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This page last updated December 28, 2013

Michael Kluckner

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Birks Building & funeral 1974
Photographs by Angus McIntyre

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The model of the new ScotiaBank complex on display in Birks in 1974

Forty years on, the demolition of the Birks Building at the southeast corner of Granville and Georgia still leaves a bad taste in the mouth. That its replacement, the ScotiaBank Tower and a new, mall-like Birks showroom, since occupied by a variety of tenants including the current one, London Drugs, is such inferior architecture only compounds the crime. Of all the demolitions of that generation this was the worst – it also took out the Strand Theatre at Georgia and Seymour. The only comparable act of architectural vandalism in the city occurred a generation earlier, when the Hotel Vancouver at Granville and Georgia was demolished, its site remaining as a parking lot through the 1950s and 1960s before Pacific Centre rose in its place. Now, after 40 years, the much-despised Eaton's/Sears department store is getting a redesign for a Nordstrom's outlet. Alas, nothing comparable is possible for the Birks site.

Well-organized, sustained protests greeted the proposed demolition, including the splendid mock funeral captured in the photographs below. Although the municipal government of Mayor Art Phillips was sympathetic to the campaign, it had no ability to halt the development and petitioned the provincial government of Premier Dave Barrett for an amendment to the Vancouver Charter to allow it to protect heritage buildings. The upshot was a piece of legislation, overturned in 1978 by the next provincial government, that allowed the city to designate heritage buildings without offering any compensation to the owners. Twenty-one buildings, the core of Vancouver's historic legacy including the old Post Office, the Orpheum Theatre, Hudson's Bay Company, and the CPR Station, were designated by Vancouver City Council in 1974; council designated another 30, including the Hotel Vancouver and the Marine Building, by the end of 1976. So, it could be said, the outrage over the loss of the Birks Building triggered the modern era, where heritage buildings are managed and adapted to new uses (formalized as city policy in 1986), leading to the preservation of many of them.

Above: a 1974 article from Canadian Architect magazine by Roger Kemble, courtesy of Jason Vanderhill, and, below, the "SOB" Button, courtesy of Anne Terriss

Angus McIntyre
is a photographer who was also a city bus driver. Now retired, he is most in the public eye when he drives vintage buses for Heritage Vancouver events. In the summer of 2013, the Baron Gallery in Gastown, with John Atkin's curatorial assistance, presented an exhibition of his photographs. Here's a link to the YouTube video of the opening night of the exhibition.

Angus wrote: "To give you a little background to this, I rode my bike down to the mock funeral. I can't remember how I found out about it, and I was 26 at the time. I had earlier been interested in photographing the interior, so I went down with tripod and both Kodachrome and B&W film, and went to the office to ask permission to photograph the interior. A staff member pointed out Thomas Birks, who was ringing up a sale. When he was through, I was introduced and he said that I could photograph the interior with customers present, and if there was an issue to let him know. We looked at the model of the new building, and he looked up at the ceiling and said, 'Of course, this could never be duplicated.' I then realized that he was not happy with the decision of the head office to demolish the building. Thom was the manager of the western region.

"After I finished the photo session, I was able to go up into the office tower, and I took some shots from the roof.

"I prepared a folio of 8X10 B&W photos (I did my own darkroom work) and presented it to him as a token of appreciation. He asked if there was anything from the demolition I would like, and I said that I was happy just to be able to document the store. I later thought that one of the light fixtures would have been fun. In any event, about a week later there was a knock at my apartment door (Fairmont Apts., 10th and Spruce), and there was a delivery man with a large blue Birks box. Inside was a framed, hand coloured print of the Birk's building.

"So that's the story. Incidentally, the people in the first view that were wearing the woven video tape clothes arrived with the funeral, and put a hex on the TD and other new towers. The workmen stopped work long enough for the service."

... and, the mock funeral on Georgia Street on March 24, 1974 at 2 pm, parading as far west as the old Ritz Hotel near Thurlow. The crocheted videotape costumes of the dancing elves make me think that artist Evelyn Roth was involved in the campaign – used videotape was one of her favorite fabrics at that time. The band looks like a precursor of Orkestar Slivovica, which enlivens many events in 21-century Mount Pleasant and Grandview.

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Text Michael Kluckner; Photographs Angus McIntyre, reproduced with permission, 2013

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