I never took much interest in my family’s heritage. I guess I assumed looking back would be boring. BUT, after speaking with Tracy Forsyth – Vancouverite and granddaughter of Mr. Herbert Lee – I found out pretty quickly that I had assumed wrong.
One hundred years ago, in 1912, Mr. Lee built the Lee Building at East Broadway and Main Street in Vancouver’s beautiful Mount Pleasant area. Now, a centennial later, Tracy is commemorating her grandfather`s legacy (and this great city landmark) with a 100-year birthday bash, but first: she had to do some digging…
Mr. Lee, a pioneer, city builder and sound businessman with an active interest in city affairs, bought a store and grocer business in 1903 and named it H.O. Lee Grocery (at 2425 Main Street, currently F as in Frank Clothing). In
1908 Mr. Lee was president of the Westminster Lacrosse Club and in 1920 he helped organize a second lacrosse club. He was also a leading member of the executive of the Liberal Association.
Let me tell you: if you think Main and Broadway is a bustling place nowadays, it was THE place to be in the early 1900s. In the midst of a prolonged real-estate boom, 9th Ave became Broadway and Westminster Ave became Main Street. A pensive and proactive observer, Mr. Lee saw all this action happening around him and became part of the boost by building the Lee Building, a seven-storey office and apartment block at 175 Broadway (where a church was relocated elsewhere to make way for the handsome new building). As the tallest building south of False Creek, the Lee Building dominated the newly renamed corner.
Now, 100 years later, Tracy has been collecting stories from past residents to put together the pieces of the site’s history and to learn about her grandparents. One contributor recalls her own grandmother living there in the 50s and early 60s who she visited every summer. She was thrilled to use the garbage chute, ride the lift with the elevator operators, push in the round light switches, and admire the claw-footed bath tubs. The arcaded facade along the Broadway curb, unique in Vancouver, came about because of a street-widening in 1952.
Another tenant, Dora Kirstiuk, lived in the Lee Building for 45 years. She moved in November of 1963 with a rent of $65/month and worked across the street at Cunningham Drugs as a sales clerk. At that time Dora fondly remembers the Aristocratic restaurant – a chain restaurant with 13 locations in Vancouver known for its “courteous service…quality food…all over town!” – on the main floor of the building and doctor and lawyer offices on the second and third floors. When renovations took place in the Lee building in the late 70’s, Dora moved to apartment 510 where she could watch the ferries scoot across False Creek, see the snow-capped north-shore mountains and view the fireworks on Second Beach.
Its perfect location and classic design elements continue to make the historic Lee Building a coveted place to live and work in Vancouver. Tracy admits she would love to own an apartment there someday. For now, her
focus is on the Lee Building’s Centennial Celebration. She hopes the event will do justice to commemorating the Lee Building’s 100th birthday and that it will inspire more previous tenants, especially those residents in the first 50 years (from 1912-1962), to connect with her and enhance the Lee Building’s legacy with their own stories.
Maybe my family didn’t build something monumental (in stone or otherwise) but learning about Tracy’s experiences made me realize that finding out your family’s heritage is less like boring research and more like building your own history. You meet new people, make new friendships and find out interesting and meaningful information about yourself along the way.
Tracy looks forward to achievable goals for the Lee Building’s future: retaining the heritage and respect of the building. On July 15th, 2012, the Lee Building will celebrate 100 years with a special event at the Heritage Hall on Main and 15th Avenue. At the event Tracy will be providing part of the entertainment, singing a song about the yellow canary, in remembrance of her Grandmother Beatrice Lee. The song she chose is Jamaican, which Tracy says, “Comes full circle… my father was a contracting engineer and our family moved around the world, we lived in Jamaica for three years”.
Tracy has completely changed my perspective on finding out my own personal heritage. Even while writing this I am simultaneously Google searching and ancestry.com-ing my family history. I am constantly searching to make my way in this world and I think that understanding my past will allow me to create a more meaningful future for myself.
Tracy says that grounding the community in the past adds more character to the city and I can only hope that the Centennial event continues to build upon the incredible character of the residents of Mount Pleasant, where Main Street, East Broadway and Kingsway connect.