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Hycroft Manor: Vancouver's Own Downton Abbey

January 22, 2016


A grand home owned by a family with three daughters, with a drawing room, gentleman’s smoking room, ballroom and separate servant’s quarters (and stairwells), that hosted the most splendid social gatherings and parties during the early 20th century: No, I’m not talking about the fictitious — and much-adored — Downton Abbey, but rather Vancouver’s own Hycroft Manor.

Welcoming the who’s who of the early 20th century — including visiting royalty — to masquerade balls and tea in the gardens, Hycroft is a slice of Downton in the heart of a bustling Pacific Northwest metropolis. Found just off Granville and 16th on McRae Avenue (named for the mansion’s builder, Brigadier General Alexander Duncan McRae), Hycroft sits atop Vancouver’s prestigious Shaughnessy neighbourhood.
In 1909, the 30-room Edwardian mansion set on 5.2 acres was built for $109,000 — an enormous sum at the time. The estate had a bowling alley, swimming pool and coach house as well as an Italian garden, children’s playhouse and statuary. The interior features rich wood panels, marble mantles and Italian tile work beneath ornate chandeliers. The centrepiece, of course, is the grand staircase.
While it doesn’t have the lengthy, multi-generational history of Downton, Hycroft does share many similarities.
The McRae family moved in during the summer of 1911. Alexander Duncan McRae was a leading businessman and politician in Western Canada at the turn of the century. He served as a Major General in the Canadian Army in the First World War, and later served as a Member of Parliament and Canadian Senator.
According to the University Women’s Club of Vancouver , which has owned the manor since 1962, McRae wanted to make his new home a spectacular showplace in Vancouver. Along with his wife Blaunche, and daughters Blanche, Lucile and Margaret (“Peggy”), McRae made Hycroft the pinnacle of Vancouver society for 30 years.
Like Downton’s Lord and Lady Grantham, Mr. and Mrs. McRae were a very busy pair. Mr. McRae divided his time between Parliament, his farm and Hycroft. Blaunche McRae was an American, the daughter of a wealthy mill owner who had made a considerable fortune with forest industry investments in Pennsylvania and Minnesota. 
According to the book Merchant Prince: The Story of Alexander Duncan McRae by Betty O'Keefe and Ian Macdonald, upon meeting her, McRae was “impressed by Blaunche’s sophistication, her capabilities as a hostess, her cultured voice and impeccable manners, her polished social presence, and her practiced ability as an equestrian.” She became famous for the way she filled the manor with flowers, with colours carefully chosen for the occasion or the room where they would be displayed. Newspapers loved to cover the family, and social reporters in Vancouver never missed the opportunity to write about a garden fete or masquerade at Hycroft. 
O'Keefe and Macdonald write that a friend of McRae once commented, “You couldn't refuse to dine [at Hycroft] even if the invitation came the night before. It was an honour to be invited, almost a royal command.” She described the McRaes as the “absolute leaders of Vancouver society.”

In 1942, due to rising costs and the need for upkeep, the McRaes donated the mansion to the Canadian government and it became the Shaughnessy Military Hospital during the war. It housed 130 beds and served as an auxiliary facility for 18 years, much as Downton served as a convalescent home after the First World War. Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed, once served as a convalescent home, as well.

Opening Hycroft as Shaughnessy Military Auxiliary Hospital, circa 1943.
Senator McRae passed away in Ottawa in 1946. Hycroft lived on as a hospital for the next 20 years.
Another parallel between the Downton Abbey series and the real life of Hycroft Manor relates to women’s rights and the empowerment of women.  The University Women’s Club of Vancouver was founded in 1907 to promote education, rights and opportunities for women. In 1962, the club bought a portion of the Hycroft estate that included the manor — but that purchase was no easy feat.
“Hycroft stopped functioning as a hospital in 1960 and the Crown Assets Corporation of Canada put it on the market,” says Kate Duggan with the University Women’s Club of Vancouver. “The UWCV purchased it for use as a clubhouse in 1962. It’s important to note that at this time banks prohibited women from holding a mortgage, so the club had to fundraise and use their own money to make the purchase.”
After five years of restoration by the UWCV, and thanks to many volunteer hours and donations, the club members turned Hycroft into a home once again. Since that time, they have won numerous awards for their historical and architectural preservation work through the Hycroft Heritage Preservation Foundation.
Today the club hosts many different public and private events, with the popular Christmas at Hycroft fundraiser being a highlight for the last 43 years. Kate Duggan explains, “We always host a celebration for International Women’s Day, a Hycroft Lecture where we bring in a distinguished guest speaker, a spring fashion show, and holiday brunches and dinners.”
The manor is also used extensively in Vancouver’s “Hollywood North” film and television industry, and it is a popular wedding venue. Hycroft also continues its tradition of hosting fabulous public events: you can join the UWCV this season for Scottish Sunday Music in the parlour on January 24, 2016, a Vancouver Chamber Players  performance on January 26, 2016, and the Valentine’s Dinner on February 13, 2016.
Watch the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey on KCTS 9, Sundays at 9:00 p.m. 
Images courtesy of Rebecca Bollwitt.
Images courtesy of City of Vancouver.



Rebecca Bollwitt

Rebecca Bollwitt founded the award-winning blog in 2004 where she covers events and lifestyle news in the Metro Vancouver area. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook .

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