revert to the School Board after twenty years. It seemed like the perfect solution: the School Board got to keep its school and most of the grounds, while Commercial Drive got to fill in one of its central blocks with retail.iii

Unfortunately, by January 1941, the School Board members were dragging their feet and decisions were being delayed. It was said that certain “local elements” and “selfish interests” were opposed to any development. Charles E. Smith, leading the charge, spoke openly against the development proposal, calling the Council’s attention to the number of vacant stores on Commercial and saying that the time was not opportune for more building. This sounds a lot like the larger local merchants simply not wanting more competition and, in fact, the Echo, close to the parties involved, admitted years later that City Council “allowed itself to be influenced by one or two property owners who felt their interests threatened by the proposal to build a block of modern stores.” This may have been true, but Smith was supported by R.M. McGinn and W.W. Scott, a noted local CCFer, who presented a 1,200-signature petition against removing the school yard, and editorial in the Sun. A counter-petition supporting development, also with 1,200 signatures, was handed in by local resident Douglas Lee, supported by veteran Drive businessman Fred Hamilton. Lee called the corner “the very hub” of Commercial Drive and declared that “nothing should stand in the way of its development.” That the “local elements” who had spooked the School Board were in the majority – or at least in the ascendant — is suggested by the decision of the City Council, when the VSB did finally support the proposal, to reject any development. The problems leading directly from this series of events reverberated strongly along the Drive for the next fifteen years.iv

So, the issue festered for almost a decade. During the 1940 controversy, Vancouver School Superintendent H.N. MacCorkingdale intimated that there was no real future for the old school in its present location. It was no surprise, therefore, that no clean up or repair work was done at the School and, in fact, talk of the School’s imminent closure fed a steady diet of rumours on the street and feelers from developers looking to use the site. By 1947, it had become so bad that a writer to the editor wondered why residents were paying school taxes at all because the “school fences are falling down” and “the grounds are a disgrace.” When the Grandview Chamber of Commerce was revived in March 1949, one of its primary aims was a resolution to the school site. In January 1950, the School Board again suggested they would be putting up the property for development “during the present year,” and in February they announced that Grandview High School of Commerce would formally close for good at the end of summer term 1950.v

In April 1950, the Chamber of Commerce met with then Acting Mayor Birt Showler to discuss the general dismay Grandview felt over its treatment by City Council on any number of issues. During that meeting, Showler let slip that the problem for the Vancouver School Board regarding the First & Commercial site was the desire by some developers to take only the Commercial Drive frontage. He said, the VSB planners felt that if they let that part go, they would have trouble ever selling the rear section of the block. They were keen to find a buyer for the full site, he said.A month later, the chairman of the School Board’s building committee wrote to the Chamber admitting that the VSB “is quite unable to make up its mind whether to demolish the building and offer the whole property for sale, or whether to retain the building and offer only the frontage.” They were concerned, they wrote, that Britannia High School might become overcrowded and need an overflow

In the meanwhile, without any further discussion, the School Board simply boarded up the school and the buildings fronting Commercial Drive, and transfered the students to the Tecnical School at Broadway and Clinton. The Echo called this behaviour “an affront to the people of Grandview” saying it “spreads a blanket of gloom by day and by night over this important intersection – the very heart of Grandview’s shopping district.” A delegation from the Chamber that included Syd Bowman, Dick Smith, Jack Burch and A.G. Holmes (of the Echo) met with the School Board in August 1950, and told them that the situation could no longer be tolerated. However, they were rudely rebuffed; the Board seemed more exercised by the fact the delegation had gotten to see them without a formal appointment. Still, in November 1950, another leak from the Board suggested that the Commercial Drive frontage was again being considered for sale. When Alderman Halford Wilson met with the Chamber in January 1951, he thought the School Board would agree to demolish the building.vii

Linking one pressing issue with another, the Echo, in February 1951, acting as the Chamber’s mouthpiece, suggested that the school board site at First & Commercial would be the perfect spot for the library so long promised the neighbourhood. The Library Board approached the School Board about the idea and it was immediately rejected. The School Board said they were concerned that Britannia High School would grow, needing overflow classrooms in the future and they wanted to keep the old schoolhouse for this purpose. This was not an answer designed to placate the Grandview Chamber; after all, the very same School Board had refused to build a cafeteria or gymnasium at Britannia because, they said, the school population was likely to fall. viii

