On the surface, Gastown offers an assortment of cool shops and great restaurants. And the people watching opportunities abound. But it’s also a very interesting spot to observe our city’s history. The area is a perfect example of a palimpsest, where layers of history are continuously built upon by our ever-changing interpretations of “heritage”.
The revitalization project of Gastown during the early 1970s gave us many synthetic heritage markers — the Steam Clock, the cobblestone streets, Blood Alley — but mixed in with these more gimmicky traits are some incredible historic structures that anchor the neighbourhood in the reality of its past.
Perhaps the most recognizable of these buildings is the oddly shaped Hotel Europe, which dominates Maple Tree Square. I recently had the opportunity to take a peek inside this Gastown landmark, including a visit to that little patio at the centre of so many tourist photographs.
Angelo Calori, whose name is inscribed above the building’s Powell Street entrance, commissioned the Hotel Europe (or Europe Hotel, as it was listed for many years) in 1908. The structure was the work of famous local architects Par & Fee, and served as an addition to Calori’s original hotel, which was built next door in 1886 at 14 Alexander Street. The design for the new hotel was heavily influenced by New York City’s iconic Flatiron Building, which had been completed only a few years previously in 1902.
The building features a typical Edwardian design, with a blonde brick façade, bold cornice, Classical-style columns, and elegant glasswork visible just above the main floor. The structure is said to be the first reinforced concrete building in the city, and while the original design planned for eight storeys, the hotel was completed with only six, plus a sub-ground level that served as an extension to a popular beer parlour on the main floor (it’s too bad we all missed that).
Glass blocks installed along the sidewalk on the north side provided natural light to “areaways” in the space below. This basement level was filled in with pea gravel in the 90s as a public safety measure (prior to the implementation of the Gastown Heritage Management Plan in 2001. Fortunately, steps were taken to cover the original tile before the fill was laid, so perhaps one day it can be viewed again.
Today, the Hotel Europe’s lobby features the original marble, brasswork, tiling, and glasswork above the entranceway, all a beautiful nod to the hotel’s long history. The statue of Gassy Jack that once sat outside the hotel has since been relocated across the street to its current position just outside of Peckinpah and Six Acres. Adolph Ingre & Associates converted the hotel into affordable housing in 1983, so while the upper floors have been fully renovated (including the addition of a patio space on the roof of the adjacent building) the exterior has retained nearly all of its original character. The large sign that once towered over Powell Street and the smaller version above the corner entrance are gone, as is the clock that once hung below the balcony.
That neat little front patio, which remains accessible as part of the corner rental suite, looks just the same as it did when the hotel opened, save for the lamps that adorned it while the front entrance was still operational. True to Gastown tradition, it remains a great perch for people watching, perhaps the best there is.