I didn’t even notice it the first time I walked by. Surrounded as it is by Vancouver’s towering office blocks, it is hard to believe that the Marine Building was once the tallest building in the British Empire. But in the 1930s its twenty-one storeys of Art Deco architecture made it the finest building in Vancouver, if not in the whole of Canada. It no longer dominates the city skyline but it remains one of the most important Art Deco buildings in the world.
Grand Origins of the Marine Building
The Marine Building started out with big ambitions. Opened in 1930, it was intended as a grandiose architectural showpiece and as a base for Vancouver’s then flourishing maritime activity. Both interior and exterior were to incorporate themes of transport and the sea. The Vancouver Sun reported at the time that “the building suggests some great marine rock rising from the sea, clinging with sea flora and fauna, tinted in sea green, flashed with gold, at night a dim silhouette piercing the sea mists”. The interior was no less impressive.
Artistically the building was a great success, but commercially it was a failure. The opening coincided with the start of the Depression and it was not long before the original owners went bust. The public areas soon closed, and the building has since been home to a variety of businesses.
A Vancouver Heritage Building
Today the Marine Building is one of Vancouver’s foremost heritage buildings. It is primarily an office block, but visitors can admire the splendid doorway and the terracotta designs of the exterior. They can drink in the Elephant and Castle, the Art Deco bar on the ground floor. And they can walk around the lobby.
As we went into the lobby, the lift doors opened, revealing geometrically patterned walls, and a businessman stepped out. “You can go up to the second floor if you like,” he said. “You get a better view from the balcony.” He was right. From the balcony we had a magnificent view of the architectural details. The marble floor, with its zodiac sign mosaic. The clock with fish and crabs in place of numbers. And the ornate plasterwork featuring ships, seahorses, and much more.
Later we sat in the Elephant and Castle, a bar that would not have been out of place in 1930s London. On one wall was a picture of the Marine Building as it was when it first opened, soaring above the city. It may no longer have the advantage of height, but the Marine Building is still an architectural masterpiece.
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