Surrey’s historic Strawberry Hill Hall was damaged by fire on April 29. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

Surrey’s historic Strawberry Hill Hall was damaged by fire on April 29. (Photo: Tom Zillich)

SURREY NOW & THEN: Replica hall considered after ‘accidental’ fire ruined renovation plans

VIDEO: ‘Extensive’ damage to Strawberry Hill structure forces city to look at options

Due to a devastating fire deemed accidental, the remains of one of Surrey’s oldest community halls will soon be demolished to make way for a possible replica building on the site.

Strawberry Hill Hall went up in flames April 29, near the end of a year-long renovation project to have it used for preschool classes, summer camps, community rentals and more.

Tragic was the timing of the early-morning fire that destroyed much of the 112-year-old hall, said Ryan Gallagher, Surrey’s manager of heritage administration and facilities.

“The fact that we were going to be opening a short time later, starting with summer day camps in the space, as early as this summer, it was definitely quite a shock,” Gallagher said.

“It was hard news to swallow, that’s for sure,” he added. “It was going to be used for preschool during the days and we were going to be able to also do some arts and heritage programming on evenings and weekends, and also for some limited community rentals in the space, so it really was going to function as a community hall again.”

The fire has been ruled accidental by police investigators, according to Surrey RCMP spokesperson Constable Sarbjit Sangha, but Surrey Fire Service continues its probe. 

“The fire was not intentionally set, but that’s all I can say with our investigation continuing,” Deputy Chief Jason Cairney told the Now-Leader on Friday (June 4).

• RELATED STORY: Plans ‘on pause’ after ‘devastating’ fire at Surrey’s historic Strawberry Hill Hall.

The “extensive” damage caused by the fire has forced the city to look at different options for the site, Gallagher said.

“It’s looking like the city here, we are going to be moving toward considering a replica on the site as the way to go,” he said. “We’re still in the very early stages of what all that means, and this is such an unusual situation in terms of what comes next.

“The structure is badly damaged and some of the things that were salvageable were salvaged, and our aim is to make use of those pieces in any future structure,” Gallagher added. “But we’re really in the early stages here. Like, we need to do whole new architectural design drawings based on what was there, so it will take some time to get things going here.”

Gallagher said the demolition of what’s left of the hall will take place in the next week or two. “I believe the foundation is still in very good shape, so if that is the case and the full demo happens on site, that cuts down on a lot of the required work (on a replica structure) because that base is there.”

• RELATED STORY, from 2020: Surrey’s historic Strawberry Hill Hall being moved a few metres in $1.2M reno project.

Last year, as part of the renovation project done by Proactive Construction, the hall was physically moved a few metres away from the corner of 75th Avenue and 121st Street, to make the intersection safer. That work began four years after the city purchased the lot for an amount not disclosed in a 2016 report to city council.

Built in 1909, Strawberry Hill Hall is a homestead-style building that “reflects the presence and organization of early farmers who settled in the Strawberry Hill neighbourhood” of Surrey, according to a post on the city’s website (surrey.ca).

The structure, originally named Farmers Institute Hall, was at the centre of “social and recreational activity for area farmers known for growing strawberries, the first by Japanese who tended small cultivated spots between stumps of old-growth forest.”

The hall’s history is also detailed on the Canada’s Historic Places website (historicplaces.ca).

Lorene Oikawa, the Surrey-raised president of National Association of Japanese Canadians, would like to see a replica of the hall incorporate memories and stories of Japanese-Canadian farmers who worked and lived in the area in the early 1900s.

“I’m a fourth-generation Canadian of Japanese ancestry who grew up in Surrey, and I did not know about the history of Japanese Canadians in Surrey,” Oikawa said.

“The National Association of Japanese Canadians has had two events about the stories of Japanese-Canadians in Surrey and could assist with engaging our community. The City of Surrey has an opportunity to recognize the contributions of these early Japanese-Canadian settlers including their financial support to create the community hall, creating the Surrey Berry Growers’ Co-operative Association, the Strawberry Hill Japanese Farmers’ Association, and a Japanese language school.”

The latest event about Japanese Canadian history in Surrey is posted to najc.ca, as a Zoom conference, along with a short film focused on wartime internment.

“In 1942,” Oikawa added, “the racist act of internment forcibly uprooted 22,000 Japanese Canadian women, children, men, and seniors from the west coast including Surrey, and included dispossession and exile without any evidence. Our stories, and those of other racialized and Indigenous peoples, must be shared to prevent future injustices against another group of people. This is so important especially now as we see increasing hate and racist incidents.”

The hall’s conservation plan is detailed in a 46-page report published in 2016.

“The Strawberry Hill Farmers Institute was founded on September 3, 1909, and the Hall was constructed with the help of donations, grants and volunteer labour on land donated by the first president of the Institute, George Henry Flux,” the report notes. “An essential part of community life, the Institute held lectures on farming practices, hosted social activities and provided assistance to new settlers.”

The hall is “significant as an excellent example of late‐nineteenth and early‐twentieth century vernacular agricultural hall architecture,” the conservation report adds. “Despite later alterations and additions, the simple gable-roofed structure and rectangular plan are still evident, and the all-wood interior remains substantially intact.”

Gallagher said he will soon update Surrey’s Heritage Advisory Commission about the Strawberry Hill Hall fire and future plans.

“The hall has been used by the community for more than a century,” he said, “so not having a space like in the area would be a big loss for the community.

“Reading all the stories online after the fire, it was interesting reading all the comments from people, saying they had their wedding there or birthday parties, dances, craft fairs. All those events were held there, and a lot of people had special memories associated with that hall.

“It was a special venue in that community, and we don’t have a lot of the community halls around anymore so to have that one still there and it was going to be operational again, it was going to be fantastic. It was really going to be a neat project, with a playground expansion done concurrently also.”

Surrey Now & Then is a look back at Surrey-area landmark sites, events and people. Email story ideas and tips to tom.zillich@surreynowleader.com. We thank Surrey Archives for assistance with this series.

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tom.zillich@surreynowleader.com

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