The Empress Theatre was built on the corner of Gore Street in 1908. The permit was applied for by Evans B Deane and Co in 1906, and initially was supposed to cost around $40,000. Deane was a partner in a real estate and financial partnership known as Deane and Barrett with G A Barrett (who sold Burnaby real estate as well as Vancouver lots). The first operator of the theatre was the Del S. Lawrence Stock Company, who at various times also played the Avenue Theatre and the Opera House in the city. His company worked the west coast, from his native California to Vancouver, with stops in Seattle, Portland and Victoria. The house was managed by Walter Sandford, another American actor (whose wife was busy running the Hotel Stratford up the road). The architect was a Scot called Charles K Shand who established an office in the city from his Seattle practice.
We know a great deal about the construction of the theatre from a 1908 profile in Contract Record that identified the final cost as closer to $80,000. “A unique feature of the building is that it was built entirely of concrete blocks, manufactured and erected by the Concrete Engineering & Construction Company, of Vancouver. The illustration shows the fine appearance of the building, which is claimed to be the largest concrete block structure in Canada. While the rock faced blocks are all of the same pattern, it does not show a monotonous appearance, as the pattern possesses no sharp or distinct feature.
The structure is 119 feet long, 92 feet 9 inches wide, and 71 feet high from the street level. The walls are 21 inches, 18 inches and 12 inches thick, while the fire wall between the auditorium and the stage is 12 inches thick. The side walls of this are of blocks and the arches solid concrete masonry. The 21-inch walls were constructed of 12-inch and 9-inch blocks, and the 18 inch walls of two 9-inch blocks side by side, with a header every third course and every six feet. The building consumed 31,630 blocks 24 inches long and 8 inches high. These blocks were made on the Perfection power machine, one of which is a feature of the plant of the Concrete Engineering & Construction Co.
The aggregate used in the blocks was, one of cement, two of sand, and three of crushed rock, which has been found to give very satisfactory results. The cement used is the local product known as the Vancouver Brand, being purchased at $2.60 per barrel. The sand is sea sand, pumped from the beach on English Bay, and is clean and without any impurity. The crushed rock is purchased of a size from two to four inches and crushed in the company’s crusher from 1/2-inch down, which is the size used in the blocks. These blocks sell in Vancouver, 9-inch for 33 cents, and 12-inch for 43 cents, being the price in the yard. Contract price of the concrete work on this building was $21,200.
The architect was particularly pleased with the work done, as well as the owners; both of whom are satisfied that concrete block construction, such as has been supplied in the Empress Theatre, is to play a very important part in future building construction in Vancouver.
The Concrete Engineering & Construction Company were organized a little over two and one-half years ago, under the name of the Perfection Cement Block Company, to manufacture concrete blocks. With the spirit of the times the company has grown and enlarged, and is now doing every class of plain and reinforced concrete construction, pavements, waterproof floors, walls and foundations, as well as being manufacturers of power-made hollow concrete blocks, concrete stone and ornamental concrete.”
The theatre only lasted until 1940. Between the wars it saw a number of stock theatre companies tour through the city, and it was popular for the size of its stage – one of the largest in the west. It was demolished in 1940 (the year our photos were taken) and from other pictures that exist it appears to have remained a cleared site used for parking for over 40 years until the unremarkable 1987 retail building that stands today was built. The only slightly unusual thing about it is that it appears to have a second storey – a pretence that’s somewhat blown by the ‘window’ openings where the infill panels have gone, revealing a view through to the sky.
Image source: City of Vancouver Archives CVA Bu N134