Vancouver 1

The Marine Building.

Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Canada

It needs to be said that Vancouver is a relatively young city, being far from Canada’s beginnings in the East. Vancouver began just over 150 years ago, with the first settlement in the area dating back to 1867, and this was not officially named Vancouver until 1886. For this reason most of the city’s buildings are modern and undecorated. The decorated buildings are mostly in the older, more central parts of the city, with only Art Deco, the last decorated style, making it out into some of the newly growing suburbs of the 1920s and 30s.

Glazed terracotta decoration above the main entrance of the Marine Building.

Vancouver Art Deco Building 1: The Marine Building

There is no part of Vancouver where there is a strong concentration of buildings in any manifestation of the Art Deco style, except perhaps for some of upper Granville Street. There is, however, a clear place where any discussion should begin, and that is with the Marine Building, a superb tower standing by the harbour. Despite the fact that it is now surrounded by taller, newer, shinier office buildings, the Marine Building still stands out with its classic stepped back skyscraper lines, and the profuse and beautiful terracotta ornament that adorns its brick curtain walls from top to bottom.

The Marine Building was designed by John Young McCarter (1886-1981) and George Colvil Nairne (1884-1953) and completed in 1930. This pair of architects were responsible for some of the finest Art Deco buildings in Vancouver. Approaching it at street level there is a magnificent arched entrance replete with polychrome terra cotta reliefs of sea creatures. The doors are framed with polished bronze decorated with small aquatic motifs.

Sea creatures on the door frame.

The building is topped off by a stepped-back Mayan temple form, and the greyish brown brick façade is garnished by splendid cream coloured terra cotta sitting on it like so much decorative icing. Everywhere you look on this building there is something to please the eye. The ubiquitous terra cotta decoration was designed by a group of young architects named: JF Watson, JD Hunter, and C Young.

Transportation motifs of the sea feature in many places, with the land accompanying the railway, which was so important for Vancouver’s growth and development, and also the air, with planes and a zeppelin.

Zeppelin panel on the façade of the Marine Building

Vancouver Art Deco Building 2: Georgia Medical-Dental Building (demolished)

Detail from Georgia Medical-Dental building: one of the three nurses.
A heraldic lion on the Georgia Medical-Dental building.

One sad fact that accompanies the Marine Building’s being the crowning glory of McCarter and Nairne’s work was the destruction of their first tower. The 1929 Georgia Medical-Dental Building was not polychrome, but still had many fine terracotta Art Deco motifs on its exterior. It was demolished in 1989 and replaced with a more modern, that is to say Post-Modern tower known as Cathedral Place. True, some of the best sculptural details, including the nurses and lions, were reproduced in fibreglass and incorporated into its façade, but if there had been no Marine Building they never would have knocked it down.

The trio of terra cotta nurses dressed in World War 1 uniforms up on corners of the 11th floor of the Georgia Medical-Dental Building were designed by Joseph Francis Watson. Medical staff in the building made a joking classical reference to them by knicknaming them the Rhea Sisters – Gono, Dia, and Pyo. The three of them are now out at UBC as part of the Technology Enterprise Facility.

Vancouver Art Deco Building 3: The Sinclair Centre

The Sinclair Centre
Classic Art Deco decoration on the Sinclair Centre.

The elegant, stone-faced Sinclair Centre on West Hastings Street was also designed by McCarter & Nairne, though its original name was the Post Office Extension. The stone facing includes several attractive relief carvings probably designed by the same team responsible for the Marine Building: JF Watson, JD Hunter, and C Young. Lions are a common motif in Vancouver due to the British connection. Some of the reliefs here feature Art Deco flora and vegetation and profiles of lions. There are also some fish motifs here.

A pair of lionesses on the Sinclair Centre.
Two fish on the Sinclair Centre.

Vancouver Art Deco Building 4: The Murrin Substation

The Main Street façade of The Murrin Substation.

McCarter & Nairne also designed the brick-faced Murrin Substation on Main Street. This was a more modest project from the late 1930s. Over the doorways are striking motifs of sunbursts and lightning bolts, traditional iconography for power stations.

A sunburst of lightning bolts over the entrance of The Murrin Substation.

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