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Little-known Nelson heritage buildings: The Johnstone Block

Updated: Mar 19, 2020

A recent post looked at the last home of the Nelson Tribune, which, much to my surprise, is still standing on Baker Street.

Tracking the various locations of The Tribune and its rival paper, The Miner, is not easy. The Miner was founded by John Houston and partners Charles Ink and Gesner Allen in 1890. Through 1892, The Miner was at 14 East Baker Street, although we don’t know exactly where that was. Houston, Ink, and Allen also had their real estate office in this building.

In May 1891, work was said to be underway on the Houston and Ink Block on Josephine Street. Its six units were all spoken for before the building was completed. Odell and Squire, merchant tailors, moved into unit No. 2 that month, joined soon after by Kootenay Safe Deposit Co. John Houston himself occupied unit No. 5. Hunt and Dover, jewelers, and William Kirkup’s tinware store were other tenants. Presumably the newspaper moved there as well.

But in January 1892, The Miner noted that contractors were about to begin work on the Houston and Ink block “at the corner of Baker and Josephine.” Does this mean the old building was being rebuilt? Or was it a new building? It’s not clear, but by March, a stone foundation was complete. The Galena Trading Co. had a store in the new Houston and Ink Block, and the Kootenay Lake Telephone Co. had an office there.

Houston and Ink sold The Miner in late April 1892 to realtors David Bogle and E.C. Whalley. It’s not known whether The Miner continued to publish from the same location, or moved to Bogle and Whalley’s office on Vernon Street, or went somewhere else. The completion of the Houston and Ink Block was celebrated in early June 1892 with a ball where “there was a large attendance and dancing was kept up to a late hour.”

That August, John Houston sold his interest in the building for $6,500. The buyer was only identified as “a main line capitalist who is largely interested in Nelson real estate,” but I believe he was George A. Bigelow. Despite this, for the next several years, the building was referred to as the Houston Block (no longer the Houston and Ink Block).

In December 1892, Houston and a couple of new partners started The Tribune, which was published in the Houston Block. Houston maintained his real estate office there, Dr. David Le Bau rented rooms No. 3 and 4, Turner Bros. rented room No. 2, and the Hamilton Powder Co. and civil engineer A.S. Going also had offices there.

By the end of 1894, W.F. Teetzel and Co. moved their drug store into the block as well and in October 1895, Herrin and Co. moved their wholesale fruit, vegetable, and feedhouse into the portion of the block previously occupied by Turner Bros.

By 1896, the building appears to have become known as the Bigelow Block. We can draw this conclusion because while Dr. LeBau previously advertised himself as occupying Rooms 3 and 4 of the Houston Block, now he said he had Rooms 3 and 4 of the Bigelow Block. The civic directory also indicated he and fellow physician Dr. Alexander Forin were over Teetzel’s drug store.

The Bigelow Block became the Victoria Block in 1898, coinciding with a renovation and expansion under the ownership of the Beer brothers. It was so drastic that it was regarded as a new building entirely. The Miner of Sept. 30 reported:

The block on Josephine street is of … substantial and complete construction … The stores belonging to W.F. Teetzel, the Nelson Hardware company, and Fred Irvine & Co., which run back to the alley, will each occupy a large basement in the new block, thus considerably increasing the capacity of their respective establishments.
The block will also contain three stores facing on Josephine street, with eight offices upstairs, all having outside light. The frame building occupied by Mr. Teetzel has been remodeled, and a new roof put on, while a contract has been let to face the three stores above mentioned with plate glass.
Mr. Ewart, the architect, designed the building, and the construction work has been done under his supervision.

Alexander Charles Ewart was, with Alex Carrie, a partner in Nelson’s most prolific architecture firm.

It appears The Tribune moved to Vernon Street around this time. John Houston went on to build a second Houston Block kitty corner from the Victoria Block in 1899, which today is the home of RHC Insurance, but no newspapers were ever produced there.

A sketch of the Victoria Block appeared in the Nelson Daily News of April 29, 1932, signed “Franklin Co., Chicago.”

