Guess who’s been playing around with Fire Insurance Maps … again?
This time, let’s use these brilliant old maps to zoom in on a recognizable Vancouver intersection: Granville and Robson. What did the four surrounding blocks look like back in the day (i.e., 130 years ago)? Worth remembering, this is a scant three years after the incorporation of the City of Vancouver, the raging fire that burned it all down, AND the subsequent passage of the City’s first Fire Bylaw (hence the importance of fire insurance maps…) So we’re looking at a very new city in 1889.
By 1889, Granville & Robson was still pretty sparsely developed. Only one corner of the intersection contained a building, with a storefront (S) recorded as “vacant”, just like the storefront next door. But as it turns out, the surrounding four blocks contained a major Vancouver landmark in the brand new (1887) Hotel Vancouver (upper right), as constructed by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). The Hotel contained a billiard room and saloon as well as an expansive kitchen and dining hall, with servants’ quarters and a laundry below and rooms extending up a towering five floors above.
Across the street from the Hotel Vancouver were three-story buildings containing eight store fronts, offices, and dwellings, with only a few floors vacant. Though the offerings along Granville grew increasingly spare further away from the hotel, it’s already clear by 1889 that Granville had been targeted to become a commercial thoroughfare, complete with a brand new electric streetcar line. “Mixed use” was the norm, with lodging rooms or apartments frequently appearing over top of saloons and storefronts, generally built out to lot lines on the front and sides. Off Granville, along Howe and Seymour, appear some sixteen houses with smaller footprints. That said, these were not the “single-family detached” houses protected by the zoning of today. Instead, they included semi-detached (wall-sharing) houses (as in the lower left), and multiple shacks mixed in with sheds but used as dwellings on the alley (like the “accessory dwelling units” or “laneway houses” of contemporary policy-speak!)
Browsing the National Archives, we see find the Goad’s Fire Insurance Plan put on-line for 1897, as updated with revisions to 1901. Let’s revisit the block some 8-12 years after our first image and see what’s changed!*
The Granville strip is fleshing out, with the assistance of an expanded streetcar line now extending further beyond the Hotel Vancouver. The left side of the intersection with Robson now contains a butcher, two grocers, a hay & feed store, and a fancy drug store, as well as a variety of other shops. A handful of other shops also now decorate the Granville strip, mixed in with dwellings over top for the three-story Vermilyea Block, though numerous empty lots remain a part of the urban fabric. Closer to Georgia, a brand new “Opera House” is now tucked in next to the Hotel Vancouver, which has also grown considerably in size by way of additions. The Waverly Hotel appears at the lower right corner. Kickstarting higher education in the province, Whetham College took over the upper floors of the building on Granville & Georgia, across the street from the Hotel Vancouver, apparently sometime in 1891, but it only ran as a college until 1893, when one of the real-estate investing brothers who founded the institution died. While the lower floors housed a grocer & offices, the upper floors still bear the College’s name by the 1897 map.
Off the Granville Strip, the number of houses has more than doubled along Seymour & Howe, and despite the demolition of at least one older house, some thirty-nine houses now appear. It becomes more difficult to categorize these insofar as most no longer bear “dwg” for dwelling as an indicator of use.
Let’s jump forward to the Goad’s Fire Insurance Map from 1910, as updated with revisions to 1920 (Vol I). This takes us forward another 8-18 years, passing through an enormous period of growth.
Boom! Not a single lot along the Granville Strip remains empty. Transformations abound. The First Hotel Vancouver has been torn down and replaced by the Second Hotel Vancouver, wrapping around the former Opera House, now turned into the Orpheum Theatre (it would later move down the street). Down the street, the Vermilyea Block has transformed into the Palm Hotel. Across the street, Whetham College has been transformed into the Birks Building, with the Vancouver Block building going up nearby. Uses remain decidedly mixed, with shops, restaurants, bars, plumbers, tailors, and banks below, and offices, lodging rooms and apartments above. New theatres include The Maple Leaf and The Allen Theatre, then under construction, but offering a deluxe new movie experience. Fittingly, Globe Motion Pictures appears to have been housed just down the street near the Palm Hotel. The awesome folks at Changing Vancouver provide more information about the 700 blocks (East and West) and 800 blocks (East and West) of Granville, already a booming thoroughfare for entertainment in Vancouver by 1920.
