The Marine Building – Built on Rum?

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The following story is an excerpt from Sensational Vancouver

Built in 1930
Marine Building in 1933 Leonard Frank photo

 

I had thought the Marine Building was built by the Guinness family until I started doing some research on this Art Deco icon—one of my favourite buildings in Vancouver. And while the Guinness family did eventually own it, the developer was a local guy who made a fortune during Prohibition.

Leonard Frank Photo
Marine building elevator

Joe Hobbs arrived in Vancouver around 1920—the start of US Prohibition. He founded Hobbs Bros, a ship holding company and front for his smuggling activities, and went about converting luxury yachts into rum running vessels.

By 1925 Hobbs had made enough money to build a Shaughnessy mansion at 1656 Laurier Street, and three years later he went legit and became the vice-president of Toronto-based G.A. Stimson and Co. Ltd., Canada’s oldest bond company.

Vancouver was now the third largest city in Canada and growing in importance in international trade. Hobbs saw Vancouver as a gateway to the Orient and wanted to build a monument to the city. Stimson’s saw it as an opportunity to expand the company into Western Canada. With the financing in place they secured the land at the foot of Burrard and Hastings Street.

Built in 1930

McCarter and Nairne, the same architects that designed the Harrison Hot Springs Hotel for the rum running Reifels,  the Medical-Dental Building and the Livestock building, designed the Marine Building—the first high rise office tower in the city. The architect’s plans called for a “great crag rising from the sea clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted in sea-green, touched with gold.”

After spending half a day crawling around the inside and outside (unfortunately not the penthouse) I’d say they accomplished what they set out to do. The details are amazing—from the five-foot King Neptune that stands guard from the 16th floor, to the three-dimensional ships carved into the building’s main entrance.

355 West Hastings StreetWhen the building opened visitors found it so posh that they couldn’t get beyond the Grand Concourse—the 90-foot long entrance hall. They’d see a floor inlaid with signs of the Zodiac, tiles with whales and Viking ships, and a clock with sea creatures instead of numbers. The five elevators have intricate bronze starbursts on their doors, and when built, were the fastest on the continent outside of New York.

McCarter and Nairne moved into the 19th floor and stayed for the next 50 years. Directory listings read like a who’s who of business, with tenants that include the Vancouver Board of Trade, Merchants’ Exchange, Lloyds Register of Ships, and the American, Ecuadorian, Venezuela and Costa Rican Consulates. In 1933 there was even a birth control clinic, sharing the 16th floor with a number of shipping, grain and manufacturing companies.

 

It was too late for Hobbs. People called it the “million dollar folly” because it went $1.1 million over budget, and it bankrupted Stimson’s. Hobbs offered his building to the City of Vancouver for $1 million, but they turned him down, and in 1933 the building sold to the Guinness family for $900,000. Company representative AJT Taylor converted what had been an observation deck into his luxury penthouse, opened an office in the building, bought what’s now the British Properties, and in 1937 opened the Lion’s Gate Bridge.

Built in 1930
The Marine Building no longer dominates the Vancouver skyline

 

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

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16 comments

  1. Probably rye whiskey.

    Great story. I think much that has been written about the Marine Building overlooks or seriously underplays the Hobbs story. Too bad. It’s way better than those silly Sleeman commercials!

    I have loved the building since I first set eyes on it back when I was in elementary school taking a tour of the big city. And, of course, I’m not alone. If one were to poll Vancouverites and tell them only one heritage building in the city could be saved, and then ask them which one do we keep, I would bet that the MB would get near-unanimous support.

    Another reason for the love affair: My wife worked there as a young woman.

    Once around 1992 while in the midst of a stubborn stretch of unemployment, I spent two solid days applying to every company in the building. If no one would hire me, I figured I could at least stay out of the rain, save on shoe leather, ride the shiny elevators, and enjoy the views. I never did land a job there—although I recall a great conversation with a printer in the basement—but I did find work at 1111 West Hastings with Coopers & Lybrand, and I loved nothing better than strolling to the cafe on the ground floor of the Marine Building for lunch.

