Burns Block – 18 West Hastings Street

Burns Block

We shot this 2004 image before the renovation that transformed the Burns Block into rented micro units from a (very) run down SRO hotel. There is an older image (below) that we can’t replicate (because it was photographed from a window across the street) when the building was 18 years old, in 1927. That image gives no sense of the unique triangular shape of the building, squeezed into a very tight space between the Pantages Theatre (or rather, the building that was there previously, as the Pantages was built in 1916), and the rail right-of-way that crossed Hastings Street. The 1927 image shows the names on the windows of the upper floors, so we can see who occupied which floor.

Burns 1927On the main floor was Burns & Co’s meat shop. Patrick. P. Burns & Co were western Canada’s largest meatpacking company and Dominic Burns, ran the BC arm of the family business established by his Alberta-based brother. Dominic was wealthy enough to fund the $400,000 Vancouver Block on Granville Street in 1910 (with completion in 1912) and move to the top floor penthouse where he lived until 1933. He’d been in Vancouver as early as 1899 when he helped establish the local branch of the family meat business from Cordova Street. In 1927 the Marine department of P Burns and Co operated from the 3rd floor with E R Flewwelling, Manufacturing Jewelry and Engraving. Dr. Humber, dentist and Dr. Roach, surgeon shared the second floor with International Correspondence School. On the fourth floor was T K McAlpine, Physician and Surgeon, on the floor above Dr Emma Greve, chiropractor, had her offices next to the name of Parson & Smith – although that company had moved out a while earlier. The top floor was anonymous, but held the premises of the Y W C A club and lunch rooms.

When the building opened there were 16 tenants, including the Burns offices which were then on the second floor. There included four doctors, three real estate companies and the Anderson Logging Company. In 1920 a number of the 1927 companies and doctors were already in dr bellresidency, but Dr Bell’s Electrical Invigorator Co were in room 5, offering an apparatus which, thanks to the Museum of Quackery we know consisted of a battery powered belt that promised “…Body Batteries does two things:   1st. It strengthens weakened nerves.   2nd. It increases the blood circulation-especially in the direction that the current flows.   Every organ is controlled by nerves, and the nerve energy that operates each organ is electricity.  It is the life of the body, the power that runs the human machine.  A cure accomplished by Electricity is a permanent cure…The people who report satisfactory results are not all mistaken.  It does the work for them-it will do as much as you.”

We’re not really sure when office use was abandoned and the building became a Single Room Occupancy residential building. The most recent street directory we can easily access show it was still in office use in 1955, and remarkably two of the 1927 tenants were still operating: F R Humber was still filling teeth and E R Flewwelling was making jewelry. Among the other tenants were dress designers Fashionette of Vancouver, and the International Woodworkers of America union office on the top floor.

Apparently the original architects of the building are unknown – although the milk brick and centrally pivoting window design bear all the hallmarks of a Parr and Fee design, and a year later they were the architects for the Vancouver Block. The single room occupancy housing was closed down in 2006 having failed fire safety inspections (there were no working fire alarms, for example, and the fire escape exits were blocked). After a few years when it was empty, the restoration by new owners Reliance Holdings, designed by Bruce Carscadden Architects and opened in 2011, addressed seismic and structural issues as well as replacing all the building’s services and recreating the storefront. The carefully designed new residential units are less than 300 square feet, (the smallest is 226 square feet) but each has a tiny kitchen and bathroom with two-burner stoves and counter-height fridges. Wall beds and fold-out dining tables allow the room to adapt to different uses throughout the day. Rents are now reported to be a bit more than a $1000 a month. A bar called ‘Bitter’ occupies the main floor.

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Posted March 21, 2016 by ChangingCity in East End, Still Standing

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