“This is the most important happening since the
– Mayor Tom Campbell, walking in the rain, Gastown, 1968.
In the mid-sixties, an entirely new movement began to make itself felt in Vancouver: a growing awareness and concern that the city’s historic areas and older buildings were increasingly at the mercy of bulldozers and the wrecker’s ball, all in the name of urban renewal. The Arts Council’s Civic Arts Committee was the first and only organized group to speak out against the lack of city planning that was leading to such destruction. Thus was the heritage movement in Vancouver initiated.
It was Hilda Symonds, a member of the Civic Arts Committee and the Executive Director of the City Planning Commission, who first rang the alarm bells. She was very concerned because all levels of government had approved a huge commercial development, including forty-five miles of freeway that would cut through Gastown, Chinatown and along the waterfront through Stanley Park to a new First Narrows bridge crossing. At a public meeting in December 1967, arranged by City Council to discuss the freeway issue, Arts Council member Peter Oberlander resigned as chairman of the City Planning Commission in protest against the city’s freeway plans. The nearly 800 citizens at the meeting stood to applaud his views. Dr. Oberlander, an internationally known planner, declared, “Planning is too important to leave to the professionals.” By this time the Arts Council had managed to build a consensus among twenty-eight diverse local groups in opposition to freeway construction in the city. Moira Sweeny chaired the Civic Arts Committee and meetings were well attended and lively, with the freeway threat the urban issue.
Earlier that same year, another Civic Arts Committee member, Evelyn McKechnie, who had been a social worker and was familiar with the Gastown area, the oldest and most historic site of the city, had become alarmed at the deterioration there. Encouraged by a major property owner, Gerald “Townsite” Thompson, she set about saving the area from demolition. Evelyn McKechnie galvanized the Arts Council and everyone else, including pioneers, historians, residents of Strathcona and Chinatown, into supporting a campaign to retain historic Gastown and Chinatown. As a civic planner explained, “In the lengthy battle that followed, the various governments made a quantum leap in their thinking on heritage preservation.”
Initially, Mayor Tom Campbell was furious with the Arts Council:
“The federal and provincial governments had pledged funding for freeways and the First Narrows crossing. Council has tabled this for a month. We are criticized for making a snap decision. Then the people aren’t prepared to wait until we unsnap it. I only wish the Arts Council would support the City Council for a change,”
said the Mayor. He was studying the implications of Prime Minister Pearson’s impending retirement and said he had “a lot more to do than receiving night wires from the Community Arts Council.” The Prime Minister’s resignation, he said, would affect decisions yet to be taken, including the proposed freeway, the Georgia Viaduct and First Narrows programs. A headline ran, “ARTS COUNCIL CHARGE DRAWS CAMPBELL’S FIRE.”
Evelyn McKechnie made the mayor change his mind. She resurrected the long-forgotten name “Gastown” and organized the famous walk around the area in September 1968, that would take place “rain or shine.” There was a downpour. Prominent architect Arthur Erickson gave an impassioned presentation preceding the walk. “Look up,” said he, “look up to see the integrity of these lovely old buildings.” Evelyn McKechnie had many well-trained guides and hundreds of citizens came to walk in the rain. Mayor Campbell also came and stated, “This is the most important thing that has happened since the Vancouver fire.”
The result was a dramatic halt in the extravagant commercial, freeway, and bridge plans. The Government of British Columbia in 1971 designated Gastown and Chinatown as historic areas. The Arts Council moved its quarters to the old home building at 315 West Cordova, and continued the guided tours and published ‘Gastown Revisited,’ an overview of architecture and history of the Gastown area.
With the success of Gastown, the Arts Council became heavily involved in the heritage movement. A Heritage Committee was formed in 1976 and attention paid to recording buildings of historic significance (omitting Gastown and Chinatown which had already been designated by the province). The committee called upon the expertise of historian Robert D. Watt and architectural historian Harold Kalman to assist in the identification and research of Vancouver buildings of historical and architectural merit. Through a Leon and Thea Koerner Foundation grant it was able to engage John Roaf and Arthur Grice to photograph the buildings selected. Teams of Arts Council Heritage committee members were assigned to research these older buildings, including the Marine Building, the Post Office on Hastings street, the Hotel Vancouver, the Orpheum Theatre and the Convent of the Sacred Heart. All of these were later considered “Category A” buildings by the city’s Heritage Advisory Committee and were designated by City Council. Unfortunately, the Birks building at Georgia and Granville was demolished before Vancouver’s Heritage Advisory Committee became active. First chair of the committee was Rhonna Fleming of the Arts Council of Vancouver.
