Ormidale Block – West Hastings Street

For decades this building has been wrongly attributed. The architect has never been in doubt; it was G W Grant, a designer with an eccentric architectural style. While many architects attempted to achieve perfect symmetry, Grant was quite happy to throw in a variety of design elements, in this case stacked up on top of each other on one side of the façade. There’s an oriel window on the top floor, over two floors with projecting bay windows, over the elaborate terra cotta entrance, with an arched doorway.

The Heritage Designation of the buildings says: “Built in 1900 by architect George W. Grant for R. W. Ormidale, the building housed the offices of several wholesale importers.” With a carved terracotta plaque saying “Ormidale RW 1900” above the oriel window, it seems an appropriate attribution, although quite who R W Ormidale might be was never made clear. There are no records of anybody in the city with that name, (or indeed, in Canada).

An entry in the Contract Record, and an illustration in the 1900 publication ‘Vancouver Architecturally’ solve the mystery. The brochure, which was a promotional booklet put together by several of the city’s architects, shows a sketch of the building, but identifies it as the ‘Walker Block’. In 1899 the Contract Record announced “G. W. Grant, architect, is preparing plans for a four-storey block, 48×120 feet, to be built on Hastings street by R. Walker.”

This confirms that the developer was a Mr. R Walker – hence the ‘R W’. A 1900 court case clarifies that the developer was Robert Walker. Mr. Walker signed off on a payment owed to a builder in G W Grant’s office, for the ‘Robert Walker Block’. There was a Robert Walker resident in the city, He had arrived around 1890, with his wife Susan. He was from the Isle of Man, and a carpenter, and she was born in Quebec. They were still in the city in 1901, living at 1921 Westminster Avenue, and he was still a carpenter, and the family had grown to four, with two children at home. He designed and built a house at the same address in 1904 for $650. In 1911 Robert had become Clerk of Works for the City of Vancouver. Home was now called 1921 Main Street, and the house must have been pretty full as the Census registered 22 lodgers, fifteen of them from the Isle of Man. It seemed unlikely that he had the funds to develop this building in 1900 on his carpenter’s wages, but he was the only person with the right name in the street directory.

However, an 1898 list of eligible voters identifies another Vancouver resident – Robert Walker, miner. He was living in the Pullman Hotel. (The list shows there were seven Robert Walkers in BC, including a blacksmith and a missionary). The adjacent building, the Flack Block, was developed in 1899 by another successful miner, so it’s quite possible that the Ormidale Block was developed with the proceeds of the Klondike gold rush, perhaps by someone with Scottish roots (if the Ormidale name is significant). We haven’t been able to confirm that hypothesis, in part because of Robert Gile Walker. While he’s unlikely to be our developer, he was successful in the Klondike. Between 1897 and 1901 he made five trips in search of gold. After his fifth and final exploration in Nome, Alaska, Walker returned to Tacoma, where he married in 1901 and continued to run a successful real estate business.

Our developer may have been Robert Henry Walker, and it’s possible that the Scottish connection was indirect. It may be a coincidence, but in 1885 Robert J Walker, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, lived in a house called ‘Ormidale’, in Leicester, England. A Robert H Walker died in 1912, and was buried in the Masonic Section of Mountain View Cemetery, but we haven’t found anything to confirm he was the developer here..

The façade of the Ormidale block has recently been repaired and returned to its asymmetrical splendour, with a brand new office construction behind. It uses an unusual construction system; a hybrid structure consisting of an innovative wood-concrete composite floor system supported on steel beams and columns. This floor system allows for exposed wood ceilings throughout the office floors, a nod to the heritage aspect of this project, while achieving increased load-carrying capacity and stiffness by compositely connecting the concrete slab to the wood panels. At the back there’s an entirely contemporary skin consisting of rusted corten steel, and there’s also a green rooftop patio. Our top ‘before’ picture was taken in 2004, and the lower only five years ago, when the building was probably in its worst state. The bay windows had been removed many decades ago, although we’re not exactly sure when as the last image we have that shows them is from 1941.

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Posted December 2, 2019 by ChangingCity in Altered, East End

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