By the fall of 1950, the threat to the central role of Commercial & First in Grandview shopping was heightened with the completion of the Toban Building on the northwest corner of Broadway & Commercial. This was Louis Toban’s most impressive project to date, housing one of his own Reliable Drugs stores, a Royal Bank and other heavy-hitter tenants on the retail level; with the upstairs designed as a Medical Dental building. All four medical practices at 1704 East First, in the bay windows directly overlooking First & Commercial, packed up and moved wholesale down to the new building. Dr Zack, who had only recently set up at Clarence Webber’s medical-dental building at 1338 Commercial, also moved. Local businessmen considered the boarded-up school to be an “an ugly sore situated in the very centre of our business district,” and urged an early agreement to a development plan for the block. ix

Early in March 1951 there were rumours that a private hospital operator – who turned out to be F.W. Westwood of the Glen Hospital on Victoria Drive — was interested in the School Board site as a facility for needy parients. Syd Bowman thought that would be an excellent use for the school building, so long as the frontage on Commercial Drive was given over to retail or offices, and thre Chamber endored the idea. Later that month, the School Board once again said they needed to keep the schoolhouse because Britannia might need overflow (perhaps in 1955, they thought), but they suggested they were now more inclined to let the vacant buildings on the Drive be developed. By April, the School Board was actively investigating the possibility of temporarily leasing the old schoolhouse to the hospital; but the Fire Marshall put a stop to that idea and Glen Hospital also lost interest. Finally, at a School Board meeting in May, they agreed to sell the property frontage on the Drive, noting that it would take about three months for the technical paperwork to be completed. That sounded like the answer everyone was waiting for but it led immediately to additional concerns.x

The May meeting of the Chamber of Commerce heard that Imperial Oil was contemplating a bid for the school property. It had not been confirmed by the company, but everyone was certain they would put a gas station on the intersection. And that was wanted by nobody but the oil company. For years this primary corner of Commercial’s primary shopping center had been damaged by the school board property on the site and the general feeling was that a gas station would be just as bad. By June, the rumors were that five separate oil companies would be bidding on the site. But they weren’t the only ones. At the end of May 1951, the Library Board had formally asked City Council to set aside the School Board property for their use as a branch library. In September, the issue came before City Council once again when the School Board submitted papers to the Property Committee stating that the section of VSB land fronting Commercial Drive was “surplus property”.xi

The City Librarian visited the property and confirmed it as the best available for his purposes. However, as usual, the Library Board decision was more complicated than that. In September, the Board debated the issue and they concluded that it was “difficult to determine whether this branch should be located in the Commercial Drive area or further east near Renfrew.” They chose at that time to consider renting in the Commercial Drive area until a site could be found for a new building. However, that wasn’t at all clear to the City. In November, the City Clerk wrote to the Library Board asking whether they wanted the school site and, if so, what monies could be made available. This obliged a decision from the Library Board but they still managed to hedge their bets. They asked the City to keep the school site on hold “with a view to building later.” For the meantime, the Board confirmed they would rent in the area and put money in their 1952 estimates for the branch’s operation.xii

Just before Christmas 1952, there was a new wrinkle: it was being reported that Safeway were negotiating to buy the school site. They had apparently offered their current store on the other side of First to the Library Board, who had turned it down. However, the old City Council seemed interested in the offer and the Echo ended the year optimistically, saying “the situation looks hopeful.” By early 1953, the School Board voted to approve the sale of the school site. Negotiations with Safeway were continuing, it was reported, and City Librarian Robinson was said to be happy with the idea of taking over the old store – but, once again, not before the Central library was completed. By the middle of February, the Zoning Board were said to be reviewing the sale but a new problem was in the public domain. Apparently, Safeway wanted to take the entire property down to Woodland Drive, which included the former “school grounds” between Cotton and Woodland. However, City Council had long ago set aside that portion for residential development. That wasn’t about to change.xiii

The Grandview Ratepayers Association did not agree with the Grandview Chamber’s rush to clear the site, and was not on board with any change on that corner – at least for now. Meetings in both January and February of 1953 opposed the sale of the school site until Woodlawn Elementary school was moved to a more central site. However, they did suggest the library be built on the school grounds without affecting the school itself.xiv

By April 1953, the fate of the school site was still unclear, and there was at least one letter from a “taxpayer” wondering what could be taking so long. On the 6th April, the Chamber wrote to the City reminding Councilors that “the present vacant grounds and abandoned school building add an unsightly picture to such a busy intersection.” The proposal was apparently being reviewed by the Technical Planning Board, but even direct questioning by Alderman Bowman couldn’t find out when it would be decided. Finally, at the end of the month, and without apology for the delay, the Zoning Board made its decision: the portion of the lot west of Cotton Drive on Block 62 would remain with a residential or parking zoning; the balance of the lot was given the OK for three storey commercial development. From there, the matter went to the Property Committee of City Council which said it would have terms of sale ready by the middle of May.xv

