A Tale Told in Wood, Brick and Steel
By Andrew Farris
For most of us, our buildings are utilitarian things, little more than pieces of scenery. They are to be lived in and worked in, but rarely considered and appreciated. Walking down the street we may be struck by a particularly handsome or interesting building, but the moment is fleeting and quickly lost in the hustle and bustle of daily life. Yet that momentary spark of inspiration is in some ways the essence of architecture. Canada's most legendary architect, Vancouver's own Arthur Erickson, said, "Whenever we witness art in a building, we are aware of an energy contained by it."1 Careful, considered and conscious effort has been put into every aspect of the way we interact with our buildings. They are designed to impress and to inspire. To make us feel. One of the most wonderful things about living in a city is being surrounded by fine examples of architecture. Taking the time to contemplate that architecture can be an immensely enriching experience, opening the door to a deeper understanding of the people that created it. A city's buildings are a reflection of a society's values and the way it sees itself. As the Oxford History of Architecture put it, "Architecture, to state the obvious, is a social act—social both in method and purpose. It is the outcome of teamwork; and it is there to be made use of by groups of people, groups as small as the family or as large as an entire nation. Architecture is a costly act. It engages specialized talent, appropriate technology, handsome funds. Because this is so, the history of architecture partakes, in a basic way, of the study of the social, economic, and technological systems of human history.”2 This tour will guide you through the rich architectural legacy of the first 50 years of Vancouver. We will see who and what inspired Vancouver's most famous landmarks. We will learn the characteristics of some of the most prominent building style and examine the social, economic and technological changes reflected in the buildings from this dynamic and exciting time.
We'd like to thank the Vancouver Archives for generous use of their historic photo collection. We also owe thanks to the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association who partnered with us to develop the Stories of Granville Street tour.
1. St. James Church
In Vancouver's founding legend the two key institutions were a saw mill and a bar. No surprise then that the first buildings reflected those humble beginnings. The millworkers and pioneers who called this place home had little inclination to erect buildings of architectural merit. The architect Henry Bell-Irving arrived in Vancouver from England in early 1886. As he and his young wife Bella stepped into the New Brighton Hotel, she tripped over a man lying on the floor. Embarrassed, she apologized profusely for disturbing him but a logger sitting at the bar told her not to worry: He was already dead.1 The city's first residents had an infinite supply of cedar and fir close to hand, so they built most everything out of wood. Their buildings were squat, one or two-storey affairs, fronting Vancouver's several muddy streets. As these structures could be thrown together in a matter of weeks or even days (according to the legend Gassy Jack's bar was built in a day), it lent the whole city a temporary feel. Yet many of first inhabitants, Gassy Jack foremost amongst them, were hopelessly optimistic about the settlement's prospects and believed one day it would take its place amongst the world's great cities. For an observer surveying the mud, tree stumps, and shacks that constituted Vancouver in 1886, that dream must have seemed an impossibly distant mirage.
2. Oppenheimer Building
The fire that tore through Vancouver killed over 20 people and left 3,000 homeless.1 Yet the Great Fire gave the city a chance to start over anew. The Hastings sawmill offered free timber to anyone wishing to rebuild and within hours the city's residents were at work, erecting new homes and businesses. City council rented out the upstairs of the Oppenheimer Building and ran the city's government from there for some months. They could not have failed to recognize the survivability of the Oppenheimer Building's brick construction when they issued a strikingly modern fire code in the weeks after the fire. The new code ensured the great majority of new buildings would be made of brick and other fire-proof materials. With a booming economy, an expanding population and the arrival of talented architects from Great Britain and the United States, a new city rose from the ashes of the old with extraordinary speed. Many of the buildings in Gastown today date from this huge burst of energy that followed the fire. Within a year there were 57 buildings on Cordova Street, 39 on Water Street and 26 on Carrall. In 1887 alone over $1.5 million was built on new construction.2
3. Byrnes Block
The frantic real estate speculation that happened in every Western Canadian town touched by the CPR was especially pronounced in Vancouver, which beat out Port Moody for the honour of being the railway's western terminus. Hoping to capitalize on the expected waves of immigrants and tourists, businesses competed with each other in commissioning ever most luxurious and beautiful buildings. One of the very first was the Byrnes Block, built on top of the smouldering ashes of Deighton House, the successor to Gassy Jack's old tavern. Fittingly located at the symbolic heart of Vancouver, this building set a new standard for the city's merchants to aspire to. Housing the Alhambra Hotel, it was designed in the Italianate style, the British Victorians take on Italian villas from the 1500s. There are a number of noticeable Italianate features like the flat roof, the tall, narrow windows with ornamental mouldings at the top and a projecting strip along the top of the building called a cornice that was held up by decorative brackets. This style became hugely popular in Vancouver in the 1880s and you'll notice many Italianate buildings when you're walking around Gastown. The beautiful exterior was matched by an opulent interior that itself set a new standard in luxury accommodation. No longer would Vancouver be a place where people who died in bars be left to rot on the floor!
