Description of Historic Place
The Merchants Bank building consists of an imposing three-storey stone Beaux Arts (Neoclassical Revival) commercial structure located on the north side of West Hastings Street at the corner of Carrall Street, one block from Vancouver's Historic Gastown District.
The value of the Merchants Bank building lies in the historic relationship between this area and the economy of early Vancouver, and to Gastown's history as a mixed-use area. In the late nineteenth century, this area of Vancouver was the centre of commerce and industry. As late as the 1940s, the corner of Carrall and Cordova was still considered the 'crossroads of Vancouver's loggers' district'. Within a radius of two to three blocks, almost every hotel, cafe, store and bar catered to itinerant resource industry workers, business travelers to the area, as well as to city residents. Its proximity to the interurban station of the BC Electric Railway, and to Woodward's Department Store, opened in 1902 at the corner of Abbott and Hastings, lured shoppers from the surrounding region.
The Montreal-based Merchants Bank first established Vancouver offices in 1906 at 337 Carrall Street, before moving to the newly-constructed branch at 1 West Hastings Street in 1913. Designed by the established architectural firm of Somervell and Putnam, the location of the branch was rather surprising, considering that by 1906 businesses were moving westward to the Granville and Hastings area, far from the original commercial district along Carrall, Water, and Cordova Streets. Many other Somervell and Putnam buildings were built in the Beaux-Arts style of the late Edwardian era, such as the Birks Building, 1912, the London Building, 1912, and the Union Bank Building, 1919-20, now the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue.
The building at 1 West Hastings Street was constructed in the 'temple bank' style imported from eastern North America. These 'temple banks' dominated street corners and became symbols of strength, solidity and prosperity. Although only three storeys in height, the structure was built with a steel frame capable of supporting an additional four to seven floors. Because the centre of commerce continued to re-establish itself further west along Hastings Street, the additional floors were never built. Of interest is the siting of the building on the property, such that the facade was angled to accommodate the Canadian Pacific Railway spur line to False Creek. The removal of the tracks in 1931 led to the creation of nearby Pioneer Place, also known as Pioneer Square, or Pigeon Park. An area that has both influenced and reflected the character of its surroundings, it has been controversial from the start, as the site of labour unrest during the Great Depression, and now as a meeting place for the homeless, or an appointed site for drug-related activities.
The value of the site also lies in the architecture; although modest in comparison with other 'temple banks' being built at the time, the Merchants Bank incorporates many characteristics of the style, including carved granite cladding, Corinthian-style pilasters, a festooned frieze, an elegant cornice, and a prominent corner location. The bank's once equally elegant interior has been renovated beyond recognition, and an unsightly addition has been attached to the rear.
Source: City of Vancouver Heritage Conservation Program
The heritage character of this building is defined by the following elements:
- form, scale and massing, and prominent corner location
- built to the property line with no setbacks
- its proximity to Woodward's Department Store and the other commercial activity in Gastown at the turn of the twentieth century
- external characteristics of 'temple banks', including; granite base,carved sandstone, carved metal spandrels, excellent stone carving in the Beaux Art manner
- unusual semi-triangular plan, with a series of five bays along Carrall Street facade, one on Hastings Street, and another where the two facades meet to form a curving corner entranceway
- eight near-Corininthian pilasters rising from the street to support a festooned frieze and a final elegant cornice
- beautifully carved classical motifs in the frieze, in the capitals surmounting the pilasters, above the first storey window recesses, and over the corner entry
- moulded cast iron window frames around second and third storey windows, and around ground level transom windows
- ornamental cast iron lamp standards between window recesses on Carrall Street facade