By Greg Nesteroff
More than nine years after it was gutted by fire, a Baker Street heritage building is set to reopen as a craft beer/whiskey bar.
Chad Hansen, co-owner of 479 Baker, which was home to the Redfish Grill when it burned, says he and his business partners are excited to see construction nearing completion.
“We’re making what’s old new again and taking a piece of history and putting it back on the map,” he says.
Before the fire, a restaurant was on the site for nearly a century, initially known as the Little Davenport or LD Cafe. Proprietor Harry M. Tuck sold it to cook Robert Stephen, who in turn sold it around 1920 to Hym Syng, Gee Wing, and Gee Kay.
The following year, the wooden building was badly damaged by fire, but it was soon rebuilt in brick by contractor John Burns and Son, using plans by local architect Alex Carrie. A heritage report called it a “fairly standard but attractive Queen Anne” design. The restaurant reopened on the ground floor, while the upper floor was home to offices and apartments. A two-storey rear extension made of concrete was added in 1925.
The LD was around until the 1940s, after which it remained a Chinese restaurant but under several different names, including New Star Cafe, Commodore Cafe, Ken’s Cafe, Seven Seasons, and Amanda’s. The Regional District of Central Kootenay’s office was on the upper floor in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
After the fire on July 29, 2010, the building deteriorated while its ownership was tied up in probate. It belonged to the Wong family, who did not live in Nelson.
At the city’s request, a wooden canopy was erected above the lower storey in 2012 after mortar and stucco began to fall. Subsequently the family agreed to build a new roof and eventually put the building up for sale.
Enter Hansen, who was thinking about starting a brewery and eyeing the former Presbyterian church at the corner of Kootenay and Victoria streets. When that proved impossible to buy, realtor Alison Watt approached him four years ago about 479 Baker.
Although the building was still in rough shape, newly-installed skylights lit up the old brick walls. Impressed, Hansen started to reconsider his original idea.
“I thought this is gorgeous. I see the potential and possibility,” Hansen says. “But at the end of the project, if I was to go into a similar building, I wouldn’t see it the same way. Being as naive and inexperienced as I was was a huge part of why I went down this rabbit hole.”
The “long, arduous process” of financing the project took two years. Hansen found a partner for the building and another for the proposed restaurant in Brad Filleul, proprietor of two other Nelson restaurants, Cantina del Centro and Yum Son.
Construction began in August of last year with Thomas Loh as project architect and Ed Olthof as general contractor. The place was a mess: the floors were gone and pigeons had claimed it as a roost. All that remained of the original building was its brick walls and three side-to-side beams on the main floor.
The demolition phase didn’t turn up any artifacts except some bottles in what was once a burn pit.
Hansen knew to expect the unexpected, but wasn’t prepared for the discovery of high airborne asbestos levels.
“At that point, the worry was we can’t renovate, we can’t sell it, and we can’t knock it down. We own a dead horse. For six weeks, I was not sleeping, terrified that I’d made the biggest mistake of my life, and everything I’d risked on this was flushed down the toilet.”
Fortunately, subsequent tests found the situation wasn’t as dire as first thought, and they came up with a remediation plan.
Another financial and logistical headache was electrical. In order to upgrade from a 200 to a 600 amp panel, they had to dig up the alley and hire a vacuum truck and electrician at their own expense. When the city buried its downtown power lines, Hansen explains, no conduit was left for expansion.
But after 14 months of work, the end is in sight — or rather the starting line. The restaurant is expected to open before Christmas, with a staff of 30 to 35. In addition to the bar, it will have a smokehouse/gastro hybrid menu. “Beer, whiskey, meat is the elevator pitch,” Hansen says.
In seeking a name for the new business, the partners reached further back into Nelson’s past.
Immediately east of their building once stood the Broken Hill block (later known as the Griffin block, which burned in 1932), named for a mining company of the same name, and in turn for a mining town in Australia.
The new pub will also be known as Broken Hill. The upper storey — whose facade was recently unveiled with a new blue paint scheme — will be home to short-term rental units.
Hansen says despite the challenges, he’s pleased to put new life into a long-shuttered building on the eve of its centennial.
“I’m not a proud person, but I’m really proud we’ve got this building back up going again. No matter what, I get a footnote in Nelson’s history.”