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Little-known Nelson heritage buildings: The Tribune’s last home

Updated: Jun 12, 2023

Here’s a story left out of Kootenay News my exhibit at Touchstones Nelson on the history of Nelson’s newspapers — for lack of space.

While the former Nelson Daily News office is a well-known landmark at 266 Baker Street — it was the paper’s home from 1908 to 2010 — it’s not at all well known that two former Nelson Tribune locations are also still standing.

The Tribune was the city’s second newspaper, founded in 1892 by John Houston a few months after he sold The Miner. Houston was the preeminent figure in early Nelson, but was controversial even in his own lifetime for his politics, journalism, and personal conduct. Today we’d take an even dimmer view of the racism that infected his editorials.

The Tribune started as a weekly but went daily in 1898. It was published from a few different locations. It started out at the southeast corner of Baker and Josephine streets, in what was known variously as the Houston and Ink Block, the Houston Block, the Bigelow Block, the Victoria Block, and finally the Johnstone Block. This was likely also the second headquarters of the Nelson Miner while Houston still owned it. (You can read much more about it here.)

By early 1899, The Tribune moved to the east half of Block 1, Lot 2 on Vernon Street, which was actually a home built by J. Fred Hume. This is approximately where the Gray Building now stands.

In 1900 or 1901 The Tribune moved again into the Burns Block on Baker Street, which is still standing and I’ve written about before. D.J. Robertson rented the former Tribune building on Vernon Street for a furniture store in 1901.

On Oct. 10, 1901, The Tribune reported: “Alex McDonald, the Forty-Nine Creek mining magnate, is making arrangements to erect a brick building on Baker street, on the lot west of the McKillop building. It will be 30 by 100 feet.” The Nelson Daily Miner added six days later: “Grading of the lot to the westward of Patenaude Brothers, jewelers, is being done by Alex McDonald, who will erect a one story brick building there.”

Although neither item indicated it, this one-storey building would become the new home of The Tribune. A plumbing permit issued to McDonald on Nov. 11, 1901 for Block 12, Lot 6 of Baker Street indicated the building was to be a printing office.

The rival Economist noted on Dec. 11 that the Tribune had moved in and called it “one of the most convenient newspaper offices in British Columbia.” However, the Tribune suspended publication in February 1902 amid financial problems.

The Victoria Daily Times reported on June 3, 1902 that a court order allowed the Tribune’s liquidator “to accept an offer from F.J. Dean [sic] of the Nelson Daily News to use the Tribune plant, upon giving a bond in double the value of the plant.” And the Economist of June 14 further noted: “The News is now printed in the old Tribune office, a thing never dreamt of in the philosophy of the manager of the latter paper.”

So the building was actually home to both the Tribune and the Daily News! I’m not sure what the advantage was to the News. I can only guess that the Tribune press was newer or better. (When the Nelson Daily Miner became the Daily News in April 1902, it continued to operate from the former Miner office, listed in the 1900-01 directory as Ward near Baker.)

The Tribune was re-established as a weekly in August 1902, operating from a room in the Madden block, at the southeast corner of Ward and Baker. (It was demolished in the 1950s to make way for a new Woolworth’s store.) Interestingly, one of the directors of the newly-reorganized Tribune company was Alex McDonald.

The Daily News moved in mid-March 1903 to 524 Vernon, the present Jackson’s Hole, which was confusingly known as the Macdonald Block, after Alexander Macdonald of Macdonald and Co. — not the so-called Forty-Nine Creek mining magnate.

That cleared the way for The Tribune to return to its former headquarters at 356 Baker, although they were apparently unsuccessful in reacquiring their old printing press, which went with the News to its new location. The Tribune instead had to buy new equipment, including a photo-engraving plant.

The paper announced the impending move on Feb. 28 and confirmed on April 25: “The Tribune will come out next Saturday in its new dress and full size. It will in future be printed in The Tribune office, Macdonald block, between Stanley and Kootenay streets.” Later the paper’s masthead gave its address as McDonald Block, Baker Street.

Intriguingly, this building was simultaneously home to another newspaper publisher, as reported in the Nelson Daily News of June 26, 1903: “R.T. Lowery has given up his coast publication and will open an office in this city. He has rented a portion of the Tribune building and will publish a monthly paper in this city.”

The Ledge of July 2 elaborated: “R.T. Lowery has opened a job office in the Tribune building in Nelson. He will publish Lowery’s Claim in that city from now on to its finish, if that ever occurs.”

An ad in The Ledge of Aug. 20 urged patrons to “Bring your job printing to Lowery in The Tribune building. There are two bulldogs in the building, but they never bark at the chap with cash in his jeans for job printing.”

Lowery’s Claim, which was issued sporadically beginning in 1901, did not put out a Nelson edition until October 1905, but thereafter it remained more or less monthly until September 1906. I don’t know if it was still produced out of The Tribune building.

