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Vancouver Artists Work Magic In Historic Building

You can't get any more historic than a house built at the inception of its neighbourhood.
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The house from the sidewalk.

Front steps of the historic house.

Just off the intersection of Main Street and Sixth Avenue in Vancouver, there's a turquoise Victorian heritage house, complete with stained glass windows and gabled roof. There's a garden out back, and a sculpture rising out of its overgrown front yard.

In its quirkiness, the house almost fades into the background, blending in seamlessly with Mount Pleasant's creative energy. Before I attended one of the house's new art events, I'd walked by it perhaps 100 times, and never taken notice of it as anything more than a natural part of the neighbourhood scenery.

JBG residents Zandi Dandizette and Lily Le with the sculpture that stands in their front yard.

Inside the building, now called the James Black Gallery, even more exciting things are happening. Currently, six artists call the historic building home, and it functions as both an artist-run centre and communal living space.

The gallery, also known as the JBG, puts on a different exhibit every four to six weeks, and its residents take not a dime of commission out of the price of work sold. There's an audio production setup in the basement, and a ceramics and sculpture studio is in the works for the garage.

Soon, both Canadian and international artists will be travelling to the house for a one-month, rent-free residency program in its tiny spare room. On the house's open main floor, they're renting out affordable studio space to raise money to help with maintenance, and throw future art shows and parties.

Dandizette on the upper level, which roommate Sebastian Syrota is remodelling into a better space to show art.

In every corner of the JBG, there's something fascinating to be found. The stairs down to the basement have been painted pink and blue; there's a loud graffiti mural on the exterior wall of the garage.

The front-yard sculpture, which looks like a cross between a worn piece driftwood and a giant piece of Swiss cheese, is actually a 3-D printed sculpture made of recycled limestone. At the time of its 2012 creation, it was the the third-largest 3-D printed object in North America.

Dandizette is working towards having the space designated as a Mount Pleasant Heritage site.

But it's been quite the journey for Zandi Dandizette, the home's second longest-running resident. Originally from Portland, she moved in after finishing school at Emily Carr last May, when the Gropp's Gallery art collective was still managing the house.

A short time later, the original owner sold the property, and a bidding war ensued that scared off most of the other tenants. Then, the house was purchased by a prominent businessman who had his sights set on redeveloping it into -- what else -- a block of condos. Thankfully, that hasn't happened, although it's been an uphill struggle to get to this stage, full of red tape and technicalities.

The main floor, which functions as a living room and studio space.

At 120 years old, the Black Residence -- named for its original owner James Black -- is certainly historic. It's one of Vancouver's oldest single-family dwellings, and also one of the first houses built outside of Vancouver's downtown core. At the time, Main Street was the only southern exit from downtown, and Mount Pleasant Vancouver's only suburb.

JBG's kitchen, decorated with resident art

Over the next 100 years, the house grew and changed along with the evolution of the neighbourhood. Originally a grand dwelling for important early Vancouverites, it was then inhabited by working-class families, and then became a rooming house after the re-zoning of the area to "light industrial."

Next, it was abandoned for a few years, only to be resurrected from neglect by the Gropp's Gallery artists in 2007 -- right along with the revitalization of Mount Pleasant as a centre of arts and culture.

The winding staircase is just one of the house's historic details.

Currently, Dandizette and Joanna Karczmarek of Gropp's Gallery are awaiting the result of an S.O.S.: the Statement of Significance they've filed with the City of Vancouver.

If all goes well, the house will be designated a historic site with the help of the Mount Pleasant Heritage Group. Ironically, the Heritage Group's logo, which you can see on the little white signs identifying many historic buildings around the Main area, is an image of the Black Residence itself!

Back view of the Black Residence.

In my opinion, you can't get any more historic than a house built at the inception of its neighbourhood. Today, Mount Pleasant is a hub for the arts and youth culture, and that's what gives it its value and charm. What's more important -- hanging on to the spaces that make the area what it is, or making way for yet another block of condos?


Queen Charlotte Apartments Vancouver Heritage Building

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