Vancouver author and historian Eve Lazarus contacted me recently, asking to use my “gorgeous” photo of the Orillia building, which had, she said, “inspired [her] to write a blog post for the ‘our missing heritage’ series.”

The Orillia certainly counts high on the lengthening list of “missing” Vancouver heritage, the loss of which seemed, literally, to explode in the nineteen-eighties and shows no signs of slowing down.

In the middle of that decade, the impending demolition of the Orillia was well-known by Vancouver sentimentalists: those of us who held outdated notions about the sense of community, continuity and civic cohesion contained in heritage structures. For myself, a fairly recent and young inhabitant of the city, the rapid, and, to my mind, ill-considered rush to “modernize” swaths of the city, incentivized in great part by the gaudy promises of Expo ’86, added to my existing sense of foreboding.

The Orillia was designed by architects Parr and Fee in 1903 for William Tait, a retired lumber baron. Below the six original apartments, commercial units were home to many famous Vancouver eateries and entertainment spots, including barber shops, pool halls, cafés and restaurants, like Sid Beech’s popular Tamale Parlour, serving a menu of Mexican, Chinese and Italian food, an eclectic mélange representative of the building’s colourful history as a whole.

In the late sixties, the Seymour Street entrance around the corner (documented in another of my ‘80s Vancouver photos, Ambassador Hotel, Robson & Seymour, Vancouver, 1983, complete with fire damage) led to Twiggy’s disco, a gay bar. I remember it as Faces when I lived in the neighbourhood in the ‘70s.

To this day, I prefer photographing urban landscapes in winter, when obscuring deciduous trees are bare. It was perhaps appropriate to the Orillia’s fate, on that day in early 1985, that I should set out from my Point Grey home (on a bicycle, laden with heavy and unwieldy medium-format camera gear) under leaden skies.

By the time I set up in the shelter of an awning on the south side of Robson Street, opposite the forlorn and neglected building, the heavens had opened.

The Orillia’s broken eaves troughs can be seen spilling a swollen cascade of rainwater into the street, causing passersby to dodge the deluge. It’s walls are plastered in handbills, the shuttered L’Espresso Cafe still advertises its “Lunch Specialties,” and a scrawled entreaty begs “SAVE ME!” It was not to be.

The wreckers arrived along with spring flowers on a Sunday morning in May. A small group of mourners gathered to watch as the 82 year old Orillia Block, Vancouver’s oldest “mixed-use” retail/residential development, was reduced to matchsticks.

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  • Conor Ahern - It is sad to see such beautiful old buildings being torn down in the name of “progress”. Just like extinct animals when they are gone, they are gone. The craftsmen who built such beautiful buildings are all gone and the number of modern craftsmen capable of recreating them are few and far between. Speaking as a craftsman I can only dream of attaining the abilities of my predecessors who built such buildings.

    As an architectural engineer I can only slam the lack of creativity among modern architects. Every building now just looks the same, usually just lumps of concrete with anonymous glass facades, every side of the building looks the same and every building looks the same. Pete Seger put it better than I ever could “and they’re all made out of ticky tacky, and they all look just the same!”.

    In fact, I am of the opinion that it’s cheaper in the long term to retain these old buildings and repair and modernise the services, while leaving the heart and soul of a building intact. You just don’t get the amazing exterior details and colour pallets on modern buildings. Just show me a modern building with radiused corners, turrets, witch’s hats roofs, multiple shingle style gables, multi planar facades, etc. The modern boxes have no soul, no heart and no character.January 21, 2017 – 1:57 pmReplyCancel

    • Raymond Parker - Conor, if I can get it off the ground, I should have you write the forward to my Eighties Vancouver book. Couldn’t have said it better myself.January 21, 2017 – 3:08 pmReplyCancel

      • Conor Ahern - I would be honoured.January 25, 2017 – 1:53 pmReplyCancel

Nelson Square

Law Courts (rear) & Nelson Square Tower, Vancouver, 1983

The shiny white tower at Nelson Square, with an address at 808 Nelson Street, opened its doors in 1982.

