Alvo von Alvensleben

  • House of the von Alvensleben family in Kerrisdale, now „Croften House“ © Goethe-Institut Montreal
    House of the von Alvensleben family in Kerrisdale, now „Croften House“
  • House of the von Alvensleben family in Kerrisdale, now „Croften House“ © Goethe-Institut Montreal
    House of the von Alvensleben family in Kerrisdale, now „Croften House“
  • The inside of „Croften House“ © Goethe-Institut Montreal
    The inside of „Croften House“

The Rise and Fall of Alvo von Alvensleben

In the first decade of the previous century, Germans had a determining influence on life in British Columbia. Immigrants streamed to Vancouver to try their luck as lumberjacks and miners, bookkeepers and bookbinders, building developers and brewers. The Germans were looked upon favourably even among the elites of Vancouver society. After all, Queen Victoria of Great Britain and Ireland was the German Kaiser’s grandmother.

Three years after her death in 1901, Gustav Konstantin von Alvensleben (Alvo von Alvensleben for short) made his way to Canada. Alvo came from an aristocratic family, but he travelled west with only 4 USD in his pocket. He recognized the vast potential of BC early on, with its mineral resources, rich fish stocks, and enormous wooded areas. However, he was not yet aware of the great treasure hidden in Vancouver. Just like today, it was property that led to prosperity, and not gold, as he had originally thought.

After Alvo had struggled along for a few months with jobs not really befitting his rank, his interest in property development grew. It quickly became clear to him that he needed to call upon his good contacts in Germany if he wanted to have success in this area. He first got to know the province and the genteel Vancouver society with his smaller jobs. For example, he hunted game in the Fraser Valley and sold it to the best restaurant in the city at the elite Vancouver Club, and in 1905, he bought a fishing boat and used the BC salmon run to deliver fresh salmon to his clients. With the proceeds, Alvo founded the company “Alvensleben Finance and General Investment Co.” The first German funding soon started flowing into BC, and within 18 months he bought a seat on the Vancouver stock exchange, which was still quite sleepy at the time. His investors included: Dr. Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, the Kaiser’s chancellor; the Prussian Field Marshal General von Mackensen; Emma von Mumm; Bertha Krupp; and even Kaiser Wilhelm himself. As a pioneer in several fields, Alvo financed an oil mining company, in addition to having a focus on the lumber industry, coal mining, and fisheries.

Alvo was a flamboyant personality and a bit of a peacock. He was able to enchant investors with his charm, and it was soon said that Alvo was “Kaiser Wilhelm’s man in North America” and that he could ascend to Premier of BC. With his connection to Germany came money. With German funds, he financed the Dominion Building on the corner of Cambie and Hastings Street, which was the tallest building in the British Empire in 1910. He built a grand house for his family in the upscale neighbourhood Kerrisdale, and it now houses a girls’ school and is called Croften House.

Today, Alvo von Alvensleben has somewhat fallen into obscurity in the case of both these buildings, and he isn’t mentioned on either their websites or on a plaque.

There were regular visitors to BC from the German empire, and Alvo built the exclusive Wigwam Inn near the Indian Arm Provincial Park for these visits. There, he offered walks in the woods, dancing in the moonlight, and delicious food and drink. Even the billionaires John D. Rockefeller and John Jacob Astor were guests at the Wigwam Inn, and people would talk widely about Alvo’s climatic health resort. The Wigwam Inn today belongs to a yacht club only accessible to members, and there is no more reference to its German origin.

Alvo tried to foster his German roots in Vancouver. He founded the “Deutschclub” on Granville Street in order to keep his investors in good humour, with its elegant furnishings and abundant beer and wine on offer. The club now no longer exists. There were also lots of opportunities for the German working and middle class to get together for social evenings in Vancouver. Among the locations frequented by these Germans was the “Ratskeller” bar in the basement of the Thomas Flack Block, as well as the Cobb Building opposite the Dominion Building. German lumberjacks, farmers, mechanics, and miners would socialize together there. Arguably the most prominent visitor was the then-unknown accountant Joachim Ribbentrop. Later, he would be allowed to add the nobiliary particle “von” to his name, becoming Joachim von Ribbentrop, the future Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany.

Alvo’s relationship with Germany eventually led to his doom. First, there was a prolonged recession in his old home country in 1913, when Alvo lost the majority of his 25 million dollar fortune (equal to 500 million dollars in today’s money). After that, he had to flee to Seattle at the outbreak of World War I to avoid ending up in a detention camp. In 1917, the USA also entered the war, and Alvo was interned. The remainder of his fortune in Canada was seized by the Office of the Custodian of Enemy Property. Alvo von Alvensleben never recovered from this blow, and he died in poverty in 1965 in Seattle. However, his legacy remains part of Vancouver’s history.