The birth of what the Guinness Book of Records announces as the world's shallowest commercial building can be traced back to the historic cultural and racial injustices experienced by Chinese Canadians. Chang Toy came to Canada in 1874 and quickly amassed a strong reputation in the Chinese community for his business prowess, which started with a share in a local laundry. He went on to establish the Sam Kee Company in 1888, a business that became his bread and butter. One of the largest merchant firms in the city, and continuously looking for places to expand, the Sam Kee Company bought the standard-sized lot addressed as 8 West Pender Street in 1903. But what happened next simultaneously stoked tensions and broke records.

The Sam Kee Building, image retrieved from Google Street View

The City had a plan to widen Pender Street in 1912, a plan which came into direct conflict with Toy's purchased property. Armed with the power of expropriation, the City swallowed 24 feet of the lot, making typical commercial use of the remaining frontage all but impossible. Adding insult to injury, the City invoked their expropriation powers without properly compensating Toy. The move was widely seen as a slight against the Chinese-Canadian community. Toy's response was one of defiance — despite neighbours offering to buy the sliver of land, he went ahead and developed the lot.

The Sam Kee Building, image retrieved from Google Street View

Architects Brown and Gillam designed the skinny, steel-framed building in 1913, resulting in a depth of only 1.5 metres. The ground floor was devoted to offices and retailers, while the upper floor housed residences. The basement — extended beyond the footprint of the building — reputedly contained public baths, a statement of the bleak living conditions common in Chinatown at the time.

Inside the Sam Kee Building, image by Flickr user Frank Fujimoto via Creative Commons

Architects Birmingham and Wood purchased the building in 1966 to use as its head office. The building has been occupied by Jack Chow Insurance since 1986, when Soren Rasmussen completed a large-scale historical renovation of the building. Today, the building is just as a much a tourist attraction as it is a functioning office space.

Do you have building trivia to share? Join the conversation in the Architrivia Tipline thread in our Forum.