4. The Last Best West
The buildings that would soon get built are remarkable for the range of styles the architects employed. Historically, most civilizations tend to stick to one architectural tradition before moving on to the next. In Vancouver we see no dominant architectural style, but a great plurality all represented at the same time. This was largely thanks to the outward-looking and open-minded views of British architects in the late 1800s. Today architecture is viewed as a technical profession, but back then it was seen as more of an art. Like any good artists, 19th Century architects went out looking for inspiration. For British architects this meant scouring Europe for ideas and they had over 2,500 years worth of building styles to choose from. Soon practically every conceivable architectural form that could be seen in Europe was 'revived', with each architect adding a few touches of their own. To name a few, neo-classical buildings looked to ancient Greek and Roman temples, Romanesque Revival buildings were inspired by early-Medieval abbeys , and the Baroque style of Britain's 18th Century was dusted off and updated. A handful of these architects came to Vancouver, bringing with them an intellectual legacy that spanned the many nations of Europe and extended back in time for millennia. In Vancouver they had pretty much a blank slate to work with.
5. The Dunn-Miller Block
Shortly after the arrival of the railway a CPR brochure tried to persuade eastern Canadians to visit the far-flung terminus city. "The city is new indeed," it read. "Only one or two of its many buildings were here twelve months ago – a forest stood here then. The men who build the town could not wait for bricks and mortar, and all of the earlier houses were built of wood; but now many solid, handsome structures of brick and stone are going up, and there is more of a come-to-stay look about it all." Like all of Vancouver's economic booms, the first one, fueled by the railway and post-fire reconstruction, did not last. In 1893 a panic sell-off on Wall Street sent shockwaves around the world. This was followed by a rock slide in the Fraser Canyon that devastated the salmon run and walloped the province's fishing dependent economy. The province went into a deep recession and the building boom ground to a halt. By 1896 half of the city's carpenters were out of work.2 Then another boom came in 1898 (the start of a Vancouver pattern) when gold was discovered in the Klondike. Tens of thousands of American gold prospectors stopped in Vancouver to stock up on supplies for the arduous journey to the Yukon. As you can see the Thomas-Dunn hardware store made every effort to capitalize on this new source of revenue. Almost overnight all the builders were back in business.
6. Woods Hotel
The Woods Hotel was completed in the early stages of the greatest economic boom in Vancouver's history in the first years of the 20th Century. As we will see, the architectural dynamism of this exciting time has left Vancouver with most of its finest buildings. At the time Hastings Street was the commercial hub of Vancouver, and the Woods Hotel was strategically placed to be at the centre of it. The architect was the talented William Whiteway, who, as we will soon see, can be credited with many of the city's most beautiful landmarks. He drew inspiration from his time in California in the 1880s and gave the building a distinctly San Francisco-feel: notice the many bay windows and the way they are prominently divided into sections, as well as the curious turret. If you walk inside through the entranceway, the round arch and strong masonry foundations are unmistakable Romanesque Revival elements. Romanesque is a style derived from early medieval abbeys across Western Europe. Those abbeys were themselves a revival of later Roman architecture. He certainly had a talent for mixing and mashing different styles.
