Perched on the Cambie Street slope at 12th Avenue, Vancouver’s City Hall is now surrounded by lush gardens, well-groomed trees, and a busy intersection flanked by beautiful homes and local businesses; it’s normalized as part of the area’s landscape as a building we pass by each day without taking much note of. Yet, imagine how this enormous concrete structure would have looked to Vancouverites of the mid 1930’s. Opened on December 1, 1936, the incredible Art Deco design was a far cry from the various smaller structures that had housed the mayors and city councils of decades past.
Previous iterations of City Hall included a tent at the incorporation of the city in 1886, the Warehouse Building on Powell Street from 1888 to 1898, the Old Market Hall (demolished in 1958) next to Carnegie Hall on Main Street until 1929, and an interim stay inside the Holden Block at Carall and Hastings Street prior to moving to its massive new location. It was, by all accounts, a grand testament to politics in the city—and one that existed rather unusually outside of the downtown core.
Mayor George Clark Miller took office at the new hall a month later on January 2, 1937. However, the proposal for its location is attributed to the previous mayor, the infamous Gerry McGeer. While relatively distant from the major business and community centres of the day, the location presented to his 3-person council was conceived as a way to link Vancouver proper to the newly annexed areas of South Vancouver and Point Grey. This council featured G.L. Thornton Sharpe, a prominent local architect; Chief Justice Aulay Morrison; and Dr. L.S. Klinck, who was then president of UBC. The land they agreed on was originally named Strathcona Park and had offered nearby homeowners an unobstructed view of the North Shore. While three options were presented, including Burrard Street’s King George High School grounds and the Central School at Pender and Cambie, it was clear which option the mayor preferred.
Once it was designated, architects Townley & Matheson went to great lengths to craft the building as an impressive icon, including gilding the ceiling of the second floor with gold leaf. The heavy-massed concrete design features simple vertical shafts, the use of multi-storied setbacks, a looming 12-storey tower with neon clocks set atop a raised podium, lock plates engraved with the city’s coat of arms, and various Art Deco accents throughout the interior.
McGeer’s original vision for the Cambie location had been for the surrounding area to become a huge civic mall with various other buildings flanking the main structure. He would later approach Fred Townley to draw plans for an enlarged Cambie boulevard, a matching/mirrored structure for a public library and auditorium, and a massive sports field complete with a swimming pool. While this plan never materialized (indeed, many have since observed the similarities to certain Nazi-era architectural plans), McGeer’s choice remains the first (and only?) Canadian city hall to be located outside the downtown area. An excellent study of these plans can be found in Lance Berelowitz’s Dream City: Vancouver and the Global Imagination.
I recently popped inside to take a look around at the open house put on by Doors Open Vancouver, and was pleasantly surprised to observe how little has been updated. Save for the giant projector screen, the City Council chambers in particular offer a nearly unobstructed look at the original 1930’s design. The dark, somewhat cramped ceilings and brass-coloured accents are juxtaposed with long, expansive hallways and offices — an excellent example of the style’s elegance and modernism, making it definitely worth it to pay your next parking fines in person.