There were three important offshoots of these initial attempts at heritage identification. The first began when Rhonna Fleming, assigned as a volunteer to research the Orpheum Theatre, discovered that the theatre was to be demolished and a new building, housing several cinemas, was to be built in its place. She, with the back-up of the entire Arts Council initiated negotiations between the city and Famous Players. Several discussions continued until civic pride prevailed and a city fact-finding and fundraising committee was appointed by Mayor Arthur Phillips with Arts Council member John Dayton as chair. Eventually the city agreed to purchase the theatre and to restore its magnificent interior as a suitable home for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
A second outcome of the Arts Council’s investigation of buildings of heritage merit in Vancouver was in a 1974 exhibit at the Vancouver Museum. This six-month long presentation, a collaboration between the Arts Council and the museum called Vancouver Between the Streets, was a huge success with an estimated 141,000 people viewing the exhibit. Later it was moved to the Provincial Archives in Victoria. The heritage movement was further bolstered through the publication of Harold Kalman and John Roafs book Exploring Vancouver, which has become the bible of Vancouver’s architectural heritage. The book, which has since appeared in updated forms, was initially based on photographs taken for the Arts Council survey of heritage buildings.
The organization of a B.C./Yukon heritage conference, New Life for Old Buildings, in November 1977, was due to the efforts of members Elizabeth O’Kiely and Twigg White, who as co-chairs of the conference obtained funding from the Heritage Canada Foundation and the B.C. government. This was the first such conference to be held in the province focusing on the built environment. It was co-sponsored by the Vancouver Historical Society, the Hallmark Society of Vancouver and the Heritage Advisory Committees of Vancouver and Victoria. Heritage enthusiasts converged from various regions of the province and many parts of Canada and the United States. The board of Heritage Canada attended en masse and actively participated in all aspects of the B.C. conference. The Arts Council was fortunate in having the support of the Heritage Canada Foundation, local architects, and many others in steering this project to a successful conclusion. Attendance exceeded expectations, particularly at the final dinner when guest speaker Pierre Berton, chairman of Heritage Canada, made some pithy remarks directed at both the local politicians and the press.
Also in the 1970’s the Arts Council intervened to protect another landmark: the Historic West End Roedde House at 1415 Barclay Street with its picturesque turret, built in 1893 and attributed to the B.C. architect F. M. Rattenbury. Robert D. Watt, Director of the Vancouver Museum, along with the Vancouver Historical Society, brought attention to the plight of the house, which was threatened with alteration, relocation, and possible demolition. The Heritage Committee took up the cause, and after advice from several consultants, including the late Peter Cotton of Victoria and Jacques Dalibard, formerly Executive Director of Heritage Canada Foundation, it was agreed that Roedde House should be restored as Vancouver’s first house museum. Negotiations between the city and the Park Board, who owned the block in which the house was located, dragged on for six years. During this period Roedde House became the catalyst leading to the rehabilitation of eight other neighbouring houses. Janet Bingham, with the support of the Heritage Committee and the Arts Council staff members Anne Macdonald and Joanne Cram, nursed along the unique concept of combining all these houses in a park-like setting, initially referred to as Parksite 19 and now known as Barclay Heritage Square. This unique plan finally satisfied the Park Board requirements for “the last piece of greenspace in the West End.”The Roedde House Preservation Society was formed in 1984 and Roedde House Museum has been a going concern since it was officially opened in May 1990.
Members of the Heritage Committee through the years:
- Susan Andrews
- John Atkin
- Fiona Avakumovic
- Cathy Barford
- Janet Bingham
- Diana Bodner
- Jane Carruthers
- Gary Colchester
- John Davis
- Rhonda Fleming
- Imbi Harding
- Dorothy Hebb
- Judith Jardine
- Jim Ken
- Michael Kluckner
- Faye Langmaid
- Jim Lowe
- Eliza Massey
- Daisy McColl
- Linda Moore
- Jackie Murfitt
- Jean Murphy
- Anthony Norfolk
- Elizabeth O’Kiely
- Jo Scott-B
- Shirley Sexmith
- Rob Smith
- Netta Stem
- Andrew Todd
- Nancy Tillson
- Peter Vaisbord
- Robb Watt
- Twigg White
- Owen Wilk
More recently, the Heritage Committee gained many new members as a result of its Heritage Walks in Strathcona, Chinatown, the West End and Downtown South, through the efforts of artist members, Jo Scott-Band Michael Kluckner, who exhibited their watercolours of Vancouver’s remaining heritage buildings at the Arts Council’s premises. A tremendous and highly successful effort was made by the Heritage Committee to halt the possible destruction of the Toronto Dominion Bank at Seymour and Hastings. In 1992, a thirty to forty member group spun off from the Arts Council to become an independent entity, Heritage Vancouver, which meets regularly at Hodson Manor and publishes a monthly newsletter. Its members are an increasingly effective voice on preservation issues.