7. Holden Building
As he did with the Woods Hotel, Mr. Whiteway took inspiration for this building from America. Many hints of the Chicago style that was sweeping North America can be seen in its design. For starters it is a skyscraper, a type of building pioneered in Chicago that has completely revolutionized the city as we know it. Skyscrapers at that time were generally considered any building taller than nine storeys. One of the main design elements in early Chicago style skyscrapers was to mimic Graeco-Roman columns by dividing the front facade into three sections. A column consisted of a base, a shaft and a capital. As you can see the Holden Building's facade also has an enlarged base, a shaft and a capital. The building's owner William Holden was an extremely successful real estate agent and investment broker and has been dubbed "the man who built Granville Street."1 It's a bit ironic then that when he had this skyscraper constructed here the city's centre of activity was moving from Hastings to Granville Street. Shortly after the Holden Building was completed in 1911 the real estate market collapsed and the Hastings strip was never to recover. Too bad he didn't build it on Granville.
8. Hastings Great White Way
Though largely forgotten today, vaudeville shows were once hugely popular and a major part of our culture. A vaudeville show was a series of live acts by a range of performers that might include actors, comedians, singers, magicians, musicians, and dancing animals, to name a few. Vaudeville's popularity hit its peak in the roaring '20s and the competing vaudeville chains sought to outdo each other with the flamboyancy of their theatres. Those belonging to Alexander Pantages are best remembered for festooning their walls both inside and out with a dizzying variety of intoxicating terra cotta sculptures. The major vaudeville theatre chains were not too concerned about the rise of "photoplays", convinced they were just a fad. Unfortunately for them, they were not. By the late 1940s most of the vaudeville chains had been run out of business by the movie industry. Most of the city's once popular vaudeville theatres, like the Lyric, the Strand, and the Majestic, have been demolished.
9. World Tower
William Whiteway was once again the designer of this building and this time he looked to New York City for inspiration: he took the idea for a tall tower placed atop a large building from the famous Woolworth's Building. The dome (made of steel but painted to look like copper) and the many terra cotta sculptures are hallmarks of the French Beaux-Arts style, a neoclassical style taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The World Tower was built to house the Vancouver World, a newspaper bought out by the Vancouver Sun in 1924, hence the name change. At 17 storeys it was in fact the biggest building in the British Empire when it was completed, stealing the title from the Dominion Building located just a block away. At the time the British Empire ruled over a quarter of the world, so this was no idle boast. Skyscrapers were the ultimate symbols of modernity, optimism and economic success. Builders in cities like New York and Chicago fiercely competed to erect the world's tallest skyscrapers, just as places like Dubai, Shanghai and Guangzhou are vying for the same honour today. And for a brief moment a century ago Vancouver neared the top of the leaderboard.
10. Steel-Framed Construction
As ships packed full of immigrants sailed into New York harbour in the 1890s there are reports that some of the European passengers literally refused to believe that the skyscrapers of Manhattan were real, such was the way they revolutionized the way people lived and worked.1 Skyscrapers were potent symbols of the new world and offered North America the chance to strike out in a totally different architectural direction from the old world. This was all made possible by the steel-frame skeleton you see above, and the use of proper building foundations. Before steel-frames the walls of buildings had to bear all the weight of the floors above. Every extra floor put greater stress on the walls, limiting building heights. On the other hand, steel frames had an almost limitless capacity to hold weight, and the walls could be tacked on almost as an afterthought—hence the architectural term 'curtain-walls'. Modern building foundations were also first tried out in Chicago's swampy downtown as that city rebuilt after its own Great Fire in 1871. Finally the near simultaneous invention of the elevator made it feasible to live and work at such heights.
