The concept of heritage preservation is a contentious subject in any city, and Vancouver is unfortunately no exception. When the identity of a city is rooted in constant change and features a geographical landscape that necessitates vertical growth, how much room is there to preserve old structures? Vancouver’s numerous heritage advocates and organizations are tasked with the incredibly difficult job of defending buildings and spaces that often stand in the way of urban development, balancing the weights of objectivity and practicality in order to determine what is worth fighting for. Everyone has their own views on what is valuable and what isn’t, so the object of this activism isn’t necessarily to determine what our “best” historic buildings are—it’s to open a dialogue about what the ever-evolving notion of “history” means to us.
After my visit to City Hall a few weeks ago, I began digging into other projects by Townley & Matheson, the architectural firm that designed the grand structure, and was disappointed to learn that their former office on Hornby Street was demolished this past May. The building had been vacant for several years and was transformed significantly beyond its original design, but still—isn’t it all a little ironic?
Fred L. Townley (son of former Vancouver Mayor Thomas Owen Townley) and Robert T. Matheson began their partnership in 1919 specializing in residential and small-scale design—including several automobile service stations for Imperial Oil Company Limited in the Lower Mainland and Victoria. During the early 1920s the firm was recognized as having completed four stations in a style “suggestive of the California Mission”, an architectural and aesthetic shift which influenced the Canadian approach in designing these buildings throughout the next decade and beyond. Vancouver’s Shaughnessy and Point Grey neighbourhoods also once featured many home designs by the duo prior to their shift into commercial and hospital works, though these have also been largely unprotected from re-development.
Both Canadian-born, Towney and Matheson each studied at the University of Pennsylvania and worked as individual architects until their partnership. The men were eventually awarded the contract to design Vancouver’s new City Hall in 1935, but when Matheson passed away the same year it was Townley (who had previously let his partner handle the business aspects) who took the reigns. Built in 1941, the Hornby Street office retained both names and would continue to do so until it ceased operations in 1974 after a few changes in partnerships and mergers, under the final moniker of Townley, Matheson & Partners.
In all, the company designed over 1100 local structures. Besides City Hall, other notable still-standing works by the men (separately and as partners) include the Province Building on West Hastings (c. 1890s), the Gray Block at Homer and Davie (1912), the Vancouver Stock Exchange Building on Howe (1923), the Vancouver Motors building on Seymour (1925), The Royal Vancouver Yacht Club (1926) the Van Arsdel on Oak Street (1928), Vancouver Technical School (1928), Point Grey Secondary (1929), the Dick Building on South Granville (1929), and the original sections of Vancouver General Hospital, Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, and Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. Thankfully, these are all buildings that are still in use or have been re-adapted for new purposes (some thanks to successful heritage activism). Let’s hope they stay standing for many years to come.