As we await the verdict from city hall on the future of the Waldorf Hotel, consider a few other buildings saved or lost as important centres for gathering and culture in Vancouver.
What you realize is that it has to do more with luck than policy, more who you know and what might strike the fancy of the folks who manage our city or those with deep pockets.
The most notable recent nail biters have involved buildings held in the private sector and the generosity of developers and owners.
The 1940s Art Deco Vogue Theatre on Granville Street, I am told, was slated to become a restaurant and bar until the venue operators convinced the owners to keep that unique bit of architecture as a site for live performances.
The politics of the council of the day don’t seem to influence the decisions. The York Theatre on Commercial Drive is important for its history as a home to Vancouver’s Little Theatre Company and a launching pad for the acting careers of Bruno Gerussi and Joy Coghill among others. It had become less important as a Bollywood movie house when it was threatened to go through the familiar metamorphosis — to be flattened and rise again as townhouses.
The city during the dying days of Sam Sullivan’s NPA administration imposed a 120-day hold on the building, using the same sections of the Vancouver Charter that Vision has placed on the Waldorf. The Vancouver East Cultural Centre (a.k.a. the Cultch) stepped in to champion its cause after literally decades of lobbying by local arts groups. Former city councillor Jim Green was working the back rooms.
A few months later, a report on the York Theatre went to the new Vision council at its first regular city services and budget meeting. The situation, the report said was “urgent.” No deal had been struck to sell the theatre to the advocacy group. Demolition of the building was still possible.
The Cultch was working with an “anonymous donor.” That turned out to be developer Bruno Wall. He agreed to breathe life into the dying theatre for something in the range of $11 million. In exchange, he would get a density bonus he can use in the future. The building would become the property of the city and leased back to the Cultch for a nominal fee and will be used as a performance centre.
Folks who tried to save Vancouver Pantages Theatre on Hastings near Main would not be so fortunate.
The theatre was built in 1907 complete with stunningly ornate lodges and plaster work and was part of a 70-plus chain of vaudeville houses Alexander Pantages built across North America.
(He actually built a second theatre in Vancouver further west on Hastings. That building was demolished in 1967 to be replaced by a parking lot.)
The last live performance at the original Pantages was held there in 1974 and it was subsequently used as a movie house: the Sun Sing Theatre – and had been vacant since 1994. At the time it was the oldest remaining Pantages theatre in Western Canada and on Heritage Canada’s Top Ten Most Endangered places list.
Charles Barber headed a volunteer group to save and restore the rapidly deteriorating Pantages along with owner-developer Marc Williams. The plan was to not just bring the theatre back but to build 136 units of social housing on the adjacent property Williams also owned.
As Barber tells it, proposal after proposal was rejected by the city’s cultural service staff. “They wanted more rigour,” he said. “I told them they would end up with rigor mortis.” He turned out to be right.
While the roof suffered attacks, one by a man wielding a stolen parking meter another by a person who lit a fire to the surface, the city continued to stall.
According to one former senior city staffer, the final blow took place around 2008 when the folks at cultural services offered $75,000, not to help with repairs but to hire yet another consultant to review the Pantages building plan.
Williams finally demolished the building in 2011. It remains a vacant lot. Even now it is a source of bitterness and resentment at city staff for dragging their feet.