There’s a complicated back story to this rather unassuming building on Burrard Street. As far as we can tell, the foundations for the site were laid in 1912, just as one of the city’s major development booms was starting to run out of steam. The Ramsay Hotel Co had a permit for this corner of Burrard and Melville Street for a 10 storey $520,000 hotel. The architect on the permit was identified as N A Leach. In fact he was Norman Leech, and he was the architect for the Vancouver School Board. The city’s clerk – probably accidentally – spelled his name correctly once, and wrongly on the other 27 permits he applied for.
It seems odd that Mr Leech would have time to design such a large commission with so many schools to develop across the rapidly expanding city. The explanation is probably contained in another announcement about the Ramsay Hotel – this one in The Province. Here the location is described as Burrard and Dunsmuir, and the architects are identified as Seattle based Quandt & Creutzer. So Mr Leech’s job was probably to supervise the processing of the permit and perhaps the day-to-day site supervision.
The Daily World reported on December 11th 1912 that the Liquor Licencing Board “was notified of the commencement of the Ramsay Hotel on Burrard street, at the corner of Melville, and received the assurance of both Mr. Ramsay and his architect that the work would be continued, until the building was completed. At a recent meeting the board asked for this assurance as it granted a license to Mr. Ramsay on the undertaking that his hotel would soon be completed” – and the 1912 insurance map confirms that the foundations were laid. However, not only was this bad timing from the point of view of the economy – it wasn’t the best time in competition terms either – the massive new Hotel Vancouver was being built just a couple of blocks away, and costing an even more enormous amount. Then the economy hit a full-on recession, and there was a war declared. We can see the first couple of floors of building in the 1914 panorama above – but nobody seems to be on site, building.
Nothing appears in the Street Directories for this block for several years. The 1923 picture looking north down Burrard Street shows why – some of the frame is still there, increasingly stained, but clearly still standing. Very few changes have occurred on Burrard either – the city’s economy struggled for several years after the war was over.
Then in 1926 this photograph was shot, showing ‘construction at Burrard and Dunsmuir’. We’re pretty certain that what it actually shows is demolition rather than construction – the northern part of the unbuilt Ramsay Hotel was being cleared, but it looks as if the frame to the south might have been retained, and we’re suggesting that it might have been re-used in the construction of the lower part of the building on the corner of Melville and Burrard as an auto accessory warehouse for McKenzie, White and Dunsmuir Ltd in 1927, designed by by J Y McCarter. (Demolition was undoubtedly a riskier business in those days, if this detail from the image is anything to go by.
In 1938 the British Columbia Government attempted to collect tax from Firestone, the tire company, for sales of their tires made by McKenzie, White and Dunsmuir as distributors (representing about a quarter of McKenzie’s business). The case ended up passing up through the hierarchy of courts, and eventually the government lost the case heard by the Supreme Court in 1942. The Archives have some excellent images of the company’s activities, including a woman working on a crankshaft in 1944.
Next door a new building was completed for Clark Parsons Buick Ltd. Not too much later they were taken over by Bowell McDonald – a Pontiac, Chevrolet and Buick dealership who became better known later in a foreshortened version – Bow-Mac.
Image sources: Vancouver Public Library, City of Vancouver Archives PAN N218, Str N180 and CVA 1399-544