Vancouver Once Had a City Architect, and He Was As Prolific As He Was Controversial

Arthur Julius Bird ca. 1920s. Photo: Steffens-Colmer | BC Archives: G-08282

Vancouver has a City Librarian and City Archivist, but did you know we once had a City Architect too? Arthur Julius (A.J.) Bird (1875-1967) held the civic position of City Architect from 1925 until 1933, when he was fired from the job amid allegations of wrongdoing from a disgruntled former employee. But, more about that later…

Born and educated in England, A.J. Bird came to BC in 1907 at the start of a boom period of prosperity and growth in the city. For his first two years, he worked for a local architectural firm. He then went into private practice, setting up shop in the Winch building on West Hastings. Bird utilized his “knowledge of modern building techniques”, designing many of Vancouver’s earliest multi-storey apartments, many of which are still in use today, including: the Lee Building at Main & Broadway (1910); the Lotus Hotel on West Pender (1912); the Belvedere Court Apartments on Main Street at 10th (1912); the Capitola Apartments on Thurlow (1909); the Afton Hotel (home of the Ovaltine Cafe) on East Hastings (1912); and Washington Court on Thurlow, 1910. A search in Heritage Vancouver’s Historic Building Permits database (1901-1921) revealed over 60 building projects listing A.J. Bird as the architect.

A few of Bird’s multi-storey apartment buildings – Afton Hotel, Lee Building & Belvedere Court. Photos: CoV Archives, CVA 786-49.32 & CVA 786-61.14, C. Hagemoen

Things slowed down for Bird in 1913 when the economic boom went bust. The start of WWI in 1914 saw the 39-year-old architect leave the city to serve overseas with the 47th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force until 1919. Upon his return, he was hired as Vancouver’s head building inspector, serving the city from 1919 to 1933. In 1925 the civic building committee added the role of City Architect to Bird’s building department portfolio. In this role, Bird would be responsible for all civic architecture work in addition to serving as the City’s building inspector.

As City Architect, Bird designed many institutional structures for the city. These included several departmental buildings at Vancouver General Hospital (1925-27); City Morgue & Coroner’s Court building on East Cordova, which is now home to the Vancouver Police Museum (1932); the Juvenile Detention Home on Wall Street (1930); the Livestock Pavilion at Hastings Park (1927); Airport Hangar #1 on Sea Island (1931); and even some underground public conveniences (washrooms) including two that still exist today (since renovated and altered) at Main and Hastings and Victory Square. Bird also designed a much-needed new city hall building in 1928, but the building project was delayed for many years. In the end, his plans were never used.

Four buildings designed by A.J. Bird as City Architect. Photos: Coroner’s Court, 240 E Cordova St.; Airport Hangar #1 on Sea Island; Juvenile Detention Home on Wall Street; Vancouver General Hospital Infectious Diseases building. Photos: CoV Archives, cva 1135-25, Air P56, Bu N324, CVA 99-4698 , Bu N528.1.

Bird was an early advocate of public housing and fire safety. In the 1920s, he warned the sitting city council that “slums” were beginning to develop in Vancouver and that the City should take action to provide decent housing for low-income residents before the situation worsened. He warned that “large numbers of people who wished to live near their work, but could find no adequate housing, were crowding into the district immediately east of Main Street”. Bird proposed a remedy in the form of a density-housing scheme comprising streets of affordable housing. He suggested terraced houses could be built that would rent for $15 to $18 a month (can you imagine!) and still pay a return on the investment. The City government chose to ignore his warnings. As we know now, the housing situation in Strathcona / DTES / Chinatown progressively worsened and worsened.

Newspaper accounts reveal that the early 1930s were tough for A.J. Bird. In 1931, the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC) accused Bird and his department of the “unethical practice” of dispensing “architectural knowledge and advice without charge”. To address this accusation, Bird made the suggestion that the AIBC draw up a set of standard designs for affordable homes ranging in cost from $400 to $1500 with the understanding that copies of these plans be made available free to the public at the city building department. This would help mitigate the costs of constructing properly designed, affordable homes. Bird’s plan went nowhere and relations with his employer (and the AIBC) were strained.

The following year saw charges of “dereliction of duty, mismanagement, and gross incompetency” thrown at Bird from a recently dismissed and bitter building and safety inspector named H.L. Robertson. The charges were later withdrawn. In addition, the notoriously pugnacious Alderman and Chairman of the Building Committee, L.D. McDonald, began a year-long bitter onslaught of antagonism toward Bird and his department. It all came to a head on February 1, 1933, when Bird and the entire Building Department staff were given a month’s notice of dismissal.

Underground public convenience at Main & Hastings, ca. 1956. Photo: collection of C.Hagemoen.

A few weeks later, somewhat saner heads prevailed and all the building department employees were reinstated into their previous positions with the exception of Bird. He was eventually invited to re-apply for his position as building inspector only, as the City Architect’s branch was permanently abolished. Bird understandably declined to apply, stating that he was leaving for England as soon as his affairs in Vancouver were settled. I’m sure that by this point Bird had endured enough workplace toxicity and wanted nothing to do with the dysfunction at the City of Vancouver. Does that sound familiar, or what?

Bird and his wife moved to England, where he worked for the London County Council and served with the War Damage Department during WWII. They returned to BC in 1959, settling in Victoria where died eight years later at the age of 92.

To learn more about J.A. Bird and the other architects who helped to form Vancouver, I suggest consulting Donald Luxton’s book Building the West: The Early Architects of British Columbia.

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