Description of Historic Place
Located near the busy intersection of Georgia and Granville Streets, the Vancouver Block is a striking fifteen-storey Edwardian Commercial building topped by a large clock tower and finished with ornamental terra cotta.
The heritage value of the Vancouver Block lies in its location near the intersection of Granville and Georgia streets in downtown Vancouver, as a symbol of the Edwardian optimism and rapid growth in Vancouver’s economy and urban fabric in the early twentieth century, in its association with the architectural firm of Parr and Fee, in its landmark status, and in its unique representation of the Edwardian Commercial style.
Constructed between 1910 and 1912 on the highest point of land in downtown Vancouver, the building is valued as an example of the city’s pre-war economic expansion and building boom. Rapid population growth during this period stimulated widespread construction in Vancouver. In the late 1890s, Canadian Pacific Railway executives encouraged business leaders to settle on company land, putting its stamp on Granville Street as the most prestigious location in the city for commercial buildings. As the centre of city activity shifted from Pender and Hastings Streets to Granville Street, the Vancouver Block helped to establish the intersection at Georgia and Granville as the commercial core of early Vancouver.
Pre-war construction changed the face of downtown Vancouver through the erection of several landmark buildings, among which the Vancouver Block was prominent due to its height, white terra cotta cladding and central clock tower. As well as reflecting the confidence of the Edwardian era, the building is associated with one of the pioneer businessmen of the time. Dominic Burns, part of the Burns meat packing establishment, managed to weather the financial depression of the decades after 1913 and possessed one of the largest estates left by pre-1914 business leaders upon his death in 1933. The building has had continuous use over time as a retail establishment on the ground level and offices on the floors above.
The associative value of the Vancouver Block lies in its relationship to the architectural firm of Parr and Fee. The partnership of John Parr (1856-1923), from London, and Thomas A. Fee (1860-1929), originally from Ireland, lasted from 1899 to 1912. These successful and prolific architects had a profound effect on the look of Edwardian Vancouver, as both architects and developers. By 1910, planning was underway for the grandest of their skyscrapers, the Vancouver Block. The two were aware of new developments in construction, including structural steel framing such as that used in the Vancouver Block. Throughout the Edwardian boom years they were very successful, with many Vancouver buildings to their credit, including the Manhattan Apartments, Hotel Europe, and the Dunsmuir Hotel, as well as the design and ownership of many of Granville Street’s hotels.
Also significant is the landmark status of the building both visually and historically. Visible from City Hall at 12th Avenue and Cambie Street, the clock was immediately distinguishable because of its large size, and unique in Vancouver for its neon illumination on the hands and dial marks, added in 1927.
The architectural value is found in the building’s over-the-top expression of the Edwardian Commercial style, which pushes the limits of exterior ornamentation, symbolizing the rampant growth of Vancouver in the early 1900s, and reflecting the one-upmanship of the business community and the confidence of its owner. The Vancouver Block is classically composed, with its facade treated as three distinct parts: an ornamented ground floor, simpler central portion with windows set in terra cotta, and the top floors ornamented and having a heavily-bracketed cornice supported by six caryatids. The building is clad both on the main facade and on the alley side with white terra cotta. The use of ornamental terra cotta was very popular during the Edwardian era, providing the appearance of cut stone and easily formed into sculptural reliefs such as the caryatids that support the cornice.
Source: City of Vancouver Heritage Conservation Program
Key elements that define the Vancouver Block’s Edwardian Commercial architectural design include its:
- tall narrow building form, vertical massing and relatively large scale compared to the surrounding buildings, with light wells on the north and south sides
- landmark status, reinforced by its height and highly visible central clock tower
- function as a retail establishment with offices above
- Edwardian Commercial building form, including its classical composition, 15-storey height, structural steel building frame, masonry walls over a structural frame, and a facade treated as three distinct parts: an ornamented ground floor; plainer main portion with windows set in terracotta; and ornamented top floors with a heavily bracketed cornice
- flat roof with cornice and parapet, central clock tower and penthouse
- masonry construction material, as expressed by brick interior walls, concrete on the north and south facades, white terra cotta cladding on the front and lane facades and marble panels on the ground floor section of the front facade
- regular fenestration on all facades, including recessed double-hung sash windows in seven bays, 1-over-1 on the front facade and 3-over-3 on the sides, and tripartite pivot-opening windows on the upper floors in the side facades
- ornate exterior decorative details, including recessed spandrels with raised terra cotta panels under the windows, engaged columns with square capitals on the first storey and cladding that alternates recessed and raised terra cotta tile throughout, decorative brackets on both sides of the lower front facade, marble panels and an egg and dart string course on the lower front facade, and a suspended canopy on the first storey with decorative metal cable supports
- extensive terra cotta relief ornament, such as the heavy decorative terra cotta cornices on the top storey, the penthouse and the clock tower, corbelling below the building cornice which consists of engaged columns topped by Ionic capitals and six caryatids supporting a decorative string course, and ornamental carved friezes on the first and upper storeys
- the landmark clock tower, which has a heavy decorative terra cotta cornice, Greco-Roman ornament framing the clock, central and corner carved terra cotta decoration on the cornice, and an egg and dart and dentil frieze
- the design of the clock itself, which has four faces on a rectangular tower, a white clock face with bold, radiating black lines instead of numerals, and the red and blue neon lighting which creates a vivid landmark at night
- “Vancouver Block” identification lettering
Key elements that define the Vancouver Block’s interior include its:
- Cutler mailbox and chute
- marble paneled walls and marble ceilings
- open marble staircase with marble wall paneling and balustrades
- grey terrazzo flooring in the office corridors with marble banding and black and white checkered borders
Key elements that define the location of the Vancouver Block include:
- its siting near the historically important intersection of Georgia and Granville streets, on the highest point of land in the downtown core
- its location mid-block on Granville Street with minimal setback from the street