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J.P. Sonnen – Global Pilgrim

St. Paul’s Hospital: an architectural landmark, for now

Voices June 13, 2018

St. Paul’s Hospital in downtown Vancouver. The functional design planned for the new site reflects the modernist architectural movement of the 20th century, popular with government and institutional clients, writes J.P. Sonnen. (UBC photo)

For generations St. Paul’s Hospital has been the among the most prominent and visited properties in Vancouver. The historic Burrard Street location is a key neighbourhood institution and a recognized city landmark. 

The whole world saw St. Paul’s red brick and terra cotta facade during the royal tour in 1939, when the royal couple drove past the hospital in an open-top convertible. 

As the motorcade passed, photographers captured the moment, with King George VI and the Queen Consort waiving to patients who were wheeled out in hospital beds on the curbside.

The scene brings to mind the words of T.S. Elliot in the Four Quartets: “The whole earth is our hospital.”   

St. Paul’s gained further fame in the 1980s as a first refuge for victims of HIV/AIDS. At that time the AIDS crisis was relatively new and took the world by surprise, with many hospitals and care facilities chosing to turn patients away.

St. Paul’s Hospital has been in continuous operation on the same site since 1894, just eight years after the incorporation of the City of Vancouver. Some of its earliest patients were from the Klondike gold rush. 

It was founded by Mother Mary Fredrick of the Sisters of Providence at the request of the local ordinary, Bishop Paul Durieu, OMI. In honour of the bishop’s patron saint, the hospital was named for St. Paul, the first-century Christian apologist from Turkey. 

The original St. Paul’s was a 25-bed, four-storey wood frame building that was designed by one of the nuns from Quebec, Mother Joseph of the Sacred Heart, whom the American Institute of Architects has officially recognized as the first architect in the Pacific Northwest. 

The Sisters of Providence went on to open six hospitals in British Columbia for those in need under their care and direction. 

When the sisters acquired the original St. Paul’s site on Burrard Street, then a piece of wilderness, their intent was to build a hospital for the physical and spiritual care of all souls regardless. 

The original hospital opened in 1894 at a cost of $28,000 - a staggering amount at that time. It was demolished in 1912 to make room for the growing needs of the community. In the following years, the nuns built 12 subsequent buildings on the site.    

Today, St. Paul’s historic heritage sections consist of the Centre Block, the oldest surviving section of St. Paul’s, completed in 1914. The design style took its inspiration from a wide range of classicizing Italian modes.

The innovative building was fireproof.  In addition, it had a cross-shaped floor plan that was years ahead of its time, designed by German-born architect Robert F. Tegen who had worked before with the Sisters of Providence in the U.S. 

The new building accommodated 200 patients. The cost was $400,000. 

In latter years, North and South Wings were added, built in matching Second Renaissance Revival style, completed in 1931 and 1945. Old photos of the construction site reveal the robust concrete construction of the buildings, designed to last forever by architects Gardiner & Mercer.

As the hospital grew and more land was acquired, additions were completed behind the hosptial, built in the unfortunate style of brutalist architecture.

St. Paul’s is listed on the Vancouver Heritage Register as category “A.” It is not a designated heritage building and is not protected by legal statue.   

Due to its age, condition and outdated configuration (and the cost of seismic upgrades), it was deemed new construction of a modern facility is necessary.    

In 2015 the Province of B.C. and Providence Health Care announced plans to move St. Paul’s three kilometres east to the False Creek Flats on Station Street.

This new location next to the Pacific Central Railway station is where a new $1-billion-plus campus will be built. 

The existing 2.6-hectare site in the West End will potentially be sold for residential and commercial development in order to pay for the new facilities (the site is worth an estimated $360 million). 

Because a new health campus will soon be built, it is widely believed maintenance has been stopped on the Burrard buildings. 

Heritage Vancouver, a longstanding preservation voice in the city, has taken to the cause of St. Paul’s, documenting the threat of demolition and voicing concern the building risks being sacrificed in order to maximize revenue-generating development for the future site. 

Many are hoping at least the Central Block of the Burrard Building will be retained for some future health-care and/or community use of the site. 

Plans for the new hospital have been showcased, revealing what the new Station Street site will look like as a state-of-the-art hospital and health campus slated to be the most innovative hospital in Canada.

The new property has been designed in a style descending from the modernist architectural movement of the 20th century, popular with government and institutional clients. Instead of the clear lines of the Parthenon or Pantheon or the old St. Paul’s, the art of functionality will prevail over the art of classicism, revealing the philosophy of the age, the subjectivism of Kant.

The substance of this style is reflected in the idea of artistic relativism vs. the reality that artistic results are produced by universal standards. This reveals a deeper crisis in our culture, where content is put in the back seat and process in the front seat. 

Harvard art historian Jakob Rosenberg said that quality in art “is not merely a matter of personal opinion but to a high degree … objectively traceable.” 

J.P. Sonnen is a tour operator and history docent with Vancouver-based Orbis Catholicus Travel.