An oil painting of the Godson House, painted by Mollie Godson in 1931. Photo courtesy of Shelley Nielsen.

The fear of selling a century-old home in B.C.

Homeowner worries a piece of Abbotsford’s heritage will be lost if lot is redeveloped

Every old home has history. But it’s unfortunate that wanting to preserve that history doesn’t help when it’s time to sell, according to one Abbotsford woman.

Abbotsford’s Natasha Davis will be putting her 100-year-old character home on the market in May. It’s known as the Godson House, and it sits across the street from the elementary school of the same name.

“I would just be so sad if somebody bought the house for the property and tore it down. That’s very much a possibility. That’s what’s happening all over Abbotsford right now,” Davis said. “This house has so much history.”

The property does not have an official heritage status and Davis said the anxiety of finding the right buyer is starting to creep in. She said she never considered trying to designate it as a heritage property because it may limit her rights as the owner.

“You’re not really going to want to [do that], unless you’re willing to take a huge financial hit. They don’t sell for the same price as a regular house,” she said. “You have to keep everything the same… There’s a whole list of rules.”

But if Davis had a choice between watching a century of history be torn down or taking a financial hit, she would choose the latter.

“If [one buyer] said, ‘I want to keep this house as it is, I want to raise my kids here,’ and they offered me $20,000 less than a person who said, ‘I want to come and tear this place down and build a big mansion’ – I would of course, take the person that wants to live here.”

Davis, her husband and two young children, have been the owners of the Godson house for three years. She said she was immediately attracted to the house because of how unique it looked compared to the other “B.C. boxes” on the market at that time. The large front porch and original hardwood floors are made from Douglas fir wood, originally cut at the lumber mill which used to sit beside Mill Lake.

The front porch of the Godson House in 1983. Photo courtesy of the Reach.

The history of a home

Before purchasing the Godson House, Davis had gone to the Tretheway Heritage House and the Reach Museum to try to learn more about the property.

There, she discovered the well-documented family history of the original owners, the Godson’s.

The “craftsman style” home on Ware Street was originally purchased in 1919 out of a Sears catalogue for $1,200 by the John and Mary ‘Mollie’ Godson. The supplies were delivered in crates to the – once 40 acre – property, and the family constructed it themselves.

Photo from 1930 of the dining room of Godson house on Ware Street. Shows table, chairs and sideboard that were donated the MSA Museum Society after Mollie Godson’s death in 1985. Photo courtesy of the Reach.

Over 3,500 artifacts from the family were donated to local museums by Godson’s children, according to Kris Foulds, curator of historical collections at the Reach.

“Mollie was a collector and the artifacts were donated by her son, Ralph, and daughter, Violet,” Foulds said. “It was an amazing collection of product packages, furnishings, clothing, documents and photos.”

After moving into the property, Davis hadn’t thought about digging into the history any further, but a number of strange occurrences made her consider finding out more.

Cold gusts would sometimes rush though the house and move curtains, even though it’s heated with a boiler and has no moving air; ghostly footsteps and creaks were heard, and one time, a faucet mysteriously turned on by itself.

“We had some spooky things happen here,” Davis said. “I was like maybe I should look into who lived here before, and who might be creeping around my house.”

She was able to get in contact the daughter of the Ralph Godson, Shelly Nielsen, who is the youngest granddaughter of the Godson’s. Nielsen compiled a collection of stories from her father and aunt, who had grown up in the house.

“Back in the early 1920s they didn’t have colour portraits. Molly Godson’s hobby was taking pictures of this house and then oil painting over them,” Davis said. “Molly used to take the piano in the dining room and put in on the back porch. All the neighbours would come and the grandkids would sit out and they would just play.”

A protective spirit

Although none of the family died in the house, Mollie was known to be protective over the property.

When John passed, Mollie donated a portion of the property to the City of Abbotsford for the contruction of a school. The donation was made on the condition they named the school John Godson Elementary, and didn’t cut down a row of trees that he had planted.

Photo taken in 1925 of Mary “Mollie” Godson in her 1900’s bathing suit: navy blue cotton with white trim, white canvas bathing shoes and navy blue stockings. Photo courtesy of the Reach.

The trees were cut down almost immediately and John was eventually struck from the school’s name, which deeply frustrated Mollie, according to her family.

Mollie moved in the 1960s to a newer property directly beside the original home, which was left vacant.

“In grandma’s later years – years I remember in the 60s, 70s, 80s – she became very protective of her [old home],” Nielsen wrote in an email. “She was ever protective and watchful for vandalism and decay of the old home, peaking out windows.”

The Godson House was sold to a police officer in the 1980s for one dollar on the promise he would restore it to its former glory with the money he saved. When he didn’t follow through, Mollie took him to court.

The court dismissed her as an “ornery old woman,” according to Nielsen.

“It is possible Grandma Godson, in spirit, has returned to the old home. She once said, ‘If there is a way to come and visit this house after I die, I will,’” Nielsen said. “If it’s grandma, then she’s just checking up on the new ownership. And by the sounds of it, you’ve got nothing to fear.”

Owning a heritage property

The house has been significantly modernized since the Godson’s lived there. But Davis still fears what’s left of the history will be destroyed when she eventually sells.

“Once you have a character home, your heart is with that home forever,” Davis said. “I don’t know if my fantasy [of finding a proper buyer] can hold out because, you know, who knows when you’ll get another opportunity.”

Photo of Bert Godson and two Chinese men slaughtering a pig at the Godson House in 1934. Photo courtesy of the Reach.

But having your property designated as a heritage property doesn’t necessarily surrender the rights of the property owner, according to Paul Gravett, the executive director of Heritage BC.

“Local governments gain some additional influence when a property is designated, but the property owner never loses their rights,” Gravett said in an email. “The local government can lay out expectations in the designating bylaw (what elements of the property are to be protected), but this may be contested at a future time.”

Gravett said the perceptions of heritage designations lowering property value run contrary to the evidence.

A study by the Vancouver Heritage Foundation found that both designated and non-designated heritage homes outperformed non-heritage homes on the same street. Another survey of over 3,000 properties in Ontario found that 74 per cent of heritage properties at least as well or better than average of non-heritage properties. Heritage BC claims that studies that point otherwise are often based on small samples or incomplete data.

Davis said she wishes she didn’t have to sell, but her husband has recently suffered health issues and they have decided to move to the Okanogan where he will have more support.

“I thought this was going to be our home to raise our kids in forever,” she said. “We don’t build houses like they did 100 years ago. The wood is solid, this house will stand for another 100 years, as long you maintain it.”

The Godson House as it stands today. Patrick Penner / Abbotsford News.

RELATED: Can a lot have heritage value?


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patrick.penner@abbynews.com

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