Historic house to be flattened

Pat Oleksiew at the Yarmish House on Williams Road Monday afternoon. Built in 1922 by the first Ukrainian settlers in Richmond, it’s now slated for demolition.  - Matthew Hoekstra
Pat Oleksiew at the Yarmish House on Williams Road Monday afternoon. Built in 1922 by the first Ukrainian settlers in Richmond, it’s now slated for demolition.
— image credit: Matthew Hoekstra

Walking up the chipped concrete steps, Pat Oleksiew walks across the wooden front porch of a historic Richmond house whose end is near.

Years ago the porch was surrounded by glass. Oleksiew recalls watching a hummingbird flying near the windows, accidentally wedging itself in the glass. Her dad managed to grab the tiny bird and place it on her lap. She petted it a few times, then it flew off.

“I was just six or seven,” said the 58-year-old. “I still remember that.”

The three-storey Yarmish House, at 6711 Williams Rd., looms large in the Blundell neighbourhood. It was built around 1923 by the first Ukrainian settlers on Lulu Island, and served as the local Ukrainian Catholic Church until a church was built.

But the house is now vacant, and Interface Architecture is planning to build 14 townhouses on the property, along with two adjoining lots. Demolition is imminent.

The house is listed in the City of Richmond’s heritage inventory, but is not a protected heritage site. City officials and the architect explored options to save the building—or at least parts of it—but non proved feasible. No one spoke at a public hearing on the project last year, and city council granted rezoning.

“Richmond is losing a piece of history,” said Oleksiew, who grew up in the house. “I feel quite badly about it, but I never had enough power to do anything about it.”

The Yarmish family arrived in Canada from Ukraine in 1907, settling in Manitoba before moving to Richmond. Ivan (John) Yarmish built the craftsman-style home on a 2.4-hectare (six-acre) property, which boasted an orchard and vegetable garden. Together with wife Maria, the couple became the first of many Ukrainians to settle in Richmond.

The house was a gathering point for the local Ukrainian community. Masses were held inside until a church was built on Railway Avenue in the late '40s.

“Anybody from the community who knows the house will tell you that it was always open to everybody. It was always welcoming,” said Oleksiew, a granddaughter of Yarmish. “It wasn’t a house. It was a home to everybody who entered it.”

It was built in a style her grandfather was familiar with. It has a basement—which regularly flooded—and a rock-solid three-storey chimney that makes the house nearly impossible to move. Intricate carvings along the roofline can still be seen today, but a once-prominent star in the peak has since been lost.

“I always loved that star,” said Oleksiew, unsure of its greater significance. “I don’t know. It protected the family? I had no idea what my grandfather had thought.”

Her grandparents died before she was born—Ivan at age 60 in 1930 and Maria in 1954—but the house stayed in the family for some time. She spent her first 17 years there, but eventually the house was sold, the property subdivided and her family moved into a new home next door.

Time has taken its toll on the near century-old Yarmish House, but two original cherry trees still stand tall in the front yard. So does a concrete wall. Although cracking, there’s talk of incorporating its ornate columns into the new townhouse development.

In a report to council, city planner Edwin Lee noted relocating the house on-site and re-using it as part of the townhouse project wouldn’t work because of a poor structure. And given its size and age, moving the house off-site is nearly impossible.

“The structure would likely not survive a long relocation to a different property in Richmond, and costs to take down hydro and telephone service lines would be prohibitive,” noted Lee.

Coun. Derek Dang, council’s liaison to the heritage commission, said buildings of historical value are documented and catalogued, but added “you can’t save everything,” particularly given the condition of aging structures.

“We generally make sure we do have something on record, otherwise once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Dang noted the family name does live on in the neighbourhood—in the form of city streets Yarmish Drive and Yarmish Gate.

And a piece of the home’s heart is being given new life elsewhere in Richmond. Oleksiew and her husband Cliff were able to salvage the home’s stained glass windows. They’re now destined for an addition to their current home.

Said Oleksiew: “Now I have to figure out how to make those energy efficient.”

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