Built as a Savings and Loan in 1907, The B.C. Permanent Loan and Savings Company has taken on a new life as “The Permanent,” an event space and a setting for movies and TV productions.
Built for one purpose, another has been found to keep the romance of this space alive, a process known as adaptive re-use of space — the equivalent of recycling old buildings!! Vancouver has a treasure trove of historic Heritage Buildings and this is the story of one that has been saved.
Walking along West Pender Street in Vancouver, BC, there is nothing to make anyone want to stop at number 330, nothing that would indicate the hidden beauty that lies behind four tall Corinthian columns. Yet concealed within is a building rich in history, filled with magnificent architectural details, that had been locked up and left to decay since 1966 when there was no longer a use for it.
This is The Permanent, an event center in its present iteration. The name was inspired by Thomas Langlois, a successful financier who wanted to show off his wealth by designing a prestigious building to house his company, the B. C. Permanent Loan and Savings, founded in 1899.
Having made a mountain of money, he wanted to display his wealth and this was a way of doing it. Choosing prominent architects of the time, Thomas Hooper and E. Elwood Watkins, to design a Neoclassical building and Charles Marega, one of Western Canada’s most prominent sculptors to do the interior plasterwork, the building was completed in 1907.
The Neo-Classical style with tall Corinthian columns topped with a pediment used over and over again on Bank Buildings eventually became known as “Temple Bank Architecture,” copying the style of Greco/Roman Temples. The classic design was intended to give a feeling of security to bank buildings of that era, when Canada was in a boom period. The B.C. Permanent Loan and Savings Company in Vancouver was surrounded by other impressive buildings in a growing financial district in a burgeoning city spurred by the second Gold Rush.
All went well for Langlois until the fateful year of 1929, when he invested too heavily in sugar in an attempt to corner the market. As part of his plan, he commissioned a large ship, its holds filled with sugar, to sail to Vancouver. Alas, on the way the ship sank, taking its precious cargo to the bottom of the ocean. Any hopes he had of cornering the market were dashed, the market crashed and Langlois went bankrupt.
The B.C. Permanent Loan and Savings Company then merged with the Bank of Canada who occupied the building until 1966. After a few minor tenants, no one was interested in the older building. The stained glass windows were removed and put into storage, then the window openings were bricked up to protect the building against vandals. It was locked up, abandoned and left to deteriorate.
The Permanent may have been through rough decades, but the building itself was and is solid, clad in sandstone, its Neoclassical Revival details still intact. In 2009, brothers Eric and Max Cohen, alongside their friend Morris J. Wosk, bought the building on Max’s idea to turn it into an event space. This wasn’t unfamiliar territory for them: all three were successful real estate investors and Eric Cohen was also an antiques dealer who had previously owned a company called Architectural Antiques and now owns Renew Gallery specializing in antique lighting and stained glass.
Ultimately, Eric Cohen became the sole owner of the building. With his background in antiques and skillset in restoration, he was a perfect fit as the building required extensive updating and restoration. This is a listed Heritage Building and as such endless patience was required in getting approval and permits from the City of Vancouver before any changes or updates could be made. It required a seismic upgrade, all the electric wiring had to be removed and replaced and a new sound system installed among others. The list of requirements by the City of Vancouver was endless. Finally, the building was opened as an event space in 2016.
VISITING THE PERMANENT
Before leaving for Vancouver, I arranged all our appointments to maximize every second of the four days that I was to be there; part of this was confirming an appointment for Joanne and I to do a walkthrough of The Permanent. On arriving, we rang the bell but got no response; we were about to leave when the door opened to let someone out. When we asked about our appointment, the person at the door said he knew nothing of it and there was no message that we would be visiting.
We were about to leave as we had been stood up, but Joanne quickly asked if we could have a brief look inside – and on entering, all was revealed. It was as if the Neoclassic period was encapsulated in that building. It had been completely restored and also included a collection of Tiffany-styled stained glass skylights, as exquisite as one would find in any Heritage building anywhere in the world.