11. Dominion Tower
This building is designed in the Second Empire style, the French type of Baroque Revival that is most easily identified by the highly distinctive 'mansard' roof beloved by the French. One of the obvious benefits of tall buildings was that they unlocked space, allowing more people to be crammed into a smaller area. Geography certainly played a role in Vancouver's early forays into skyscraper-building: Vancouver, like Manhattan, is on a peninsula and space has always been at a premium. Yet with the benefits also came drawbacks. Skyscrapers are extremely high-risk investments. When you finish a skyscraper you are effectively dumping tens of thousands of square feet of office space on the market at once. If the economy takes a nosedive then nobody is going to pay to rent that space. This is exactly what happened after the Dominion Trust Building was completed. From 1908 to 1913 the value of land in Vancouver quadrupled in the midst of a ludicrously out-of-control real estate bubble. When the bubble popped in 1913, the Dominion Trust Company went under, the first of a series of cascading bank failures. Vancouver fell into an economic tail spin that would take decades to recover from. All of this might give us pause for thought today.
12. Old Post Office
Since the pyramids of Giza, states have always used official architecture to enhance their power and overawe their citizens. A century ago post offices played a much more important role in connecting the disparate parts of this country: for many the post office would have been the only frequent point of contact with the federal government. It therefore behooved the government to ensure that post offices were impressive and imposing. Completed in 1892, Vancouver's first post office was a three storey stone building located a couple blocks up Granville. At the time it was one of the city's most prominent buildings, but Vancouver's meteoric growth quickly meant a bigger building was needed. Meteoric isn't a strong enough word. Vancouver's population exploded from 22,000 in 1891 to 164,000 in 1911, a mind-boggling increase of 750% in just 20 years. To put that in perspective, from 1991 to 2011 the population grew by a measly 70%.1 A grand new building would be needed to show the city's many new inhabitants that the federal government was here and in control. The post office you see in front of you was the result.
13. Replace the Repulse
This style is the English version of the Baroque that was pioneered by Sir Christopher Wren when he led the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire in 1666 (Great Fires tend to spur much of history's greatest architectural innovations). Saint Paul's Cathedral is the most famous example of his work. Baroque architecture consciously used light, shadow and decoration to impress upon the viewer the wealth and power of the builder. While many countries in Europe developed their own Baroque styles, the English version stood out for its heavy reliance on neo-classical elements like columns and domes, as can be seen here. The Baroque Revival style of the early 1900s included sculptures and ornamental flourishes learned from Paris's Ecole des Beaux Arts, the world's pre-eminent school of architecture. While conveying the success and unity of the empire, the Baroque Revival style also reflected the boundless optimism of a time when European imperial powers held sway over practically the entire world. With this building the people of Vancouver showed that even here, 7,500 kilometres from London, the bond with the mother country was as strong as ever.
14. Vancouver Block
The Vancouver Block symbolizes the unshakeable optimism of the first decade of the 20th Century, and the great fortunes being accumulated by the city's leading businessmen. No expense was spared in the construction of this 15-storey skyscraper. The Chicago style elements are all here, including the column-inspired facade and pure white terra cotta walls that gave the whole building a soft and creamy texture. Terra cotta was very popular in this period for creating complex sculptures that looked like stone, and this building almost went over the top with its terra cotta ornamentation. Each face of the clock was 22 feet across, making it the biggest clock in Canada—Vancouver's own mini-Big Ben. The glass in the dials weighed over four tonnes. Within the tower a sumptuous penthouse suite was built for Burns, giving him expansive views across the city. Though Burns' fortune managed to survive the economic catastrophe of 1913, very few others did. As a result the skyline of Vancouver remained frozen until the late 1920s, when companies could finally feel secure enough to invest in grand new buildings.
15. Hudson's Bay Company
The HBC started out trading furs with the First Nations and HBC traders were some of the first Europeans to visit the Lower Mainland. As British Columbia evolved from a timber and fur-based economy to a highly-diversified industrial one, the HBC made an equally impressive transition: From rugged fur wholesaler to high-end department store. As Canada's oldest and most successful company, the HBC built department stores on this same pattern across all western Canada in the Edwardian period. The palace-like neo-classical design seen here was designed by the HBC's architects, Burke, Halwood, and White from Toronto. The design was so popular they imitated it across country, modeling stores in Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and other cities after this one.
