Taste of Life discovers a few of the reasons why First Shaughnessy has so much charm.
“Grandpa!, I want to swing!” little Eloise announced under the giant sequoia tree. Soon, she did, while Grandpa, Richard Keate, and Mother, Margot Keate-West, stood by and Shaughnessy’s grand houses looked on. Did Eloise realize the tree that held her was planted for her great, great, great grandfather’s 80th birthday by his children? I tried to inquire, but the 6-year-old shied away, having more important things to do like bounce the ball. One day she’ll realize how rare she is: a 6th generation resident of one of the most livable neighborhoods on earth. But by then, she’ll be used to it.
The elder Keates looked radiant in the sequoia’s shade, their happiness directed at their sharp and energetic little one. This giant family tree is just one of the things that make Shaughnessy a landmark neighbourhood in Western Canada. Shaughnessy homes, full of stories, and the streets that connect them are an irreplaceable part of Vancouver’s character.
From molehills to mansions
Shaughnessy was named after Thomas George Shaughnessy, an American who rose through the ranks of the Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) to become its president. In 1909, under his leadership, the CPR began selling plots in Shaughnessy and did an excellent job packaging its future subdivision as the tony place for up and coming Vancouverites. The day Shaughnessy went on sale, bowler hats, high-neck blouses and mutton chop sleeves lined up two blocks deep on West Hastings Street to put their names and $1,000 down on their new addresses. Their parcels were large; homes, once erected, were magnificently landscaped and well appointed. It was a sellout. On the heels of that success, the CPR created Second and Third Shaughnessy but First Shaughnessy retained the honour of being the grandest. The CPR built wisdom and largesse into its plan; 100 years later, First Shaughnessy is still real estate nonpareil.
Construction started off with what looks to us now like anti-wisdom. The developers scrubbed the land clean of every tree and shrub; by 1910, it was a wasteland. Every living thing now there springs from no earlier than 1912. Surprising, given the trees’ huge sizes: Shaughnessy is called “the lungs of Vancouver.” “It’s where our arborists take visiting arborists to show off the best trees in the city,” Richard Keate notes. There are approximately 94 species, from Akebono Flowering Cherry to the Yulan Magnolia. Maybe the saw-happy developers knew what they were doing after all.
Shaughnessy is one of the highest points in the city. Granville Street cuts through its center like a river, but the rest of its streets follow the topography, a feature designed to set it apart from the arrow-straight grid of most of Vancouver. First Shaughnessy’s streets meander in harmony with the land, easing residents home gently.
It’s no secret that Canada’s wealthy and powerful inhabited Shaughnessy and still do. If you want to know their secrets, just ask Richard Keate, whose father was publisher of the Vancouver Sun Newspaper and a Shaughnessy resident. “My father would slip the gossip columnist all the dirt in the neighbourhood. It was always coming to him.” Keate’s aunt, a popular Shaughnessy interior designer whose firm Keate now runs with Margot, was even closer to the sources. If knowing too much is still part of the Keates’ job today, they’re not telling. They focus on re-beautifying and preserving Vancouver’s historic homes. Both have collected awards for their work.
They did share stories from times gone by, though. A well-known, timber baron and Shaughnessy resident left to work in the forests for months at a time. His wife, fond of renovating homes, never suffered from lack of budget. In fact, while her husband was gone, she would sell their home, buy a different Shaughnessy mansion, and get to work on a fresh project. “Her husband would come home, and, from the Vancouver Club, call around asking ‘Do you know where my better half is?’ until he found her,” Keate recounts. The phenomenon couldn’t have been too traumatic since their son, a former Member of the Legislative Assembly, still lives in the neighbourhood.
Many may not know that Shaughnessy mansions have sheltered veterans’ hospitals, convents, hospices, and government-funded group homes. At one point, there were around 19 community group homes in operation. “They are the most excellent neighbours,” Keate believes. Though funding for those homes has mostly dried up, he offers he would be happy to have one next door.
Photography by Hugh Zhao