Vancouver’s Heritage: The City’s Oldest Buildings

Vancouver Post Office 1937
Historic Vancouver (1937) by City of Vancouver Archives

The history of (Greater) Vancouver dates back to 1827, when the Hudson’s Bay Company commenced construction of a fort named after the company’s director, Thomas Langley. Fort Langley was an important fur and salmon trading centre for many years. However, with the discovery of gold on the Fraser River in 1858, the area where the current City of Vancouver spans started to attract more and more outlanders. An important milestone in the history of Vancouver was the year 1867, when a steamboat captain from Yorkshire known as Jack “Gassy“ Deighton established the area’s first salon along the banks of the Burrard Inlet. This area, which is now known as Gastown, attracted newly arrived immigrants and the development of this prosperous community was accompanied by the construction of both industrial as well as residential buildings. However, it’s not only Gastown but also many parts of Chinatown, Shaugnessy and Yaletown that are embellished by many magnificent historically and culturally important pieces of architecture. Let’s have a look at some of Vancouver’s oldest buildings and their stories.

Hastings Mill Store (1865)

Old Hastings Mill Store Museum
Old Hastings Mill Store Museum

Hastings Mill Store, the oldest building in Vancouver, was built two years before Canada became a country, six years before British Columbia became a province, and 21 years before Vancouver was incorporated. This two-floor wooden building was located at the foot of what is now known as Dunlevy Street before being taken by a barge to Pioneer Park, at the north foot of Alma Street in 1930.

The store was an important part of Vancouver’s early history during its first twenty years on the south shore of Burrard Inlet. It was the city’s first post office, library, and community centre where people went to have a chat and pick up supplies. However, the store’s importance decreased when a second general store was established in 1887.

The store was part of the Hastings Sawmill, which remained Vancouver’s largest industrial enterprise until the First World War. However, the importance of the mill rapidly decreased as Vancouver transformed from a lumber village to an emerging metropolis and it was eventually dismantled. Its equipment was dispersed to smaller operations across Canada. The mill office building (1895) was given to the Anglican Church and transformed into a Seafarers mission, which it is still today. Other buildings were scheduled for demolition in 1929.

However, the original old mill store was saved after strong public outcry supported by Vancouver’s decade-old female historical society — the Native Daughters of B.C., Post No.1. On July 28, 1930, the old Hastings Mill store and post office embarked on a huge scow and transported from Burrard Inlet through Lions Gate and across English Bay to Kitsilano, where it was installed at the foot of Alma Street and Point Grey Road. There has been a lot of restoration work done on the exterior as well as on the distressed interior of the store. As Eileen McRae, 87, who has been with the Native Daughters since 1947, recalls, “It was a shack, an absolute shack, and they did a lot of work to get it in shape. But they didn’t want that building to go, because if that building went, that was the history of Vancouver.” Two years later, the store was dedicated as a “Museum of B.C. Historical Relics in Memory of the Pioneers“ by Premier Simon F. Tolmie.

During the Second World War, the store was used as a Red Cross depot and work room. Trustee Lillian Hornibrook describes the busy working atmosphere of the store during the war:

“There was at least four sewing machines buzzing and plenty of knitting needles clicking to make sweaters, balaclavas, gloves, socks, and vests for the men overseas.“

After the war, the store went back to being a museum and it underwent extensive upgrades and refurbishing.

502 Alexander Street (1888)

Strathcona North by Heritage Vancouver
Old Strathcona North by Heritage Vancouver Society

The wood-framed house at 502 Alexander Street is most probably the second oldest house in Vancouver. The house was built by John Baptist Henderson and according to a story in the December 31st, 1888 edition of Vancouver World it cost $1,500 to build. The house, which was completed two years after the City of Vancouver was founded, is hardly visible from the street; however, if you take a closer look, you can see that it has drop siding and an uncommon gingerbread design — both typical for the Victorian era.

The house is owned by the Atira Women’s Resource Society, which filed an application to demolish it with the City of Vancouver this August. Even though the house is in dire condition (there’s litter around it and it’s stripped of part of its exterior), John Atkin, a local historian, claims that there aren’t major structural problems and the house could be saved.

The home on 502 Alexander Street is mentioned on Heritage Vancouver’s 2012 Top Ten Endangered Sites list under number 5, Strathcona North. The list explains that it’s significant due to its age as well as because it was constructed by John Baptist Henderson, who was “an early settler and pioneering architect, contractor, and entrepreneur, who worked in many western Canadian communities before returning to Vancouver where he died in 1931.

After Henderson left the house, it was occupied by John Stitt, the manager of the Hastings Mill store. Other residents of 502 Alexander included a bookkeeper named Huddart, an accountant named Jackson, and a restaurateur named Schuman.

As the Vancouver Sun informed in its article from September 2011, Janice Abbot, Atira’s executive director, claims that the house became unstable after an addition in the back of the house was removed during a renovation in 2010. She said that it’s a rather complicated story, but whoever previously owned the building put on a nonconforming addition in the ’50s and used the back of the house as a wall. When that addition came down, it rendered the house unstable.“

However, Heritage Vancouver’s president, Donal Luxton, told the Vancouver Courier that heritage advocates are still interested in saving it. If it had come to relocation he would like to see it as close to the current site as possible. “But as long as it is preserved we would be happy — we don’t want such valuable heritage to be destroyed,“ he said. He says that until the building is demolished it’s not too late.

