A Short History of the Canada Post Office Building on Georgia Street

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Seriously, is this the best that our architectural minds can conjure up? Take a beautiful mid-century building on a prime downtown Vancouver location and use it as a “podium” for three glass towers and call it The Post? After reading John Mackie’s story in the Vancouver Sun today, I was inspired to pull together a short history of the Canada Post Office.

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McCarter & Nairne—the same architects who designed the Marine Building (and had an office there for 50 years), also designed the old post office building on West Georgia between 1953 and 1958).

Canada Post building in 1981, photo courtesy Vancouver Archives 779-E12.02

Canada Post building in 1981, photo courtesy Vancouver Archives 779-E12.02

The firm’s architectural range was stunning and their buildings include Spencer’s Department Store (now SFU), the Seaforth Armoury and the YMCA (on different ends of Burrard), the Grandview Substation on 1st Avenue, the Live Stock building at the PNE, the Patricia Hotel, and the now defunct Georgia Medical-Dental  building.

Photo courtesy Vancouver Heritage Club
Photo courtesy Vancouver Heritage Club

The Canada Post plant, which was essentially a five-storey machine covering an entire city block, was the largest welded steel structure in the world, capped with a rooftop helipad.

Photo courtesy Vancouver Heritage Club
Photo courtesy Vancouver Heritage Club

Up until a couple of years ago there was a 2,400-foot long tunnel that connected the post office to the CPR train station (now Waterfront Station). The tunnel was outfitted with two conveyor belts to move the mail, and was maintained by  engineers on bikes. It only lasted five years (1958 to 1963) after which mail stopped arriving by train and was transported by truck.

During the 1960s and '70s the central post office was the site of almost annual work stoppages and strikes. Photo courtesy Vancouver Heritage Club
During the 1960s and ’70s the central post office was the site of almost annual work stoppages and strikes. Photo courtesy Vancouver Heritage Club

The change rendered the tunnel obsolete, but Fred Danells, a retired postal clerk and now president of Vancouver Heritage Club, says the tunnel was often rented out for movie shoots and he remembers some rocking Halloween parties down there. The last one just a few years ago, before the tunnel was filled in after the BC Investment Management Corporation bought the building in 2013.

Canada Post tunnel, 1959. Photo courtesy VPL 40568
Canada Post tunnel, 1959. Photo courtesy VPL 40568

There’s some great art that’s still there, but may not be for long.

In the mid-1950s Paul Huba cut a 16-foot high Postman into the red granite above the cornerstone adjacent to the Homer Street entrance. And, in the lobby there is a mural by Orville Fisher depicting the evolution of mail delivery and showing Mercury, the winged messenger of Roman mythology.

Photo courtesy Illustrated Vancouver
Photo courtesy Illustrated Vancouver

Fred says Canada Post employees created a huge postage stamp mural of the Canadian flag on the roof in the late 1980s. It was later made into an actual postage stamp.

Photo courtesy Forbidden Vancouver
Photo courtesy Forbidden Vancouver

In March, developers revealed plans that showed a 19-storey office tower with 850 rental and condo units. This latest rendition, according to the Vancouver Sun story, has three glass-faced towers added to the top of the building, including a 17-storey office tower and two residential towers of 18 and 20 storeys. This would be 51 fewer units then the previous plan and a lot more glass.

Drawings from March 2016 courtesy CBC News
Drawings from March 2016 courtesy CBC News

There is an open house about the project at the Hotel Vancouver 5:00 p.m. on November 22 at the Hotel Vancouver with he developer and members of the City of Vancouver in attendance.

Sources: Building the West; The Greater Vancouver Book, Public Art in Vancouver, Forbidden Vancouver, Illustrated Vancouver, Vancouver Sun

© All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Eve Lazarus.

