The Marine Building
“The building suggests some great marine rock rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted in sea green, flashed with gold, at night a dim silhouette piercing the sea mists,” wrote the Vancouver Sun in an opening day supplement on October 7, 1930.
The building was the brainchild of Lt. Cmdr. J.W. Hobbs, who envisioned a New York style skyscraper in downtown Vancouver. What Hobbs achieved is one of the world’s great masterpieces of Art Deco architecture.
He found a site at the foot of Burrard Street that would give his tower spectacular views of the harbour and North Shore mountains. Hobbs hired the local firm of McCarter and Nairne to create his vision. Inspired by New York’s Chrysler building, they were excited at the chance to create their own dazzling Art Deco showpiece. “This is the height of Art Deco, the absolute height of it”, says Don Luxton, president of the Canadian Art Deco Society.
Hobbs told Nairne “the sky’s the limit”, and Nairne took him at his word. He envisioned the lobby as a cavernous Mayan temple, filled to the brim with treasures. Junior architects designed a dizzying array of sea creatures. Snails, snakes, crabs, turtles, carp, scallops, seaweed and sea horses swam and frolicked over the walls and polished brass doors – they even represented the numerals on a large wall clock.
When it opened in 1930 at a cost of $2.3 million, ($1.1 million over budget), the Marine Building was the talk of the town. Impresario Hugh Pickett was among the hundreds of Vancouverites who attended the gala opening. “It was quite a gala event, because it was the biggest building in the city.” “There was a big mob of citizens – everybody that was interested in the city was there – it was an important moment in the history of the city.”
Uniformed doormen stood by massive brass doors opening onto the dazzling lobby and sailor-suited women waited to escort passengers in five high-speed elevators, the walls of which were inlaid with 12 varieties of British Columbia hardwoods. Streamlined Canada geese soar above the front entrance, illuminated by rays of sunshine that were originally cloaked in gold leaf. An osprey looms above the revolving door with a fish in its claws, and an eagle stands guard at the top of the entrance. It was by far the most glamorous structure many visitors had seen in their lives.
An extensive $17 million renovation was carried out from 1982 – 1989 to restore the building to its original glory. Once the only office tower in the area, the Marine Building now stands at the center of the city’s downtown core, reminding us what a dreamer can achieve. Hobbs would have been proud.
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