But hold the celebrations — Safeway didn’t like the zoning decision. It wanted to have parking in back and in front of the proposed store, with the building itself set quite a way back from Commercial. Almost everyone else seemed to be opposed to that idea and Alderman Syd Bowman said explicitly that he would vote against any such proposal. And besides, Safeway weren’t the only ones who needed to be considered in what was a public bidding process for City land.xvi

In May, it was rumoured that bidders for the school site included Safeway, two oil companies that wanted to put a gas station on the corner, and a group of Christian Scientists who wanted to take over the old schoolhouse itself. There was also a local group who wanted to protect the playing field at First and Cotton; they sent in petitions from both adults and children noting it was the only available playground in the area. But when the petitions were read in Council, Ald. Syd Bowman rebuffed their pleas and urged a quick settlement to end speculation and improve the neighbourhood.xvii

When details of the bids were released near the end of June, a wide variety of proposals was revealed. Safeway, of course, had the highest bid — $60,000 – but they needed both blocks, nothing less would do, they said. Fred Gordon, on behalf of “interests” also interested in building a supermarket, offered $22,000 for the Commercial Drive frontage, or $40,000 for the entire site. Standard Oil bid $20,000 for the entire Commercial Drive frontage to a depth of 136 feet down First. The Christian Scientists offered $8,000 for the old building and another bidder offered $3,000 for a 20-foot lot off the lane where he planned to build a two-storey store with apartments. However, in the end, this was all for naught. The city bureaucrats had made an error and the zoning changes had not yet gone through. Apparently, this made all the bids ineligible and the process had to be done again.xviii

In August the Chamber wrote to the City complaining once again of the “interminable delays” in dealing with the school site. Several weeks later, the Zoning Board met on 19 September and confirmed that the school site from Commercial to Cotton Drive would be zoned three storey commercial, while the lot from Cotton to Woodlawn would remain as family residential. No one seemed to know what affect that would have on the Safeway bid for both lots. Regardless, the new zoning decision would require a new set of tenders and that meant even more delays. However, City Council decided to skip the tendering process and deal directly with interested parties. Safeway seemed less interested now that the zoning decision had gone against their wishes and by early November they had formally withdrawn their offer. They would quickly be replaced by Super-Valu who, in early December, announced that negotiations with the City had been successfully completed. They planned to build a $45,000 store, with 8,000 square feet of merchandising by April 1954. There would be room for 50 cars in the parking behind the store. The Vancouver School Board officially approved the sale on 7th December.xix

The announcements sounded good, but the fact was that the deal had not yet been finalized. In January 1954, Norwich Agencies, acting for Super-Valu, submitted plans to have the Super-Valu store face First Avenue, for a gas station on the corner, and for a short row of stores on the balance of the Commercial Drive frontage. City Council, knowing full well what Commercial Drive’s reaction would be, rejected the whole idea of a gas station and told the developers to re-plan and resubmit. By March they had done that. Norwich Agencies/Super-Valu paid $40,000 for the site with a new proposal. They continued to propose building their supermarket along 100 feet of First Avenue. It would have “high windows and brilliant lighting like the company’s other stores throughout Vancouver.” At the very corner, 25 feet was to be set aside for a miniature park, which the Echo called a “novel and attractive feature.” A two-storey building, architected by Alan W. Grey, housing a new store for Bufton’s Florists and Dr. Porter’s medical clinic, with offices upstairs, were planned to be built along 90 feet of Commercial Drive frontage, set back seven feet. Parking was behind the Commercial Drive stores and west of the proposed Super-Valu.xx

Unfortunately, not all those grand plans could be achieved. By the time contracts to build on Commercial Drive were finally awarded, the winning bid for $75,000 by Commercial Construction Co was for a one-storey structure running 105’ along Commercial and 65’ down First. The developers complained, without further explanation, that they would have built a second storey but “the city had tied the hands of the owners.” The developers had offered a $10 prize for the person coming up with the best name for the long-awaited building, and the winning choice was The Benholme Building, a combination of the names of ex-Alderman John Bennett and the Echo’s own long-time publisher and editor Alex Holmes.xxi

The Grandview Chamber of Commerce did its best to make the official opening something meaningful after all the years of effort to get the corner developed. Both Ald. Bowman, representing the Chamber, and Harry Rankin for the Ratepayers “hailed the plans” as auguring a new future for Commercial Drive. The Benholme Building survived from 1955 to the mid-1980s when the entire block was redeveloped for Il Mercato and Van City Savings.

