Stephen Travels

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Waterfront Station, Vancouver, British Columbia

Top 5 Buildings in British Columbia

Having visited British Columbia twice—once on a national park adventure in the Canadian Rockies that took in BC’s Yoho National Park; once with Vancouver as a base to hike in Whistler, the Fraser Valley, and Manning Provincial Park, and to some waterfalls along the Sea to Sky Highway—I can attest to this province’s natural beauty. Even in highly livable Vancouver, nature is never far off—just spend a day in one of the world’s best urban parks, Stanley Park, or on the campus of the University of British Columbia. In addition, Vancouver and the second-largest city in British Columbia, Victoria, are home to the province’s most impressive buildings. These are my favorites.

#1 British Columbia Parliament Buildings (Victoria)

British Columbia Parliament Buildings, VictoriaFrom my hotel in Vancouver, I headed down to the waterfront, hopped on a 16-passenger propeller seaplane, and was soon landing in the water of Victoria’s Inner Harbor—one of the world’s top five arrivals. Small crafts maneuvered around the harbor, bounded by a collection of stunning buildings, the most impressive of which are the Parliament Buildings of this Canadian province. Home to the Legislative Assembly and completed in 1897, these sprawling neo-baroque buildings were the brainchild of a 25-year-old architect—clearly talented with the design and construction, but maybe not so much with the pocketbook: they cost nearly double the original $500,000 budget. The Renaissance-style buildings span 500’ from the west-end pavilion to the east and feature an andesite façade, white marble, more than two dozen sculptures of important historical Canadians as well as allegorical women, and a series of 33 copper domes turned verdigris green unfolding along the top, with the central dome at the main entrance being the largest and capped by a gold-covered statue of naval Captain George Vancouver. Inside, the Memorial Rotunda is a star attraction. Tiny segments of Italian marble and granite compose the terrazzo floor. Above, dark Tennessee marble rings an open circle, and four paintings depicting the primary economic industries of early British Columbia (agriculture, fishing, forestry, and mining) decorate the dome’s pendentive. I was particularly impressed by the stained-glass windows throughout the buildings, particularly Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Window, complete with her personal Canadian flag (flown only when she’s in the country) and various symbols of British Columbia—the Steller’s jay, Pacific salmon, and jade. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Window, commissioned in 1897, bears the original coat of arms for British Columbia and flowers emblematic of the United Kingdom—pink Tudor rose (England), yellow daffodil (Wales), purple thistle (Scotland), and green shamrock (Ireland). Other windows display quotations from English writers and thinkers from the 17th and 18th centuries, meant to inspire legislators on their way to the Legislative Chamber; still others commemorate such fields as architecture, history, literature, and music. When you’re done exploring, you can dine in the reasonably priced Parliamentary Dining Room and watch the proceedings and debates from the public galleries in the Legislative Chamber, with its columns, bright red carpet, and almost royal surround of the Speaker’s Chair. Once I exited, I made sure to roam around the grounds, including the huge front lawn, where I noted the statue of Queen Victoria and the British Columbia Legislature Cenotaph that commemorates the province’s service members who died in both world wars, the Korean War, and the war in Afghanistan. Make sure you stick around until sunset, when more than 3,500 light bulbs illuminate the buildings.

#2 Empress Hotel (Victoria)

Empress Hotel, Victoria, British ColumbiaLess than a block from the Parliament Buildings, Empress Hotel is one of the dreamy hotels constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway company. One of Victoria’s oldest hotels, the Empress has expanded twice since it opened in 1908 and now boasts 464 rooms and suites. Welcoming and meticulously maintained gardens surround this Châteauesque-style beauty, designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1981. Originally serving businesspeople and related visitors, the hotel successfully repurposed itself as a mecca for tourists when the Canadian Pacific terminated its passenger services to Victoria. With its steep pitched copper roofs with iron railings, gables, dormers, polygonal turrets, stone and brick cladding, and front porch, the Empress has been one of the city’s iconic buildings for decades and recently underwent a $60 million restoration project that, among other improvements, removed the ivy that crept along and hid much of the exterior walls that was there when I visited. That substantial investment was a far cry from the hotel’s potential plan to tear down the Empress in 1965 and substitute it with a modern high-rise hotel. The public’s vociferous outcry, including one newspaper promising that the demolition of the Empress would directly cause tens of thousands of tourists to never return to the city, led the owners to scrap the plan, replacing it with a $4 million renovation instead, and the Empress proudly marched on. Make sure you pop in, not only to admire the Edwardian elegance, but to enjoy high tea in the Lobby Lounge, which has been served every single day since the Empress opened.

#3 Marine Building (Vancouver)

