Northern Electric – Robson Street

In the summer it’s impossible to be sure that this 1928 building is the same as it was in the picture, photographed in this Vancouver Public Library image a year after it was built. Nothing much has changed externally, although it was added to in 1947 with a matching element. To the east (left of the picture) there’s a former gas station that’s been a bar for many years. The architects for the Northern Electric building were McCarter Nairne, with Northern Electric’s Montreal based architect, Joseph Onesime Despatie. The building was basic, but there are a few modest Art Moderne / Classical touches at the entrance.

Northern Electric started life in the mid 1890s as the manufacturing subsidiary of Bell Telephone of Canada. Before they developed here they occupied a building on Water Street. During the 1920s, as well as the core telephone and related business, Northern Electric made kettles, toasters, cigar lighters, electric stoves, and washing machines. The Vancouver buildings were warehouse space, with a showroom, but manufacturing took place elsewhere. The company name was truncated to Nortel many years later, and eventually saw a spectacular bankruptcy in 2009. They had long abandoned this building, which had been purchased in 1958 by the Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver for use as their Catholic Centre, containing their offices and the Catholic Men’s Hostel with over 100 beds on the third floor. A new office building was built some years ago on the site of the former St Vincent’s Hospital, and only the hostel occupies the building for now.

In 2018 City Council approved the development of a 29 storey residential tower here. It will sit above the restored facades of the Northern Electric Building, and there will be a hotel in the restored part, on four floors, with an adjacent new six storey building to the east. The oldest part of the heritage warehouse will have a restaurant on the main floor, and there will be a coffee shop in the 1947 addition. The Catholic Hostel is moving initially to St Paul’s Hospital, and will need another new home once that is redeveloped in a few years time.

Image source: City of Vancouver Archives CVA Bu N279.2

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Posted December 9, 2019 by ChangingCity in Downtown, Still Standing

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