16. Third Hotel Vancouver
Immediately after completion of the railway, the CPR owned most of the land in the West End and sought both to drive up the value of their land and bring tourists to Vancouver. Trying to kill two birds with one stone, they raised some eyebrows in the late 1880s by building the first Hotel Vancouver at what was then the fringe of the city, the intersection of Granville and Georgia. This proved to be a master stroke that has completely shaped Vancouver as we know it. The wealthy tourists from across Canada flocked to the hotel and local businesses flocked to those tourists like moths to the flame. Eventually the city’s centre of gravity began to shift from Gastown and Hastings to this intersection here. In the early 1900s, when Vancouver was playfully nicknamed "the city outgrowing its clothes", a bigger and better CPR hotel was needed and the result was the enormous and lavish second Hotel Vancouver.2 It was closed in 1939 and demolished a decade later, replaced by the third Hotel Vancouver, seen here. The CPR’s architect Bruce Price perfected this interesting style of architecture called Chateauesque, a revival of French chateaus built in that country’s southwest in the 17th Century. The defining characteristics were the steep roofs, asymmetrical layout, and advancing and receding planes of the facade, all abundantly in evidence here.
17. The Court House
An obviously classically-inspired design, Rattenbury's plan for the court house also looked to Palladianism, which was born in Venice and briefly popular in 17th Century Britain. The neo-Palladian influence can be seen in the careful alignment of the open area behind the columns called a portico, the large round area inside called the rotunda, and the huge dome that topped it off. The ambitious 25-year-old Rattenbury arrived in Victoria in 1892. It didn't take long for him to make an impact: The provincial government was accepting design proposals for the provincial legislature and Rattenbury immediately submitted a plan, along with 60 other more experienced architects. In a shock move, the province selected the young Rattenbury's Romanesque Revival plan that, it was felt, perfectly encapsulated the medieval roots of parliamentary democracy. His Empress Hotel and CPR Steamship Terminal are also lynchpins of Victoria's Inner Harbour, and it is these designs that cemented his legacy. His rapid rise to fame over the heads of many more experienced architects can be attributed, according to the architectural historian Donald Luxton, to his ability to capture the imperialist mood of British Columbia at the time.1
18. Francis Rattenbury
After the selection of his design for the legislature, Rattenbury was the toast of society and the envy of other architects. He became involved in a variety of financial schemes, investing heavily in a plan to send pre-fabricated steamers to the lakes of the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush. Nobody seemed to mind that he was in the Klondike when his legislature in Victoria opened. In 1898 he married Florence Nunn and as the years wore on and a number of his financial ventures failed, the relationship became strained. It didn't help that his style of imperial architecture went out of style. By the 1920s Florence and Francis weren't even on speaking terms, and their daughter had to pass notes between them. Setting his wife aside (though not divorcing her), Francis fell in love with Alma Clarke Dolling Pakenham, a war widow 30 years his junior. The scandal this caused in high society did irreparable damage to his reputation. To escape the whispers of the chattering classes he formally divorced his wife and then took moved with Ms. Pakenham to England in the early 1930s. Once in England Rattenbury hired a 17-year-old to be his chauffeur. His new wife promptly seduced the chauffeur and they began a passionate affair. Over the following months the chauffeur became convinced Rattenbury was on the verge of discovering them. Consumed by paranoia, he snuck up on the legendary architect and bludgeoned him to death. Rattenbury was 68. The trial that followed was one of the most sensational of the 20th Century, attracting an exceptional amount of coverage in the British tabloids.
