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What you should know about Bob Lewis, the prolific builder of West Coast Modern homes

In his heyday, Lewis was building more than 100 homes a year, sold through his own realty business

No one built more West Coast Modern homes than Bob Lewis.

While many have gawked at the architectural masterpieces of contemporaries like Arthur Erickson, Fred Hollingsworth and Duncan McNab, all their completed homes combined don’t come close.

In West Vancouver’s survey of significant homes, 317 homes are listed as significant. Of those, 114 were designed and built by Lewis Construction. The next highest number is Fred Hollingsworth with 17 (which includes six as partnerships), then it’s Arthur Erickson and Geoffrey Massey with 12 collaboratively, followed by Duncan McNab with nine.

“The volume of work that he did is really astounding,” said Jennifer Clay, vice-president of the North Shore Heritage Foundation.

Given West Coast Modern’s connection to the Pacific Northwest landscape, most of his homes were built on the North Shore. According to the Lewis Construction database, Lewis Construction built 414 in West Vancouver alone, with 313 of them still standing. But his staggering total of 745 homes reaches throughout the Lower Mainland and deep into B.C.’s Interior, as far as Kelowna and the Kootenays.

Marrying with the architectural style, Lewis’s preferred construction method was post and beam, which was suited to West Vancouver’s craggy mountain geography.

“It just has footings – you don’t have a foundation floor,” Clay explained. “So your footings can be at varying heights depending on the geography of that particular lot.”

What distinguishes Lewis the most from his contemporaries is that he was a builder. As part of his company, he had a design team and would have had elements that were similar from house to house. This allowed him to be deeply involved in the practical aspects of building, whereas his architect contemporaries would float lofty ideas that would be difficult to translate into construction.

During her research, Clay spoke with multiple owners of homes built by Lewis, confirming that his approach involved working closely with buyers to customize each build. That process could lead to some arguments and a lot of “yes-buts” – though Lewis was described as lovely to work with, and buyers were typically very pleased with the finished product.

His utilitarian focus also came with a price advantage, costing around $8.50 per square foot to build compared to the more typical $10.50 per square foot at the time.

Putting West Coast Modern homes on the map

Over the years, he evolved his business into something of an empire. While Lewis Construction was founded in 1954, by 1959 Lewis Construction had built 400 homes in the Lower Mainland. By that time, he was building 100-plus homes a year. Eventually the company vertically integrated, owning its own home sales business called Lewis Realty Inc.

“That was probably unheard of,” Clay said. “It made perfect sense to retain control of the market as much as possible. But they probably also felt they were the most suited to selling the property since they built it.”

A good deal of this success was thanks to his wife, Evelyn, as was outlined in a 1959 Lions Gate Times article, Husband & Wife Team Pioneered Post and Beam into a Boom. Clay speculates that she handled invoicing and balancing the books, making up for likely blind spots in Lewis’s creative mind.

But all their success came with a cost. Especially in the early years, the couple and their three children had to move from home to home as Lewis built them. At the time, it was hard for people to get mortgages on flat-roofed houses for fear of water pooling and the roof collapsing, so the family would live in the homes Lewis built while buyers accumulated enough cash to buy them.

Looking through directories, Clay found they lived in at least seven homes during their 30 years in West Van – the longest at 1416 Chartwell Dr., which is now demolished.

According to the directory listings, he would continue his career until Lewis – born in 1917 – retired in 1976 at age 59. In 1987, Lewis Construction went into bankruptcy protection after apparent financial difficulties. By 1989, there were no listings for the couple, but a 2008 obituary states Evelyn passed away at age 89.

While a wash of cheap construction may have out-competed Lewis's business in the ’80s, Clay said his lasting legacy is that of a true visionary – “that sort of crazy, artistic genius guy who has so many ideas.”

What it’s like to live in a Bob Lewis

Jake Onrot fell in love with his house before he knew who built it.

He gave up a day of skiing on Easter weekend in 2011 to go look at a home on Bonnymuir Drive in West Vancouver.

“I felt like it was a little gem that had ticked all the boxes,” Onrot said. “I loved the architecture.”

It had privacy, a bright yard, mature gardens and even a pool. He said it had good bones when he bought it, and was drawn to the beam ceilings and abundance of wood in the build.

“The house felt very warm and sort of enfolded me in its arms,” Onrot added. “I felt like we were matched for each other.”

Then he found out that it was a Lewis – originally the Braun residence – because the sellers had the book of significant architecture opened to the page that featured the house. After moving in, Onrot found reading materials about Lewis and his West Coast Modern peers.

Onrot said he feels great pride in his home. “It’s designed so it gets all-day sun,” he said, adding that you can watch it rise over Grouse and set over Hollyburn.

Because of the generous lot size, he’s been able to build an outdoor conversation area with a fire pit and put in a hot tub.

“The whole thing is the house flows indoor-outdoor,” he continued. But it also flows through the indoor areas.

“You can sit in one room and look all the way across the house. You never feel enclosed in a small room because of the openness and the flow,” Onrot said. “That’s the beauty of this house: the way it’s laid out and its bones.”

nlaba@nsnews.com
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