Amid all the nature in and around Vancouver, the largest city in British Columbia, rise some pretty impressive architectural achievements. Unlike many cities I’ve visited, Vancouver boasts a refreshing and rewarding juxtaposition of diametrically opposed buildings (a 19th-century Queen Anne–style house a block from a 21st–century commercial skyscraper, for instance), enhanced by ample open space around them that allows you to fully appreciate them from top to bottom and all around. These are my favorites.
#1 Marine Building
In 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 exterior is studded with fauna and flora, tinted in sea green and brushed with gold. 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 (biplanes, steamships, and zeppelins). Vertical bands of aquatic plants and seashells soar up the sides, continuing into the curve above. Cephalopods, crabs, seahorses, starfish, and turtles 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 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. Young women, hired specifically for their attractiveness and dressed in sailor suits, used to operate the elevators, shuttling 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 modes 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 numerals 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.
#2 Cathedral of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary
Standing 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. The French Gothic revival style 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 fine 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.
#3 Hotel Vancouver
Although I didn’t stay here, I made sure to spend some time at this iconic accommodation, as did Winston Churchill, Babe Ruth, Ethel Barrymore, Sarah Bernhardt, Anna Pavlova, Queen Elizabeth, and King George VI before me. The third version of Hotel Vancouver has been the mark of elegance and luxury since it opened in 1939, 11 years after construction began, long delayed by the Great Depression. This massive hotel, with 557 guest rooms and suites, occupies a full half of a city block in downtown Vancouver. One of Canada’s famed railway hotels, this one a joint effort of the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railway, Hotel Vancouver was built in the Châteauesque style, designed to mirror Renaissance-era château in the Loire Valley. Adorned with balconets and relief sculptures and capped by a steeply pitched copper roof punctured with abundant dormer windows, the 17-story, 364’ hotel remained the tallest building in Vancouver from its 1939 debut until 1972. Master carvers from Europe, Mexico, and the Mideast were employed to turn blocks of sandstone and granite into gargoyles and grotesques (apparently, to protect the hotel’s guests from evil). A four-year, multi-million-dollar renovation completed in 2018 made upgrades and redesigns, but you can still see its original glamor inside in the grand staircase, Corinthian columns, and chandeliers and detailed medallions. Browse in the luxury boutiques, enjoy a proper afternoon tea, or order a cocktail at the bar of the stylish restaurant and enjoy Vancouver’s “Castle in the City.”
#4 Vancouver Art Gallery
Before it became the home of the Vancouver Art Gallery, this Classical Revival three-part, three-story building served as the Vancouver Law Courts. The courts predate its neighbor directly across the street, Hotel Vancouver, by a couple of decades, opening in 1911. A grand staircase flanked by a pair of granite lion statues (symbolizing British justice) leads up to the main entrance between the four Ionic columns supporting an unadorned pediment. Above and behind rises a copper-clad dome. Stone balustrades line the roof, and the facades feature granite pilasters, blind ocular windows, and garland and wreath motifs. You can still see the courts’ original signs such as “Land Registry” and “Offices” incised into the stone above their designated entrances. The heft and style of the imposing granite and stone structure illustrated the importance Canadians placed on a strong judicial system, and the building served its original function until 1979, when it moved to larger facilities. The Vancouver Art Gallery spent $20 million on a two-year redesign and has been housed here, with its 41,400 square feet of exhibition space, since 1983. While you’re viewing the art inside, make note of the marble-clad staircase with ornamental wrought-iron balustrades, the central rotunda with two-story arcades, and beautiful terrazzo floor with fan and Greek key motifs—you just may appreciate them more than the exhibited art itself.
#5 Sun Tower
This 17-story commercial skyscraper came with a bit of a lie when it was completed in 1912. What passed off as a copper-cladded dome was actually steel, painted to look like copper. That little deceit seemed unlikely for the building’s original owner, The Vancouver World, a fact-based newspaper that lent its name to the building’s original moniker, The World Building. The tallest building in Vancouver at the time (and the tallest in Canada for one year)—built so high so that it could be seen by everyone in the paper’s circulation area—changed owners in 1937 when The Vancouver Sun took over, assigning its name to the building, but not before big crowds gathered around in 1918 to watch “Human Fly” Harry Gardiner add the building to the more than 700 edifices he scaled. The eight-story, L-shaped block is surmounted by a nine-story hexagonal tower. Visual treats include the beautiful Beaux-Arts dome with square and ornate ocular windows, and a cupola; arches, pilasters, and columns; and the nine sculpted terra cotta caryatids just below the cornice of the shorter block that caused quite a stir when the building opened—the female figures are only partially clothed, baring naked breasts and in scandalously “sensuous” poses. Visitors enter via the curved marble staircase, fractured by a pair of columns, at the main entrance at the corner of the building. Over a century after Sun Tower went up, in 2021, that little fib about the dome was put right—a real copper roof replaced it.
- Waterfront Station (1914)
- Christ Church Cathedral (1895)
- Dominion Building (1910)
- St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church (1933)
- Sam Kee Building (1913)
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