Vancouver’s Shaughnessy is where old money lives. With its tree-lined streets and historic estates, the area has long been a magnet for some of the city’s most affluent. Named for a former president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Shaughnessy Heights was created at the beginning of the twentieth century as an alternative to the original elite district in the city, the West End. It would ultimately overcome its predecessor, beguiling many well-heeled Vancouverites with its exclusivity. Today, many of the old mansions are still standing. Set far back on their properties, the opulent homes can be glimpsed in slivers between bordering hedges and wrought iron fences.
While many Shaughnessy houses lend themselves to mystery, grandeur and the promise of fascinating histories, there is one residence whose story is particularly interesting. On a sprawling lot at 1690 Matthews Avenue, sits a striking estate. With a grand, flat-roofed porch and twin turrets, the home is finished with extreme attention to detail. At an impressive 16,000 square feet, it boasts four stories, eighteen rooms and six bathrooms.
Known historically as Glen Brae, it was built in 1910 by William Tait, a lumber and real estate magnate of Scottish descent. Tait had rather extravagant tastes and outfitted the manor lavishly. From crystal doorknobs to stained glass windows, the home even featured one of the first elevators in British Columbia and a ballroom floor said to be underlaid with seaweed. Designed by Vancouver architects, Parr and Fee, the house’s unique style was somewhat controversial given that it looked nothing like others in the neighbourhood. Some years later--in reference to its two domed turrets--it was even regrettably dubbed the “Mae West House” after the voluptuous film star. After Tait and his wife’s deaths, Glen Brae fell into a period of neglect and in 1925 would take a strange and upsetting turn by becoming the headquarters for the Vancouver chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Renting the once-glorious mansion for a meager $150 a month, the notorious, racist organization would fortunately not last long in the city. While the group did stage quite a public entrance to their new residence, parading down Granville Street in their ridiculous white-hooded costumes, a city bylaw restricting mask-wearing did help to diminish their presence. Still, the violent group would kidnap and torture a Chinese man, Wong Foon Sing, who worked as a houseboy in the neighbourhood, concluding--no doubt influenced by his race--that he was responsible for the famous and still unsolved Shaughnessy murder of Janet Smith. After six weeks, Sing was released by the Klan members. He would later be tried for the murder, but the case would ultimately be dismissed due to a lack of real evidence. Three of his kidnappers would see jail time, while others were acquitted. Only one year after the KKK’s arrival at Glen Brae, they would leave the manor.
In the decades that followed, the estate would host a private kindergarten and, later, the Glen Brae Private Hospital, which housed a number of elderly women. The owner of the hospital, one Elisabeth Wlosinski, would ultimately leave the home to the City of Vancouver in the early 1990s. By November of 1995, the manor would serve as the location for Canuck Place, “North America’s first free-standing children’s hospice.” For the past 25 years, Canuck Place has aided families by providing compassionate palliative care for young people.
Old houses are relics, time machines capable of letting us consider what once was and why things are. They allow us to trace a line backwards, however meandering, and better understand the people, places and events of another time. Glen Brae is no exception. In its 110 years, it has witnessed all manner of residents--from its posh beginnings to its troubling middle years and its present noble use. And while the manor’s story is the epitome of the unexpected, it is also a map to the past--one that has charted the often odd unfolding of history.