Historic Walking Tour
The City's Lost Architectural Legacy
Vancouver is a young city, one of the youngest major cities in the world. Since it was founded, the vast primordial forests of cedar and fir have given way to broad avenues, handsome neighbourhoods, and imposing towers of glass and steel. The path from there to here has not been a straight one. Vancouver is continuously remaking itself. Buildings are demolished every day and new ones erected in their place. They are usually taller and bigger, but not necessarily better. Many of Vancouver's best buildings no longer exist. They have been destroyed and replaced, either because the fast-growing city outgrew the building, or because government policies gave short shrift to preserving the city's fascinating architectural heritage. All victims of progress. In this tour we will look at some of the best buildings that once stood in Vancouver, and learn what happened to them. One hopes that as the years go by, there will not be more additions to this tour.
We'd like to thank the Vancouver Archives for generous use of their historic photo collection.
While the homes above may have vanished decades ago, the destruction of heritage homes is a process that continues across Vancouver to this day. It has even accelerated, though the focus has moved from the downtown peninsula to neighbourhoods like Kerrisdale, Mount Pleasant, and Dunbar. In his book, Vanishing Vancouver: The Last 25 Years, Michael Kluckner despairs at the "disposal of beautiful houses and gardens, cast away as if they didn't have any value at all. That their replacements appeared inferior to my eyes just compounded the outrage. There seemed to be so little appreciation by residents old and new of Vancouver's houses, no environmental or aesthetic mindset that would guide the builders even into preserving trees."xx1 About 1,000 homes are demolished in Vancouver every year.xx2
2. 'A Quieter Time'
From 1897 to 1913 the city grew at a frantic pace, faster than any other on the Pacific Coast—even Los Angeles.xx3 Many Vancouverites inevitably saw themselves as living in a city that would become a great global metropolis, but it was a dream that ground to a halt after the real estate market collapse of 1913. In the century following that collapse, the economy went through cycles of boom and bust, but never regained the precipitous heights of that heady time. For much of the 20th Century Vancouver was destined to remain a provincial city, a far-flung outpost in a very large, very under-populated country. It remained, in some senses, a small town. Streets like this—quiet, tranquil, and often empty—were a common sight. In recent decades the pace of change has quickened.Standing here today, in the middle of Vancouver's hectic financial district, trying to take yourself back to the way this intersection was in 1917 requires an active imagination..
3. 'Hotel Vancouver (1916-1949)'
The hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway on the highest point of ground in the Vancouver peninsula. It was designed in a fascinating early version of the Chateau style that the CPR used for many of its hotels. Few buildings bear any resemblance to it anywhere in the world today. Immensely popular, celebrities like Winston Churchill and Babe Ruth made sure to stay at the Hotel Vancouver when they were in the city. Eventually the CPR decided a newer Hotel Vancouver was needed, and in the 1930s oversaw the construction of the updated Chateau style third Hotel Vancouver hotel across the street from you. During World War II the second Hotel Vancouver was used as a barracks and after the war closed off to the public. When many veterans returning from overseas couldn't find housing in Vancouver they took over the hotel and turned it into veterans housing. In 1948 they were persuaded to leave, and a year later the hotel was finally demolished. It was replaced with a parking lot until the 1960s, when an Eaton's department store was built there. In 2015 the new Nordstrom's store opened on the spot.
4. 'Medical-Dental Building (1927-1989)'
The Medical-Dental building was famous for its terra cotta walls that were dark brown at the base and gradually lightened to a tan at the top. The architects, John McCarter and George Nairne, had fought in the First World War and McCarter credited a nursing sister with saving his life when he was badly wounded. Mixing nicely with the medical theme (the building housed mostly doctors and dentists offices), 11-foot statues of nursing sisters were placed on the corners of the building. Charles Shon evidently did not like the Medical-Dental Building and long desired to replace it with a more postmodern building.xx4 His son, Hong Kong businessman and philanthropist Sir Run Run Shaw succeeded in fulfilling his dream in 1989. Though the angels of the nursing sisters were destroyed when the building was imploded, fibreglass replicas were made and put on the Shaw Tower at Cathedral Place that stands there today.
5. 'Birks Building (1913-1974)'
Designed by the architectural duo of Woodruf Somervell and John Putnam, the building was incredibly popular in the city. The fine polychrome terra cotta of the building's exterior made it blend with the city's frequently grey skies. The interior was built with the finest materials and minute care to detail and decoration, an example of the unbridled optimism of the Edwardian Era. The Birks jewelry company decided, evidently for fuzzy reasons, to knock it down in the 1970s. The architectural historian Donald Luxton called it an incomparable example of "corporate vandalism."xx5 That it was to be replaced by the spectacularly unimpressive Scotiabank Tower helped fuel the fury. Thousands of Vancouverites came out to protest the building's destruction, even staging an elaborate mock funeral. It was no use and the Birks Building came down in 1974. The widespread public outrage prompted the government to belatedly strengthen the city's heritage protection laws.
6. 'Opera House (1891-1969)'
The Vancouver World newspaper wrote of the opera house "It is the leading place of amusement in the city… The house is furnished throughout with handsome antique oak, [and] plush covered chairs… The scenery which is particularly fine, was painted by a leading artist of New York, brought on expressly for the purpose… Taking this house as a whole, its substantial construction, and perfect equipment in every respect, makes it at least equal, if not superior to any theatre."xx6 In the 1910s it became a vaudeville theatre, showing various live performances, and ended its life as the Lyric Theatre.
