Blocks 51-61-71 or The provincial courthouse of Vancouver: a short history part 1

October 24, 2012

Blocks 51-61 and 71 are the ones sitting between Howe and Hornby, and between Georgia and Nelson, numbered from North to South

the early XX centuries

The first courthouse built in Vancouver in 1888, and will be demolished in 1912. It will become Victory square in 1924.

At the turn of the century the court house was located on what is now Victory square. It will be relocated on Georgia in 1912 in the building designed by Francis Mawson Rattenbury. (nowadays house of the VAG). The annex facing Robson will be added in the 30s.[7]

In those days, the building main entrance face a ceremonial square onto Georgia street [1]:

The Vancouver court house circa 1912


While the South side seems to use to be a lawn:

The South side of the Vancouver courthouse seems to use to be a lawn

The 50’s

City of Vancouver was eyeing the Block 61 (South of the today VAG), to transform the whole area in a civic center, by relocating noticeably the public library and the BC electric building.

  • An Auditorium is considered for block 61 in 1949
  • After an exhaustive study to select a location for a public space in 1958, block 61 is selected in 1960.

Most of the block 61 is acquired-thru expropriation- by the city by early 1964. At this time Downtown Vancouver is a sea of parking lot:

Aerial view of block 61 and surrounding circa 1964 – credit (2)

The 60’s

The Province had expansion plan for its court house since 1955. The original 1955 plan to add a building on Robson having encountered firm opposition, the Province had acquired the land behind Hotel Vancouver and some parcels on block 61… But in 1963 it was considered critical to add a parking structure to the Hotel Vancouver. a deal was stroke:

  • The Province sold its land north of Hotel Vancouver to the Hotel, for purpose of building a parkade
  • The City sold block 61 to the province, for the court house expansion and other governmental uses, understanding it will also include a civic square

The sale occurred in 1964, and land ownership was then as illustrated below, with Eaton owning block 52 and 71:

Land ownership in 1964 of blocks 51, 61 and surrounding

In 64, the block 51-61 was envisioned as below by the Vancouver city planning department:

1964: City intention for blocks 51-61 according to (4)

The Province was seeing the things slightly differently, with the adding of building on block 51, and some commercial developments:

The Province intention for block 51 and 61 not revealed before April 65 according to (4)

Retail corridors like Hasting were already seriously declining and the city was not seeing commercial development on block 61 as desirable. The city strongly opposed to the Province proposal for this reason.

…At least, it is the story telling of the city brief [4] to be presented in 1965 to the Premier W.A.C Bennett:

The 1964 Redevelopment plan

The redevelopment plans published by the city in 1964 [2] were already integrating an additional building on block 51

Block 51, 61 and surrounding as envisioned by a 1964 city report

The design then considered by the city didn’t seem to consider a major public square. The development of pedestrian precinct, fully segregated from motorist traffic, was considered along the lines below:

Vancouver 1964: considered Pedestrian precinct fully segregated of motor traffic

That said, the city will have the Vancouver art council to commission Arthur Erickson Geoffrey Massey and Bruno Freschi to offer a counter proposal for which we have a specific post:

the 1966 Erickson/Massey proposal

Robson square and the provincial court as originally envisioned by Erickson in its 1966 proposal

Needless to say the Province was decided to move on with its plan leaving the square question open:

1966-1972 : Where is the square?

The Province design was not considered offering an attractive enough space for a civic square. The city approached the Province to buy back block 61 without success. so the city resolved to consider [8]

  • block 71 as a civic square., a then considered very poor alternative.
  • block 42 because it was owned by the city (purchased with the proceed of the block 61 sale).
  • a one block in the area bounded by Hasting, Seymour, Georgia and Hamilton street
  • have scattered open space in the city

And a last alternative, echoing the Erickson 66 proposal:

  • Acquisition of block 51 for a civic space

In the meantime, the city acquired block 71 from Eaton, since the site was considered as suitable for a ‘central’ park, if not a civic square, and could be used to trade with other properties, again echoing the erickson 66 proposal.

The Province, on its side, was busy moving on the new court house:

The Plan in early 1972

The year 1972 starts with the following design, from aprioiri Thompson, Berwick, Pratt and Partners, poised to be built:

the court house at block 51-61

The proposed high-rise, beyond its height, 698feet accomodating 55 storeys, was a 200 feet wide slab tower along Smythe, twice bigger than the Electra building (by the same architect). It was obviously against any by-law; the Province is not legally bind by city by-law; but this was not the major contentious point with the city administration. The proposal have its fair share of oddities:

  • Block 51 and 61 was needed to be zoned commercial
  • No sidewalk was planned on the south side of Robson
  • A 14 feet passageway between the old court house and a new building was planned, to connect it to a 25 feet wide interior court yard
  • The proposal was assuming that the block 71 should be a park, providing an open setting to the tower

While the city engineering department was considering the provided parking space (630), as noticeably insufficient (they were asking for 1200), the civic design panel had considered that “the tower structure itself, is well designed and in an acceptable location” but that the “most important problem is considered the lack of open space separation between the proposed new building and the [old] court house”[6].

…Needless to say the resident had a very different opinion on the slab-tower.

August 30, 1972

The W.A.C bennett government is defeated by the NDP, in the Provincial election: The project is stopped, but it is not the end of the story, to be continued here

all source from [4] unless otherwise noticed

[1] More informal gathering space was at Larwill park, at Georgia and Beatty.

[2] Redevelopment in downtown Vancouver : report No 5, City of Vancouver, 1964.

[4] Block 51 and 61, D.L. 541 City Planning Department, Vancouver BC, June 1965

[6] Memo to Vancouver City council- “BC Centre and court House additions Block 51 and 61″, May 31, 1972

[7] date from [4], Notice that there is a discrepancy with what say Wikipedia

[8] Memo to Vancouver City Council- “A civic square for DownTown Vancouver”, September 22, 1969


4 Responses to “Blocks 51-61-71 or The provincial courthouse of Vancouver: a short history part 1”

  1. […] from completion, the Arcade (1894-95) was on the lot where the Dominion would ultimately be, and the ‘first’ Vancouver courthouse (1888) was where Victory Square (1924) is […]

  2. […] in this image I won’t identify. Suffice to say that the area between Clements and Hydro (Block 61) was made up primarily of parking lots and would ultimately become the Erickson-designed Law […]

  3. […] in this image I won’t identify. Suffice to say that the area between Clements and Hydro (Block 61) was made up primarily of ground-level parking lots and would ultimately become the […]

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