Nor do I know whether Lowery published The Ledge from that office when he briefly moved his weekly paper there from New Denver for a few months in 1904 before continuing on to Fernie. But it seems likely. The first edition said that “Our office is on Baker Street, next to a fine saloon, near two banks and butts into an undertaking establishment, with a church just around the corner.”

In 1905, T. Sproat, builders and contractors, advertised a “shop at rear of Tribune office.” That was also the year John Houston abandoned his wife, his mayor’s chair, and the editor’s desk for Nevada. William Blakemore, best known for leading a Royal Commission on the Doukhobors in 1912, took over as acting editor. But he was unable to prevent the paper’s demise.

Afterward, the office became home to the Nelson Daily Canadian from mid-1906 to 1908. At least we know:

• Rev W.W. Baer bought the printing press of the Tribune for use on the Canadian (The Week, Dec. 9, 1905 and Canadian, June 4, 1906)

• The Canadian’s office was on Baker Street (per its masthead, Aug. 10, 1906), and not far from the Strathcona Hotel at the corner of Stanley and Victoria (Canadian, April 12, 1907)

• And perhaps most tellingly, The Canadian, which hired former Economist proprietor David Carley as its publisher, wrote: “John Houston would probably make quite a speech if he could drop into the old Nelson Tribune office and see Dave Carley inking the forms …”

The Canadian folded in 1908 when its owners, mainly a group of Conservative lawyers, bought the more established Daily News.

So the sequence of newspapers at 356-58 Baker appears to be, with some overlap:

December 1901 to February 1902: The Tribune June 1902 to March 1903: The Daily News April 1903 to November 1905: The Tribune June 1903 to September 1906 (?): Lowery's Claim August to October 1904: Nelson Ledge June 1906 to May 1908: Nelson Daily Canadian

The Daily News of June 25, 1908 announced: “W.E. McCandlish is putting the last touches upon his billiard saloon which is located in the old Tribune building …” This is curious, however, for why wouldn’t they refer to it as the old Daily Canadian building?

McCandlish’s business was the Victoria Billiard Parlour, previously located on the lower floor of the Silver King Hotel. It did not last long at its new location. In September 1909, the billiard parlour was converted into the Gem Theatre, which civic directories listed at 314 Baker through 1924. The Gem was one of Nelson’s three early silent movie theatres, the others being the Arcade and Empire. In 1913, the proprietors were I.G. Johnson and Thomas Meacham.

Curiously, that side of the street has been seldom photographed. The earliest known photo of the building is from between 1923 and 1927 and I only saw it recently for the first time. Although the Nelson Museum has had it since 2001 and digitized it some time ago, I was unaware of it until they placed it on Facebook in June 2023. It astonished me because it revealed the entrance to the Gem Theatre had an arch. You can also see the ticket booth. It looks like the building had been painted white.

(Nelson Museum and Archives 2001.127.015)

We know the date range on this photo, because at the far end, in the Barnard Block, is a sign for Hipperson’s Hardware, which opened in 1923 at that location. It moved across the street in 1927. If the Gem Theatre was still operating, then it must have been 1923 or 1924.

By 1929, the building was turned into Pitner’s Café, operated by John Paul and Ida Pitner and the facade was overhauled again, although one little detail survived from the theatre arch. John had been manager of the Gem Theatre and later ran the Starland and the Capitol Theatre in Nelson. Afterward, Strathcona Hotel owners Arman and Marie Papazian ran the cafe. In 1933, it became the Plaza Café, and on Feb. 25, 1937, it reopened as a Chinese restaurant known as the Star Café.

Star Cafe, 1937 or 1938. Note the detail just to the left of the cafe sign that was once part of the Gem Theatre arch. (Nelson Museum and Archives NDN-163)

From 1945 to 1953 or so, the building housed the local unemployment office, run by George Wallach. By 1950, the street address changed from 314 Baker to 356 Baker. In 1955, the building was listed as vacant.

356 Baker is seen ca. 1940s. (Nelson Museum and Archives)

By 1960, local transportation businessman Herb Harrop owned the building. He leased it to the Nelson School of Fine Arts — which would soon be renamed the Kootenay School of Art. The building had a student room and library by the entrance. A partition divided the main area into a painting and drawing studio and a sculpture and modeling classroom. At the rear was a principal’s office, washroom, and storeroom. In the basement was a wood-carving bench.

From 1965 to 1974 the building was home to The Percolator Club. Greg Scott found this interesting item about the club in the Nelson Daily News of Feb. 24, 1969:

Fourteen men have been charged after a police raid on the Percolator Club, 356 Baker St., early Saturday. One man has been charged with being the keeper of a gaming house and 13 men charged with being found-ins of a common gaming house.
The raid was carried out at 1:30 a.m. Saturday by nine members of the Nelson Police and the Nelson RCMP. Two policemen guarded the rear exit of the club while the remainder entered through the front door. Sgt. F.J. Vecchio read a search warrant to the keeper and then they were asked to sit and keep their hands off the table.
Chips, cards and money on the table were seized by police. Other chips, cards and money in the club were also seized. The club was then closed and secured. Police were assisted in their investigation by special police brought in to play at the club and gather evidence. City police Chief H.L. Thomlinson said the club has been under surveillance “for some time.”

