Condemned Orillia Building, Robson & Seymour, 1985

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that decade, the impending demolition of the Orillia was well-known by Vancouver sentimentalists: those of us who held outdated notions about the sense of community, continuity and civic cohesion contained in heritage structures.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


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