This B.C. Permanent Savings and Loan had been waiting for someone like Eric Cohen to come along with an understanding of the architectural style and its contents to recreate it to its original best.
Our greeter was a gentleman Fred, who was largely instrumental in working on the upgrades. He had been with the project since it was taken over, watching it come together. Fred knew every inch of the building and lovingly lived and breathed its history.
He began the walkabout at the 20-foot high front columns on West Pender Street, proudly explaining how he had hand-painted them, dangling in a harness above the ground, completing the Corinthian column details and the temple pediment on the top. We then began a walkthrough of the entire building with his running commentary.
Walking inside, we found ourselves in a large, double volume space which is the area presently used for weddings, receptions, and filming.
The ceilings and walls were edged with the 1907 classical details created by Charles Marega, a well known Canadian sculptural artist in the early 21st Century. Admiring a tile design set into the floor, Fred told us at the time the building was taken over it was covered in plywood and in a state of complete disrepair. Carefully removing the wooden covering that had been stuck to the tiles with tar, they were amazed to see an intricate tile floor underneath. With infinite patience, the tiles were painstakingly restored, one little piece at a time, taking an estimated 1,000 hours.
But the most spectacular piece in the entire building has to be the overhead skylight made of decorative hand-cut, lead-lined stained glass, in autumn colors resonating with the Tiffany style. It measures 35 feet in length by 20 feet wide, and light and shadows played on the walls from the reflection of the sun shining through. Edged with a ring of exposed electric bulbs, these were among the first electric lights to be installed in Vancouver in 1907 attracting visitors to come and see the new invention.
The skylight also needed repairs as some of the glass sections were damaged when an attempt was made to break into the building. To protect it from further damage, there is now a glass dome installed over it on the outside of the building.
Further into the building, above the staircase, there is another glass skylight in similar colors.
Leaving the reception area, we walked through the original steel bank vault door that is a signature feature of the downstairs reception area. It has the old hand-operated wheel that is used to unlock interlocking metal bolts that are still in perfect working order. The actual vault, where the money was stored, has been taken out to create a better flow and give more space.
Guided by Fred, as we walked through the vault door, we entered the bar area that is used for receptions. This original antique bar, with stained glass details, was installed in the event space for gatherings and receptions.
There are twelve windows that had been bricked up but are now restored: the leaded stained glass that had been removed and placed in storage for safekeeping was replaced, letting in the light. These represent the Yukon, Great Britain and the Provincial Coat of Arms of Canada, each one a masterpiece of creativity and design.
Fred made sure we looked at the women’s restroom, beautifully restored with white railway tiles, white fixtures, stained glass windows, and antique lights.
There are other rooms upstairs including a private dining room and the bride’s dressing room for the bride’s use before her wedding.
For receptions, The Permanent has a company that it works with; there is a well-equipped catering kitchen in the basement with commercial stoves and refrigeration.
Apart from weddings, I suspect the main revenue comes from renting to production companies looking for unique venues such as this. The best-known show being filmed here on a regular basis is Riverdale. Others are Flash, Sense and Sensibility and several Hallmark productions.
All told this is a remarkable story, especially the restoration and re-invention of this space. What a fortunate coincidence that Eric Cohen with his background in architectural antiques, antique lighting, and stained glass, became the owner of The Permanent, someone who recognized its historical significance. And how amazing that someone like our tour guide Fred, with his enthusiasm and knowledge was on board to oversee the work and take Joanne and I through the space.
I wonder, if Thomas Langlois were to suddenly appear today, what would he think of the B.C. Permanent Loan and Savings Company?
The building was sold for $1.5 Million Canadian Dollars in 2009 and the restoration cost an additional $1.5 Million Canadian Dollars. Considering its location, contents, and condition, it would take an actuary to work out its value today — but surely it must be worth many times $3 million Canadian dollars.
330 W. Pender Street,
Vancouver BC V6B 3K2
Tel. (604) 312-2202