Like a pattern that repeats itself across a building’s facade, the idea of preserving things that are important and meaningful runs through Robert Lemon’s life. The Vancouver architect and
Knowledge Partner has spent his career saving Vancouver’s architectural heritage – not just restoring aging edifices to their former glory, but re-imagining them.
He’s worked on the rehabilitation of the Hotel Georgia, the downtown YMCA, Christ Church Cathedral, and the Wing Sang building in Chinatown, among others, and spent five years as the senior heritage planner for the City of Vancouver. He’s currently restoring the historic Shannon estate in south Vancouver, built in the 1920s for sugar baron B.T. Rogers, as well as a building of more humble origins – the yellow house on Hornby Street that fed power lunchers for many years as Il Giardino restaurant. Built in 1888, it was a typical tradesperson’s dwelling, and is now the oldest house in the downtown peninsula.
“It’s more rarified and special because it’s the only one left,” says Robert. “The survivors are the ones that tell the story about our history and that’s why it’s important to save little bits of it where you can.”
Robert saved his own west side home, a distinctive 1936 art moderne residence known as the Barber House, from almost certain demolition when he and his late partner, Robert Ledingham, bought it in 1988. Bob was one of Canada’s most celebrated interior designers, and together they restored the exterior, rebuilt the interior to better suit their lifestyle, and added a second house in the back – the first modern laneway house in the city. The main building was given heritage protection and received a City of Vancouver heritage award in 1991. Far from being a museum piece, the house is comfortable and chic, with nods to its historic past and a rooftop patio that boasts postcard-worthy views of downtown.
“I like the fact that when I come home at night – and I spend most of my time upstairs in the kitchen – it’s calm and restful,” says Robert. “I think that’s what I enjoy most about it, that sense of retreating into an urban townhouse, like you’re in the middle of Paris or something, even in suburban Point Grey.”
When he has some downtime at home, Robert likes to cook for friends in his well-outfitted kitchen. (The cabinets are finished in auto lacquer; one of Bob’s design tricks.) He also tunes into Knowledge – what he calls his “entertainment and education.” Along with giving an annual donation at the Leadership Circle level, Robert has chosen to support Knowledge in his will.
“Knowledge in the general sense – in particular arts and culture and education – were always important to Bob and I,” says Robert. “Knowledge Network is the vehicle to disseminate those things and to spread all kinds of messages that are of educational value.”
Preserving things, like Knowledge, that have been meaningful in both his and Bob’s lives is the motivation behind Robert’s current ambition. He wants to set up a BC Landmark Foundation, modeled on the British Landmark Trust, that would give people the opportunity to enjoy short stays in historic places around the province: for example, at a lighthouse in Porlier Pass on Galiano Island or a Japanese fisherman’s hut at North Pacific Cannery. He sees it as a win-win for everyone: a way to save properties that are threatened, while giving visitors a chance to explore different stories from BC’s past. Robert plans to donate his house to the Foundation, ensuring that part of Vancouver’s heritage - and his own legacy – lives on.