I don’t know if it was rendered in the 1890s or later on based on a photograph or someone’s memory or imagination. But it does resemble the building and shows the Teetzel drug store plus Jacob Dover’s jewelry store.

This is the way the building appeared on the 1899 fire insurance map:

Plumbing records indicate that as of mid-1899, the Victoria Block’s owner was J. Laing Stocks. In 1901 or 1902, it was acquired by James Johnstone — presumably the prominent fruit rancher. While it remained known as the Victoria Block at least through 1915, at some point before 1949 it became the Johnstone Block, the name by which it was known for the rest of its days.

The block suffered three major fires:

• The top floor was reportedly destroyed in 1938 but rebuilt. I haven’t been able to chase down the details.

• On Nov. 23, 1949, $250,000 damage was done to two apartments and seven businesses, including Nelson Electric, Greenwood’s Furs, Safeway, Gray’s candy store, Alice’s Wonderland, Clerihew’s barber shop, and Johnson’s shoe repair. Fire chief Gordon McDonald, who was taken to hospital with smoke inhalation, called it the toughest of the more than 7,000 fires he fought.

(James Johnstone died in 1922 but the building still belonged to his estate at least through 1955.)

• Finally on Dec. 1, 1976, the block burned for a third and final time. Seven stores, including Mann’s Meat Market, Wing’s Grocery, and Dee’s Ladies Apparel were destroyed along with seven apartments.

The ruins were demolished in May 1977. On its site, the Toronto Dominion Bank built a new branch, which closed before long. The building became BCAA, which remains there today.

The Johnstone Block appears in the postcards seen below, all from my collection, but only the last one shows it well.

This image of Baker Street, taken by Allan Lean of the Queen Studio sometime between 1900 and 1905 may be the most oft-reproduced image of Nelson. The Victoria/Johnstone block is seen at far left.

Poole Drug Co. later took over the space occupied by Teetzel’s and appears to have had an electric sign.

The date says 1913, but this may be the Chahko Mika parade of 1914. The pipe band predates the formation of the Kootenay Kilties by about five years, but there might well be some future Kilties among them.

The name Johnstone Block still means something to longtime residents but I don’t think it is at all well known that it was originally built by John Houston or home to the Nelson Tribune (and perhaps the Miner as well).

To recap the sequence of names:

1) Houston and Ink Block 1892

2) Houston Block 1892-96

3) Bigelow Block 1896-98

4) Victoria Block 1898-1915<

5) Johnstone Block >1949-76

A whole separate story concerns the large brick addition at the rear of the block. Below is the only photo I have ever seen of it, part of a remarkable panorama that appeared in the Nelson Daily News on Feb. 6, 1987. Touchstones has the original.

The 1959 fire insurance map indicated the brick addition was still standing.

According to the 1955 civic directory, the brick addition was home to Gray’s Chocolates, Clerihew’s Barber Shop, and C. Johnson shoe repair. I am not certain whether it remained standing until the 1976 fire, but it seems that way — because a piece of the west wall and chimney still exists, directly behind the BCAA building, built in 1978!

Why this remnant remains is unclear, I’m glad it does. The Bubzee artwork adds rather than detracts.

Another side note: a building between the Johnstone Block and Burns Block that was home to the Choquette bakery and ice cream parlour was eventually combined with the Johnstone Block. It survived the various fires and is still standing at 580 Baker St., now home to Eddy Music and Cottonwood Kitchens.

BC Assessment indicates it was built in 1901. (That’s usually code for “we don’t know how old it is.”) A postcard from the 1950s, below, suggests its roof and upper-storey windows were raised to match the Johnstone Block, perhaps following the 1938 fire. The facades were then tied together.

As seen today. From left, BCAA (where the Johnstone Block once stood), 580 Baker Street, and the Burns Block. (Google Street View)

Updated on Dec. 4, 2019 to add the panoramic photo, the fire insurance maps, and the notes about Choquette Bakery having been at 580 Baker. Updated on March 18, 2020 to add the photos of the remaining brick wall.

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James Johnstone was my great grandfather. I've been searching for pics of this building for years. Thanks.

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