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12 comments

  1. Good post, no pun intended. I think the density is inevitable given the price the new owner paid (I don’t know how much of it went to the 3 First Nations) and the technical challenges of reusing that enormous building. I prefer the original model to the scalloped new one. How about a single 100-storey tower? The Burj Post? “Money doesn’t talk, it swears,” said our new Nobel laureate.

  2. Many of the heritage buildings that are saved are indeed worthy of preservation. To often buildings that should be saved are not. The next best thing to complete preservation is so far removed from real heritage preservation that it seldom achieves the goal . Saving the facade and building behind or inside simply creates two architectural eyesores. The post office is to large to preserve as is. This time I think they should have just leveled and rebuilt.

  3. As you have given approval for me to rant about this article, I first wonder if the article’s topic is this particular building or an introduction into worker/employer relationships, over the decades at Canada Post.

    I am, along with several familiar names in previous blogs to items posted here, a past employee of Canada Post. I for one, started as an full-time inside worker at 349 W Georgia in 1973. In 1975 I became a MSC (Mail Services Courier), stationed in this building, and over the next decades explored this building extensively, top to near bottom. (There is a bottom that only a small number of people have ever seen).

    In your article you refer to a Mr F. Danells as a retired postal worker. By every formal and familiar media usage of the term ‘postal worker’ this person was not a postal worker.

    I also take umbrage with the inaccurate statement of near annual work stoppages during the
    ’60s and ’70s by postal workers. Let’s be aware that federal employees, which included postal workers, only received the Right to collective bargaining around 1965. This change came about through the federal parliament’s reform of its role as a major employer. After a long history of having workers’ representatives going cap in hand to beg for labour and wage improvements, this change, along with many other societal improvements are legacies of the Pearson government period. That did not, however, immediately change the daily working relationships between postal workers and their management. In particular, postal workers viewed their lot with an eye to wanting dignity for their work, and they have to this day an unwarranted reputation for labour disruptions. To say postal ‘work stoppages’ were a near annual affair is blatantly untrue. That is truly a myth perpetuated by repeating a mantra, generally in the media, and encouraged by postal management.

    The photo in the article showing two postal workers with their dogs, as the caption notes, was captured in 1968 at Granville and Hastings, the location of Station ‘A’, not 349 W Georgia, the building of the topic of the article.

    Yet, that photo has, for me, great significance. It is of two women; the very backbone of the workforce of ‘inside workers’ at that time. When I began employment there, I was hired ‘off the street’ (I had no ‘inside’ contacts to get me employment), and as my training began I was assigned to learn from the ‘knowledgeable experienced’ workers. They were the part-time afternoon shift staff. They were almost all women. I learned quickly they were also the least respected workers, not so much by management but by full-time workers. Having previously had a unionized job as a miner, I was taken aback by this situation and began a decades long effort to instill respect amongst workers for their fellow workers and, of course, to have the employer also respect their workforce.

    Mail arriving in Vancouver by train did not cease in 1963. Yes, the conveyor in the tunnel ceased operating in ’63, but mail continued to arrive by train for at least another fifteen years. Trucks were assigned on regular schedules to pick up from and deliver to those same rail yards. The tunnel was made useless around 1984, when the downtown underground section of the Expo Line construction intersected it. BTW there were two entries to the tunnel at the waterfront end; one a ramp to railside and another to a small building at the edge of the railyard. The other end was in the basement where the small vehicle fleet was parked. Large vehicles were parked on the site that now holds the central public library.

    The conveyor structure was gone before the mid ’70s and produced a fine downhill road to the waterfront, used on several occasions to ride down and back by bike and motorcycle.
    The Halloween decorations in the tunnel was the work of creative and inspired workers.

    As for the use of the helicopter pad on the roof; that became a non-starter almost from the beginning, as Transport Canada and its predecessor disallowed such use, yet on occasion postal management tried using it, as an intimidation tactic against its workers, and was ordered to cease and desist. As the photo in the article shows, this is an example of ‘boys and their toys’ and not a viable option for moving mail from the plant (349) to the airport (YVR).

