Vancouver’s lost landmarks
Many of the city’s historic buildings have fallen to the wrecker’s ball over the last 125 years
By John Mackie, Vancouver Sun March 30, 2011 3:01 PM
Opened in 1913, the Birks building was torn down in 1974 for the Scotia Tower. But not without furious opposition from the general public, which was shocked that one of Vancouver’s signature buildings was demolished.
Photograph by: Handout, Vancouver Sun file photo
Vancouver isn’t all that old, as cities go, but we’ve done a remarkable job of erasing our architectural history.
Only a handful of buildings are left from the 1880s; there are probably only a couple of hundred from the 1890s. Nobody really knows, because the city’s heritage register missed many old buildings when it was compiled in the 1980s.
To mark the city’s 125th birthday, we decided to put together list of 10 lost landmarks. This is a daunting task — a lot of great buildings have been torn down in Vancouver.
1) The obvious lost landmark is the old Hotel Vancouver, which went up in 1916 at Georgia and Granville and was torn down in 1949. It replaced the original Hotel Vancouver, which was built in the same spot in 1887. It was relatively small, so work on a new hotel began in 1911.
Vancouver was booming at the time, and the second Hotel Vancouver was incredibly opulent. It was designed in the Italian renaissance style by Francis S. Swales, with tiers that stepped up to a central section, from seven to 10 and finally 16 storeys. Features included arched windows, castle-like turrets and a 14th floor that was adorned with eight-foot tall terra cotta moose and buffalo head sculptures. Gargoyles, Canadian-style.
The hotel was big, with 700 rooms, several dining rooms, two ballrooms, a billiard room, shops and offices. And it was a study in elegance, from its three-storey entrance portico to its renowned rooftop garden.
“It was beautiful and grand,” states big band leader Dal Richards, 93.
“They had a Crystal Ballroom, adjoined by what they called Peacock Alley, which was a broad entrance hall that went down the full length of the ballroom. It had antique furniture, oriental rugs and all that sort of thing, brass railings.
“Below that, in the lower level, dancing all year was done in what was called the Spanish Grill. That was the nightclub of the hotel, that’s where the orchestras played.”
If it had survived, this Hotel Vancouver would now be the place to stay in town, a heritage hotel to rank with The Empress in Victoria or The Palace in San Francisco. But it was killed by the falling fortunes of its owner, the Canadian Pacific Railway.
The CPR’s archrival, the Canadian National Railway, had started working on its own hotel at Burrard and Georgia in 1928, but construction stopped after the 1929 stock market crash.
In 1937, the CPR decided to abandon its own hotel and help finish the CN hotel, which opened in 1939 as the third Hotel Vancouver. The two railways then had an awkward arrangement where one managed it one year, the other managed it the next year, until the CPR bowed out of the arrangement in 1963.
After the current Hotel Vancouver opened, the old one was used as a barracks for soldiers during the Second World War, then as a home for returned soldiers after the war. It was torn down in 1949 to make room for a proposed Eaton’s building. Eaton’s didn’t build until the Pacific Centre Mall went up in the late 1960s, so the southwest corner of Georgia and Granville was a big empty lot for two decades.
Still, Georgia and Granville was the heart of town during the first half of the 20th century.
2) Across the street from the Hotel Vancouver was the Birks building, an 11-storey Edwardian masterpiece with an elegant terra cotta facade and a graceful curved corner.
“Everybody loved the Birks building,” says Richards.
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