- BC Games
To Preserve and Protect
Peter Miller’s electric Nissan is parked on the port side of the hulking stern of the HMS Flamborough Head on this drizzly December afternoon. With classical music playing softly on the stereo, Miller stares out of a fogged-up window with a slightly sullen expression as helmet-clad workers move up and down the scaffolding attached to the rusty maritime artifact located just steps from the Pinnacle Hotel on the Lower Lonsdale waterfront.
Miller knows that the last remaining Burrard Dry Dock-built “Victory” ship, a supply vessel that survived enemy-infested waters in the Atlantic during the Second World War, is about to make its final voyage — this time to the scrapyard, piece by piece.
The 40-foot, three-storey stern section and engine is being dismantled not far from where it was launched on Oct. 7, 1944. At the time, North Vancouver was a bustling shipbuilding hub supplying more than 150 of the 10,000-ton merchant ships to the Royal Navy for the war effort.
The bespectacled Miller is today dressed in a grey sports coat, blue plaid shirt and brown corduroys that, along with his British accent, make him easy to mistake for, say, a history professor — but he’s not. A retired architect, Miller is the president of the North Shore Preservation Society and when it comes to protecting the past, he’s scrappy, outspoken and ever vigilant.
“…the North Shore Heritage Preservation Society is — once again — dismayed at the North Vancouver City Council’s failure to respect the proud history of its community,” wrote Miller last week, in a letter to the editor sent to The Outlook, about the pending dismantling of the Flamborough stern.
Looking out the car window, Miller says he’s surprised and saddened by CNV council’s decision to dispose of the Flamborough “because this was going to be the artifact to demonstrate the scale of the product the North Vancouver shipyards was turning out for the war effort.”
Even worse, he’s concerned that “this opens the door to the possible dismantling of the yellow crane,” he says, pausing to look over his left shoulder at the iconic shipbuilding crane situated a few hundred feet away at Shipbuilders’ Square, “for similar reasons, i.e. liability and future maintenance expense to the city.”
The stern section of Flamborough Head was originally obtained by the City of North Van in 2001 for $1 from the Artificial Reef Society before the rest of the ship was sunk near Nanaimo Harbour to create a recreational dive site.
Originally, the plan was to incorporate the stern as part of a then-planned maritime museum for the North Vancouver Museum and Archives.
But when an ambitious National Maritime Centre was later slated for the redeveloping Lower Lonsdale waterfront, the stern was to be a centrepiece there. However, in 2007 the plan was scuttled when provincial funding was lost.
“It was tabbed to be part of the national maritime centre so when the funding fell through for the national maritime centre from the provincial government I think that was the beginning of the end,” says CNV Mayor Darrell Mussatto.
Since then, plans for the stern have been adrift and now the temporary cradle that’s held it upright for more than a decade needs to be replaced — something the city says will cost big bucks.
This July CNV council voted to use the Pipe Shop located in the historic waterfront precinct as North Vancouver Museum’s new space but it won’t have a strictly maritime theme.
Barb Pearce, CNV’s director of special projects, who is directing the waterfront project, explained in an email that “There is no space or opportunity for the stern or engine to be used in conjunction with this new museum.”
“Faced with the need to either replace the cradle with no plan in place for the stern, or to dispose of the stern, Council directed staff to proceed with the disposal,” she added.
That happened after an in-camera meeting in September, with council voting unanimously in favour of spending up to $250,000 to dispose of the stern. (The Artificial Reef Society was first contacted to see if they had any interest in the stern or engine but they declined; a U.S. organization is interested in the engine.)
The disposal cost is so steep because the stern contains amounts of asbestos, lead-based paint and pigeon poop — also considered a hazardous material — that’s accumulated through the years.
To date, the city has paid around $381,000 to have the stern of the Flamborough removed from the rest of the ship, transported to North Van, moved to its current location and shrink-wrapped.
As for the other heritage items located in the central waterfront area, Pearce said there are no plans to dispose of the yellow crane or the historic Pacific Great Eastern Railway Station, which is being temporarily relocated while work is being done on the subsurface at the foot of Lonsdale.
Miller, while complimentary of the city’s integration of maritime history into the redevelopment of the waterfront, bristles about the fact that the stern’s fate was decided behind closed doors.
But Mayor Mussatto explains the decision was made in-camera “because there’s some liability issues with regard to the stern of the ship at its current location and liability and lawyer’s advice is kept in-camera.”
“We invested a lot of time, money and energy into [the Flamborough Head] so it was not an easy decision and I can probably say for council it wasn’t an easy decision for them as well.”
Still, he realizes the decision has rankled some members of the preservation society.
“I feel for them. I think it’s understandable, it is a piece of heritage but we have to weigh all the information we have and we have to make a decision. And we made a tough decision.”
Still, the mayor notes that there’s still a significant heritage component to the area, including Parcels 3 and 4, the Coppersmith’s and Pipe shops, refurbished shipbuilding crane and other vehicles built at the historic shipbuilding site.
“I would say that our heritage component is equal to or greater than what Granville Island had on their site.”
