by Stevie Wilson | Vancouver is a young city, one that features a remarkable development trajectory that sometimes muddies our concept of what is historic, what is modern, and what falls somewhere in-between. The city has grown exponentially since its incorporation 127 years ago, and while there still exists plenty of awe-inspiring heritage in every neighbourhood, it’s clear that development – namely real estate – has taken precedence over the establishment of heritage sites. Fortunately, the Electra Building at Burrard and Nelson is one of the unique examples where history has been accommodated to complement Vancouver’s ever-transforming identity as a modern city.
Built between 1955-1957, the 21-storey skyscraper was known then as the BC Electric Company Building, and features many of the recognizable traits found in mid-century postwar design. Noted Canadian architect Ronald Thom and lead architect Ned Pratt, of Thompson, Berwick & Pratt were the principal design team behind the iconic landmark, whose thin, lozenge shape reflected the Modernist trend towards geometric-inspired design. However, the building’s unique shape also served a practical purpose:
From Exploring Vancouver:
“It was B.C. Electric chairman Dal Grauer who (despite being in the business of selling electricity) insisted that every desk be within 15 feet of a window. . . Safir’s (Otto, engineer) solution was to have all systems distributed via the central shaft off which floors branch out, cantilevered, column free with daylight and a view for each worker.”
Hydroelectric power had been a prime focus of the postwar provincial economy, which relied heavily on grand infrastructure as a symbol of growth and development. In addition to numerous eye-catching structural attributes, the building features typical mid-century elements: west coast-inspired mosaic wall tiles and facade (the work of celebrated Canadian artist B.C. Binning), terrazzo paving, geometrical detailing, and re-enforced concrete finishing, among many others. Adjacent to the building lies the Dal Grauer Substation, completed in 1954; it currently sits on the Vancouver Heritage Society’s 2010 list of Endangered Sites.
The former BC Electric building was known for its iconic presence in the mid-century landscape of Downtown Vancouver, particularly because its lights were left on all hours of the day for several years (you know, to illustrate how cool hydroelectricity was). It literally stood as a beacon of industry, modernity, and prosperity, and for many years was one of the tallest buildings in the city. The spot featured an audio presence, too. Musical horns on the roof played the opening notes of “Oh Canada” each day at noon – a distinction now passed to the Pan Pacific at Canada Place.
Upon Grauer’s death in 1961, the operations of BC Electric were transferred to the province to be continued under the BC Hydro moniker, and the offices were eventually moved to Burnaby in the late 1990s. Years later, the redevelopment of the building into condominiums signaled the first major transition of its kind in Vancouver. In order to give this project the go-ahead, the city required heritage designation to be issued, with facsimile (operational) windows, porcelain, and other features installed to match the original aesthetics. The Electra, as it now stands, was the first post-1940s building in Vancouver to be granted heritage status.
Stevie Wilson is a historian masquerading as a writer. After serving as an editor for the UBC History Journal, she’s decided to branch out with a cryptic agenda: encouraging the people of Vancouver to take notice of their local history and heritage with You Should Know, a Scout column that aims to reveal to readers the many historial things that they already see but might not undertstand.