Its completion coincided with my purchase of a Mamiyaflex C-series medium format camera, with which I set about documenting Vancouver’s fast-changing urban landscape.

I’d watched from various vantage points around Vancouver as the office building (with top 5 floors now dedicated to 32 residential suites) rose 25 stories above its foundations at the corner of Nelson and Hornby Streets, former site of the less flamboyant yet grand Trafalgar Mansions, which had stood for barely 50 years.

Though I could hardly be called a fan of modernist architecture, I was nonetheless fascinated by the building, designed by Romses Kwan, strictly as a formal visual element — a vulgar interruption of the low-rise vision laid down in the ’70s by architect Arthur Erickson and the province’s New Democrat government, expressed in the adjacent Law Courts building.

To that end, I reconnoitred the area in search of an appropriate viewpoint, found at the perimeter of a parking lot behind the former BC Hydro building, another Modernist icon, designed by Vancouver architects Thompson Berwick & Pratt and completed in 1957.

(Searches via Google Earth and Streetview fail to turn up my 1983 viewpoint, perhaps eliminated by the construction of Paramount Place, 900 Burrard Street, completed in 2006)

Part of the Robson Square complex seen on the left, the Law Courts as originally envisioned by the preceding Social Credit government featured a 50-story, 208 metre (682 feet) skyscraper that would have dwarfed every other building in the city.

Amidst an ambitious legislative agenda, the provincial New Democratic Party that swept into power in 1972 scrapped the grandiose Socred plan.

The NDP turned the project over to famed architects Arthur Erickson and Bing Thom with a sense of urgency. According toThe Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power 1972-1975, Premier Barrett instructed Thom to “Just make it good and fast. We may not win the next election.”

At the behest of Barrett’s top cabinet minister Bob Williams, Erickson and Thom turned the Socred plan literally on it’s side, creating a 7-storey structure capped by a green-tinted glass roof. At just 42 metres (138 ft) in height, it houses 35 courtrooms. Public spaces in the larger Robson Square development feature rooftop gardens and a skating rink.

“This won’t be a corporate monument,” Erickson promised. “Let’s turn it on its side and let people walk all over it.”

The provincial election of 1972 was the first I was old enough to vote in. I helped the campaign of local New Westminster NDP candidate Dennis Cocke, who successfully took the riding for his party. I can, therefore, take some credit for defeating the Social Credit courthouse proposal, not to mention the creation of the BC Ambulance Service, one of many great social advancements Cocke brought to British Columbians during his brief tenure as minister of health. 😉

Successive Socred governments and its bastard child the Liberal (in name only) Party, have overseen the continued inflation of a Vancouver real estate bubble first puffed up by the “deal of the century” sale of the Expo 86 lands along False Creek to Hong-Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, a boom driven now in large part by a new flood of liquid Chinese capital.

The resulting casino capitalization of construction, to my eye, fosters the crude eruption of crass monuments and the elimination of the last remnants of Vancouver’s more modest, human-scale heritage.

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Paul & the Vauxhall, 1966

Forgotten faces

I awoke this morning regretting the absence of photographs of long-lost friends: faces that did not make it into my scrapbooks and filing cabinets during periods of photographic famine or dereliction of duty.

For I’ve always seen myself as a kind of archivist … a conceit that may be devised to elevate my status, in my mind, above “packrat.” Nonetheless, between my photographs and journals, there’s little chance of auld acquaintance being forgot, as illustrated in the reminiscences of a recent post.

Uncle Dick, 1966

The shadow of your smile

Someone, a supermodel if memory serves, said that photographs are the best, “ransom against time.”  As I understand the quote, she meant in the sense of redemption, a delivery from the inexorable march of the seasons. And no other medium can, I would say, confer the sense of permanence a photograph imparts better than the photographic process itself.

