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Nelson’s smallest commercial block

Updated: May 18, 2023

I found an intriguing story in the Nelson Daily News of Oct. 24, 1922 (seen here) that stated J.E. Annable was building “the smallest brick and concrete block” in the city.

How small? It was to be one storey high, six feet wide, and 33 feet long. The story explained that Annable’s new block was to go on the north side of Baker Street, “between the new store building of J.A. Irving now under construction and the frame store occupied by J. Holland.” The building’s use had not yet been decided.

Small as the frontage is, Mr. Annable says he has already had five applications from would-be tenants. One of the applicants wishes to use the premises as a shoeshine parlor but Mr. Annable states he prefers a mercantile tenant.

Several questions immediately come to mind: where exactly was this building, why was it so narrow, what was it ultimately used for, and is it still standing?

A little more poking around in the newspapers revealed it was in the 500 block. The reason it was under construction, along with the neighbouring Irving store, was because five months earlier, fire destroyed three buildings on the same site.

Chief among them was the Nelson House, Nelson’s second hotel, built in stages between 1889 and 1892, and owned at the time of the fire by George Scott. The building was then occupied by Eli Julien’s cafe and rooming house, James and George Wilson’s groceteria, and James Niven’s butcheteria. (Groceteria and butcheteria are old-timey terms for self-serve stores.)

Also burned was a building to the east at 513 Baker owned by Annable and G.B. Matthew and occupied by D. Wade’s shoe repair and J.F. Croll’s tailor shop, along with the building to the west occupied by S.J. Gridley’s bakery.

Damaged, but not destroyed, was the old Bodega saloon further east, which was then home to the Holland harness shop alluded to previously, as well as C.R. Choyce’s bicycle shop.

George Bigelow reportedly built the Bodega in 1890. Originally it had a men’s clothing store in front and liquor store in the back. It was converted into a saloon in 1898 and operated until 1912.

This part of the block was seldom photographed for some reason. Perhaps the buildings were considered too plain, unlike the nearby Aberdeen Block and H. Byers and Co. hardware store (later Wood Vallance), both made of brick. The pictures we do have of the middle part of the block are from oblique angles. Here is one example, taken from a postcard in my collection.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a head-on view of the Nelson House or the Bodega, although there is an interior photo showing Paddy Miles at the Bodega bar.

Here is how this block looked on the fire insurance map of 1899. Buildings in yellow are made of wood, the ones in red are brick, and the ones in gray are sheds or outbuildings.

The Nelson House hotel is plainly marked, while the Bodega is the lower building with the notation “Liquor barrels on roof.” Pencil notations indicate the building later constructed west of the Nelson House and destroyed in the 1922 fire. Something is also going on with the building west of the Bodega, which appears to have a thick fire wall, or maybe just a staircase on one side.

Lots 9 was subdivided into east and west halves early on. A plumbing permit was issued in 1898 for the Bodega saloon on the east half of Lot 9, while Jacob Dover received a permit for his block on the west half of Lot 9. The Nelson House stood on Lot 10.

Following the 1922 fire, George H. Scott put up a new commercial building on Lot 10 while John Irving built his grocery store on the west half of Lot 9. A common brick facade tied the two buildings together.

The Bodega remained on the east half of Lot 9. Somehow there was room in between it and Irving’s new grocery for Annable’s tiny building, although no plumbing permit was issued that I can find.

In late 1922, Irving began advertising that he had moved into his new store at 513 Baker, but I don’t know who Annable initially leased his micro-space to. Turns out we have a photo showing the latter, though, and the angle makes it look even narrower than it really was. This postcard is from 1923 or 1924.

The sign at the top says “For lease,” while the one beneath it appears to say “Rex.” Or maybe “Rent?” Also visible to the left is Irving’s store and Scott’s block, the new home to Eli’s Cafe (later known as the Golden Gate Cafe and, much later, the Diamond Grill) while Holland’s harness shop in the former Bodega hotel.

In late 1927, Con Cummins and George McInnes moved the office of their 44 Taxi and Transfer Co. into Annable’s space (the business name came from their phone number). The civic directory listed them at 517 Baker, which had formerly been assigned to the Aberdeen Block.

By 1937, the Bodega, having narrowly escaped the fire of 1922, was the last remaining frame building on the block. But on April 14 of that year, it perished in another big fire. By that time it was home to Standard Electric, operated by J.P. Hoogerwerf; Frank Beresford’s store; and the Van de Kamp Bakery. A concrete addition to the bakery, constructed at the rear the previous year, survived.

Nelson Daily News, April 16, 1937

The Nelson Daily News reported the building was co-owned by G.B. Matthew and Frank Beresford, who acquired his interest from J.E. Annable. Cummins’ taxi office suffered water damage and the business moved to Hall Street, but the little building survived.

According to the Daily News:

The minor damage in the taxi-transfer office was due to its cement construction. When accommodation was provided there for Mr. Cummins in a previously empty space city bylaws demanded that it be of fireproof construction and hence Mr. Matthew and Mr. Annable had it built of cement.

That’s a bit misleading, insofar as the taxi office did not move there until five years after the building went up.

Following the fire, G.B. Matthew erected a new single storey concrete building with two storefronts on the site of the former Bodega saloon, for which he was issued a plumbing permit later in 1937.

Did it incorporate Nelson’s smallest block, where the taxi stand used to be? Quite possibly, but it’s hard to say. I couldn’t find anything at a glance about its construction. But here’s how the block appeared on the July 1938 fire insurance map:

Note new fire numbers have been assigned to all buildings on the block: G.B. Matthew’s new one is shown as 561-65 Baker. But between 535 and 565, it’s hard to tell where one building begins and another ends. Today, the facades tie 561-65 together as one and likewise 535-553.

BC Assessment lists 553, 565, and 561 Baker as parcels A, B, and C of Lot 9. It correctly gives a construction date of 1937 for 561 and 565, but incorrectly says 553 was built in 1930, when it should say 1922.

In the 1950s, 553 was home to the Shoe Centre, while 561 was Collinson’s Jewelry and 565 was Van de Kamps Bakery and later Sherwin-Williams Co. paints. 553 later became the longtime home of Lyons Shoes. It’s now Shoes for the Soul.

In the last 20 years, 561 has been DJ’s Restaurant, the Twisted Tomato, and Cantina del Centro. 565 was home to Vogue Studio from 1980 until a few years ago, when Cantina del Centro moved there from its location next door. The concrete bakery addition from 1936 is still at the restaurant’s rear.

Both 561 and 565 are still quite narrow spaces, although neither is as cramped as the block Annable built back in 1922.

To recapitulate: Annable’s tiny building stood from 1922-37 in the 500 block of Baker Street, approximately where the previous location of Cantina del Centro is (right next to the current one). From 1927-37 it was a taxi stand. After a fire, it may or may not have been incorporated into the present building.

I made another interesting discovery while looking into all of this. Remember the Nelson House? Turns out part of that hotel actually survived the fire of 1922 — and is still standing.

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Gerry Warner
Gerry Warner
Nov 13, 2022

Very interesting!


Jan 30, 2022

Thanks Greg! -peter b


Colleen O'Reilly
Colleen O'Reilly
Jan 30, 2022

Very cool


George Manson
George Manson
Jan 28, 2022

Interesting article . Several shoebox sized retailers were around in Grand Forks but none that small.

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