Marine Building, Vancouver, British ColumbiaIn downtown Vancouver, amid the glass-wall skyscrapers, stands a throwback that outshines all of its neighbors as the city’s most beautiful building. When it opened in 1930, the Marine Building was not only the tallest building in Vancouver, but in the entire British Empire; it remained the city’s tallest until 1939, when Hotel Vancouver opened with fewer floors but greater height. This 22-story Art Deco skyscraper, added to the Vancouver skyline after the Panama Canal opened (which greatly increased the city’s importance as a commercial port, now clamoring for a grand building) was intended to evoke “some great crag rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna,” according to the architects. Indeed, it does, but at a painful cost: $2.3 million—92% over budget. That massive expense, combined with the start of the Great Depression, put the developer deep in the red, and the building was quickly sold, to the Guinness family, for just $900,000. The two-story deeply recessed entry (one of the world’s top five entryways) features an arch inlaid with relief panels of then–state-of-the-art forms of transportation (zeppelins, biplanes, and steamships). Vertical bands of aquatic plants and seashells soar up the sides, continuing into the curve above. Seahorses, turtles, cephalopods, starfish, and crabs ride waves up and down the sides of the brass frames around the revolving doors, both of which are topped by an osprey clutching a fish in its talons. Above the brass doors and directly behind the building’s address number, a three-dimensional sailing ship emerges from the half orb of a rising sun, its 15 rays shooting out to the edges of the arch. A flock of half a dozen Canada geese fly off in two directions, and another osprey at the very top of the arrangement observes it all. The rest of the exterior is studded with fauna and flora, tinted in sea green and brushed with gold. The grandeur continues inside. The opulent lobby resembles a Mayan temple. Sconces in the form of plaster ships riding the crests of waves are carved into the walls. Brass-doored elevators are inlaid with a dozen varieties of local hardwoods, and the elevators themselves were operated by young women, hired specifically for their attractiveness, dressed in sailor suits who would shuttle passengers up and down in what were the city’s fastest elevators. Throughout, I hunted for depictions of all kinds of marine life as well as modest of that era’s transportation. Black and white designs depicting the signs of the zodiac cover the floor. The lobby of this still-functioning office building also houses one of the world’s top five clocks. Marine life replaces the numbers for the hours—a seahorse for one, for instance, a turtle for two, a crab for six, a snail for nine. Although you’ll want to loiter around the lobby, even after you’ve taken in all its charms, the clock reminds you that it’s time to move on—but it does so in the cheeriest way possible.

#4 Craigdarroch Castle (Victoria)

Craigdarroch Castle, Victoria, British ColumbiaA little over an uphill mile east of Victoria’s Inner Harbor, I arrived at Craigdarroch Castle. This massive pile of stone was built to impress—and it immediately achieved its goal. Unfortunately for its original owner, Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish-born coal baron who was the richest man in British Columbia, completion of the castle in 1890 was achieved 17 months after Dunsmuir died (and at a cost of about half a million dollars). His widow, however, moved in (with three unmarried daughters and two orphaned grandchildren) and enjoyed it—and Dunsmuir’s $20 million estate—until her own death in 1908. When none of the Dunsmuir children (unbelievably) wanted the castle, Craigdarroch (Scottish for “rocky, oak place” in a nod to the castle’s original 28 acres of property) was sold and, over the years, served as military hospital, Victoria College, a school board office, the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and since 1979, the house museum that I was about to explore. This Richardsonian Romanesque mansion is a foreboding jumble of burly stone massings, Romanesque arches, porches and porte-cochères, columns, cylindrical towers with conical caps, gables, recessed entrances, and a red slate roof with terra cotta elements. I entered Craigdarroch via a round door, opening up a privileged world of 39 aristocratic rooms spread out over 25,000 square feet on four floors, overflowing with coffered ceilings, 17 fireplaces, Victorian-era furnishings, and intricate woodwork fashioned from holly, jarrah, maple, oak, rosewood, and walnut. The rooms include a library, a drawing room with plenty of gilding, a dining room with striking built-ins, a breakfast room, a smoking room, multiple halls and bedrooms, a dance hall, and a billiard room that is larger than my entire apartment. The stained-glass windows—one of North America’s finest collections of Victorian residential stained- and leaded-glass windows—mostly depict floral themes. I climbed the 87 stairs to the top of the tower—then the highest point in all of Victoria—and into a round room with a curved door and in-laid tile floor, where I was rewarded with views of the British Columbian capital and as far away as the Olympic Mountains in Washington. Designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1992, Craigdarroch receives about 150,000 visitors per year. You should be one of them.

#5 Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary (Vancouver)

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary, Vancouver, British ColumbiaStanding across the street from a peaceful little park, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary puts its next-door neighbor, a monstrous glass and steel eyesore, to shame. Although the parish began in 1885, the current church didn’t rise until 1900 as the “finest piece of architecture west of Toronto and north of San Francisco.” Only 16 years later, the church was elevated to cathedral status. It’s physically elevated, too, about a dozen steps above street level. Built as a cruciform structure, with narthex, nave, transepts, and apsidal chancel, the cathedral measures 161’ long and 104’ across at its widest point. Built in a French Gothic revival style, the cathedral features a stone façade and two steeples of uneven height, the taller of which tops out at 217’, and both with spires covered in what looks like tin scales. Both are capped by a simple cross and house the cathedral’s eight bells (a complete octave) that were rung, significantly on Dominion Day in 1911 (the first peal ever to be rung in Canada) and a century later, in 2010, to mark the opening of the Winter Olympics in the city. The rose window in the central bay is unusually encased within a Gothic arch, with a niche for a statue of Mary above it. Inside, red scagliola marble columns support the nave arcades, and a fine oak reredos, with angels in gold foliage, backs the altar, at the opposite end of the cathedral from the organ. Twenty-one stained-glass windows bring in plenty of colored light, particularly the Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Window, installed in 1941 and picturing Mary and the Child in vibrant colors, both holding a rosary, with saints Dominic and Catherine of Siena (traditional saints of the Rosary) below them. It’s a striking piece of art, so much so that Canada Post chose it for its annual Christmas stamp in 1997. It’s hard to imagine that almost all of this beauty was completed in just 491 days.

Five Runners-Up

  • Hotel Vancouver (1939; Vancouver)
  • Former Vancouver Law Courts (1911; now Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver)
  • Sun Tower (1912; Vancouver)
  • Waterfront Station (1914; Vancouver)
  • Christ Church Cathedral (1895; Vancouver)

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