Christ Church Cathedral (1889-1895)

Christ Church Cathedral by Wikimedia Commons
Christ Church Cathedral by Wikimedia Commons


Located right in the heart of downtown Vancouver, Christ Church Cathedral was the first church in Vancouver. It first consisted only of a cellar called the “Root House“ before raising enough funds for building a permanent structure.

The first meeting at which it was decided that a church would be built in a residential neighbourhood of Vancouver was held on May 1888. It was decided that the church would be an Anglican church but would be more Protestant and Evangelical than the already existing “high“ Anglican church, St. James, located on the east side of the city. A building committee was formed in February 1889 and the architect chosen was C.O. Wickenden from Winnipeg.

The church was completed in February 1895. It was designed and built in the Gothic Revival Style, including ceiling beams of Douglas Fir, arches, and stained glass windows. Wickenden did a good job combining old world design with new world materials. The church underwent its first renovation in 1909, when it was lengthened and widened to the north and a balcony was built over the narthex, increasing the number of seats to 1,200.

In the 1970s, the church was threatened by budding high-rise developments downtown. There was a study released in 1971 that investigated the possibility of tearing down the existing church and situating it in a multi-storied high-rise complex. Fortunately, the redevelopment was opposed by the public and the cathedral was named a Heritage building in both the municipality of Vancouver and the Province of British Columbia in 1976. Another renovation took place in 1985: new office space was created on the lower level and the northwest entranceway was redesigned with further exterior additions of granite to echo the stone integrity of the original construction.

Holy Rosary Cathedral (1899-1900)

Holy Rosary Cathedral in 1899
Holy Rosary Cathedral in 19th century

The Holy Rosary Cathedral was constructed at the turn of the 19th and the 20th centuries in the French Gothic Revival style. Construction started in 1898 when Father J. M. McGuckin, OMI, decided to build a larger and permanent church. It was opened on December 8, 1900 and was blessed the day after. The church was declared a cathedral in 1916. It is the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.

The 161-feet-long cathedral built in the form of a cross was designed by architects T.E. Julian and H.J. Wiliams. Construction, under the charge of R.P. Forshaw, took only 491 days. Its most notable features are the pointed arch, vaulted ceiling, clerestory windows, buttresses, and large stained-glass windows. It’s build of sandstone and granite. The columns supporting the nave were from red Scagliola marble, which is a composite substance made from selenite, glue, and natural pigments imitating marble and other hard stones. The technique was very popular in 17th century in Tuscany. The vault is decorated by non-structural ribs with light moulding accenting the intermediate ribs.

Over the years there have been many updates done to do cathedral. For example, it was re-roofed in between 1995 and 1997 and the interior was repainted between 2004 and 2006. The stonework at the front entrance and sides as well as the pillars and floor were upgraded. When the cathedral was constructed, seven bells were cast at the Fonderie Paccard in Annecy-le-Vieux, Savoy, France and were blessed in October 1900. However, the bells were found to be out of tune and were returned to Europe, and eight bells came back and were reinstalled in 1906. The cathedral is a heritage and legally protected building.

Beatty Street Drill Hall (1899-1901)

Beatty Street Drill Hall by Wikimedia Commons
Beatty Street Drill Hall by Wikimedia Commons

The Beatty Street Drill Hall is a castle-like structure that serves as a Canadian Forces armoury located in downtown Vancouver at the corner of Beatty and Dunsmuir. It is the residence of The British Columbia Regiment, the oldest military unit in Vancouver, and the oldest militia in the province.

It was designed by David Ewart and opened in September 1901 by the Duke of Cornwall. The building, with its massive, three-and-a-half-feet-thick brick walls, two crenelated turrets, two tanks, original interiors, and a 64-pounder gun alongside the huge white building, is an A-listed heritage building. The parapet, which includes a rusticated stone trim, was made from limestone from Gabriola Island. The Drill Hall is composed of a parade square, offices, and store rooms.

There have been rumours about paranormal activities at Beatty Street Drill Hall. Apparently auditory phenomena such as footsteps and voices could be heard in the building, especially in the basement. Furthermore, there were claims of books falling down from shelves and of pictures falling off the walls. An image of an unknown man has been spotted in the Officer and Senior NCO messes and unplugged phones have been found unexpectedly ringing. There’s no doubt that the walls of the Beatty Street Drill Hall must have seen lots of stories and the ghostly superstitions make this place even more mysterious.

Since 1982, the building houses the Regimental Museum of the BC Regiment has exhibited items dating back to 1883, including uniforms, weapons, medals, Nazi regalia, and an extensive collection of photographs documenting the regiment’s as well as the Drill Hall’s history.

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2 Responses to Vancouver’s Heritage: The City’s Oldest Buildings

  1. Hi there. I really appreciate the article on the city’s oldest buildings… I would point out though that you have a picture of 414 Alexander (which still stands though drastically altered) where you have your article on 502 Alexander, the now sadly demolished Henderson House. Here is a picture of 502 Alexander link to


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