It’s surprising, perhaps even amusing, to think that one of Vancouver’s most popular tourist areas is named after someone who told stories… someone who talked, a lot. In fact so verbose was Jack Deighton, he was known as ‘Gassy Jack’. The story goes that with $6 in his pocket and a barrel of whiskey, the English steamboat captain rowed into town – now Gastown – and bribed the locals into helping him throw up a saloon. With the promise of a few drinks, a mere twenty-four hours later, the ambitiously named Globe Saloon opened its doors.
Today as I gaze upon Gassy Jack’s statue in Maple Tree Square in Gastown, a stetson-clad gentlemen chats with another, and I easily envision the days when the settlement was a rough and ready point for loggers, miners and shipping crews. It prospered as the site of Hastings Mill Sawmill, then with a beehive of warehouses, chandleries and outfitters. Once the Canadian Pacific Railway terminus was sited here in 1886, Gastown’s lively, burgeoning future was all but sealed.
In 1886, the town was incorporated as the City of Vancouver. Captain George Vancouver had explored the inner harbour back in 1792, the name Vancouver itself originating from the Dutch ‘Van Coevorden’ – denoting someone from the city of Coevorden. Tragically, all but two of the original 400 wooden buildings perished in the Great Vancouver Fire that same year. Rebuilt with brick and mortar, the area thrived until the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but as Vancouver spread out, Gastown became a largely forgotten neighbourhood and fell into decline.
Today it’s a vibrant area of bars and restaurants, bespoke boutiques, and a well-visited tourist destination due partly to its iconic but rather underwhelming steam clock. I watch tourists excitedly take their turn for a photo op with the steam-powered clock, built in 1977, but I’m far more drawn to the buildings that surround us.
Now designated a national historic site that includes some 141 buildings – most built before 1914 – I notice the styles ranging from Victorian Italianate to Romanesque Revival. I come upon an unusual shaped building, the once Hotel Europe.
Built in 1909 on a triangular lot, the Hotel Europe was commissioned by hotelier Angelo Calori. Modelled after the Flatiron building in New York, the hotel was reminiscent of curious-shaped buildings at the time in Paris and Milan and must have looked both odd and ostentatious here in Gastown. Calori ensured the hotel housed one of the city’s finest bars where much of the business of the commercial district was soon conducted.
Still intact with its original tile floors, marble and leaded-glass windows, the hotel benefited from the proximity of the nearby steamship docks and a dedicated bus service for its guests. In 1916, however, the Hotel Vancouver opened its grand doors and the popularity of a newer, more opulent hotel quickly shifted the heart of the city away from Gastown to the southwest. With the eventual demise of steamship service, the employment crisis that emerged as the commercial district declined, Hotel Europe fell into disrepute, eventually housing a brothel.
Today the hotel is often used in Vancouver’s thriving film industry, despite its reputation for curious paranormal activity. It’s said that when the upper floors were being converted into affordable housing during the ’80’s, contractors were known to have walked off the job – unexplainable scratching noises and a ‘man’ dressed in a black coat with a flat cap were a little too much to contend with!
Yet as intriguing as the architecture of Gastown is, the downtown core of Vancouver is where stately buildings have stamped their mark and defined the city; with structures such as the Hotel Vancouver and the Provincial Courthouse, now the must-visit Vancouver Art Gallery.
Close by, I also come across the unique Marine Building on Burrard Street. Now flanked by steel and glass, it held the coveted title of the tallest building in the British Empire when completed in 1930. The tallest skyscraper in the city until 1939, The Marine was intended to evoke ‘a great crag rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted in sea-green, touched with gold’. I marvelled how on previous visits to the city, I had managed to pass by without noticing its outstanding Art Deco entrance. And once inside, the massive brass-doored elevators, inlaid wood and depictions of sea snails, crabs, turtles, carp and sea horses, speak to its then exorbitant building cost of $2.3 million.
