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New West historian explores pattern books’ role in city’s architectural heritage

Heritage homes found in New West could be spotted in California or New York
Jim Wolf pattern book
Jim Wolf shows off the original "Oakland” cottage house plan, which was used as the inspiration to design 431 Fourth St. in 1891.

If you’re visiting cities in California or New York, don’t be surprised if you stumble across a house that looks familiar.

Historian Jim Wolf says pattern book houses are part of the New Westminster’s built landscape, but they’re not something that most people think about when they’re walking around town.

“Your house actually may have come from a famous architect back in Chicago who published a plan and the local builder in New Westminster bought that pattern book and said, ‘Hey, that’s a great house, I’m going to replicate that Chicago or Wisconsin house here in New Westminster,’” he explains. “So that’s what happened. A lot of houses that people look at and say ‘Oh, that’s just a builder’s house, there is no architect' – well actually there is an architect, so the value of the house is much more interesting.”

The Queen’s Park resident started delving into pattern books to get more information about his Third Street home, a home he loved and thought was rather unique – until he found a “twin house” on Ninth Street that had been built by a different builder.

“That got me thinking, ‘Wait a minute, is this from a pattern book?’” he recalls. “So I started digging in, looking for my house in a pattern book.”

While perusing pattern books, Wolf began compiling a dossier about places where he’d found matches – not only in New West but in communities across B.C.

“So it’s got me on this new research track of discovering who was using pattern books in British Columbia and where they are,” he says. “It really started me off on this whole new project.”

Wolf will be sharing some of his findings at the New Westminster Heritage Preservation Society’s annual general meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. In his presentation – Building By the Book: New Westminster Houses from Architectural Pattern Books 1865 to 1940 – Wolf will show how pattern books were used to design homes from modest cottages to stately Victorian mansions.

“I am going to be showing befores and afters – showing the plan book and then showing what was created from the plan book. We will be going right from the very beginning in the Victorian era right up until the 1920s and 1930s,” he says. “I won’t be able to show all of them but there’s definitely going to be a lot of famous landmarks that people look at and think ‘That’s a wonderful, unique house’ and then all of a sudden you find out it’s not that unique, there’s a lot of them all over North America or ‘Wow, isn’t that cool that we may have the last one left designed by this particular architect.’”

Wolf will also show examples of homes that have been built in California and upstate New York and were replicated in New West.

“It’s just fascinating,” he says.

The 1894 Galbraith House, which sits on the corner of Eighth Street and Queens Avenue, is just one example of a local home that was based on a design by a New York architect that was featured in a pattern book.

“So Hudson Holly published a pattern book that shows the form of a building with all these decorative elements and then a local builder for the Galbraith comes along and reinterprets it. So, it’s not a design-match for design-match – it’s the inspiration to create the Galbraith House,” Wolf says. “It doesn’t diminish what the Galbraith House is, it just adds this really interesting layer about where the idea came from for a house like that with a corner turret.”

In some cases, builders replicated pattern book designs board-by-board and feature-by-feature, but in other cases they adapted the design to suit their needs and preferences.

“You get a lot of tinkering with different plan books to create something that makes sense for the owner and the builder. So that’s what’s fascinating about it,” Wolf says. “The plan books had a huge influence, but they were adapted to local conditions. Even a California bungalow when it lands here in New Westminster, it lands with a lot of the details but things may be different because we are in a northern climate and they maybe didn’t want such extensive patios. They many have pulled those things back. It’s really interesting to see how it gets adapted in New Westminster by different owners and builders. But it is just such a fascinating story.”

An additional layer of heritage

Wolf, who worked with the New Westminster Museum and Archives before serving as the City of Burnaby’s heritage planner for many years, has written several books related to Burnaby and New Westminster, including Royal City: A Photographic History of New Westminster, 1858 to 1960. It’s likely his research into pattern book houses will likely someday find its way into print.

“I’ve never had the chance to really dig in and start to really document them and pull them together in a way that starts to tell that story. I think I am on the road to doing that,” he says. “This presentation propels me to tell more of that story and share what I have found. A book will come out of it at some point, for sure.”

In most cases nobody would know where a home’s design originated, unless they saw the catalogue plan, Wolf says.

“There are some very familiar architects in New Westminster that we all celebrate, like Samuel Maclure, Charles Clow and others, that just lifted design plans out of these catalogues and builders magazines and passed them off as their own,” he says. “So there is a really interesting history behind the use of the pattern book in the city and across British Columbia that really needs to be told and understood better.”

While some of New Westminster’s well-known architects may have drawn their inspiration from pattern books, Wolf doesn’t believe that diminishes the value of the home’s design in any way and only adds to its storyline and value. He notes there may be cases where locally built homes could be attributed to a prominent architectural firm in Chicago, not just a local builder.

“I think it makes it more valuable and more interesting. It’s part of every community across North America. New Westminster is not unique. What is unique about using those pattern books is that they used all local materials,” Wolf says. “These houses became the standard by which people measured themselves in terms of their economic and social status. So there is a lot of value, more value attributed to a house that has this design pedigree.”

Wolf says the use of pattern books is still happening in New Westminster, pointing to “the Ranford House” that was built on First Street in 2001 as a more modern example.

“There’s a big pseudo Victorian there. That was taken from a plan book. So you have this use of pattern books or design plans that started from the very beginning, the 1860s, and it went right up to today,” he says. “You can see them everywhere.”

Once you start seeing pattern book houses, Wolf says you start to see them everywhere and recognize the propensity for builders to open up a pattern book and reuse the plan over and over again.

“That’s why we ended up with something called the Vancouver Special,” he says of a design that flourished in the Lower Mainland from the 1960s to the 1980s. “Somebody created a plan and then somebody kept using it over and over and over again. You see houses being built today, same thing. They are not unique – they are just an adaptation of another person’s plan and design.”

Wolf’s research into pattern houses continues – and maybe, just maybe, he’ll eventually find the home that was the catalyst for his research.

“I had to go through hundreds upon hundreds of plan books looking for my house,” he says, “and along the way I found everybody’s house but mine.”

Follow Theresa McManus on Twitter @TheresaMcManus