A beautiful Chinese screen graces the middle of Modernize Tailors in the newly restored building at 5 West Pender. While trying on a suit made by brothers Bill and Jack Wong, one might silently congratulate restoration architect Joe Y. Wai for breathing new life into such a delightful element of the building. The screen, however, is more than just an old ornamental component of a tailor shop. It is brand new, added to disguise seismic bracing the building required. Often the greatest challenge in restoration is striking the perfect balance between updating a building to modern standards, while still remaining true to the nature of the building. The renovations at 5 West Pender are a masterful example of how to use technology to do just that.
When Milton Wong, former Chancellor of Simon Fraser University, purchased 5 West Pender he knew three things. First, he wanted to move his brothers back into the tailor shop that their family opened and operated from 1913 until they were handed their eviction notice in 1976. Second, he wanted to transform the rest of the building into top-rate seniors¡¦ residences. Third, he knew just the man he wanted to take the building through its transformation: Joe Wai, a passionate advocate of Vancouver¡¦s Chinatown heritage. ¡§I saw the building in 1969,¡¨ says Wai. ¡§I thought it was a great space. Then renovations were done in the 1970s. Heritage consciousness was not as acute then as now. Our task was to put things back.¡¨
Wai was interested in restoring the building, but also in honouring the history that the building represents. Built in 1907, 5 West Pender housed retail space on the ground floor, the Pekin Chop Suey House restaurant on the second floor, and the Chinese Freemasons in the upper floors. In fact, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, the future first President of China, reportedly stayed with the Freemasons while visiting Vancouver in 1911. While the legacy of the Freemasons certainly increased the historical interest of the building, it also complicated the floorplan with high ceilings, an immense assembly room, and many separate small rooms in which members were permitted to stay. ¡§It is one of the reasons this restoration took a considerable time to complete,¡¨ explains Kurt Barber, president of general contractor Makam Construction. ¡§No two floors were alike.¡¨
Another reason the restoration took some time was the juggling of the regulations and stipulations of the various bodies that Wai respectfully refers to as the ¡§heritage police¡¨. It is an area in which understanding new technology allowed Wai and his associates to use contemporary science to facilitate the integration of modern components in the building. In fact, even the demolition for restoration of an historic building involves special care. As Peter Vincent of Ace Demolition explains, ¡§We have done a lot of heritage demolition. At 5 West Pender, we separated everything we removed for proper disposal.¡¨
Numerous federal, provincial and civic organizations need to be consulted when restoring a building with historical value. ¡§These organizations are full of people committed to heritage preservation,¡¨ insists Wai. ¡§However, leeway should be granted to creative and sensitive ingenuity.¡¨ One of the grants the restoration projects received was from the now defunct Commercial Heritage Properties Incentive Fund. Run by Parks Canada, the fund rewarded those who complied with the Standards and Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places in Canada. The grant covered 20% of the restoration expense of 5 West Pender, up to $1 million.
Hal Kalman, Jonathan Yardley and Christin Doeinghaus of Commonwealth Heritage Resource Management Ltd worked with Wai on the project. Kalman describes the Standards and Guidelines as a commonsense manual for conservation practices, intended to encourage the protection and modernization of significant structures. However, even commonsense manuals are open to interpretation. The document insists upon the preservation of existing features, such as windows. This was potentially problematic for 5 West Pender. In the renovation completed in the 1970s, the original wood sash, single pane, leaded glass windows were removed and replaced.
Wai and his associates felt that since the original windows were no longer in place, protecting the replacement windows was unnecessary. Instead, they proposed a reinterpretation of the rules set out for the grant. In investigating the newest technology available in windows, they discovered a new, patented window made by Pella. The aluminium clad wood interior windows they found were much closer in appearance to the originals than what was in the building at the time.
Not only did the new windows look perfect for the building restoration, they also had a number of features that offered the efficiency and durability of modern windows. A coating on the windows makes them impervious to the effects of water and pollution damage. While keeping the interior warm in winter and cool in summer, the argon gas coating also filters out 90% of the sun¡¦s UV rays. Additionally, an Energy Star rating allowed Milton Wong to claim a substantial rebate on the cost of the windows. "The original windows had a counterweight in the wall. Now, a 95 year-old woman can open the window with one hand.¡¨ With elderly residents set to move in, ease of use is an important feature.
Since Wai was able to offer rational arguments for replacing the 1970s windows with a product much more faithful to the heritage appearance of the building, Parks Canada relented and the ingenuity won the day. ¡§They listened,¡¨ says Wai. ¡§For that, I am grateful.¡¨
Through examining archival photographs, Wai and his associates were able to replicate the look of the original building, while also improving upon its usability. Whether is was artfully covering seismic upgrades with an ornamental screen or installing beautiful cutting-edge windows, perfect balance was achieved. The patient restoration of 5 West Pender was a labour of love for Wai. The seniors set to move into the 11 unique suites he constructed will no doubt appreciate Wai¡¦s attention to detail, as will the Wong brothers, now able to move their tailor shop back into the building their father started out in almost 100 years ago. A Chinatown gem, shined and re-cut to reflect her past glory.