Description of Historic Place
Gastown Historic District National Historic Site of Canada is located on the south side of Burrard Inlet in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia. The district is positioned on a grid layout that follows the Inlet’s curvature. The 141 buildings within the site, built mostly between 1886 and 1914, comprise a homogeneous commercial district of three- to six-storey stone and brick warehouses, commercial stores, hotels and taverns. Masonry construction is seen throughout the site, with an emphasis on solid brick and stone façades punctuated by regular window openings above glassed-in storefronts. Official recognition refers to the 1971 boundary of the district, excluding the parking lot on West Cordova Street.
Gastown Historic District was designated as a national historic site of Canada in 2009 because:
- it is an intact urban area of business and commercial buildings dating for the most part from 1886 to 1914, representing, through the visual qualities of the buildings, an early Western Canadian city core and the economic flowering of the Western Canadian economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries;
- it is an exceptional group of commercial buildings that displays, as a whole, the architectural styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and is a rare, harmonious group of buildings in terms of materials, scale and architectural detailing;
- as an early legally protected historic district, it illustrates the activist heritage movement that emerged in Canada's urban centres in the years around 1970, and the creation of local organizations intent on protecting the historic fabric of cities and reorienting urban redevelopment.
Gastown Historic District began to develop in the late-19th century, on the south side of Burrard Inlet in downtown Vancouver. Gastown was constructed on a grid pattern that follows the Inlet’s curvature on flat land near sea level. The layout and location of the district reflects an early period of Vancouver's development as an important and prosperous transhipment point and wholesale district for goods transferred between the Prairies and the Pacific Rim. The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), set adjacent to the townsite, was responsible for the rapid development and transformation of the townsite into a commercial district. Power and telephone lines run along the laneways of the district instead of the street, which is a typical example of Vancouver’s early urban development.
In the 1970s, the district went through a process of “beautification” in response to the activist heritage movement that was emerging in Canada's urban centres. Local organizations protected the historic fabric of the district by adding historic elements to urban spaces. These include the bollards along Water Street and around Maple Leaf Square, the bronze statue of “Gassy” Jack Deighton, the landscaping features of Gaoler’s Mews, the red-brick paving on Water Street and the ornate lamp fixtures.
After the provincial government designated Gastown as a heritage area in 1971, the district gradually became distinct from surrounding neighbourhoods on the downtown peninsula. The area is now characterized by commercial and office space (with some live/work lofts interspersed), many with shops and restaurants on the ground floors. Within the district are approximately 141 buildings constructed before 1914. These buildings range from two- to six-storeys, with details in a variety of styles, ranging from the Victorian Italianate style of the late-19th century buildings; the Victorian Romanesque Revival style used in the early-20th century buildings, and the more austere, industrial style used in the pre-First World War buildings. Only six buildings have been constructed in the district since 1914.
Sources: Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, 1971, 2008.
Key elements that contribute to the heritage character of the site include:
- its location on the south site of Burrard Inlet in downtown Vancouver, British Colombia;
- its setting adjacent to the Canadian Pacific Railways (CPR) rail yard;
- its grid pattern layout that follows the Inlet’s curvature on flat land near sea level;
- the two-to-six-storey massing of the buildings with stone and brick construction;
- the main exterior features including, the placement of regularly-spaced window openings set above glassed-in storefronts;
- elements from the mid-1880-1890s buildings, characterized by their brick and wood construction, stone and iron accents, Victorian Italianate style of decorative detailing exhibited in strong cornice lines and flat roofs, the emphasis on the eaves, corbels, bay windows, and decorative window surrounds, as well as a mix of colours and materials;
- elements from the early-1900s buildings, characterized by their greater height, larger volumes, and less decorative styles, as well as their Victorian Romanesque style solid massing of stone and brick, with wide, arched windows and a strong emphasis on the belt courses along each storey;
- the elements from the late-1900s-1910s buildings which reflect the higher density sought in the district and feature early skyscraper designs and cubic volume;
- the lane typology elements that are physical examples of Vancouver’s early urban development, including the two lanes, T-junctions, narrow triangular lots, and power and telephone lines that run along the laneways instead of along the streets;
- the streetscape elements relating to the “beautification” of the district, including the bollards along Water Street and around Maple Leaf Square, the bronze statue of “Gassy” Jack Deighton, the landscaping features of Gaoler’s Mews, the red-brick paving on Water Street and the ornate lamp fixtures;
- the open views northward from each of the north-south streets, to the mountain wall on the North Shores of Burrard Inlet.