Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The heartfelt hotel: A monument to a friend of the poor, and of the arts

The Del Mar Inn is a last, lonely sentinel on the 500-block Hamilton Street in downtown Vancouver. The owner refused to sell, lest his indigent tenants be left on the street. BELOW: George Riste in his air force uniform, circa 1942.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 1, 2010


George Riste, a man who found comfort in routine, checked in on the Del Mar Inn every day of the year, including Christmas.

He spent five hours daily at the downtown Vancouver hotel — handling repairs, chatting with tenants, keeping the place tidy.

The ground floor housed an art gallery, while the upper floors held 30 rooms. Most of these were occupied by loggers and fishermen who needed a home out of season, or while they collected pogey, or while they slaked a thirst that prevented them from affording fancier digs.

In a neighbourhood with its share of dives and flop houses, the Del Mar earned a reputation for cleanliness and affordability.

“Dad always believed that any room he owned,” his son said, “he’d live in it himself.”

All the surrounding properties on the block were bought by BC Hydro as the utility prepared to build a new headquarters. In time, only the Del Mar remained.

The proprietor resisted all offers, rejected every entreaty. He would not sell. If he did, where would the tenants live?

A small, hand-painted sign was placed over the entrance. It reads: “This property is not for sale and it has not been sold. Thank you. The Owner.”

A weary Hydro eventually announced it was no longer seeking Riste’s building, defeated by a stubborn man for whom principle mattered more than principal.

Today, the hotel stands alone as an original property in the 500-block of Hamilton Street. It is dwarfed by a shiny skyscraper rising behind it.

The Del Mar is a monument to a proud innkeeper who believed a city’s vibrancy depended on the success of its shopkeepers.

He had risen from prairie poverty to build a modest real-estate empire with other properties in the West End and on the North Shore. He became wealthy and so shared his good fortune by charging rents far below the market rate. He was a friend of the poor, and of the arts.

In 1990, he collaborated with the artist Kathryn Walter with whom he wrote the slogan: “Unlimited growth increases the divide”. A typographic artwork, rendered in seven inch-tall copper letters, was installed as a frieze on the building’s facade. Tourists can often be seen standing across the street debating the meaning, while pondering the circumstances. It has been called a “potent graffito.”

Mr. Riste, born to an unmarried housekeeper, was raised in Peace River, Alta.; Biggar, Sask.; and Agassiz, the farming community in the Fraser Valley. He supported the family by delivering newspapers and working as a golf caddy at the nearby Harrison Hot Springs resort, where he befriended the Hollywood star Paulette Goddard.

He enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the war, serving overseas, though he rarely discussed his wartime experiences.

After the war, he married Marjory Hicks, the daughter of the superintendent of the Dominion Experimental Farm at Agassiz. His agrologist father-in-law was later elected to Parliament in the John Diefenbaker sweep of 1958.

Mr. Riste moved to Port Alberni, where he worked at the pulp mill before moving to Vancouver in 1960. He held a number of jobs before changing his life by following the investment advice of William Nickerson, who wrote several popular get-rich guides, including How I Turned $1,000 into a Million in Real Estate — In My Spare Time.

Mr. Riste borrowed a grand from an indulgent bank manager, got a lease on the Andrew Hotel on Hornby Street, and began building a portfolio. “That was the start of his hotel business,” said his 63-year-old son Mike Riste, a noted golf historian. “We had quite a few — the Bon Accord, the Hornby, the Senator, and then the Del Mar. All under lease. Then we bought the Del Mar.”

Built in 1912, the handsome brick Edwardian building originally housed an auctioneer’s showroom at street level. This later became an art supply shop and, by the mid-1960s, the Bau-Xi gallery. It has been an art space ever since.

The hotel once was popular with passengers from the nearby bus depot, often recommended by Greyhound drivers. It no longer lets rooms by the day.

Why did Mr. Riste give his tenants a break?

“Because of his roots,” said his son. “My dad was poor. He grew up in the Depression.”
George Riste ended his daily hotel excursions three years ago after suffering a stroke and a broken hip. He died last week. He missed his his 65th wedding anniversary (on Dec. 20) and his 90th birthday (on Dec. 22) by a month.

At 2 p.m. on Thursday, the Or Gallery on the main floor of the Del Mar will play host to a celebration of the life of an “independent spirit” and an “ideal landlord” whose generous rent amounted to a subsidy for the arts.

Guests are asked to bring homemade food to share, in honour of the proprietor’s “hands-on management style.”

The son expects some might try again to buy the hotel. He would like it known that it is not for sale. Not now. Not ever.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the details on the man and the building - great article!

Unknown said...

Thanks for this information! An excellent article. The Del Mar Hotel has been an important land mark in Vancouver for many years. For quite a few years a cafe used extensively by art students and teachers from the Vancouver School of Art existed beside the Del Mar or else was in the space which since then has been an Art Gallery.