Places with Character

A week ago, I looked at a Vancouver apartment. You know you like a place when you see it in Vancouver rain and you still want to call it home. A week later, I’m sitting in the apartment writing a blog post about my first weekend in this city that I have long been writing about but never actually lived in (for those of you not familiar with the Lower Mainland, I previously lived an hour away in a suburb that we only refer to as “Vancouver” when talking to people on the other side of the world).

Now I can legitimately say I live in Vancouver, and oh how I am excited to fall more in love with this city. I feel like it’s a meeting that’s long overdue.

Ready to see Vancouver through a new frame

All this to say, it’s fitting that I went on Heritage Vancouver’s Top 10 Endangered Sites Bus Tour yesterday to inaugurate my big move through something I love — architecture!

The tour spanned four hours and travelled through many Vancouver neighbourhoods including Kitsilano, the West End, Downtown South, Downtown Eastside, East Van, Mount Pleasant, Gastown, Chinatown, Strathcona, and Shaughnessy – not necessarily in that order. I thought I knew Vancouver pretty well but there were so many hidden gems I had never encountered before that I want to return to soon.

The purpose of the tour was to raise public awareness and conversation of the plethora of heritage buildings in danger of getting demolished in the name of a high-density development. I tend to favour medium to high density projects, especially mixed-used ones because I think they create a better sense of community, and yet I also see the concern in doing this at the cost of destroying residential character homes.

On this year’s Top 10 list is a mixture of individual buildings and entire neighbourhoods that aren’t on the City’s radar to protect in future community plans. Buildings have to be listed on the Heritage Register in order to be taken into account, but many factors have stalled the updating of this list. Interestingly, a building’s exterior might be protected on this list but not the interior (interiors could be protected post-1994, but hardly any are). This is the case with the Orpheum, which is ironic because it’s the inside that’s so gorgeous.

Our knowledgeable tour guide spouted dates, architects, construction details, and historic tidbits about the buildings like he was reciting his phone number. He remained hopeful that a lot of the sites on their Top 10 Endangered List have a future, even if a re-purposed one, although he’s fairly certain École Bilingue (formerly Cecil Rhodes Public School) will be demolished because of seismic upgrading.

École Bilingue scheduled to be torn down. Photo by Dan Toulgoet.

I’ll touch on the two sites we actually got out of the bus to inspect (and hence have better photos of than when clicking frantically through the window of a moving bus).

The Waldorf Hotel

This building opened as a beer parlour/hotel in 1948 – the hotel part was only required so the owners could get licensed for a beer parlour, but it wasn’t a huge concern if the rooms were full or not. This East Van landmark is a cultural hot spot known for its live music & dancing in the Polynesian Cabaret Room and Tiki Bar – a little taste of Hawaii right in Vancouver, which would have been even more shocking and “other”-looking when it was added in the 50s.

The kitschy yet unmistakable hotel sign

The Polynesian-inspired Tiki Bar. Yes, it really is that dark.

I normally don’t take pictures of washroom sinks but this one is practically identical to the one in my apartment from the 1950s. It delights me to know I live in a place with character like the Waldorf, at last!

A frenzy of media activity and protests, particularly among Vancouver’s cultural and artistic communities, sprang up earlier this year when it was announced the owners had sold the building to a developer. Even Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson intervened to stop demolition. On the tour, we went inside and saw people having lunch in the café. As the sign says, the hotel is still open for business as it awaits its fate. Yet because of all the attention this site garnered and the number of community groups fighting to keep it, it will likely get saved in some form or another. As our tour guide astutely commented, it’s not so much that people are resistant to change as they are to loss. Especially when the City of Vancouver has already lost a number of heritage sites with its construction boom, one more loss can feel like a thousand losses.

Forest Education Centre in VanDusen Garden

This tucked-away building at the back of VanDusen Botanical Garden was first named MacMillan-Bloedel Place because of its donor, the largest forestry company in British Columbia. This “green” building is so camouflaged in the landscape you might not even notice it’s there. Architect Paul Merrick designed this modernist building with echoes of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the classic residential example where building and nature seamlessly merge.

Can you see the building through the trees? Look closely.

Architecture doesn’t get much more “West Coast” than this. Where does nature end and building begin?

This space was once filled with educational forestry displays called “A Walk in the Forest.” There are still remnants of the displays as you walk through the “forest” path on the inside. Tree-like columns branch towards the ceiling to add to the outdoors effect, yet there is also office equipment as volunteer organizations and some Van Dusen staff currently operate out of the space. What an inspiring place to work!! The groups will have to vacate soon though as the Park Board doesn’t want to keep maintaining the building. Heritage Vancouver is keen on seeing a creative re-use of this site, with possible alternatives as an environmental education centre or artists’ space. As a writer, I would want to come here for a weekend retreat. Light + wood + nature = an idyllic oasis in the city.

Here’s the full Top 10 List from Heritage Vancouver Society with more details about each place and how to get involved if you call Vancouver home and want to help preserve its historic character for the future.