Finding the Rhea Sisters  

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Courtesy Ital Decor

I was driving along Hastings the other day when I saw a huge statue in the yard of Ital Decor in Burnaby. It looked suspiciously like one of the WW1 nurses that guarded the 10th floor of the Georgia Medical-Dental Building before it was imploded in 1989.

Mario Tinucci of Ital Décor, says the one in his yard is a fibreglass version that he cast from an original nurse, and made in 1990. It was the first of four that were replicated—the other three are attached to Cathedral Place, the Paul Merrick-designed tower that replaced the GM-DB.

The three “Sisters of Mercy” were affectionately known as the Rhea Sisters—Gono, Pyor and Dia.

Ital Decor , 6886 Hastings Street, Burnaby

According to newspaper articles, the eleven-foot-high terra cotta nurses, designed by Joseph Francis Watson, weighed several tonnes each and were in rough shape when they came down. The cost to fix them was upwards of $70,000 each.

Instead, developer Ron Shon donated all three to the Vancouver Heritage Foundation. He also donated some of the terra cotta animals, spandrel panels and chevron mouldings from the main entrance, and the secondary arch (the main one is in the Bill Reid Gallery which is currently closed for renovations).

Photo courtesy Ital Decor

In 1992, the VHF had their first fundraiser at the Museum of Vancouver’s parking lot and sold off pieces of the GM-DB’s terra cotta.

Maurice Guibord, who was manager of community affairs for the MoV, paid $100 for a piece of the archway, now in his garden, and which came with Certificate of Authenticity #92.

The VHF donated one of the nurses to the MoV in 2000, and later sold the two original nurses to Discovery Parks at UBC.

Nurses on the Technology Enterprise Facility Building at UBC. Courtesy UBC

Wendy Nichols, curator of collections at the MoV, says their nurse is at UBC on a long-term loan agreement. I’m told all three original nurses are attached to the Technology Enterprise Facility 111 building completed in 2003, although only two are visible in this photo.

I never saw the GM-DB, and neither did Maurice, but on Thursday he, Tom Carter and I took a field trip to Cathedral Place. Tom prefers Cathedral Place to the original art deco building because he says the back was unfinished, and the building was only ever designed to be viewed from the front.

Maurice and Tom inside the Cathedral building with the mystery head

Robin Ward described the GM-DB’s “Mayan/Hollywood style lobby” in 1988. “It’s like a film set for a bank robbery in Mexico City,” he wrote.

I get what he means. The lobby in Cathedral Place is very similar to the Marine Building complete with brass doors on the elevators. (The Marine Building and the GM-DB were both designed by McCarter and Nairne architects).

The Hotel Vancouver from the courtyard. Cathedral Place on the left, Christ Church Cathedral on the right. Eve Lazarus photo.

It’s easy to appreciate Merrick’s skill when you get into the monastery-like courtyard that joins Cathedral Place to Christ Church Cathedral and the Bill Reid Gallery. He has used a similar CP Hotel-style roof to complement the Hotel Vancouver’s copper lid, and gothic touches and cloisters to connect the buildings together.

Now the questions remain:

    • Is the head that is displayed at Cathedral Place terra cotta or fibreglass (we couldn’t tell) and where did it come from? (There were three original nurses that are now at UBC and four fibreglass moulds—three are attached to Cathedral Place and one is at Ital Décor)
    • What is the connection between the Technology Enterprise Facility Building and BC’s nursing history?
The Georgia Medical-Dental Building in 1973. Courtesy CVA 70-28

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

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  1. Like so many of Eve’s blasts from the past, this no doubt triggers memories in most Boomer readers. Growing up in Richmond, I never sought medical or dental help in downtown Vancouver. What strikes me, however, is that such a useful service building existed in the heart of the city. That’s because—in addition to transit—parking was plentiful and inexpensive. One could use the Hudson’s Bay parkade, walk over to the doc’s office, browse at the Bay and have a fish-and-chips dinner at the Seymour Buffet. These days, cheap downtown parking exists only in the memories of gits like me.