A sidebar to this assertion is the concern that so few photographs in the digital age are committed to paper, treated as the important documents of history that they are. How many photos made during this season of family reunions make it past social media sharing or impermanent storage on a smart phone? How many amateur photographers have a backup plan for their precious memories?

I read a Facebook meme this morning to the effect that you shouldn’t worry about your appearance in photographs — the pounds you haven’t shed since last Christmas, the hair you’ve lost this year —  but just make sure you appear in enough of them, for one day they will be all that remains to remind family and friends of your life.

Consider the grief commonly expressed by survivors of flood, fire, or tornado that their greatest loss is their photo collection.

Jo, Greece, 1950s (photographer unknown)

Family albums

The truth of that rumination (rare among social media memes) came home to my wife and I last September when she sat down to compile a scrapbook of her mother’s life for the funeral reception. Luckily, Josephine had been surrounded by competent photographers from her earliest days, resulting in a delightful visual tribute to a life of adventure.

The same goes for my late father, a notable entertainer who died three summers ago. Because an extensive photographic record of his professional and family life exist, we are left with a comforting collection of photographs of him, in and out of costume and character, guaranteeing him a place in our hearts for auld lang syne.

Dad the Madhatter, 1993

I’ve wander’d mony a weary fit

Looking back at last year’s resolutions, I see I kept some promises while other intentions fell by the wayside. I did travel more, beginning with a winter trip to the Canadian Rockies. Not to make excuses, but a move to new digs in June interrupted my photographic output (except for before-and-after renovation snaps) and entries on this blog. Local outings were few. In September, a flight to the UK to attend the aforementioned funeral, led to some deep personal insights and a few family photos to add to the album.

The latter photos were made entirely with my new Fujifilm system. If the new mirrorless gear has not revolutionized my approach to photography, it has certainly led me to shoot more street-style images — like I used to do when I carried my old Nikon film cameras and one or two prime lenses, since I’m more likely to carry this kit than heavy DSLRs.

I didn’t shoot more film. See time-restraint excuse above. I didn’t make many portraits. It’s not my place to judge if I managed to “communicate the numinous” though I swear I tried! 🙂 I’m not sure if I managed “opening [myself] to failure,” though I sure as hell failed often.

This year, I’m not going to make any resolutions, as such. My restive mind is full of things I’d like to accomplish, but perhaps I should make the restoration of more family photos a priority.

Watch this spot to see what I manage to realize. And feel free to comment below if there’s something you’d like to see more (or less) of here. Do you have any new photographic plans for 2017? I’m all eyes.

I’ll continue to examine the auld from my archives and I anticipate more travel, perhaps “to run aboot the braes And pu’d the gowans fine.”

In the meantime, I raise a cup o’ kindness to ye. All the best in 2017,

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What with the big move this year, my blogging output has been sporadic, with the summer months pretty much a write off, if you’ll excuse the pun. Nonetheless there were some hits. In ascending order, with most popular first, here are the picks judged by combination of social media response and total views.

#1. Documenting the last days of Victoria’s old Johnson Street Bridge

The Blue Bridge, Victoria, 2014 (14-minute exposure)

#2. The Rocky Mountain Poems

Athabaska Hotel, Jasper

#3 Totem poles of British Columbia

‘Ksan, B.C., 2012

#4 Getting to Know the Fujifilm X-Pro2 camera

#5 A Eulogy for Bryan Beard

White Rock, 1980

#6 A conserved corner store at Heather & 16th., Vancouver, BC

Heather & 16th, Vancouver, 1983

#7 Through the glass darkly: more thoughts on the “Eighties Vancouver” portfolio

Surrealist Burrard Bridge

Escher’s Arch

#8 Printing, matting and framing photographic prints to archival standards

 #9 Covering Bugaboo Spire: the shot that tied my fate to the photography trade

Frank Wieler, below the Great Gendarme, Bugaboo Spire, 1980

#10 How to make your own picture frames

If I were a carpenter

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Raymond Parker Photo
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