Swing music legend enjoys life in condo
Loft reminiscent of life in Big Apple
At 91, Dal Richards is a swing music legend, a living link to the heyday of the big bands in the 1930s and ’40s.
And he might have Vancouver’s most swinging pad, to boot.
Richards and his wife Muriel Honey live at 550 Beatty, a 1906 warehouse that was converted to lofts in the early 1980s.
The conversion was a financial disaster — the original development went bust, and the units were auctioned off at fire sale prices.
But artistically, the 32 lofts are stunning.
The architect behind the project was the internationally renowned Bruno Freschi, who kept the spaces big and open and added all sorts of cool touches — spiral staircases, skylights, exposed beams and wood ceilings.
Walking into the apartment for the first time, Sun photographer Bill Keay looked stunned and muttered: “Wow.” It’s a common reaction. “You still have it when you’ve been gone for a while,” says Honey. “You come back and go, ‘Oh yeah.’”
The wow factor comes from the spaciousness, the high ceilings, the vibe that you’ve entered something special. It’s like something out of a movie set in New York, circa the 1960s.
Freschi is an imaginative fellow — he was the chief architect at Expo 86 — and everything in the apartment is well thought-out.
The entrance, for example, is slightly elevated, so you step down into the apartment, like you’re entering a sunken living room.
Richards and Honey live on the top floor, and have a three-level apartment. The living area/ kitchen is on the seventh floor and the bedroom/office/music room is a floor down, combining for more than 2,000 square feet of space.
A spiral staircase spins up to the third level, a 300-square-foot rooftop deck that offers a wonderful urban view stretching from the cranes of the Port of Vancouver to the International Village’s highrises, the Georgia Viaduct and Vancouver’s Art Deco city hall.
Back inside, there are a minimum of walls, and ceilings that rise from 13 to 30 feet.
Light streams in from the skylights, illuminating a giant Frank Sinatra bus shelter poster Richards got from AM 600, where he does his Dal’s Place radio show Sundays at 9 p.m. (the station has moved up the dial to 650 AM since the poster was printed.)
Light is also brought in via one of Freschi’s tricks, an inverted bay window at the eastern end of the loft.
“The problem with historic renovations is the windows are always too small and there’s not enough light,” says Freschi, who recently moved back home after two decades in Buffalo and Washington, D.C.
“You want (light) to penetrate deep into a unit, so we did the inverted bay. The traditional bay pops out 45 degrees, but we popped it inwards, and created small decks.
“That internal or inverted bay really became very very important in the process of importing light into the unit — and people loved it.”
The decor is very Richards. Muriel says she had a hand in a chic kitchen reno (cherry cabinets, granite counters, subway tiles), but left most everything else as is.
“You don’t touch a masterpiece,” she says, laughing.
The wall is filled with mementoes of Richards’s career, including the sign for the old Panorama Roof lounge at the Hotel Vancouver and a wall of all the honours he has received, such as the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia and the proclamation of Dal Richards Day in Vancouver (Honey replaced it with a joke Muriel Honey Day proclamation for six months until Richards noticed.)
Aside from Richards, there aren’t many antiques, although there are modern furniture classics such as Achille Castiglioni’s swooping Arco lamp and Eero Saarinen’s womb chair.
A glass table and several mirrors enhance the feeling of spaciousness, so much so that some people mistake a big mirror by the kitchen for a window.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Gee, I didn’t know you could see to the other side of the street,’” Richards says with a smile.
Richards smiles a lot when he’s showing off his digs. His biggest smile comes when he tells you how much he bought it for — $178,000 in 1987.
“I saw an ad advertising 32 condominiums for auction,” he recounts.
“I was just curious. What made me more curious was that it had a picture of this suite. It knocked me out.”
Richards came down to check out the empty space, loved it, and came back for the auction.
“When I got to the auction, I learned that you had to have a $5,000 certified cheque deposited to bid,” he says.
“And they all had minimum bids. I think the lowest price level was $154,000.
“They all went for five to 10 per cent more than the minimum bid until they got to this one, and nobody bid. I was sitting there holding my breath: first asking, second asking, third asking.
“I went up and said: ‘If I bring some money back by 10 o’clock tomorrow morning, will you accept it?’ And that’s how I got it.”
The building was ahead of its time.
When construction started in 1980 it was the first conversion of a heritage building to condos, and Freschi says drawing up new bylaws and regulations for the project was “torturous.”
There were costly delays, construction costs soared and many of the original buyers backed out. The lofts were finally finished in 1984, but the market had turned and no one wanted them.
They were rented out during Expo 86, then auctioned off a year later.
Richards has done well with his investment — he says at the height of the market, his apartment was probably worth $1.4 million. (He paid $10,000 for his first house back in 1945.)
Richards loves living on Beatty Street, which is perched between Chinatown, Gastown and downtown and allows him to walk to most of his jobs.
“Everything I do is downtown, the theatres, the hotels, the CBC and the rest of it,” says Richards.
Apart from several local performances, he is about to release a new CD, One More Time. But the gig he’s really excited about is next February, when he’ll be carrying the Olympic torch. “I’m in training,” he relates. “I go to the Roundhouse for fitness training twice a week. Thursday afternoons, I go to the YWCA and swim 16 lengths, which is about an eighth of a mile.
“People say, ‘Are you sure you can carry that torch?’ And I say, ‘Well, I’ve been carrying a saxophone for 75 years.’”
Dal Richards plays the saxophone, something he’s done for 75 years, in his two-storey loft in Vancouver.
The exterior of the building.