My Vancouver: City Hall

City Hall when it first opened, 1936 (City of Vancouver Archives)

The year was 1935, and the city of Vancouver, like the rest of Canada, was in the depths of the worst global economic meltdown in history – the Great Depression.  Unemployment in the city was high – as much as 20 – 25%, and the city’s newly-elected Mayor, Mr. Gerry McGeer, had come into office greeted by crowds of angry Relief Camp men threatening revolt in downtown’s Victory Square.  McGeer was a committed believer in laissez-faire economics, and his only answer to these unemployed men was to read them the Riot Act.  His tough stance was motivated by a belief that such protesters were, at best, troublemakers, and at worst, communists.  He would show the same ruthlessness later, in June 1935, sending the police to crush striking longshoremen at a clash known as “The Battle of Balantyne Pier.”  These were tough times, indeed.

As if all this weren’t enough, McGeer had more stormclouds looming on the political horizon.  In 1936 – just two years away – Vancouver would celebrate its 50th anniversary as an incorporated city, and it still did not have a proper City Hall.  Since a fire destroyed the first one back in 1886, just months after incorporation, the city had used a number of temporary locations.  These buildings had been a decidedly motley collection – one of them was literally a tent – and usually were little more than an existing building renovated to fill the needs of City Council.  By 1935, City Hall was located at the Holden Building at Hastings and Main (called Westminster then), and the city’s government met in a converted fifth-floor Council Chamber.  To many business leaders, this situation was a growing embarrassment; Vancouver, a city that, since the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, had become one of the world’s greatest ports, still did not have a permanent municipal home.  And now, with the Golden Jubilee looming, Mayor McGeer agreed – Depression or no Depression, a new City Hall would have to be built.  And besides, in this crisis, McGeer also saw an excellent opportunity.  Having been criticized by the jobless for not doing enough to help, he knew this would be a huge make-work project that would give hundreds of men good-paying  work.   In one act, he envisioned the solution to a number of problems at once.

City Hall in 2012 (Courtesy of the author)

The question was, how to pay for it?  This was a time when all governments, not just McGeer’s, were facing fiscal shortages that made basic services difficult to provide, much less a brand-new building project.  McGeer decided to approach R.B. Bennett’s federal government for the money.  After all, Bennett, originally a hard-line laissez-faire leader like McGeer, had been slowly changing his tune after that troublemaker down in the U.S., Franklin Roosevelt, had restored optimism to America’s unemployed with his New Deal.  Facing pressure to match FDR, Bennett had become more open to projects like McGeer’s by 1935.  The government would give Vancouver $1 million, Bennett agreed, but to finance it (and keep conservatives happy) a special “Baby Bond” would be issued.

Mayor Gerry McGeer

With the financial backing in place, sod was turned on the new project in October of 1935.  Architectural firm Townley and Matheson designed the new structure, and some criticized its hybrid Art-Deco and Moderne look as stark, box-like, even “fascistic.”  McGeer also infuriated his business-friends by choosing Cambie and 12th as the location.  Today, environmentalists would probably be outraged by the choice to build on what was then Strathcona Park, but back in 1935, critics were shocked that the new City Hall would not be located Downtown, but “out in the boonies,” as the area was considered at that time.  But McGeer, who had shown himself to be a bit of a visionary from the start of this project, insisted that this new location, overlooking Vancouver from above, would encourage expansion of the city.  History seems to have proven him right.
Officially opened in December of 1936, Vancouver’s City Hall looks the same today as it did back then.  In a city notorious for love of new building over old, City Hall stands out as one of the few Art Deco constructions left unchanged.  We have all, undoubtedly, seen its white exterior many times, whether in our cars or on the bus, but how many of us have truly looked at its artistic merits?  This building represents a transition, architecturally, from the Art Deco style, which peaked in the 1920s, and the new, more austere Moderne style of the 1930s.  Art Deco’s whimsical flourishes had come to be viewed as a bit too ostentatious in Depression-era 1935, but the designers of City Hall did include a few, here and there, on the outside.  Look just below the roof-tops, and you will see relief wave designs set into the stone facade, a reference to Vancouver’s maritime roots.  In the doorway, as well, brass mouldings and angular cuts pay homage to the Art Deco aesthetic, albeit in a muted way.

City Hall Interior (Courtesy of the author)

It is on the inside, however, where City Hall truly shows its Art Deco trappings.  Light fixtures, many of them original, have a distinct look to them, and etched-glass signs, lit from above, still direct visitors in their classic font.  The elevators, in particular, are the fullest expression of Art Deco at City Hall, and could be considered a Heritage Site all their own.  Take a ride in one, and look closely at some of the most delicate (and amazingly undamaged) inlay wood design you will ever see.  These, too, are original, and help to give the inside of City Hall an other-worldly quality; so much is original – the Italian marble walls, the copper-leaf ceilings – that it gives one the feeling of going back in time.  When I visit, I half-expect to see Al Capone walk out from around a corner with white spats and a pinstripe suit.  Even the smell of the mahogany paneling in the City Council Chambers, so luxurious and yet so earthy, has remained as it was when it first opened back in 1936.

City Hall Entrance (Courtesy of the author)

From its beginnings as a make-work project, and an expediency to satisfy one man’s desire to remain in office, Vancouver’s City Hall has become an iconic symbol of this metropolis, and its emergence as one of Canada’s, and the world’s great cities.  As Gerry McGeer hoped, hundreds of unemployed men did get work building this massive structure – and back then, there were no power-tools, so cutting, drilling, and nailing all had to be done by hand.  All the better for Mayor McGeer; after all, the more hands employed, the fewer idle hands to clash with police in the streets.  He also solved his other problem – in the midst of Depression, Vancouver got a City Hall worthy of a growing municipality celebrating its Golden Jubilee.  And the city did expand to eventually envelop the area around the new building, although its centre did remain farther North, as it has remained to this day.  Mayor Gerry McGeer – love him or hate him – left his mark on this city, in a building that remains one of the most distinctive City Halls in Canada.  When you get the chance, stop into City Hall and take a look around – you will see yet another great example of our history – your Vancouver – telling you the story of this fascinating city.

Each week, local historian Patrick Anderson looks at the history of Vancouver’s greatest landmarks and neighbourhoods.