Filmmaker documents Lonsdale's overlooked historic buildings

Michael Arnold says Martin Marine Services, which is set to be torn down, is an example of a character building that makes Lower Lonsdale a distinctive community.  - Michaela Garstin
Michael Arnold says Martin Marine Services, which is set to be torn down, is an example of a character building that makes Lower Lonsdale a distinctive community.
— image credit: Michaela Garstin

Admittedly an "eye sore for some," a North Vancouver man is taking photos of older buildings that aren't usually documented.

These are the squat structures lining lower Lonsdale Avenue and the square planked buildings that still stand on side streets.

Often in disrepair, many carry 70, 80 or more years of history.

"They're not old enough to be heritage buildings, but they're a part of our history," says Michael Arnold, an actor and filmmaker who runs the Facebook group "Revitalize Lower Lonsdale (Responsibly and Democratically)."

He stands beside an aging building just off Lonsdale Avenue on West First Street.

"Not many people realize this was the North Shore's first movie theatre," says Arnold, nervous the historical building could one day be replaced with a highrise.

When the Empire Theatre opened in March 1912 it was touted as the "only thigh class photo playhouse in the city" with a three-piece orchestra and five reels of pictures. Admission was 10 cents.

While the building is currently a little worse for the wear, Arnold says it's important for the city to hang on to.

"These buildings are what make Lower Lonsdale unique. We don't want a cookie-cutter town. We're not another Coal Harbour orf Yaletown," he says.

"I'm taking photos right now because they seem to be going so fast. Who is documenting them?"

Some of the buildings Arnold has photographed have been given heritage status, like the one on the corner of West First and Lonsdale that Moodyville Cafe occupies. Same with the large brick building sitting kitty-corner from it.

Others, however, are scheduled to be torn down without much public opposition.

Take the grey low-lying building across from the old theatre site. Visibly in need of repair, it's on the chopping block.

And the one-storey building with a distinctive waved roofline in the parking lot of Safeway on 13th and Lonsdale Avenue will soon be torn down.

"This is a period piece of architecture… It should be incorporated into whatever structure is set to replace it," write Kevin Doherty, a concerned resident, on the Facebook group's page.

Character buildings are part of what forms a close-knit community, says Arnold.

"North Van needs to have something that sets it apart. We need all these small shops so people will go out and meet each other," he says.

"I'm not against development. We just have to do it right."

He says his Facebook group has been a great way to connect with North Shore historians who are interested in retaining the community's unique character.

"I'm trying to make people aware because everyone is so apathetic. They trust everything will be OK but it's not always true. This city belongs to us, all of us."

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