Downtown Nanaimo Fire: The History of Jean Burns Building
“In every conceivable manner, the family is link to our past, bridge to our future.” – Alex Haley
Earlier this week, Nanaimo suffered a tragic fire in the downtown core which affected several local businesses. As the smoke and flames subsided and the valiant firefighters packed up after valiantly battling this terrible blaze, I thought it might be interesting to share the history of this heritage building that likely will now be torn down due to the amount of damage caused by the fire.
Jean Burns was an beloved resident of Nanaimo and spearheaded the construction of the Jean Burns Building built in 1955 by local architect, Thomas McAvarravy. A particularly interesting design feature of this building located on the corner of Commercial Street and Terminal Avenue was that the second floor stairway was exposed to the street by a paneled glass wall. This building was the location for the Jean Burns Ladies and Children’s Wear Shop for over 40 years. The clothing was quite upscale and sold the latest fashions and was a reflection of Jean’s experience as a seamstress.
On an online forum, a poster shared with readers that Robert Burns came to Canada on his own and married Jean (Lindsay) Burns here and actually ran the Red and White Grocery Store before they opened Jean Burns Ltd. The Burns family created the Lynburn (Lyn/Burn) subdivision in Departure Bay and this name was a fusion of the Lindsay and Burns family since Jean’s maiden name was Lindsay. The two families, along with Jean’s brother, a local chiropractor, collaborated together and created Lynburn Estates and donated a portion of land that would become the Nanaimo Golf Course. This family essentially owned much of the property from where Brooks Landing (formerly the Northbrook Mall) down to the bottom of Departure Bay Road . An interesting fact about the Cilaire subdivision was that this land was owned by C I L and manufactured dynamite. The name CILaire was born from the first 3 letters of the company. It also explains such odd name like “Black Powder Trail” with its reference to dynamite powder in the Cilaire subdivision.
The Jean Burns building would later house many small businesses as well as several restaurants including Acme Food Company, which closed its doors this past September. Many of us have fond memories of wandering around the vibrant downtown area and stopping by the picture framing store and other shops that stretched past the Chinese Steps. I hope that we will all take a moment to reflect on the legacy of the Jean Burns building and the incredible impact the Lindsay and Burns families had on the development of Nanaimo. It was not just an old building that burned down this week, it also was a reminder of a bygone era of a different city that was growing and changing. Our thoughts and prayers are with all of those businesses who were affected by the fire and the employees and customers who are displaced.
Brian & Myles McCullough
P.S. Here is an interesting photo of the Burns/Lindsay family members.