Our Missing Heritage: What were we thinking? (the original VAG)

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If you live in Vancouver, you know that the Vancouver Art Gallery is housed in the old law courts, an imposing neo-classical building designed by celebrity architect Francis Rattenbury in 1906. What you may not know, and I did not until stumbling over a photo recently, was that the VAG started out in a gorgeous art deco building at 1145 West Georgia, a few blocks west from its current location.

Opening day October 5, 1931 CVA 99-4062
Opening day October 5, 1931 CVA 99-4062

The original 1931 building—the same year the VAG was founded—was designed by local architects Sharp and Thompson. It fit perfectly into the largely residential West End neighborhood of the times, had a main hall, two large galleries and two smaller ones with a sculpture hall, library and lecture hall. The names of what were considered great painters of the times (all non-Canadian, and all men) were carved at the entrance.

West Georgia between Bute and Thurlow, April 1931 CVA 99-3873
West Georgia between Bute and Thurlow, April 1931 CVA 99-3873

Charles Marega was commissioned to sculpture busts of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci which flanked either side of the front door. Architect George Sharp, a respected artist, taught at the Vancouver School of Art.


After the war, Group of Seven artist Lawren Harris, who lived on ritzy Belmont Avenue, raised $300,000, and the building was expanded to three times its original size. It could now accommodate 157 Emily Carr works, and the building was left alone for another three decades.

Inside the new VAG building Oct 5, 1931 CVA 99-4081
Inside the new VAG building Oct 5, 1931 CVA 99-4081

In 1983 the VAG moved into its current digs at the old courthouse. Two years later the art deco building was demolished. Now we have the Trump Tower and the FortisBC building in its old space.

And, look what we've done with the space
And, look what we’ve done with the space

For more in Our Missing Heritage Series see:

Our Missing Heritage (part one) The Georgia Medical & Dental Building and the Devonshire Hotel

Our Missing West Coast Modern Heritage (Part two)

Our Missing Heritage (part three) The Empress Theatre

Our Missing Heritage (part four) The Strand Theatre, Birks Building and the second Hotel Vancouver

Our Missing Heritage (part five) The Hastings Street Theatre District

Our Missing Heritage (part six)

Our Missing Heritage (part seven)

Our Missing Heritage (part eight) 

or just go to Our Missing Heritage for the complete, sad list.

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

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  1. The original VAG,founded in 1931 had on its board of directors, Mrs B.T. Rogers, widow of the founder of the B.C.Sugar refinery……unlike the VAG’s original building, HER former home, SHANNON at 57 th and Granville has been impeccably restored as part of a high end condo complex, and the house itself has been divided into luxury units!

    1. The office building to the left in this pic is the former Shell Oil Building.
      It was stripped to the bare concrete for redevelopment as the Newport City Club in the 1990s – which failed partway through redevelopment.
      That site sat idle for many years, flipped hands a few times through a couple failed office proposals (one was a strata titled tower called Golden Ocean Plaza, and it was later owned by Cadillac Fairview), and is now owned by Holborn and is the site of the Trump Tower.

      So the VAG site must be along the former BC Gas Building podium (now the FortisBC Building), which is under common ownership with Trump Tower (both owned by Holborn).

  2. It was the Modernist redo in 1951 (I’ve put it on the FB link as I can’t add a photo here) that defined the VAG for the 3 decades before it moved to the old court house.

    1. But the original 1931 Deco building doesn’t look like it’s on 1145 West Georgia, according to the pic…it is certain there weren’t three different buildings/locations over the VAG’s history?

      1. The Vancouver Art Gallery first appears in the city directories in 1932 at 1145 West Georgia. The original 1931 building had a massive renovation in 1951 which tripled it in size. Looks like it also took off most of its features.In 1952 the Vancouver Art Gallery is still listed in the city directory at 1145 West Georgia. It stays there until 1983 when it moves to the current location.

  3. Nice article about our sometimes forgotten history. Thinking that magnificent building is replaced by the Trump tower is disheartening. Sometimes change is not the best way.

    1. So true. I’m just sipping on a glass of wine and putting together this week’s blog post, which is about incorporating a house into a new building. I’m not sure this is the way either.

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