409 West Hastings St.
Soon after visiting this site with my client (my appraisal had been gloomy at best) I received a call from a planner with the Vancouver Heritage Department. He was quite excited, and said that in checking the site, he had discovered that it once contained one of the city's oldest buildings. He continued, adding that he thought it might still be there, buried beneath the steel cladding we had taken to be a false front.
A trip to the Vancouver Archives produced a tantalizing photograph of a lovely old, three storey, stone clad building taken shortly after its completion in 1887. It was one of the first buildings erected following the great fire of 1886, and was used as Vancouver's main Post Office for a time. The photograph was wonderful- full of citizens proudly posing in front of the building. In front, were two children sitting with their legs dangling from a raised wooden sidewalk - typical of sidewalks of the day.
A subsequent site visit confirmed it. The old building was still there, including its upper storeys, which had been sealed off from below, the front façade clad in aluminum, and abandoned some forty years earlier.
When we finally gained access from a rear roof, it was eerie. Everything was there behind the cladding. Double hung windows, wallpaper, wall mount basins, wainscoting, staircases, balustrades and hardwood floors - all in ruinous condition. A long ago shattered skylight let in light and rainwater and provided access to the more than eighty pigeons that called it home. The environment was toxic. It would have made a great movie set. Sadly, everything would have to go.
The client had originally wanted the building assessed for reuse as an English language school; none of us realizing it was more than a main floor and a basement. What we had seen had little to commend it, and a great deal of upgrading required. Now, with an additional two floors of offices that leant themselves nicely to reuse as classrooms, we all reconsidered.
The restoration began. The steel cladding was removed and the old window outlines were revealed. The stonework on the façade was a mess. Quite a number of pieces were missing entirely, filled in with concrete block. Other rows had badly sagged, and the mortar had crumbled. Nothing at all remained of the original ground floor façade of course, but neither did any trace or sample of either of the old cornices or even the window casings.
Fortunately two excellent stonemasons had been referred to us. Not only were they true craftsmen, they also knew which quarry the original stone had come from, and where they could obtain additional pieces. The job they did restoring that façade made everything else the rest of us did seem easy by comparison. They re-leveled rows of stone, re-pointed others and even discovered and corrected construction mistakes made by the original masons in 1887 which had led to some of the problems.
While the masons worked their wonders, the rest of the team set about rebuilding the tin work cornices and recreating the ground floor- slightly modified to suit our purposes- all from that one old photograph from 1887.
Although we had to strip the old upper floors to restore the building, many of its old doors, mouldings and casings were carefully removed, cleaned, restored and eventually reinstalled.
The project won a heritage award from The City of Vancouver in 1999.