Our Missing Heritage: The Birks Building. WTF were we thinking?

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The Birks Building at Granville and Georgia (where the London Drugs store is today) was demolished in May 1974. Two months earlier, on March 24, a group of people got together and held a funeral. Angus McIntyre attended and took photos, and he has kindly written a guest blog about the building and its demise. All photos and captions are by Angus.

Angus McIntyre photo, 1974
The funeral mourners assemble under the Birks clock for the ceremonial laying of the wreaths. Two ladies prepared handmade protest signs, one of which is visible on the far left. Angus McIntyre photo, 1974.

By Angus McIntyre

 Forty-three years ago this week, I rode my bike downtown to attend a funeral service. The weather was sunny and +10C, and since it was a Sunday, traffic was light, and the Granville Mall was still under construction. I saw the procession of mourners with a police escort coming from the old Vancouver Art Gallery on Georgia at Thurlow. I heard a small band playing a sombre funeral dirge. It looked like the old photos of funerals in Vancouver in the early 1900s.

Angus McIntyre photo, 1974
This view of the Vancouver Birks store interior was taken from the top of the stairs leading up to the mezzanine. There was excellent natural light through the large windows, complemented by attractive incandescent light fixtures.

The funeral was put together by a group of staff and students from the UBC School of Architecture, and included architects and historians. As the service was about to start, crews working on the new building at Georgia and Granville shut off the air compressors and laid down their tools. There was a Gathering, a Sharing of Ideas, a Choir performance and a Laying of the Wreaths. A small group of people wearing recycled videotape clothing put hexes on new buildings nearby. As soon as it came time to return to the Art Gallery, the band switched to Dixieland jazz, and the mood became slightly more upbeat.

Angus McIntyre photo, 1974
I am leaning out of an open arched window on the top floor of the Birks Building, and on the floor below me a terracotta man’s face is checking out the scene. The Granville Mall is under construction, the recently opened Eaton’s store has yet to have two additional floors added, and the view to the south is relatively unobstructed.

I had been able to photograph the interior of the store through the courtesy of Thom Birks, and was even able to access the roof for some photos. I later presented him with a portfolio of images, and in return he gave me a framed print of the building. I had occasionally shopped there over the years, and the pneumatic tube system for purchases lasted almost to the end. When you entered the store for the first time, you couldn’t help but look up at the incredible ceiling detail. As Thom Birks looked at a model of the new tower to be built, he turned to me and said: “Of course, this interior could never be duplicated.”

Angus McIntyre photo, 1974.
This view shows the Birks sign on top of the Vancouver Block, taken from the roof of the Birks Building. The Vancouver Block survives to this day even though it was built in 1912, one year before the Birks building.

Demolition had already begun by the time of the funeral service, and it was fitting that enough people cared to have a farewell ceremony. The large R.I.P. banner ended up in a second storey office at the narrow Sam Kee building at Carrall and Pender Streets, visible as I drove my bus every day on the Stanley Park route.

Angus McIntyre photo, 1974
There was some theatre involved in the service, and the wreaths were traditional, although I seem to recall one was made from an old car tire.

I visited Montreal years later, and was surprised to find Birks in an 1894 building. The store, with its incredible interior, was intact. It was sold recently to a developer for conversion to a boutique hotel, with plans to retain the original building and store. It is sad that Vancouver’s Birks Building did not get the same treatment.

Angus McIntyre photo, 1974
Scaffolding is in place on the top of the Birks Building as the funeral ceremony takes place.

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

 

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11 comments

  1. I remember that beautiful building so well. The Birks clock was our standard meeting place downtown and all special family events were celebrated with a purchase from Birks. I still have my silver baby cup and my high school graduation watch!

    1. Our memories are the same as yours. It’s true that you don’t truly appreciate something such as this until it is gone.

  2. As always thank you, thanks for having the foresight to take pictures to help preserve memories from my youth. Born and raised in Vancouver and you cant imagine how many time your photos and others have jogged my memory.
    I bought an engagement ring at Birks just prior to its demise.

  3. Such a loss! And the arrogance and shortsightedness that swept away that gem (pun intended) at the same time as the Eaton’s “marshmallow” building was evidently considered superior.

    The irony of that is not lost on me, especially as one of my “Eighties Vancouver” photos documents that hated edifice, which has now been “updated” by Cadillac Fairview for Nordstrom.

  4. That building with it’s exquisitely beautifully detailed interior was part of the magic of Vancouver. It was like a lovely church inside with all natural light and gorgeous details. There is something inherently wrong with the way we treat our historic buildings in this city – and it is getting worse. Thank you for sharing these wonderful photos – makes me wish for a different time and place instead of monstrosities like the Trump Tower being erected in this city.

  5. I remember the Birks building very well. Amazing architecture. Eatons disappearing and Woodwards.
    When I was 19 years old their were exactly 19 buildings downtown Vancouver. I counted them, now there are thousands. I have taken some photographs of some beautiful newer buildings downtown. We have had much change over the years.

  6. The Birks Building died a long slow death. I recall it took them many months maybe a year to systematically demolish it floor by floor and from the inside out.

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