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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 14

The B.C. Mills Prefabricated System: The Emergence of Ready-made Buildings in Western Canada

by G. E. Mills and D. W. Holdsworth


Whereas earlier prefab building systems, particularly sectional or "knock-down" ones, are studied in the past tense as transitory curiosities, the system described in this paper remains a visible part of western Canada's human landscape. In fact it is through the remarkably diverse examples found throughout Vancouver, southwestern British Columbia and the prairie provinces that much of the documentation for this study has been obtained. The significance of structures such as those illustrated in the report may be viewed in two ways.

Their link to earlier prefabricated building systems, particularly those of the American West, was obvious. Mahony's invention may be seen as a late — perhaps even final — stage of this tradition, a sophisticated and durable application of prefabricated techniques to frontier markets. By the same token, its sudden demise may be explained as a natural death to which all preceding ready-made systems had been subject, as the initial pioneer stage gave way to increasingly self-supporting regional development. Within this context, Mahony's system is of particular interest for its close interrelationship with both the emerging west-coast lumber industry and with the railroad-oriented settlement patterns of the Canadian West.

A case may also be made for suggesting that Mahony's system represented a fascinating link in the evolution of western Canadian vernacular architecture. B. C. Mills factory prefabrication of permanent dwellings constituted a major departure from the preceding era of individual craftsman-built housing, and anticipated the standardized mass-production so common in present-day buildings. This new scale of production along with the versatility inherent in the system made it an ideal medium for the dissemination of building styles throughout western Canada. Vernacular styles evolving in the Vancouver area during the first decade of the century were reflected in standard designs marketed in the firm's catalogue; similarly, classical bank images previously restricted to major urban centres were rendered common sights in many of the smallest prairie settlements within a four-year period.

Although the B. C. Mills prefab system enjoyed a relatively short production life, its impact as an enduring part of western Canada's early architectural heritage is testified by the survival of so many of the structures 70 years after their manufacture.

23 This streetscape of workmen's housing built by the Calgary firm of Robertson and Carlile is a good example of the locally based companies which emerged to take over the market filled earlier by B.C. Mills prefabs. (H. J. Boam, The Prairie Provinces of Canada: Their History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources, Sells, London, 1914.)

24 The Edward B. Walker house, 2163 E. Hastings Street, Vancouver, a Settlers' Series design D.

25 Barber shop, Aberdeen Street, Winnipeg, a Settlers' Series design D.

26 A pair of one and-one-half storey prototype houses built in 1904 for Hastings Mills yard foreman S. Brereton at 515 and 521 Hawks Avenue, Vancouver.

27 Former B.C. Mills stable on Pandora Street, Vancouver, destroyed by fire, 1973.

28 Note the distinctive bell-cast roof and dormer of this Townhouse Series design L, 161 East 12th Avenue, Vancouver.

29 Townhouse Series design J, 120 24th Street West, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

30 A group of Townhouse Series design J models on 1500 block, Yew Street, Vancouver. Smaller models such as these were popular for speculative building. Numerous clusters were erected throughout the city.

31 Former branch of Northern Bank, Stevenson, B.C., a slightly modified Townhouse Series Design J-J which now serves as a doctor's office.

32 Although much altered through the years, the bell-cast roof and dormer identify this house as a B.C. Mills prefab. In this case, an exposed section of the original façade helps verify its origins, unlike many others which have been completely covered.

33 A well preserved Townhouse Series model L-L-L, 1556 Adanac Street, Vancouver, showing the distinctive bell-cast gambrel roof.

34 Detail from the house shown in Figure 33 showing a standard porch and eaves treatment. Wooden eaves troughing was included.

35 A Townhouse Series model O-O-O, 1735 E. 1st, Ave., Vancouver.

36 In 1907 B.C. Mills published a supplementary series of two storey townhouse designs in response to requests for larger homes. This example is located on Brink St., Ashcroft, B.C. (Warren Summer.)

37 The Robertson Presbyterian Church, 1795 Napier Avenue, in Vancouver's East End. The original section, built in 1908 with B.C. Mills panels, was enlarged in 1921 with the protruding south wing (left side), which employed vertical battens for aesthetic purposes.

38 Three standard B.C. Mills school houses still in use as annexes, City School, 557 West 12th Avenue, Vancouver.

39 A former British Columbia Telephone Company exchange in Ladner, B.C., now used as offices.

40 Former B.C. Mills general office, Dunlevy Street Vancouver. White columns against a bright blue background make this one of the most pleasing of the prefabricated structures erected by the firm.

41 Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce branch, corner of Bay and Douglas streets, Victoria. B.C., built 3 March 1910. This is one of the few prefab banks still in service.

42 Bank of Commerce, Watson, Saskatchewan, (built 24 November 1906). (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.)

43 Former Bank of Commerce Branch, Vermilion, Alberta (built Oct. 30, 1905). Most of these structures have been adapted to other uses, as in the case of this recently demolished example which served as a Legion hall.

44 Former Bank of Commerce branch, Blake Street, Winnipeg, built 22 January 1906, now used as the "Old Bank Grocery Store."

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