This is the only photograph I have been able to find of the Benholme Building — though some others must exist — Highland Echo of 13th June 1974.

i   Vancouver School Board Minutes 1903 June 15

ii   Survey: Highland Echo 1940 April 25

iii  Sun 1940 Aug 20, p.13

iv   Highland Echo 1940 Apr 18, 25, May 23; 1941 Jan 9; 1953 Jul 16; News Herald 1940 Apr 16; Province May 4, p.34; Sep 21, p.6; 25, p.9; Oct 26, p.4; 29, p.5; 1941 Jan 8, p.5; Feb 14, p.4; Sun Aug 20, p.13; Sep 27, p.6; Oct 22, p.17; 1941 Jan 8, p.13; Highland Echo 1941 Mar 27 Apr 24; Echo’s admission: Highland Echo 1950 Jul 20, qv 1953 Jul 16

v   MacCorkindale: Province 1940 Oct 23, p.11. “present year”: Highland Echo 1950 Jan 26; “1947”: Highland Echo 1947 Oct 2; Sun 1946 Nov 8, p.15. Closure of school: Highland Echo 1950 Feb 23 Vancouver News-Herald Mar 7, p.1. In 1946 it was suggested the old school would be a perfect place for the additional kindergarten places that the district urgently needed. But the idea did not take off: Province 1946 Apr 16, p.3. Chamber of Commerce: Province 1949 Mar 1, p.13

vi       Highland Echo 1950 Apr 27, May 25

vii   Vancouver News-Herald Mar 7, p.1; Province p.3; Sun p.15; Highland Echo: Editorial: 1950 Aug 10; Meeting: 1950 Aug 24; “another leak”: 1950 Nov 16; Wilson: 1951 Jan 11

viii       Echo 1951 Feb 15, 22

ix       Echo 24 Nov 1949; 1950, 17 Aug; 1952 Jul 31; Province 1950 Aug 22, p.5; Sep 1, p.12. The doctors moving from 1704 E 1st were Drs Agnew, A.P. Brown, A.W. Greenius and O.W. Greenius

x  Highland Echo 1951 Mar 8; Apr 19; 26; May 25; Vancouver News-Herald Mar 8, p.1; Province p.11; 13, p.30.

xi       Oil company rumours: Highland Echo 25, 31 May 1951; School Board: Highland Echo 6 Sep 1951

xii       City Librarians visit: Highland Echo 1 Nov 1951; Library Board: 28 Sep 1951, CVA, Library Board Minutes, MCR 22 reel 1; City to Library Board: 9 Nov 1951, CVA, Library Board Minutes, MCR 22 reel 1The City later wrote to the Library Board noting that, because the site belonged to the School Board, the City was unable to reserve it as requested: 14 Dec 1951, CVA, Library Board Minutes, MCR 22 reel 1

xiii       Highland Echo 1952 Dec 18, 1953 Jan 29, Feb 19. Three small apartment buildings would be built on the “grounds” along First Avenue by 1955.

xiv  Highland Echo 1953 Jan 22, Feb 26

xv       Grandview Chamber of Commerce to Vancouver City Clerk, 1953 Apr 6, CVA, GCOC, AM 368, 552-C-5, file 9, Correspondence 1953; CVA, GCOC, AM 368, 552-C-5, file 4, Minutes 1952-1958, 1953 Mar 19; Echo 1953 April 2, 16, 23; Province 21, p,32

xvi  Safeway objections: Highland Echo 1953 May 7

xvii  Sun 1953 Jun 16, p.17; Province p.9; Vancouver News-Herald p.3. A special meeting of stakeholders was called to discuss the playground issue at which Saefway agreed the kids could use the park until they needed it, perhaps in two years : Province 1953 Jun 23, p.8; Sun p.21; Jul 3, p.46

xviii  Highland Echo 1953 May 21, June 25, July 2, 16; on 29 June; Province 17, p35. Rolly Neale and Henry Gibbs attended City Council on behalf of the Chamber to hear from the proposers: CVA, GCOC, AM 368, 552-C-5, file 4, Minutes 1952-1958, 25 Jun 1953

xix       Grandview Chamber of Commerce to City Clerk, 28 Aug 1953 in CVA, GCOC, AM 368, 552-C-5, file 9, Correspondence 1953; Sun 1953 Sep 2, p.6; Dec 1, p.17; Highland Echo Sep 24, Oct 8, Nov 5, 19, Dec 3, 12

xx       Highland Echo 1954 Jan 28, Mar 4, 25 Apr, 22, 29; qv. 1955 Aug 4; The main purpose for the park was to improve traffic sightlines by not having a building up to the corner’s edge. Bufton’s had agreed to help maintain it.

xxi       Highland Echo 1955 Oct 27, Nov 3, Dec 8, 1956 Jan 19, 26