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New Westminster heritage building unveils its original façade

David Sarraf was the "happiest guy in the world" after uncovering hidden facade of Columbia Street building

Uncovering a piece of New Westminster’s past has been a dream come true for a local land baron.

When David Sarraf purchased the Curtis-Armstrong block at 659 Columbia St. six-and-a-half years ago, he received an email from the city’s development services manager Lisa Spitale that included a picture of the building’s original façade and a suggestion he restore the facade. The 1898 building’s façade had four large arched windows on the second floor that had been covered up in the 1960s, but were recently revealed and restored.

“I was the happiest guy in the world,” Sarraf said. “I’m thinking and dreaming of this for six-and-a-half years.”

Once home to Sweet Sixteen Ladies Wear, in recent decades the space has been leased by tenants like the Toy Bank, the Collectors Choice Antique Mall, the British Store and Bosa Properties. When Bosa no longer leased the space for its RiverSky presentation centre, Sarraf got to work restoring the building.

“This is the most exciting thing that I have had in heritage for probably the last five years,” said Sarraf, a heritage buff who owns 11 heritage buildings in New Westminster. “It’s the most excitement. It’s unbelievable.”

Sometime in the 1960s, Sarraf said the front of the building was covered with mesh and two inches of stucco, and big blocks went into the spaces that accommodated the windows. Most of the stucco has been removed, with a small portion near the roofline set to be removed in the spring when the weather improves.

Interior work on the second floor is nearly complete, with a high-tech company set to move into the space this month.

“When you are inside and look outside – we put in glass windows in the last month – you say, who in their right mind would cover it? It’s crazy,” Sarraf said. “The windows outside, they are almost intact – 95 per cent intact. The brick work is unbelievable outside. It’s unbelievable the details on the bricks. Whoever covered it, somebody should shoot him with a cannon.”

In addition to the original beams that run the length of the ceilings, the interior is still home to the building’s original brick walls. The red bricks bear traces of a fire that destroyed a portion of the building in 1968.

“It is absolutely gorgeous. All the beams will be open,” Sarraf said. “The fire will be there. All the red bricks, we are just going to put a clear lacquer on it. I want the black from the fire to show. It’s part of the history.”

The building’s interior heritage features were concealed when the RiverSky presentation centre was housed in the building – including the 34-foot-long ceiling beams that were hidden under three ceilings. While it was a “gorgeous” space, Sarraf said the presentation centre couldn’t be retained because of fire code regulations, thus paving the way for the full restoration of the space.

“The reason is, because there are so many different ceilings, it could become combustible,” he said. “Fire can go in between.”

Restoring the building to its glory days doesn’t come cheap.

“I think it will cost me probably three-quarters of a million dollars when I am done,” Sarraf said. “When I look at it and my heart beats, I forget about the money. I love it.”

As part of the project, Sarraf voluntarily had a sprinkler system installed in the building – with the hope that it might help him get approvals needed to leave the original ceiling beams exposed, rather than covered with drywall to create a fire separation between the two levels.

“When I put sprinkler in, I was told there was a good chance no – it’s not only the sprinkler, there are other factors involved. In the end, it cost me over $100,000 for the sprinkler. That was just in case. I did it. My contractor thought I was a nutcase but I didn’t listen to him,” he said. “This is my dream. In the end, it really worked out and the city approved it.”

Sarraf is thrilled that the building has been returned to the way it looked when it was built 120 years ago.

Spitale, now the city’s chief administrative officer, is also thrilled that Sarraf has revealed the building’s original “gorgeous” façade.

“First of all, it’s an accurate representation of what the street used to look like,” she said. “It’s just another way of celebrating the history of that street.”

When the city developed heritage guidelines for the downtown in 1990, Spitale said the document had a rendering of what the original Curtis-Armstrong building looked like before it was clad in stucco and its windows hidden.

“I always knew that if we could have the opportunity to have that cladding removed, there would be these beautiful arched brick windows there,” she said. “When he purchased it, I thought this was a perfect opportunity. Here was a building that we knew that had beautiful preserved brick archways – they just had to be uncovered.”

Just the facts: Curtis-Armstrong block

* The Curtis-Armstrong block is a two-storey masonry commercial building at 659 Columbia St.  The original one-storey brick rear façade fronts onto Clarkson Street.

* The building was originally part of a larger structure of three stores that was built after the Great Fire of 1898 for David S. Curtis and Joseph Charles Armstrong. The eastern half of the building was destroyed by fire in 1968 and the remaining section was modernized with a stucco cladding that concealed the original second floor façade, although the brick-clad rear façade retained its original appearance.

* The building is considered significant for its contribution to the “consistent and distinctive built form” of Columbia Street, which dates from 1898 to 1913, when New Westminster was the major centre of commerce and industry for the Fraser Valley.

* The Curtis-Armstrong Block is valued for its association with its architect George William Grant, who was a prolific architect and designed many buildings in downtown New Westminster, both before and after the Great Fire.

Source: City of New Westminster