The Marine replaced an old mansion, there from the days when this area was known as ‘Blueblood Alley’ where the wealthy settled before the West End and Shaughnessy Heights were developed. Unfortunately for the Marine’s developer, a former rum runner, the Great Depression resulted in the loss of the building and it sold to the beer-magnate Guiness family. All lost for a paltry sum of $900,000, and yes, there’s rumours of ghosts here too!
I find delightful Art Deco elements throughout the city. Although some shrubs and spring flowers are already in bloom, the still-barren trees encourage me to observe above eye level. And what a gift it is… street lamps in delightful flowery silhouettes that remind of Paris, apartments in simple designs yet with statuesque portals, meandering outdoor stairwells, artsy wrought-iron flourishes, and theatres with dramatic signage beckoning in classic neon illumination.
Of course Vancouver isn’t complete without wandering along the water front and the seawall, strolling through Stanley Park and catching a lift on the water ferries. My favourite jaunt? Hop on at Yaletown and cruise to Granville Island at sunset. As apartment lights twinkle their magic and bridges elegantly light the way, Vancouver confirms its reputation as one of the world’s most picturesque cities.
Still, I confess there are two areas of Vancouver that I favour above all. They’ve become like home… those familiar spots that you embrace with fondness and familiarity, yet with a certain excitement each time you visit. Thanks to one of our sons who lives here, Kitsalano and nearby Granville Island, now feel like my own neighbourhood.
Vancouver, and the area known as Kitsilano, has been home to indigenous people for as long as 10,000 years ago. The name Kitsilano is a derivative of an esteemed Squamish chief. The city is located in the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish people, their way of life changed forever when explorer Simon Fraser became the first-known European to set foot here in 1808.
At the heart of ‘Kits’, as the locals fondly refer to it, is its wide-open beach – for contemplation, gazing across to the mountains, for swimming, beach volleyball and kayaking. It anchors a sought-after neighbourhood – though one with steep property and rental prices to match – ideal because of its proximity to downtown, quiet tree-lined streets and its hip shopping on West 4th.
Yet in the 1960’s not only was the area still inexpensive, it was a creative hotbed of the hippie culture. It’s here that Greenpeace and the Green Party of Canada was founded, where some of the first vegetarian and vegan restaurants sprang up, where many of the first neighbourhood pub licenses were issued. Kitsilano is an example of an area that become gentrified by that then-trendy new group of professionals… the yuppies. They sought out and evolved a neighbourhood.
On Valentine’s Day, the corner store – yes just around the corner – has a flourish of customers. Owner Jim has a sunny rapport and his shop is a veritable treasure trove of all you might need on any given day. Today as he helps locals choose their bouquets, his friendly banter and smile is infectious. Jim tells me he’s been here ‘a long time’ and when he greets customers by name, along with their canine pets, I’m reminded of how vital a close-knit neighbourhood is, especially within a large city.
The charming streets of Kits have long been a community with its own identity and speaks to its different periods – of middle and working-class homes built before WWI in the California or Craftsman Bungalow style with broad verandahs and pitched gables. Of low-rise apartment buildings from the ’60’s and 70’s, palm-trees decorate out front, with fanciful names like The Flamingo and The Palm Breeze. And of once well-appointed suites like The Norman, The Croydon, now subdivided into as many apartments as city bylaws permit.
When electric street-car service wended its way to the area in 1903, West 4th became the ‘High Street’ of Kitsilano and is still the place to be, to shop, to dine and drink. The eclectic mixed assemblage of buildings is fascinating and whether it’s the former stalwart and classical Canadian Bank of Commerce or an adobe-style restaurant, there’s a happy mishmash of building styles and reinventions.
Admittedly, the attraction of Vancouver itself is obvious. The ocean and mountains meld into beautiful co-existence, the architectural delights of downtown and in places like Kitsilano, Gastown, and amongst the vibrant colour on Granville Island, all unfold subtly, then dramatically… all forming Vancouver into one of my favourite cities, anywhere.