J J Dissette built several houses as investments in Vancouver, none of which appear to survive today, although the house he built for himself in Shaughnessy is still standing. He earns his place here because he was responsible for a number of significant building contracts when Vancouver saw a huge boom in construction around 1911 – over $660,000 worth of construction permits in that year alone.
We know Mr Dissette was born in Simcoe County, Ontario (a fact shared with a disproportionate number of early Vancouver residents). His birth date moves almost randomly between 1854 and 1864, depending on whether it’s a Census, his wedding or his death where the date is recorded. His father was called John and his mother Mary (or Bridget). In some records, and later in his life the first ‘J’ in his name was for Joseph rather than John – which makes tracing him even more difficult.
There were two John Dissettes recorded in the 1871 Canada Census, both Irish born, both living in Simcoe, but only one family was Catholic. The Ramara Township history website has a family of 11 children, including John J who it is suggested was born in 1854 (at number 10). Richard Dissette is a brother, born in 1848 (whose son later moved to Vancouver and died in WWI). If this is the correct identification, J J was born in West Gwillimbury along with his ten brothers and sisters. There is nobody else with the initials J J called Dissette in any records, so if this is the same J J Dissette who moved to Vancouver he might have been somewhat older than later records suggest. (The death record for J J Dissette in 1938 suggests 1854 is correct).
J J Dissette, a contractor, was living in Minneapolis in the US for the 1895 Minnesota State Census (where he had been for 5 years) and the 1900 US Census, where both parents are recorded as being born in France. This wasn’t particularly accurate, as J J Dissette, a contractor was listed in the Minneapolis street directory quite a bit earlier in the 1880s. In 1881 there was a listings for J J Dissette, a moulder, living at the same address in Minneapolis as Edward Dissette, a carpenter. (A Minnie Higgins is also listed in the city, working for Segelbaum Bros). The 1900 US Census record says he arrived in the US in 1881, although a profile published in 1913 says it was 1884 when he moved to Minnesota (contradicted by the 1895 Minnesota Census and the Minneapolis street directory).
Despite the French-sounding name, all other documents (and a lot of other Simcoe based relatives) suggest that the family’s origins were in Ireland. Irish-French families called Dissette had been residents of Ontario from at least the turn of the 19th Century.
While in Minneapolis J J Dissette got married to Mary J Higgins – later recorded as Minnie Higgins – in 1887. Two years later they had a son, Louis, who died in his first year, and Mary herself died not long after in 1890.
He married again in 1901 to Mary L Holtz (or Mackenzie – her previously married name). Although both he and his bride were Catholic, his wife was a divorcee ten years younger than him, with a four year old daughter. Her first husband was 23 years older than her, which might explain the divorce. John knocked several years off his age when he married (and even if there was really a 17 year difference rather than the 10 years official records suggest, her new husband might still not have seemed that old!) She was from a Swedish background, but born in Minnesota. Various other family members worked with J J Dissette in Minneapolis, including Edward, Michael and Philip Dissette. J J Dissette was described as a carpenter, then builder, then contractor, as he presumably became an increasingly successful Minneapolis builder.
The family are said to have moved to Vancouver the same year that he married (in 1901), and he was building houses a year later. He only shows up in Vancouver street directories in 1904, and Mary appears as well, running her own real estate business as M L Dissette & Co. In 1907 he developed a tenement on Nelson Street, and in 1908 he hired Henry B Watson to design an apartment building on West Georgia, on the corner of Broughton Street, overlooking Burrard Inlet; they would be named the Majestic Apartments.
By 1911 J J Dissette was a well known and successful contractor in Vancouver. The Census that year records John James aged 49 (May 1862) and wife Mary L aged 39 living at 1398 Georgia with Myrtle MacKenzie, Mary’s 14 year old daughter (she obviously gave the census clerk a definition problem as she is recorded as lodger/daughter). They have a 30 year old domestic living with them, Beatrice Ward-Weford.
In 1912 alone JJ Dissette & Co built the Lester Dancing Academy on Davie Street, got a $100,000 contract for West Point Grey’s school designed by McClure and Fox and started building a wool pullery at Yukon Street (no, we have no idea!) designed by Parr and Fee.
The company also built a workshop on Beach Avenue and a factory on Hornby Street designed by W T Whiteway. He built several of the Parr and Fee designed Granville Street blocks, including the one developed by Charles Fee, and could also build significant wood-frame buildings as well as the brick ones, being the contractor for H B Watson’s frame design for St Patrick Church on 12th Avenue. He also built apartment buildings, including one for the same architect on Georgia Street. On Water Street he had the contract for the Taylor Block.
In 1912 the company incorporated, adding ‘Limited’ to its title. There were four partners, including both John and Richard Dissette. There is a Richard Dissette who appears in records operating the Crosby Hall Hotel on Simcoe Street in Toronto from as early as 1878 (when he would have been 29 years old). It’s likely that he was John’s older brother. He died in 1924, and his son, Arthur died as a First World War aviator, and was reported to have been educated in Toronto, but relocated to Vancouver where he was in the automobile business. In 1914 the Dissette Motor Co Ltd was at 1254 Hornby, which was also Arthur’s home address. He was agent for Lozier and Oakland Motor Cars – Loziers were expensive luxury cars, built in Detroit, while Oakland were a little more modest General Motors factory.
By 1913 J J Dissette’s success has translated to a house in Shaughnessy Heights on Matthews Avenue. There is no record of who the architect was, but we can guess who built it. That year his recreations were listed as fishing, boating and horse racing.
It’s just possible that a little more of Mr Dissette’s construction work is still standing. He built two houses side by side on Seymour Street in 1904. These days they’re the site of the Penthouse Club, the facade of which is a 1930s structure. But inside it isn’t clear if existing structures were incorporated and expanded, or whether the whole building was new built in the 1930s.
In 1915 John is shown as the treasurer of the Dissette MacConnell Lumber Co, living at 1859 Napier (possibly an error, as he is at the Matthews address before and after this date). He appears to have merged with or bought into the MacConnell Lumber Co a year or so earlier. In 1916 he is still associated with the lumber company and is living at 1437 Matthews. It seems that he moved around 1916 (or perhaps joined up, although he would have been over 60 years old). In 1917 and 1918 Mrs Mary L Dissette is living at 1437 Matthews, and in 1919 there is a Mrs Dissette living at 1058 Nelson Street. No records show any Dissettes living in Vancouver after this date.
It seems that between 1919 & 1937 he may have used the name of Joseph J Dissette. In 1924 it appears (from his older brother’s obituary) that he was living in Detroit and from 1926 in Tampa, Florida, where he was involved in real estate and formed a loan company in 1930. In 1937, records show that Joseph Dissette was living in Mobile, Alabama, where he died on January 29, 1938. At this point his birth was listed as having been in 1854, in Canada (and while John is listed as father, his mother was Bridget O’Donnell). He was a widower, but the name of his deceased spouse wasn’t Mary, but rather his first wife, Minnie Higgins.