O’Brien Hall – West Hastings and Homer

The tenants of this building, William and Gertrude O’Brien, were so identified with it that it was named for them in the photo captions in the Library and Archives collections. Actually it pre-dated their involvement, and started life called the ‘British Columbia Land and Investment Agency Building’. Built in 1892, it was designed by Fripp and Wills. In the early years it was home to the Moodyville Land and Sawmill Co. Up to 1898 the building was also called the “Metropolitan Club Block” and sometimes the “Metropolitan Block”.

This early image was shot in 1898 (when the sidewalk was still wooden). The developer, The B.C. Land and Investment Agency were a London-based Real Estate and Insurance Agency which at one time were said to own or control half the real estate in Victoria.

The O’Brien’s were from Ontario; William from Nobleton and Gertrude from Barrie. They married in 1892, and moved west two years later. When he married, William was a musician, but on arrival in Vancouver he styled himself a “Professor of Dancing,” opening a dancing academy on an upper floor of this building. In 1894 the Daily World reported an ‘At Home’, where 40 couples danced until midnight, when luncheon was served, and then danced on again ’till morn’. Gertrude also taught dancing. In 1894 it was reported “Mrs. W.E. O’Brien, teacher of society dancing, is about to commence her children’s class, during which all the popular society dances will be taught, as well as some very artistic dances suitable for children’s exhibitions. For terms apply at academy, corner of Homer and Hastings streets.”

The O’Brien’s had four daughters – two sets of twins. In the 1920s they lived on Denman Street, and the 1921 census showed Gertrude no longer taught dance, and William was listed as proprietor of the hall for his occupation, although he was still listed in the street directory as ‘dancing master’. There’s more detail about the family on WestEnd Vancouver.

The hall was used for a variety of purposes: the first suffrage convention in the city was held here in 1911. The Pacific Lodge of the Oddfellows first met here in 1894, before moving to another hall nearby on Hamilton Street. In 1907 the first meeting of the Vancouver Automobile Club was held. The first official club rally was held on Labour Day, 1907 with a run around Stanley Park, where eleven cars started but only five cars made it all the way around. That same year the Canada Lumberman and Woodworker reported, rather mysteriously a “HOO-HOO IN BRITISH COLUMBIA. A Rousing Concatenation Held at Vancouver Last Month. On Friday, August the ninth, the mystic Black Cat again held court on the roof, in Vancouver, when the timorous purring of thirty-two unregenerated kittens was mingled with the yowls and caterwauls of nearly a hundred old cats. The session took place in O’Brien’s Hall, Hastings street. Snark J. D. Moody was again in evidence as leader

From 1928 the corner tenant of the main floor of the building was the Bank of Montreal. By 1930 the O’Brien’s were no longer shown in the street directory, and Wrigley’s Directory were the lessees of the O’Brien Hall. William and Gertrude were living in Vancouver again in 1939, in retirement, and Gertrude died in Vancouver in, 1951, and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery. William died in 1957, and was buried with her.

In 1940 a new branch of the Bank of Montreal had been built here, with the Bank occupying the eastern half of the partly-completed new building on a temporary basis, while the western (corner) unit was completed, and they were able to occupy their long term location. We didn’t know for certain who designed the 1940 building, but the style is similar to the buildings designed by Townley and Matheson for the Vancouver General Hospital around this time. In 1940 Townley and Matheson designed a business block for Dr. Worthington at Homer and Hastings, and as the other three corner buildings are all earlier than 1940, and still standing today, it seemed pretty clear that this is their work, and the building Permit from 1940 confirms that the $60,000 building was their work. Dr George Worthington was president of the Vancouver Drug Co, and in 1937 chaired the annual of the Vancouver Tourist Association dinner. Today the building is part of the Vancouver Film School.

Image source: City of Vancouver Archives CVA 371-2041

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