19. The Marine Building
Like so many architectural trends in this period, Art Deco started in France. The name comes from the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris that brought the new style that had been percolating in France to the world's attention. Art Deco sought to reconcile the revolutionary advances in industrial building technology with the careful attention to craft and decoration that was the hallmark of previous eras. Buildings of this style would embrace the modernity of steel and glass while giving a wonderful amount of attention to decorations, sculptures, shapes and colours. Built at the same time, the Chrysler Building in New York is often seen as the ultimate example of Art Deco in North America, but the Marine Building has been lauded as an artistic marvel as well. The building was commissioned by a shipping company who paid enormous sums for intricate decorations tying the building to a maritime theme. The entrances and walls were inlaid with blue and gold mermaids, sea snails, crabs and scallops while transportation motifs like trains and ships proliferated as well. The idea, according to the architects McCarter and Nairne, was to evoke "some great crag rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted in sea-green, touched with gold."2
Vancouver was also a pioneer in modernist architecture, but that is beyond the scope of this tour. It is worth saying that modernism represented a radical departure from all previous architectural traditions. Modernism was rooted in the belief that the architect's priority should not be to design beautiful buildings, but to promote equity, efficiency and community. Advances in science and technology could be harnessed by the architect to these ends. Le Corbusier, the standard-bearer of modernism said "We claim in the name of the steamship, of the airplane, and of the motor-car the right to health, logic, daring, harmony, perfection."1 Modernism started in the suburbs. Utopian philosophy aside, modernism's adoption was sped up by the need for tremendous amounts of cheap housing after the Second World War. The housing of Canadians had been allowed to decay through decades of neglect, and in 1945 a shocking 61% of homes had running water. Only half had a toilet. At the time this was considered a disgrace.2 Today, it is completely unimaginable. Modernist designs, which were cheap and easy to build, provided the best method to bridge this gap. After modernism became normalized in the newly expanding suburbs it was only a matter of time before it would begin to colonize urban centres, resulting in the great majority of the buildings you see around you now. As we will see in the Vanished Buildings tour, many of Vancouver's finest old buildings have not survived to the present. In the mania for science-based social progress that followed the Second World War, the great architectural legacy of early Vancouver was severely reduced and many beautiful old buildings torn down. It is only in recent years that we have come to realize the immense value of this legacy, and the importance of preserving it for the future.
- 1. Stouck, 69.
- 2. Kostof, 7.
1. St. James Church
2. Oppenheimer Building
5. The Dunn-Miller Block
2. Luxton, 102.
6. Woods Hotel
1. Victoria Daily Colonist, 16.
7. Holden Building
2. Canada's Historic Places.
8. Hastings Great White Way
1. B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame.
10. Steel-Framed Construction
11. Dominion Tower
2. Ghosts of Vancouver.
12. Old Post Office
1. Government of Canada.
16. Third Hotel Vancouver
1. Luxton, 101.
2. Luxton, 255.
17. The Court House
19. The Marine Building
1. A View on Cities.
1. Liscombe, 30.
A View on Cities." "Marine Building." Online..
"Attractive Values in Preliminary Easter Offerings." Victoria Daily Colonist. 15 March 1907. Online.
B.C. Entertainment Hall of Fame. "The Hastings Great White Way."7 Apr. 2015. Online.
Burns, Ric. "Episode Three: Sunshine and Shadow." New York: A Documentary Film. New York: Steeplechase Films, 1999.
Canada's Historic Places. "Holden Building." 14 January 2003. Online.
Cruikshank, Julie. From Settlement to City: Vancouver's Growth to 1913. Vancouver, 1971.
Ghosts of Vancouver. "Haunted Locations: Dominion Building." Online.
Government of Canada. "1891 Census," "1911 Census," "1991 Census," & "2011 Census." Online.
Lazarus, Eve. "The Dominion Building." Every Place has a Story. 25 Mar. 2012. Online
Liscombe, Rodhri W. The New Spirit: Modern Architecture in Vancouver 1938-63. Toronto: Centre for Canadian Architecture, 1997.
Luxton, Donald. Building the West: The Early Architects of British Columbia. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2007.