  2. I’ve passed that place on East Hastings many times, and have noticed the nurse! I always wondered whether it was an original. Now I know. Who knew two of the originals are on the building out at UBC? Cool….I remember the GM-DB very well, and the attempt to preserve it as an early example of art-deco architecture in the city. It was the forerunner to the incomparable Marine Building. Bryan Adams (yes, that Bryan Adams] was involved in the preservation campaign, that didn’t have a chance, alas. It was quite a striking building from the outside, especial with the famous nurses. And there were art-deco touches in the lobby, but admittedly it was dark and gloomy inside. I did a piece on the campaign to save the GM-DB for CBC-TV. I got to examine the nurses up close. A real thrill….there was some criticism of Paul Merrick at the time for his involvement in the destruction of a building the many, including me, thought should be saved. But i remember him telling me: the issue isn’t preserving the GM-DB, it’s whether what replaces it is better. And one has to say, Cathedral Place is a beautiful building, and i love the fact the facsimile nurses are still in pace. So one to Paul Merrick. I was there for the imploding of the GM-DB…..a sad day…..despite Cathedral Place….thanks for another informative blog, Eve!

    1. The GM-DB looks beautiful from the old photos — especially when the Devonshire was still there, but I didn’t know that it was only finished at the front of the building, must have looked pretty awful from Burrard. I really like Cathedral Place and didn’t appreciate it properly until we were in the courtyard and could look at in relation to the Hotel Vancouver and Cathedral Place. Love Merrick’s work, particularly his own house in West Van. Thanks for stopping by Rod!

  3. Thanks for this Eve — I so enjoy your writing on Vancouver history. I just looked up Joseph Francis Watson to see that he was also the architect for the Armstrong Funeral Home on Dunlevy. (another story there!?) I miss the GM-DB, but Cathedral Place is beautifully done.

  4. Thanks for this, Eve. At the time of the demolition it seemed to us nostalgics that the whole of our beloved city was being levelled, especially the most-loved icons.

    The Georgia Medical-Dental Building features, or peekaboos, in a photo or two I made in 1984
    from an empty lot somewhere around Smithe and Howe, which is now part of my “Eighties Vancouver” portfolio.

    I was aware that the sisters had been replicated in fibreglass, but lost track of where the originals had ended up. I can’t say I’m a fan of Cathedral Place. Its name is certainly grandiloquent, though it doesn’t have enough patina of age for my liking … though I’m just a grumpy old Brit who grew up among smokestacks and ancient castles. 🙂

  5. I am 84 yrs. old now! When I was pre school my mom would bring me to Vancouver each month when she was coming down from Hope, B. C. on the train to shop. We would walk from the CPR station up to the Melrose Café on Hastings Street just off Granville. She would always point out the Medical Building and show me the Nurses on the top. Then she would point out the Marine Building, and then the Vancouver Hotel. I don’t know if it was to orientate me to where I was in case I got lost. I wonder if that might have been influential in my becoming a Nurse and training at St. Paul’s hospital?

  6. Great story, Eve. Love all the great information you provide us.
    I was lucky enough to buy a piece of terra cotta from the VHF’s GM-DB sale. I was first in line to buy, but, moments before the sale was to begin, I remember developer Andre Molnar being escorted in ahead of us and having his pick of the litter. Ten minutes later he had bought up the larger pieces for himself and left the scraps for us regular folk!

  7. I often worked as a dental assistant in the GMDB and it was spectacular. It’s not true that it was only finished at the front which you can easily see in archival photos. Only one side where the escape stairs were was not adorned, but functional. The lobby and interior details were magnificent. And the interior rooms were no gloomier than other Art Deco buildings in town. It was just prime real estate and developers were having their day in a city that then and now cares little about their architectural heritage. There was a great deal of anger and controversy about the destruction. These days only the Downtown Eastside has a decent collection of heritage buildings. It seems, in Vancouver, that only the down and out and troubled have the clout to keep developers at bay. So far.

  8. It wasn’t so much that the rear (north side of the Georgia Medical Dental Building wasn’t “finished” – it was just clad plainly – like the south side of the Hotel Vancouver.

    Like most buildings of the day, it’s floorplate was comprised of narrow wings to allow light to penetrate into the rooms.
    – so the building actually had an “L” shaped floorplate.

    The Hotel Georgia has a similar “L”shaped floorplate and the Birks Building had a “U” shaped floorplate.

    You can see the rear of the Georgia Medical Dental Building at the left edge of this shot:

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