The Vancouver we know and love exists in a near-constant state of demolition and reconstruction. The city’s long-lived structures are replaced by grander and more modern buildings at impressive rates. However, walls rich in the city’s 135-year-old history do remain standing. Many of these sites have been repurposed so effectively that to the city’s current residents, it can be easy to forget what they once were or imagine why they were originally erected at all. But, if you take a closer look, you’ll notice hidden historical and cultural gems exist all across the city.
911 Denman Street
Now home to a Blenz Coffee, the early 20th century building standing on the corner of Denman and Barclay Streets used to be the historic Bay Theatre. From 1938 to 1989, the Bay Theatre operated as a modern picture house and community entertainment centre in Vancouver’s West End. After its closure in 1989, it reopened as the Starlight Theatre for several years before being permanently retrofitted for retail. While it may not be the glamorous entertainment centre it once was, it remains a community hub today.
750 Burrard Street
This building was the second Vancouver Public Library building erected in Vancouver and served as the library’s main branch from 1957 until 1995 when the current Library Square opened. Following the branch’s move, this mid-20th century building became occupied by several retail enterprises.
Today, the lower levels are a far cry from the centre of knowledge they once were (now housing a flagship Victoria’s Secret store and a Clearly Contacts shop) while the upper levels have been repurposed as media and radio headquarters for Bell Media and The Globe and Mail.
280 E. Cordova Street
Originally constructed as a fire station in 1906—and possibly as the first fire hall in North America designed specifically for motorized trucks—the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is now a bustling arts centre.
Opened in its current form in 1982, the hall’s 150-seat capacity is often full as performance art, plays and dance numbers grace the stage. While the origins of this building are hard to overlook, with the original facade intact and its current occupant paying homage to the building’s past, its repurposing has brought it a long way from its historical form.
1985 West Mall
The previous structures are all historical antecedents of today’s City of Vancouver. However, this current urban area is built on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples— Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lō and Səl̓ílwətaʔ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh) and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations—whose histories long outlast the 135 years the City of Vancouver has been standing. One structure that was common in this area in pre-Vancouver times were Coast-Salish Longhouses, which offered practical living space mixed with communal areas, providing a centre of community and ceremonial life.
While these buildings were destroyed through the process of colonization that led to modern-day Vancouver, a few more recently-built examples do exist. For instance, the First Nations Longhouse located on UBC Campus.