The manager pleaded guilty and was fined $300. Eight other men were fined $25 each and two others forfeited $25 when they failed to appear in court.

At some point thereafter, owners Gene and Marlene O’Genski split the building into two units, numbered 356 and 358.

The photo below, also courtesy of the Nelson Museum, is from 1977 and was taken as part of survey work in Nelson by the heritage branch. It was featured a few years ago in the Baker Street Then and Now exhibit.

So we see Olej Delicatessen at 358 and Ronald TV and Radio at 356. The remnant of the theatre arch is still there but appears to have been damaged.

Nelson: A Proposal for Urban Heritage Conservation recorded the building’s use in the late 1970s as Olej Delicatessen and Art Stevens Photography and Radio. That is how it is seen below in this photo from the BC Archives.

356-58 Baker St., 1979. (Image I-06105 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives)

Bob Inwood recalls that in 1980, when he was hired by the City of Nelson as its downtown development officer, this was the first building he dealt with. When the by-then bland facade was stripped off, it revealed ornate, original brickwork — which had unfortunately been coated with Kenatex, a stucco-like material that could be sprayed directly without preparing a building face with stucco mesh.

“It was lauded as a quick fix/low maintenance solution to spiffing up one’s troublesome old heritage facade,” Inwood says. “It worked pretty well in that respect but proved a nightmare of sorts for restorationists because it wouldn’t come off once applied. If you tried, the face of the brick would come off with it.”

Nevertheless, Inwood was excited to discover the hidden facade and created a rendering of what it might look like after restoration. The building owners seemed interested. However, he left town for a week or so, and returned to find the owner had hired a mason who told them the historic facade “was garbage” and stripped all of the historic brick from the front.

“It was bare to the studs and covered in plastic sheeting,” Inwood says. “I freaked out but it was too late to go back, so we used the concept drawing I had done of the facade and the mason rebuilt the appearance of the destroyed brick veneer with his version of my drawing.”

However, the finished work did not maintain the depth of the original brick articulation, which Inwood remembers as “quite deep with pronounced dramatic shadow lines … He created this clean but rather bland (by comparison) copy of the original, adding a flourish of his own creation at the parapet with the weird little crenelated points that had no historic precedent.”

As of 1984 and 1989, Danny’s All-Star Deli occupied 358. Art Stevens was succeeded at 356 by John Simpkins Electronics, which operated into the late 1990s.

Flash forward to today, and 356 is Gaia Rising while 358 is the home of Buddy’s Place (formerly Leaf Cross), Nelson’s second fully-sanctioned cannabis outlet.

A statement of significance for this fascinating building — home to at least four different newspapers, a billiard hall, movie theatre, cafes, social club/gambling hall, arts school, electronics shops, and cannabis store, among other things —  was completed in 2020.

Two other Tribune-related items that didn’t make the Touchstones exhibit: the Nelson Daily Miner of June 29, 1900 revealed that while the Miner and Tribune regularly sniped at each other in print, they set their differences aside long enough to reach an arrangement that benefited both papers.


Also, I found this comment in Nelson’s other paper, The Economist, of Sept. 30, 1905 condemning an editorial in the Tribune of the previous Thursday:

The vilest expression of the streets was fully suggested in an item that appeared on the editorial page. It is perhaps the first time that any paper in Canada has so far disgraced itself … It is difficult enough to preserve the purity of the family circle without the task being made so much more so by having thrust before the youth of the city a paper that is even more depraved in its tone than the prohibited Police Gazette.

What could possibly have provoked that reaction? The Tribune’s lengthy comment on Sir Wilfred Laurier’s trade and tariff policies? No, it was this:

The Tribune spewed awful, racist stuff that ruffled no feathers among Nelson’s genteel citizens. But in the Edwardian era, apparently “sons of ———” was beyond the pale.

With thanks to Bob Inwood and J.P. Stienne

Updated on Nov. 29, 2019 to add more details about The Tribune’s previous locations, as well as Robert Lowery’s connection to the building, and Bob Inwood’s memories of its facade work. Updated on Nov. 30, 2019 to add photos from the Nelson Museum. Updated on Dec. 4, 2019 to add the 1981 newspaper clipping. Updated on Jan. 16, 2020 with information about the Nelson Daily Canadian. Updated on May 12, 2020 to add that the Nelson Daily News was once in 356 Baker as well. Updated on June 18, 2020 to add the photo of the Star Cafe and details from the statement of significance. Updated on July 31, 2020 to add the 1979 photo. Updated on June 11, 2023 to add the 1923-27 photo.

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