What about our residential thoroughfares on Seymour and Howe? Houses have been diminished by nearly a third. Though new houses have been built, older houses have been torn down, with only around twenty-seven remaining. New shops, billiards halls, rooming houses and apartment buildings have gone up on the corners with Robson. Tailors, hotels, bakers, apartment buildings, plumbers and tire stores (with rooming house over head) have gone in on Howe & Seymour proper, complicating what had been residential landscapes. Two houses to the left of Robson & Howe appear to have been surrounded and subsumed by commercial outbuildings, including a tailor (with dry-cleaning) and a shop carrying out auto-repairs off the lane in the back.
This returns me to a point I repeat often. Prior to the arrival of use-based zoning later in the 1920s, residential neighbourhoods largely remained part of the urban fabric, open to change. The process of neighbourhood change, often referred to as “succession” by sociologists of the day, was a normal part of urban growth. Use-based zoning would seek to freeze this process in place, in particular in the service of defining and protecting neighbourhoods of single-family detached houses from change. Quoting Harland Bartholomew, the planner hired by the City of Vancouver to assist in modernizing its zoning bylaw:
… Largely to prevent the intrusion of apartment houses in single or two-family residential areas, an interim zoning bylaw was prepared and approved by the Town Planning Commission, recommended to the Council, and became law on 5th February, 1927.
I think this was probably a mistake. As I’ve written in my book, we could do a lot better by re-integrating single-family detached neighbourhoods with the broader urban fabric and returning to the vibrant mixed landscapes of the past. As it is, we’re largely still stuck with the interim zoning map of 1927, though Vancouver has recently re-legalized many of the flexible housing options that once adorned its residential streets (e.g. duplexes & laneways & secondary suites).
But let’s set aside lessons from history for more fun looking back, and animate the four blocks of neighbourhood change surrounding Granville & Robson. Thirty-odd years of neighbourhood change, commence!
Returning back to 1889, apparently the remote location of the First Hotel Vancouver from the original townsite to the east was already remarked upon at the time. Indeed, despite being built and owned by the CPR, it remained some distance down Granville Street from the CPR’s railway station, constituting the western terminus of Canada’s Pacific Railway. But the CPR had in mind a plan to encourage the westward expansion of the city toward its considerable land holdings west of downtown (then centred on Gastown). Over time, it would successfully tug and pull downtown in the direction of it real estate holdings, even as it moved the Third Hotel Vancouver elsewhere, eventually leaving a giant mall in its place. Indeed, now the “Vancouver City Centre” skytrain stop is right outside the old Hotel Vancouver’s door.
What did this stretch look like back in the day?
Sit back and relax with this super-awesome old motion picture taken from the front of streetcars in Victoria and Vancouver back in 1907. Starting at the 3.13 mark, you’re in an electric streetcar right outside the First Hotel Vancouver (on your left) headed toward the old CPR station at the end of Granville Street. See, it really did take awhile to get there!
For urban history junkies, you’ll continue to turn off Granville onto Hastings headed East at 4.30. From there, you’ll stay on Hastings, heading East till around 6.45, making your way toward Carrall Street, at which point the video will jump you further North to Carrall turning onto Cordova, and head you back West, turning onto Cambie toward Hastings (I used landmarks including the Hotel Metropole, the Hotel Eagle, and the Herman House Co. Real Estate, along with the old business directory from 1907 to get my bearings). It’s a sweet ride!**
* Archival Links to full plates excerpted above – zoom in for even more detail:
Also see Goad’s Fire Insurance Map, Vol II, for Eastside Vancouver, and note that the somewhat less detailed 1912 Goad’s has been fitted to VanMap under aerial layers!
** dial back to the beginning of the video to start in Victoria, where after a few turns, you’ll head down Government Street and stop in an admiring pan of the Empress Hotel, Provincial Parliament Building, and Victoria Harbour. [UPDATE: You can also check out a great documentary of the 1907 streetcar ride through Vancouver from the vantage point of 2007, put together by the Vancouver Historical Society)