York Theatre renovation wins heritage award

Commercial Drive’s York Theatre was one of four Vancouver projects Heritage B.C. honoured last weekend.

Gregory Henriquez of Henriquez Partners and Bruno Wall of Wall Financial Group captured the organization’s heritage conservation award of honour for the rebirth of the 1913-era theatre located at 639 Commercial Dr.

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The York underwent a $14.8 million rehabilitation and re-opened last December thanks to the efforts of community arts activists who lobbied to save the building from redevelopment. They were assisted by the late city councillor Jim Green.

Henriquez said Green recruited him for the project.

“Why did I do it? One of my good friends Jim Green was involved with this group on Commercial Drive and he called me and told me I had to do it. Jim is not alive anymore unfortunately, but Jim is one of the people who introduced me to community activism and social housing in the Downtown Eastside. My first projects were done with him many years ago, so I have a great fondness for him. If he asked me to help, I would help,” Henriquez said.

“So we helped him save it and at the end of the day it gives you great joy because these are things that are very grassroots and anomalies that are very hard to achieve. Like, how do you get something like this to happen? It’s just a miracle. All the stars have to be aligned. You have to stop a developer who has a development permit. You’ve got to get council to give you density for the entire amount. You have to have an amazing developer who’s willing to save this little fragment of a building. So it’s a really happy story.”

When it was first opened in 1913, the theatre was the Alcazar theatre. The Vancouver Little Theatre Association bought it 10 years later, reopening it as the Little Theatre. Later it was renovated with an art deco-style exterior and it reopened as the York Theatre in 1940.

Over the years, the building has hosted live theatre, bands and more recently it was the Raja Cinema.

“It went through a whole cycle of being originally a vaudeville theatre to then being renovated with a deco façade and becoming a venue for alternative music to becoming an East Indian cinema — the Raja — at the end of its life. So to bring it back to music and theatre now is sort of full circle,”

Henriquez said. “It’s 100 years later and it’s got another 100 years in it, so that’s pretty exciting. These are the projects that really are meaningful.”

The building was in poor condition before the rehabilitation, he added.

“It was barely being held together by stasis, we call it, which is this state of being where it doesn’t make any sense logically in terms of the laws of physics — it should be falling over but it wasn’t, so it took a lot of work to bring it back to life.”

The entry was fully restored to match the 1940s art deco façade, the theatre space was renovated and a modern two-story glass lobby was added.

Karen Dearlove, capacity planner for Heritage B.C., said heritage conservation awards recognize the preservation, restoration or rehabilitation of heritage buildings, sites and areas, and recognize high standards, innovation and commitment to heritage conservation.

“It’s really to highlight these projects that really represent heritage conservation or rehabilitation in adaptive reuse and to draw attention to projects that show outstanding creativity and especially ones that show great reuse of a heritage building,” she explained. “These are really the ones we really like to highlight because they demonstrate that heritage buildings can have wonderful new lives and that’s what we really want to draw attention to.”

Heritage B.C. also gave awards of honour to Eugene and Illona Sawka, Donald Luxton of Donald Luxton Associates, and Ryan Bahris or Extraordinary League Contracting for the Prefontaine Residence, as well as to Suraj Gupta and Merrick Hunter of Chercover Massie & Associates and Donald Luxton of Donald Luxton Associates for 123 Cambie.

Timothy Ankenman of Ankenman Marchand Associates Ltd. and Donald Luxton of Donald Luxton & Associates won recognition in heritage conservation for the Jeff Residence.

Henriquez said such awards validate the effort involved in seeing such projects through, but they also do something else.

“It’s also a way for the heritage community to really talk about the issues of saving fragments of our story,” he said. “Because we exist on this planet for a very short time, but the story of our existence is left by the books, literature, ideas and physical things that we leave behind. And saving some of them, and choosing which ones to save and cherish, is an important part of the heritage community’s job and this is a way to articulate that story.”



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