And, as he notes, there are still plans to display the massive 22,000-pound propeller the city purchased back in 2010 from the HMS Rame Head, a sister ship of the Flamborough, that is currently located next to the stern near Site 5. The cost to salvage the prop was just over $90,000.
“The propeller is not part of what we are having to dispose of; we are hoping to keep the propeller and have it refurbished and have it part of the site,” says Mussatto.
For Miller, the difference between a prop and stern is all about scale. He rolls down the driver’s side window and looks up admiringly at the Flamborough.
“It’s exciting, it’s dramatic... an informative object.”
He imagines a young child asking dad about the stern and then looking at an information display board with an image of the 441-foot Flamborough with a dotted line indicating the size of the stern in relation to the size of the vessel to put its behemoth size into context.
“A concept of what was here. What was built here.”
Miller agrees that in its current state the rusted and shrink-wrapped stern is a bit of an eyesore. But, looking over at the yellow crane, which has been resplendently refurbished, he images the same with the Flamborough, its rusty stern painted Royal Navy colours, with a information panel about its history and model class.
He calls pieces like this historical “placeholders,” significant buildings and artifacts — ones that have often been documented in newspaper articles, photos, and paintings — that endure today as physical evidence of the past.
“You remember these heritage [pieces] and you remove our connection to the past when you remove them.”
And he’s not just thinking locally with his vision preserving history. Heritage landmarks aren’t only community assets, they draw visitors and tourists.
In his letter to The Outlook, he notes: “Not only do these structures [honour] the important and unique shipbuilding and wartime past of North Vancouver, but their retention and integration into the development of the Lower Lonsdale area would have many positive consequences — by leveraging additional reinvestment in Lower Lonsdale, attracting more visitors and tourists, and creating an area with unique identity, rather than just another generic shopping and eating area.”
Peter Miller’s penchant for preserving the past can be traced back to when he was young lad growing up in London, a city steeped in centuries-old history.
He vividly recalls visiting Kensington Palace, The Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace, where he’d touch the iron and brickwork and imagine that Henry VIII could have walked there.
As a young architect, Miller worked on heritage projects in the U.K. and later Japan before relocating to Vancouver in 1979 to work for the renowned architecture firm Thompson, Berwick & Pratt.
He recalls flying to Vancouver for an interview and walking down Robson Street and admiring a block of heritage homes. Five months later when he returned to start his new job, he strolled down the same block and all the houses had been razed.
“What happened to the homes?” he asked.
The response he got went something like, “Oh they were just a bunch of old houses.”
He was floored by the general “lack of awareness and lack of sensitivity to the past.”
Of course, not everyone had such a cavalier connection with history.
The first Vancouver project he worked on was the ambitious restoration of the Manhattan Building at the corner of Robson and Thurlow that was built in 1907 and “saved by demolition” by its forward-thinking owner.
“It’s one of the pleasures of restoring an old building — [maintaining] all the connection to history,” he says noting that he has decades-old photos of the iconic building with streetcars on Robson Street and women walking the streets carrying parasols.
Every time he passes the building — which he does regularly, especially when taking visitors sightseeing — he has a certain sense of satisfaction. “I’m very happy to see it still there.”
The North Shore Heritage Society, a group he helped start along with David Pike, his wife Gillian Welsh and some others, is determined to do the same in North and West Vancouver.
The society was formed back in 2005 as a response “specifically to save a house in West Van, the Hodgson House,” explains Miller.
Hastily, they prepared a report for West Van council on the house and its historic value.
And while the home was eventually sold and barged away, the experience left them “prepared to jump when there was news of another house in jeopardy.”
Since then, the society has been involved in promoting the conservation of numerous heritage homes and buildings, including West Van’s Binning House (1939), which is currently at the centre of a legal battle over its sale, the Green-Armytage Residence (1903) at 23rd and Lonsdale and the iconic once-electric-blue heritage building (1912) on West Eighth that “could have been demolished” but has now been refurbished to its past glory.
The group now has over 80 members and 200 in total on a distribution list to fan out information about “old buildings” and other heritage-related matters. To promote local conservation, the group publishes a twice-yearly newsletter, distributes questionnaires to municipal councillors on their attitudes toward heritage, routinely speaks at council meetings to advocate on behalf of heritage buildings, negotiates with owners of heritages sites to keep the structures part of the local streetscape and does media interviews to promote heritage matters.
In 2007, the society released its list of the North Shore’s Top 10 Endangered Heritage Sites. Number one on that list was “North Vancouver Schools,” specially Ridgeway (1911) and Queen Mary (1914).
Since that time both have undergone restorations, with Ridgeway already reopened and Queen Mary soon to follow.
“There’s another success,” he says of the heritage schools. “Credit for that goes to the parents and teachers of those schools. Initially it was too expensive and a liability and looked what happened… its now an asset.”
Miller hasn’t completely given up hope that Flamborough can be saved but his optimism is sinking. “I think that’s the phrase, ‘faint hope,’” he says.
Defending heritage sites from demolition can be tireless and thankless work at times, but Miller notes the core group of members on the North Shore “feel that it’s worth it.”
“The little that we’ve got left should be treasured.”