Have you ever noticed some older brick buildings around town that feature a distinctive diamond shaped pattern in the brickwork? The boldly patterned exterior of these buildings was the work of the enigmatic architectural team of Joseph and Alfred Townsend. Coinciding with the city’s first building boom, they were active in Vancouver for only a brief period, from 1909-1913.
In total, Townsend & Townsend designed about 20 of these distinct brick buildings in the city. Unfortunately, only four still remain: Quebec Manor at 7th & Quebec, built in 1911; Shaughnessy Mansion at 15th & Granville, built in 1912; McPherson Building at 318 Water Street, built 1912 (pictured below, as seen in 1914 and today); and a building at 1075 West Broadway, built in 1911.
The look is actually a Tudor revival motif called ‘diamond diaper work’ (or more commonly ‘diapering’). The decorative effect was perfected in the 15th century by William Waynflete, a British polymath who was – in turn – Provost of Eton, Bishop of Winchester, Lord Chancellor of England, and the founder of both Magdalen College and Magdalen College School in Oxford.
Though Townsend & Townsend were well known (infamous, perhaps) for their “eccentric aesthetics”, not all of their buildings featured bold diaper work. A search in Heritage Vancouver’s Historical Building Permits database reveals that the architects were issued 55 building permits between 1909 -1913. These include permits for wood frame houses (including one in Shaughnessy on Cedar Crescent that still stands), brick warehouses, stores and many multi-story rooming houses and apartment buildings. Several of their more discrete works still stand today. Despite their relatively brief stay in Vancouver, the pair were notably prolific.
Little is known about the curious duo. There – as far as I can find – no archived photographs of either men. In fact, it seems no one was quite sure at the time if they were brothers or a father and son team (a 1911 census confirmed the latter). Both were born in England and arrived in Vancouver around 1908. The city directories also reveal that they lived and worked out of their office space. In 1961, a contemporary of Townsend & Townsend, architect Ross A. Lort (1889-1968), recollected that they “hung blankets across the back of office and lived and slept there”. There is no information about what happened to the Townsends after 1913.
I consider myself fortunate to have once lived in one of the Townsends’ more distinctive buildings, Shaughnessy Mansions at 15th and Granville (pictured above). It was the late 1980s and despite the noticeably sloping floors and other wabi-sabi details that came with age, the building was a sturdy old gal and proved as much when a van smashed into the ground floor early one Sunday morning (at first, I thought it was an earthquake). Originally built 104 years ago, the building is now literally a shell of its former self. In 2005, in a case of architectural taxidermy writ large, the exterior was ‘restored’ while the interior was completely rebuilt.
Probably the most ornamented example of Townsend & Townsend’s work (and my personal favourite) is the elegant, Quebec Manor at 101 E. 7th Avenue (pictured above). Not only does the exterior include the Townsends’ distinctive buff and red diamond-patterned diaper work, but also features other architectural elements that they were known for, namely, projecting cornices and elaborate entrance pediments. Built in 1912, Quebec Manor was originally named Mount Stephen Block and appears today much like it did back then, save for a large dramatic rooftop pediment.
A City of Vancouver Archives photo taken shortly after it was built reveals this missing element. The building was considered by some at the time, as rather ostentatious for the predominately working class neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant.
With their distinct diamond shaped brickwork, I like to refer to these Townsend & Townsend designed buildings as the “argyle socks” of the architectural world. I think it is a shame that only 4 (known) examples of these buildings survive today, as they add a much-needed bit of whimsy to Vancouver’s built environment.