    Addressing those who feel this building should be razed; are they aware what that would entail? That question has been asked many times and has led to such a long delay in its sale. This building is not the Devonshire, where implosion was used in 1981. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T76AxTAEog&feature=share

  4. My late father, Don Jamieson, worked for Dominion Bridge and was the supervising engineer on the construction of this building. As he was used to bridge construction, he used to complain that his biggest challenge with the post office was keeping the corners square!

  5. I had intended to weigh in on the architectural renderings that were featured here, but with life’s distractions, I put it off, thinking the comments would be filled with deeply held opinions about the project.

    Surprisingly, there are a couple such comments, but there’s also an equal number of very personal and deeply held anecdotes and details that give the building significance to the city and its residents.

    When I came to Vancouver a dozen years ago, this building was one of my immediate personal favourites. This was partly due to location, partly because it was across the street from the VPL Library Square, and partly because I was given a very unique insider’s tour. (photos in my bio link)

    I take a certain amount of pride in the fact that two of your source images came directly from me! The Illustrated Vancouver post shining light on one of Orville Fisher’s commissioned mural was an important one for me. Too many of Vancouver’s murals have been lost, and while they are recognized when they are preserved, they are more commonly destroyed with very weak documentation or acknowledgement. Preservation of Orville Fisher’s mural is going to be something I would demand to be included in the redevelopment, and I haven’t yet seen specific mention of these plans.

    The image featuring the Canada Post stamp on the roof on Forbidden Vancouver was also something that I personally suggested to Will, and I love that post too.

    But coming back to the new renderings of the redevelopment of the site, my comments might come as a bit of a surprise.

    I don’t think the plans are that terrible.

    And frankly, in a case such as this, with a building whose footprint already covers nearly an entire city block, there will never be a solution as ‘graceful’ as the current incarnation. And the building isn’t very ‘graceful’ to begin with; the best view of the building is from Library Square; all other angles resemble the back of a building.

    Adding a singular tower will always look out of proportion; adding two towers I think is more practical and proportional. And the solution, which adds two ‘wings’ to the building, and something of a ‘terraced inner courtyard’ has the potential of creating a very unique space for the residents of the building.

    The other important observation – from the street level, I think the new design will look just fine. The renderings show the building from the common ‘middle height’ for the best proportional view of the building. But we rarely see buildings from this angle. From the ground, the glass will gracefully blend into the sky, and there are even a hints of ‘letter sorting’ in the design that I think will provide a necessary amount of visual interplay.

    Others also made immediate comparisons to the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. The Elbphilharmonie was built atop a 17th century factory, and so the buildings have that much in common. The Elbphilharmonie is an incredibly complicated and indulgent building, and apparently almost bankrupted Herzog & de Meuron Basel Ltd. The final bill may be around €789 million, 10 times the estimate. In the case of the Canada Post redevelopment, I would hope that much more practical and cost effective approaches can be taken to keep the building more affordable. Of course, the building won’t be ‘affordable’ for most, but that’s an entirely different post.

  6. Oh, I see they have mentioned Orville’s mural; it will be “cut out and moved.”

    I’d like to see how they plan to feature the mural, but at least I’m happy about that!

  7. Eve, thank you for your work. I find so many interesting posts but I’ll feel awkward if I comment on too many of them.

    The former mail processing plant at 349 W Georgia is a beast of a building built to last centuries. It is also a rare mid-century modern creation, which as a rule does not get the heritage slobber going like gingerbread or neoclassical columns seem to. I’m glad the building is staying.

    From 1981 to 1989 I actually worked there, sorting mail and moving coffins around (large wagons of mail). I’ve been in the tunnel you mentioned. I’ve been on the helipad. I’ve been on strike, twice. I occasionally dream I’m back there. It was really fun to work in this vast building full of people and noisy machinery, so close to the centre of town.

    Now it’s just a developer’s plaything I suppose. They’ll sell the condos and move on, leaving Vancouver with a laughable mashup.

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