    I believe the Guinness family was a very early client of C&L. When I wrote the corporate history of C&L (2001?) I heard tales of them touring like royals (Walter Guinness was a baron) over Vancouver, West Van and New West looking for properties to invest in. And it was then I found an old shot of Mr Taylor in his Marine Building penthouse office. If I remember correctly, his feet were up on his desk and there was a scale replica stone lion (the same as the pair in front of the bridge) facing out west window.

    1. Hi David:
      I love the image of you going door to door. Did you get to the Penthouse – and do you still have that photo? Be interesting if Charles Marega did the lion in the Marine as well as the Lions Gate…

  2. The stone lions are still on the east parapet wall immediately outside the main meeting room of the penthouse.
    If anyone is interested, the terra cotta was manufactured by Gladding McBean. Copies of the original terra cotta drawings still exist. Each piece of terra cotta was hand made, numbered and installed in the corresponding location on the building.
    Many people think the main green coloured roof is clad in copper but it is actually glazed terra cotta.
    Eve, thanks for the information on the early history.

  3. I worked in the Marine Building from 1968 to 1981 & loved the building. In 1968 we had Elevator operators – complete in their attire – suits! There was a restaurant & little store on the main floor. I worked on the 2nd floor. We overlooked the lobby. A few of us took the elevator a few times to the penthouse floor – never got into the penthouse though. It is a spectacular building & I’m proud to have worked in it!

    1. I read somewhere that when the building first opened the elevator operators were beautiful young women dressed up in sailor suits. I haven’t been able to substantiate yet, but love the image (would love to see a photo). Were the elevator operators in the 60s men in suits? Must have been a nice working environment. Thanks for taking the time to comment! Eve

      1. Hi Eve,

        The elevator operators were all female (1968) and wore dark blue suits – very smart. I don’t remember exactly when the elevators went ‘self-serve’, but it was sad to see these lovely women leave (probably in the early 70’s). The building inside & out was spectacular, until someone put a line of acid all the way down the centre of the floor on the mezzanine, (where I worked – BC Forest Service). It was very sad to see & was like that when I left in 1981. I loved the revolving doors. Now I can’t even find the Marine Building in pictures – it’s hard to believe it was once the tallest building in Vancouver! Very fond memories.

  4. Thanks for this, which was passed on to me by a friend. today. We had dinner at the Elephant & Castle in the MB last Thursday on one of my rare trips into Vancouver from out in Mission.

    My uncle, Doug Hunter, began as a junior architect with McCarter & Nairne while they were designing the building. I remember going up to the 19th floor M&N offices (in those wonderful elevators) as a young boy while Doug was still working there. He passed away in 1989 at the age of 82 but I have a lot of his renderings for various M&N buildings, which I lent to Donald Luxton when he was preparing his book on Building the West: The Early Architects of British Columbia.

    I also have one of the original detail drawings of the front entrance of the Marine Building, drawn on vellum, as well as a couple of stained-glass panels that I think were in the M&N office. Unfortunately I never managed to get pics of them to J.Y. McCarter’s daughter, whom I thought might know of their provenance.

    What a lovely old building. Brings back a lot of good memories, including some of Doug’s stories of his early days at M&N and the shenanigans some of the staff got up to!

  5. Eve – I was lucky enough to attend the Vancouver Heritage event in the penthouse last night. Apparently the Lions on the patio of the Marine Building are the original carvings from the Lions Gate Bridge, according to Don Luxton.

  6. Hello, I was looking for some history on the Marine Building tenants. My grandfather artist Harold Faulkner Smith was a tenant in the Marine Building beginning in 1931, certainly not one of the biggest I’m sure. My father was a draftsmen for McCarter and Nairne about 1949 and my mother was an elevator operator, that’s how they met. I bye chance stumbled on your site, very interesting. Thanks Randy Smith Ladysmith BC

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