Granville at West Georgia

Granville at Georgia

These three office buildings were some of the earliest built in the city. Seen here in 1889 on Granville Street, south from the corner of Georgia were the Donald Smith Block, the Lord Durham Block and the Lord Elphinstone Block. We think all three were built in 1888, and all were part of Canadian Pacific Railway’s efforts to create an instant ‘new city’ on the CPR’s own land, some distance from the more established former Granville townsite down on Water Street.

The Donald Smith Block on the corner was designed by Bruce Price, an American with impeccable credentials as a designer, based in New York. He produced a series of designs from 1886 to 1888 for CPR sponsored buildings, including this 4-storey building named for Lord Strathcona, the Scottish born Canadian co-founder of the CPR (with his first cousin, Lord Mount Steven). As a CPR Director there was an expectation that Sir Donald would invest in a building to encourage the growth of business in the new city (and particularly that part controlled by the CPR).

Next door was the Lord Durham Block. This one is more of a mystery: we haven’t traced an architect, and we initially were not completely sure if the Lord Durham of the day, The 3rd Earl of Durham, John Lambton, was associated with the CPR, although a contemporary 1888 publication certainly implies that he was. There’s also a building permit in 1902 for repairs to the building issued to ‘Durham, Lord’.

Lord Durham’s grandfather, an English peer, the 1st Earl, also called John, had earlier connections to Canada. He was a political reformer who in December 1837 was asked by Lord Melbourne, the British prime minister, to solve the Canadian situation after rebellion had broken out in both Upper and Lower Canada. He was promised virtually dictatorial powers as governor-in-chief of the British North American colonies and high commissioner, but didn’t last in the job very long. After his short stay in Canada he wrote a report in 1838 that proposed merger of Upper and Lower Canada and the creation of responsible government, in which the governor general would be a figurehead and the legislative assembly would hold a great deal of power. In the responsible government, the legislative assembly would be elected by the people, and the party with majority would hold power – as long as they held support, they would keep power. The merger would eventually come ten years later.

Durham 1888There’s a woodcut of the Lord Durham Block in an 1888 publication which shows a very English looking building. In 1889 the Daily World reported “The alterations to the Lord Durham block are approaching completion. The store windows, and those of the upper storeys as well, have been enlarged, and the general appearance of the block has been so changed that it would be difficult to recognize it. The new upper cornice is a great improvement to the building. T. Tompkins, the contractor, has reason to congratulate himself on the success of the work, as the building looks very much improved since the alterations have been made.” There’s no way of being sure, but we think the photograph above is the revised building – there’s an 1893 image that shows the building looking the same as it does here. While we haven’t identified the architect, we can rule one candidate out: a Daily World article in 1888 reported that Bruce Price of New York was the architect of a number of new buildings with the exception of the Lord Durham and Lord Elphinstone Blocks. It reported that each of the three were costing about $26,000, and that Mr. Tomkins was contractor for all of them. The Lord Durham Block was where the congregation of Christ Church met while they tried to raise the funds to build their church; often in cramped and stuffy conditions if reports from 1889 are accurate.

The third building is the Lord Elphinstone Block, designed by Montreal architects John and Edward Hopkins, a father and son team who also picked up another CPR commission for the Opera House up the street. Unlike Lord Durham, we are quite certain of Lord Elphinstone’s involvement in the CPR – he was their man in London. He was one of the British subscribers who bought shares in the company, and was also a founding director of the Canada North-West Land Company (with Donald Smith) incorporated in 1882 to buy five million acres of land along the route of the railway from the CPR, (later changed to a mere 2.2 million aces) including  forty-seven towns on the CPR main line. We can probably rule out the possibility of the Hopkins’ designing the Lord Durham Block, as the list of their works is comprehensive because it comes from the ledgers recording their income.

Despite their early importance, the buildings didn’t last very long. In 1912 the Birks Building went up here, only for it to be tragically replaced in the mid 1970s by the uninspired Vancouver Centre.

Image source: City of Vancouver Archives CVA Str P73

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