7. 'Hotel Vancouver (1888-1910)'
The building was designed by the architect Thomas Sorby, an Englishman of impeccable pedigree who hoped frontier-town Vancouver would make good use of his high education in architecture. He was to be disappointed. After receiving the commission to design this hotel he kept having his plans rejected because they cost too much. One of his early sets of plans was destroyed in the Great Fire. Finally he gave up and designed this simplistic building that he himself hated. A writer called it "a sort of glorified farmouse."xx7 One newspaper declared "it resembled a compound of a decayed grist-mill with bits of the bastille and the tower of London added."xx8 Unsurprisingly, the hotel didn't last long and a second much more impressive one was built on the same spot.
8. 'Fairfield Building (1898-1949)'
The Fairfield Building had a red brick facade with strips of white brick along the top of the window mouldings and across the building.
9. 'MacKinnon Building (1898-1957)'
The MacKinnon Building marks itself out as a Romanesque Revival style building because of its rough outer stonework and thick arches. You can actually see the edge of the Fairfield building at the extreme left.
10. 'CPR Station (1899-1914)'
The station was built in the intriguing Chateau style that the CPR loved, and bears some similarities to the third Hotel Vancouver on Burrard and Georgia Streets. The Chateau style was meant to emulate 16th Century castles from the south of France. This was a fascinating building, and the first many new Vancouverites stepped into as they arrived in the city for the first time during its period of greatest growth. From 1891 to 1911 the city exploded in size, attracting immigrants from all over the world who sought the promise of a brighter future. The city went from a few thousands lumberjacks and miners to well over 100,000 in a mere 20 years, a rise of over 700%.xx10 The growth was too fast for this station, and the authorities quickly concluded it was too small. It stood for only 15 hectic years before being replaced. Many worthwhile buildings have shared this fate, victims of a city growing faster than most anticipated.
11. 'Empire Building (1888-1955)'
It was designed by Charles Osborn Wickenden, who was one of the city's foremost architects after the Great Fire in 1886. He also did the Christ Church Cathedral on the corner of Burrard and Georgia. This building was home to the British North America Bank, one of the dozens of banks that proliferated in those days of days of unregulated finance. The brutal architecture critic Robert Fripp was actually not that hard on this building, saying it was "a severer type of Italian, dignified but cold in effect."xx11
12. 'Court House (1890-1911)'
Because of the triangular lot and the steep gradient this was a challenging spot to build on. Once again Thomas Sorby started with a pared back budget and had to make do as best he could. Afterwards it was decided he had not done a good enough job and Noble Hoffar, Vancouver's most prolific architect after the Great Fire in 1886, was hired to upgrade it. He finished it in a Palladian style, a British take on classicism. Hoffar, who was trained in America, had an inexact idea of what the Palladian style entailed and offended the sensitivities of the city's many British-born architects. The controversy over the architectural style of the building didn't help encourage people to keep it standing after the new court house was built.
13. 'Woodward's (1903-2006)'
A century ago this building was the heart of Vancouver's retail shopping district. Woodward's was one of the first one-stop department stores in the world, selling everything including food, furniture, and clothes. They even offered a variety of services like travel agents and cheque cashing. The food floor was for a time the biggest grocery store in North America. It was like an early 20th Century high-end Wal-Mart. The store was famous for its Christmas window displays and the red 'W' on the roof atop a replica of the Eiffel Tower. The store expanded continually, eventually standing 12 storeys tall and taking over 2/3 of the entire block. After World War II people began moving to suburbs and flocking to shopping malls instead, prompting a gradual decline in Woodward's fortunes. Finally in 1993 the company went bankrupt and the store was closed. Many homeless indigenous people, decrying the lack of affordable housing in the Downtown East Side, began squatting in the building. Purchased by developers in 2004, there followed a huge controversy over what to do with the old site. Eventually $400 million was spent on redeveloping the site for housing, some of it ultra-low-rent, and businesses . In a nod to heritage preservation part of the original building was preserved, the part you see above.
14. 'Pantages Theatre (1918-1967)'
In an era before people owned smartphones, PCs, TVs, and even radios, vaudeville theatres were an important source of entertainment for many. Vaudeville shows were a collection of live performances that had an astonishing range, from mini-plays to comedians, acrobats to dancing animals. Ostentatious vaudeville theatres went up all over Vancouver, though Alexander Pantages's were the most famous. The buildings were consciously designed to wow people with beautiful architecture on the outside and flamboyant decorations on the inside. Radio and film doomed vaudeville as people were presented with a wider array of entertainment options. Vancouver's vaudeville theatres struggled on, some converting to movie theatres, but the great majority went out of business. The one you see here was one of the last to go. Few examples of vaudeville theatres survive in the city.
1. Kluckner, Michael. Vanishing Vancouver 25 years. Vancouver: Whitecap Books, 2012. P. 6.
2. Howell, Mike. " Almost 1,000 homes per year slated for demolition in Vancouver." Vancouver Courier. 12 Feb. 2016. Online.
2. A Quieter Time
3. Desjardins, Jeff. "Vancouver's Real Estate Mania." Visual Capitalist. 2 June 2016.
4. Medical-Dental Building (1927-1989)
4. Cathedral Place. "Profile." Online.
5. Birks Building (1913-1974)
6. Opera House (1891-1969)
6. "Vancouver City. Its Wonderful History and Future Prospects." Vancouver World. 1891. P. 13.
7. Hotel Vancouver (1888-1910)
8. Changing Vancouver. "First Hotel Vancouver – Granville and Georgia." 4 Apr. 2012. Online.
9. MacKinnon Building (1898-1957)
10. CPR Station (1899-1914)
10. Government of Canada. "1891 Census." and "1911 Census."
11. Empire Building (1888-1955)
11. Luxton, 165.