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Little-known Nelson heritage buildings: The Nelson House annex

Updated: Apr 18, 2022

A previous post looked at Nelson’s narrowest commercial building, which stood on the north side of the 500 block of Baker Street from 1922-37 until being damaged by fire. It was either replaced by or incorporated into the block now home to Cantina del Centro.


Investigating this building’s story, I wandered the alley and noticed something curious about the building next door, now home to Selkirk Eye Care and Shoes for the Soul, among other businesses.


Although it’s a single storey from the front, it’s three storeys at the rear. And the brick on the front — which dates to 1922 — looks newer than the brick on the back.


The explanation for these disparities allows me to add to both my lists of mysterious back alley brick buildings and little-known Nelson heritage buildings.

In 1998-99, Art Joyce wrote a fine series for the Nelson Daily News on the history of the Nelson House, the city’s second hotel.


While I need not repeat the whole thing, A.J. Marks and Charles Van Ness built the first portion in the 500 block of Baker in 1889 and expanded it in 1890 and 1891, allowing them to boast of the largest hotel in Nelson with 28 bedrooms plus a parlour, billiard room, bar room, and card room.


Although seldom photographed, at least head-on, the few photos in which it appears in the background show an unpretentious two-storey false-fronted building. Here’s how it appeared on the July 1899 fire insurance map.

It was noteworthy as the home of the Nelson Cafe, operated in 1898-99 by Yahei Hoshi, a Japanese-Canadian proprietor who, unusually for the time, employed white staff.

Yahei Hoshi (left), ca. 1898-99, inside the Nelson Cafe. The other people are unidentified. (Greg Nesteroff collection)



Although the photo did not identify the location, zooming in reveals one of the menus reads “Nelson Cafe.” Above the cash register are framed timetables for the Canadian Pacific Railway and Nelson and Fort Sheppard Railway.

In January 1914, new provincial regulations came into effect that abolished saloons. In order to serve liquor, you now had to operate an hotel — though I’m unclear on what problem this was supposed to solve, or how this was thought to be an improvement.


In Nelson, the colourfully named Gluepot, Office, and Bodega saloons all went out of business. But a few other proprietors had the wherewithal to build hotels and transfer their licenses.


John Philbert, owner of the Athabasca saloon, opened an hotel of the same name, which is still standing, but now known as the Savoy.


Charley Maglio of the Gluepot teamed up with John Blomberg of the Grand saloon and built the Grand Hotel, to which Blomberg’s license was transferred. The hotel was later renamed the New Grand, then the Nelson, then the Lord Nelson, then the New Grand again, and now the Adventure.


But here’s the part I don’t understand: in order to keep its liquor license, the Nelson House built an annex. Why did it need to do so if it was already an hotel? Were its rooms no longer rented? If so, wouldn’t it have been cheaper to reopen them than to build something new? Or were other businesses operating there? I don’t know.


In any case, by that time George H. Scott had purchased the building from the estate of Joseph Griffin, who had in turn purchased it about a year earlier from the estate of A.J. Marks.


The Nelson Daily News of July 29, 1913 (seen below) reported that architect Will Haldane had designed a 16-room addition at the rear of the building, which would also allow the existing hotel to be rebuilt entirely one day, though it never happened.

Haldane was also the architect on the Kaslo high school, built at the same time and demolished in the 1960s, as well as the second Kootenay Lake Hospital, built in 1916 and demolished in 1975.


In partnership with George Egg, Haldane designed the Salvation Army Citadel in Nelson, built in 1908-09 which still stands on Victoria Street (it’s now Grant Thornton LLP) and the YMCA, built in 1909, which still stands as the Royal Canadian Legion.


Tenders for the Nelson House annex were called for in August 1913 and a building permit worth $12,000 was issued. A plumbing permit followed in October. However, I don’t know who got the construction contract.


There was no mention its completion in the newspaper that I can find, and the few references we do have neglected to mention one important fact: it was made of brick.

On the morning of May 23, 1922, the wooden portion of the Nelson House hotel was destroyed in a massive fire that also leveled or damaged several adjacent buildings, including the former Bodega saloon.


According to the Daily News, George Scott still owned the Nelson House, which at the time was occupied by Eli Julien’s cafe and rooming house, James and George Wilson’s groceteria, and James Niven’s butcheteria (groceteria and butcheteria being old timey terms for self-serve grocery and meat market).


The newspaper added that through the “large brick annex at the rear of the Nelson house … roomers in their night clothes made their exist, dropping down into the lane by the fire escape.”

In the brick annex a … distressing state of affairs prevailed. The roomers, all of them men, appeared on the fire escapes in scanty and hastily donned attires, and without hampering themselves with their goods, hurriedly reached the alleyway.

But there was, in fact, one woman staying in the annex, Mrs. G.F. Stevens, who with her husband was looking after Eli Julien’s cafe for a few days while Julien and his wife attended his father’s funeral in Vancouver. The other residents were listed as Fred Roberts, W.A. Campbell, and Dick Smith. John Smallwood and James Ground also had rooms there but weren’t home at the time of the fire.

Mrs. Stevens, with a cloak thrown over her night attire, rushed through to the dining room in the wooden part of the building, and emptied the cash register, despite the warning cries of those who saw her go. Returning she found the fire had cut her off from the brick annex, and making her way to a fire escape, nearly overcome by the smoke and heat, she half walked and was half carried down the iron steps to safety by men who had gathered outside.

Now, the suggestion handed down to us in various histories has been that the entire Nelson House was lost in the fire. Not so. For the Daily News clearly stated the annex “stood intact, in spite of the fierce fire.”


Afterward, George Scott had a new commercial building constructed on the site of the original Nelson House while John Irving built a grocery store next door. The two buildings shared a common brick facade. What happened to the Nelson House annex?


The July 1938 fire insurance map (seen at bottom) shows the main floor had a restaurant kitchen while the upper storey had rooms for rent. From the 1950s to the 1970s, it was part of an iconic Nelson business. Read more about that in Allen Mar and Fred Wah’s comments at bottom!


But the upshot is the Nelson House annex, built in 1913 and once part of an hotel complex that dated to 1889, is still standing in the middle of downtown Nelson, hiding in plain sight.


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