February 21, 2006

A Bit of Vancouver's History: No. 1 West Hastings Street

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So finally (after much wrangling with picasa and hello and flickr and zoombrowser EX) the tale can be told.. with photos!

A few weeks ago I read that Vancouver City Council had approved a development plan put forth by architect Sean McEwan for No. 1 West Hastings Street. Most Vancouverites know this as the boarded up building adjacent to Pigeon Park.

The plan calls for extensive renovation and restoration of the existing structure as well as the addition of a 4th floor. The intention? Use the basement and garden area as a restaurant, the first floor as an artist-run commercial gallery, and the upper floors as office space. The additional floor will be a meeting room. All part of the plan to bring new life to a section of town that many people will no longer drive through unless their doors are locked.

I have memories of this particular building dating back to when I first arrived in Vancouver (date shall remain a secret - you don't expect to give up all my mystery in one shot, do you?)

But I can tell you this. At the age of 13, I was not afraid to walk down there. The streets were not what they are now.

Even in the state it's in, the building is a wonder. All you have to do is look up. Completed in 1913, it is one of the few Beaux Arts-style buildings left in the city's ex-financial district, and was designed by the architects Somervell & Putnam. Originally designed for Merchant's Bank, the interior is reputed to have been as ornate as the exterior, but has long since been gutted beyond repair. I've not been able to locate any photographs, but will continue searching. Perhaps someday someone will duplicate the interior, if they're lucky enough to find the original building plans.

During my archival travels I learned that even the name "Pigeon Park" is a misnomer - the original name which shows up in the archives is Pioneer Square. It was not created at the same as the building itself and only came into being after the Canadian Pacific Railway spur line tracks were removed. This also explains the angled aspect of the building, as it was designed to accommodate the spur line to False Creek.

The architectural firm of Somervell & Putnam is best known in Vancouver for their design of the Birks building, which was demolished in 1974 (a travesty, when you consider the plain and boring buildings that took it's place), the Seymour building at 525 Seymour, and the Bank of Montreal building at 640 West Pender Street, now the SFU Segal Centre for Graduate Management Studies. Incidentally, this latter building was also built for Merchant's Bank, but they were acquired by Bank of Montreal in 1922 and never got their nameplate on the door.

Somervell is also known for his design of the Toronto Dominion building which he did while part of the architectural firm Somervell and Pratt. Originally named the Union building, it was re-named the Bank of Toronto building, as BOT bought out Union in the interval between design in 1919 and construction in 1920. The branch closed in 1984 and lay vacant until it was restored, renovated, and given a new purpose as the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue in September of 2000.

About the photos:
These were taken on an overcast Sunday morning, and took a lot of wrangling to happen. When I first mentioned to the DS that I wanted to go down to Pigeon Park to take photographs, he made me promise that I wouldn't go down there without some backup. Backup turned out to be the DS plus our good friend A, who's many talents include security/body guard detail. I'll admit that I wasn't too fussed about heading into the area, but the guys were nice to have around. We did have a number of locals come up to chat, and when they realized we were there for the architecture, they were genuinely friendly and interested. To see the full photo set, visit flickr.

Photo taken by my sweet DS, who's eagle eyes spotted this bit of graffiti on the boards covering the windows of the building.

If you're interested in learning more about the architectural history of Vancouver, check out heritage consultant Don Luxton's "Building the West: The Early Architects of British Columbia". At 560 pages, this is definitely a tome, but it's a fabulous tome and now lives at the top of my wish list. Surfing the net? Don't forget to check out this story from Chuck Davis's Greater Vancouver Book.


margalit said...

I haven't been to Vancouver in a long time, but I remember it as a safe, clean city and was surprised to hear that it no longer is all that safe. That's a shame, but I guess it's just something that happens in cities.

Here via Michele

Cin said...

Hi Margalit,

It's true, Vancouver has to deal with the same issues other large cosmopolitan cities have. Change is coming slowly, and I'm cheered by the efforts of so many groups here who are involved in making that change happen.

On a personal note, I live and work in the downtown area, and have never actually felt unsafe here the way I did when I lived out in the 'burbs! Ah well, must be the sense of security of all those people out and about at all hours of the day :)

Suzanne said...

It's such a shame that buildings aren't designed with the same artistic flair as they were long ago. You just don't see architecture like that often. It's really beautiful. So is the purple blog! I'm over from Michele's!
Won't you please come by and help me grovel to Ellen Degeneres? I need help spreading the word.

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

BEAUTIFUL BEAUTIFUL Building! Too bad the neighborhood is so frightening!

Here from Michele today!

Karen said...

Thanks for stoppin' by my place. I LOVE my Canadian neighbors...YOU ROCK!

Aging Fabulous said...

My in-laws live in Coquitlam. Must check out Vancouver the next time we visit. It's been a while!

archshrk said...

Hello, Michele sent me.
Nice photos. As much as I'd like to see this old building restored and re-used, i see a dark future. This type of urban renual is blinded by idealism and ivory tower education. It all sounds well and good but the truth is, if this is what people wanted, the building wouldn't be vacant. I hope I'm wrong and maybe there is something I'm missing but I had to put up with this fanciful design in school and hoped to never have to see it carried out.

I'm sorry, I thing I'm in a mood. I'm not usually this accertive. maybe the fever hasn't broken just yet.

msdedi said...

beautiful architecture, and great photos

jennypenny said...

Absolutely amazing photos. I especially love that graffiti one. There is a restaurant/gallery in toronto here that has all sorts of photos of graffiti from all over the city and they all say "love" and were taken over many years. Maybe you could start a little photo essay!

John Atkin said...

The interior of this great building is largely intact. It wasn't as ornate as some but it's all there. Unfortunately the offices upstairs have suffered lots of vandalisim and water damage - the roof has been leaking forever. The best part is the basement with the ornnate safe and safety deposit room. For more images see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jmv/45043328/