What It’s Like Inside The Dome Of Vancouver’s Iconic Sun Tower

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The Sun Tower at the corner of West Pender and Beatty Streets is one of Vancouver’s most recognizable landmarks, particularly due to its eye-catching, mint-coloured dome that’s visible from nearly everywhere in the city. However, despite the building’s iconic status (and its magnetic tourist’s photography), it’s not too often that hear from anyone who’s actually been inside the dome or, better still, atop the cupola, so we decided to take a look.

Keep in mind that it wasn’t easy. The dome is impossible to gain access to if you don’t have the building managers on your side. It took plenty of correspondence and explanation of benign intent on Scout’s part to convince the keymasters that we were there by virtue of sincere curiosity and true affection for the building’s architecture and history. In the end, our foot in the door came last month when Scout was invited to a Vancouver Heritage Foundation event. One thing (begging) led to another (pleading), and eventually a tour was arranged in good humour, for which we will remain eternally grateful. Take a look…

To gain access to the dome, one most first get to the 17th floor, up a winding staircase made of marble and through a locked door. The interior is a bit of a shock at first. There are no frescoes, sculptured metopes or decorative flourishes of any kind at all, which is a truth that came rudely, really, as one half expects the gorgeous thing to be filled to the knees with treasure. But it’s completely bare and unadorned save for spidery support beams in yellow painted steel that have been bolted above a noisy blue machine that operates the building’s elevators. It was all very industrial, which is to say a little deflating of the imagination.

And yet it clearly wasn’t without beauty. The dome is lit by a ring of oculi (the fancy name for circular windows). These look over the city from the cardinal points, and gazing out of them was a real trip. Though the buildings that surround it are mostly new (especially to the west and south), the windows – recessed and antique as they are – soften their glaring modernity like a Hipstamatic filter. But the real view is up even higher. A sketchy, steel-framed platform leads to a ladder that rises to a trap door in the ceiling. Once unbolted, this leads to the cupola, or the open-air nipple that stands erect at the dome’s apex. Here, the building’s big fib is revealed. The green-tinge on the dome’s exterior isn’t real. It’s a faux patina design that’s been painted to mimic oxidized copper. Alas, the view – so raw and exposed – more than makes up for it.

The history of the Beaux-Arts building is readily found and filled with fantastic details, but here’s a brief run-down: Noted Canadian architect William Tuff Whiteway (of Woodwards fame) was commissioned to design the structure in 1911-12 by the now-infamous Vancouver mayor L.D. Taylor. It began as the offices for Taylor’s newspaper company, The Vancouver World, before the publication folded and the building was passed to Bekin’s, the Seattle-based storage and moving company. At the time of its completion, the building was recognized as the tallest (commercial) structure in the British Empire – a distinction that previously belonged to the nearby Dominion Building. In 1937, the Vancouver Sun took over the building, renamed it, installed a massive red neon sign across the top, and continued operations until 1965 when it relocated to 2250 Granville Street.

Unlike the exterior of the tower – which still features Charles Marega’s controversial “nine maidens” perched at the 8th floor, bare breasts and all – the interior has changed much over the years. In 2011 it was redeveloped by Allied Properties as creative spaces, though several historic features are still on display on the top floors, including tile work, marble staircases, single-paned fenestration, radiators, and beautiful door handles. Inside and out, there’s no other building like it. Take a look…

  • Framing of the World Tower, circa 1911
    Framing of the World Tower, circa 1911
  • How the Sun Tower fits in Vancouver's skyline (from Chinatown)
    How the Sun Tower fits in Vancouver's skyline (from Chinatown)
  • Inside the cupola looking east
    Inside the cupola looking east
  • Looking through the eastern oculus
    Looking through the eastern oculus
  • The ceiling of the cupola
    The ceiling of the cupola
  • The newly renovated ground floor event space
    The newly renovated ground floor event space
  • The view from the western end of the Dunsmuir Viaduct
    The view from the western end of the Dunsmuir Viaduct
  • In the midst of renovation one the 15th floor (lucky tenants, whoever they might be)
    In the midst of renovation one the 15th floor (lucky tenants, whoever they might be)
  • Heading up into the cupola from the dome
    Heading up into the cupola from the dome
  • Looking up from West Pender and Beatty St.
    Looking up from West Pender and Beatty St.
  • The winding staircase to the dome from the 17th floor
    The winding staircase to the dome from the 17th floor
  • Andrew framing up an oculus inside the dome
    Andrew framing up an oculus inside the dome
  • Inside the dome (with imaginary treasure and frescos)
    Inside the dome (with imaginary treasure and frescos)
  • The Sun Tower
    The Sun Tower
  • The newly renovated ground floor event space
    The newly renovated ground floor event space
  • Inside the 15th floor renovation
    Inside the 15th floor renovation
  • Sun Tower with Neon Sign, 1961 (note the dome is brick in colour)
    Sun Tower with Neon Sign, 1961 (note the dome is brick in colour)
  • Inside the 15th floor renovation
    Inside the 15th floor renovation
  • The newly renovated ground floor event space
    The newly renovated ground floor event space
  • View of Pender Street east of Cambie Street
    View of Pender Street east of Cambie Street
  • View southwest from the 15th floor
    View southwest from the 15th floor
  • Inside the cupola atop the dome
    Inside the cupola atop the dome
  • Peekaboo from the Dunsmuir Viaduct
    Peekaboo from the Dunsmuir Viaduct
  • The Sun Tower
    The Sun Tower
  • Looking west from the cupola atop the dome
    Looking west from the cupola atop the dome
  • Moody view
    Moody view
  • Looking north from the dome's cupola
    Looking north from the dome's cupola
  • Inside the 15th floor renovation
    Inside the 15th floor renovation
  • Looking east to Gastown and Railtown
    Looking east to Gastown and Railtown
  • Exterior detailing
    Exterior detailing
  • Steel framed platform that affords views through oculi and a ladder up to the cupola
    Steel framed platform that affords views through oculi and a ladder up to the cupola
  • Oculus looking west
    Oculus looking west
  • Oculus looking west
    Oculus looking west
  • Elevator tech's chair (presumably)
    Elevator tech's chair (presumably)
  • Radiators on the 15th floor
    Radiators on the 15th floor
  • 15th floor view
    15th floor view
  • Save On Meats etc, from the cupola
    Save On Meats etc, from the cupola
  • 15th floor renovation
    15th floor renovation
  • 15th floor renovation
    15th floor renovation
  • The new event space on the ground floor
    The new event space on the ground floor
  • The Human Fly scaling the World Tower in 1918
    The Human Fly scaling the World Tower in 1918

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