THE MARINE BUILDING: Vancouver’s Iconic Art Deco Building
Almost every North American city has one: the Art Deco tower that outshines the rest of the skyline, even the taller, more recent additions. For Vancouver, this is the Marine building, a “tasting menu” of the finest ingredients of Art Deco Design and Imagery.
Completed in 1930, the structure has been impeccably preserved. This legendary building continues to be one of the greatest architectural attractions in Vancouver, standing 22 stories high above Burrard Street. Its height made it the tallest building in Vancouver until 1939, where it could be seen above the other buildings in the Financial District where it is located. Today, Vancouver’s skyline is combed with modern, tall glass skyscrapers, but when it was completed in 1930, its outline was unobstructed: a podium of four floors, supporting another seventeen floors topped by the penthouse. The fame of the Marine Building has endured and continues to be studied and visited by hordes of tourists and students of architecture who are dazzled by its lavish materials and intricate details.
By the 1920s Vancouver was a growing and prosperous city. The port was an important stop on the route from South America, where the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 had cut two weeks off a previously arduous journey. It was also an important rail hub, making Vancouver a center for transportation.
Noting the growing importance of Vancouver, Lieutenant Commander J. W. Hobbs, an entrepreneur from Toronto, had an idea for a lavish building that would reflect the times as well as the importance of Vancouver as an ocean and rail hub.
It was to be called the Marine Building and house the Marine Exchange — and the prominent and respected architectural firm Mc Carter and Nairme were selected to design the building. At that time, the architects had only designed one skyscraper, but they nonetheless created a masterpiece rivaling any other Art Deco building of the era. They described the building as “some great crag rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted sea green and touched with gold” — and they were right.
Construction began in March 1929 and was completed in October 1930 — and having visited the Marine Building, it is difficult to believe it was completed in such a short time. Delving deeper into the history of the building, it was revealed there were a number of “outside” architects working on the project under McCarter and Nairme — a group effort, which may explain how they were able to complete the drawings and the construction in so short a time. To complete the 321 feet of details, artisans of the highest skills were found to work on the building and reams of detailed drawings were created both for the construction and the embellishments. It is hard to conceive that the construction took only sixteen months, before the age of computer-assisted design when everything had to be drawn by hand. Not to mention organizing the ordering of the materials and lining up of the craftsmen.
The building opened with great fanfare with uniformed doormen at the impressive arched entrance with embellished revolving double doors. The outside of the building, covered in terracotta artwork, acknowledges Vancouver’s importance as a transportation hub with zeppelins, steamships, biplanes, and trains all in Art Deco style engraved into the walls. Above the ground floor is a frieze showing waves, sea horses and marine life, and a flock of geese is worked into the doors of one of the entrances.
The lobby floor is magnificent with its black and white designed signs of the zodiac.
In the entry and to the left are five high-speed elevators (well, high speed at the time the building was opened); in those days, women elevator operators were chosen for their looks, attired in maritime-themed outfits and would take visitors to the upper floors. Looking upwards, the lobby ceilings and walls are covered in intricate designs and the wall sconces are sailing ships riding the crest of waves.
The decorative features both on the exterior and interior are endless and the detail with which they have been executed is remarkable.
The completed building was representative of the wealth that was generated during the good economic times when Vancouver was growing — and in which it was planned. But by the finish date, Wall Street had collapsed and Vancouver entered the Great Depression with the rest of Canada. To attract tenants, rents were kept comparable to less impressive buildings, but it remained largely empty nonetheless.
As might be expected for so lavish a building, the Marine Building was completed at a final cost of $2.3 million dollars, $1.1 million dollars over budget or close to double the original estimate. Rather than go into bankruptcy the developers were forced to sell their investment and received only $900,000, with the sale taking place in 1933 to the Britsih Pacific Building Co. (part of the Guinness Brewing Company).
VISITING THE MARINE BUILDING
Joanne and I visited the building on my recent trip and it was as if the pages of an Art Deco coffee table book had come alive and we were within it. We marveled at the workmanship and opulence of the lavish interior and had no words to describe what we were seeing. In 2019, this 1930 Building is operating as a regular office building, with tenants occupying the offices and people coming and going just as intended. It’s not a “dead” tourist attraction, filled with just people ogling the decorations, but business people visiting offices in a building that is now fully occupied.
Standing at the elevators, we admired the brown tilework outlining the elevator openings and the brass doors with imagery carved into them. We rode the elevators behaving like excited kids, stopping off at different floors to compare the details of each.
On the second floor, we were able to look down onto the lobby, the signs of the zodiac on the lobby floor reading clearly, and seeing people coming and going.
Looking up, as we were closer to the ceiling, the decorations were clearer: classic Art Deco, with design upon design of imagery. There is a lot of fun in the iconography, but the effect is sheer brilliance and we were dazzled by the opulence.
The Marine Building is equal to any of the other Art Deco Masterpieces in North America and deserves its designation as a Heritage Building in Vancouver.
It was Lieutenant Hobbs’s idea that The Marine Building should be comparable to the Chrysler building in NYC — and that it is. It has been beautifully maintained, developing a patina with age and continues to attract masses of visitors to its doors to admire its legendary design.
McCarter and Nairme, the architects, moved their offices into the Marine Building as tenants when it opened and remained there for fifty years before moving out.
According to legend, John Greed, described as a “constructive decorator”, designed many of the decorative elements, including the lobby ceilings and the sailing ships above the sconces. He subsequently went to Hollywood and became a set designer, which is not surprising as the interior is more like a set design than a commercial building. Because of its theatricality, the Marine Building has been used as a background featured in movie and TV productions including Caprica, Smallville, Fairly Legal, Fantastic Four, Life or Something Like It, The Flash and Clark Kent’s workplace in Superman,
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