With its impressive neoclassical design and beautiful historic details, the Vancouver Art Gallery is one of the city’s grandest cultural institutions. While the gallery itself remains in a permanent state of flux hosting world-class collections and exhibitions, its elegant rotunda remains one of the few interior features with a direct link to the structure’s origins.
Following an architectural competition held by the BC government in 1905, Englishman Francis Rattenbury was chosen to design the new provincial courthouse. Rattenbury’s work also includes the Victoria’s ornate Empress Hotel as well as the Parliament Buildings. Unlike his work in Victoria, however, the courthouse design borrowed heavily from classic Roman features, including its central pediments, porticos, large front steps, and interior rotunda. In 1912, local architect Thomas Hooper designed the additional extension on Hornby Street.
The last court assembly at this site was held in 1979, and work shortly began on renovating the space into the new home of the Vancouver Art Gallery. The new-and-improved Law Courts Building, designed by Arthur Erickson, opened a year later on Smithe Street. Erickson also played a large role in the renovation of the old court house, including the preservation of the rotunda. The lower level of the space was gutted in 1982 (see archival photos below), while the second floor remains much as it did during its time as a classic hallway intersection. Original tile flooring, railings, porticos, and (refurbished) plasterwork are lit by the large dome roof and offer a historic look at the pre-gallery interior design. In addition to the rotunda, the courtroom of Chief Justice Allan McEachern was also preserved and repurposed into a VAG boardroom. Today, both floors serve as community and exhibition spaces.
The rotunda also played a small but important role in the early development of our civic museum collections: In 1934 Reverend George Raley contacted city archivist Major J.S. Matthews regarding his personal collection of First Nations ethnographic objects and art acquired during his missionary work in Kitimat, Port Simpson, and the Coqualeetza Institute (a residential school) in Sardis, BC. Following the sale of Raley’s pieces to department store owner Victor Spencer, Matthews converted the courthouse rotunda into a small museum. After a short residency at the new city Hall in 1937, the items were eventually distributed to the Vancouver Museum and the UBC Museum of Anthropology. Take a seat, a look upwards, and an extra moment to enjoy the artful architecture on your next visit.