Cathedral Place: The Salvation of a Landmark

Canadian Property Management Magazine, September 1993

In 1988, there was an uproar when it was announced that Vancouver’s much-loved, 60 year-old Georgia Medical Dental Building would be demolished. Although the building was clearly unfit for restoration, Vancouverites were concerned about the aesthetic changes to one of the city’s most high-profile intersections.

In retrospect, they needn’t have worried. Cathedral Place is now one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The 23-storey structure, the most expensive and finely-detailed building ever constructed in Vancouver, is the result of the efforts of three men: owner Ron Shon, architect Paul Merrick and Bill Rooney, vice-president of the Shon Group.

cathedralplace4Shon, Rooney and Merrick started discussing the new building in 1987. “The Georgia Medical Dental building had to go,” remembers Merrick. “The market was sluggish but Shon knew that the site was meant for a commercial property. Also, he’d had the site for a long time and it was the last thing he would have sold. He wanted a building that would generate revenue and be a source of pride to his family, and to the city. At the same time, it had to match the surrounding buildings and be an effective office building.”

Matching the local architecture was a challenge. Behind Cathedral Place, to the north, lies the luxurious (pink) Park Place high-rise office building. To the east is the equally sleek head office of the Hongkong Bank. On the southeast corner sits the majestic Vancouver Art Gallery, which was built in 1906 as Vancouver’s Courthouse. Directly to the south, is Canadian Pacific’s grand Hotel Vancouver, built in 1941. And directly to the west is Christ Church Cathedral, which was built in 1888.

Merrick met the challenge by beginning with the building’s materials.

“The Shon Group wanted a timeless stone structure appropriate to its neighbours, particularly the Hotel Vancouver. The Hotel Vancouver was built with Nelson Island granite and Haddington Sandstone and we couldn’t get either stone. So we brought in white-grey granite from Spain for the base, and did the rest of the building in Indiana Limestone. This limestone is terrific—you see it on many of Chicago’s buildings. It’s lighter than other stones and it darkens less in the rain, which is very important in Vancouver.”

One of the most upsetting aspects of the Georgia Medical Dental Building’s demolition, to heritage buffs, was the loss of its terra cotta trim, which included three terra cotta nurses. In fact, the nurses had become dangerously unstable and would have had to be removed even if the building had remained.

The Shon Group didn’t dispose of the terra cotta. The nurses and trim were donated to the Vancouver Museum, which keeps the nurses and half the trim in its collection—the other half was auctioned off to the public. Then, the nurses and trim were reproduced for the new building.

“There are two companies in North America that still do commercial terra cotta,” says Merrick. “We had to go to Philadelphia to have the nurses and trim copied. It was expensive, but it was important. It was worth it.”

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Another important aspect of matching the neighbourhood was the colour of the Cathedral Place trim—the Hotel Vancouver is famous for its peaked turquoise roof. So Merrick gave Cathedral Place blue-green windows and a blue-green peaked roof.

“The windows are meant to seem like picture windows, although they were designed to take partitioning at the standard five-foot intervals,” continues Merrick. “There are nine-foot ceilings and we thought of putting in opening windows, but that meant more aggravation and an additional $800,000. We went with non-reflective glass which cuts glare without making the day look dull, and the colour works well in this climate.

“As for the roof, I grew up in Vancouver and the Hotel Vancouver’s roof is part of the city’s image for me. So we put in a turquoise steel peaked roof, which houses the elevators and air exchangers. It’s higher than the hotel and isn’t as imposing, but it retains that famous Canadian Pacific chateau roof and adds to the effect of lasting quality and presence.”

cathedralplace3Merrick had other instructions. The interior of the building was to be appropriate to the market—centre core with a respectable core-to-wall distance, no intrusive interior columns, and a smart building with good-quality services and environmental control systems. Nothing too exotic.

This criteria was met. The building is 360,000 square feet of office space, with one floor of commercial. There is a four-storey, 360-vehicle underground parking lot, and each office is finished according to tenant specifications. The columns were integrated into the walls and the building runs on high-tech management systems.

Cathedral Place uses Johnson Controls’ Metasys computer control system, which permits the highest possible ventilation rate. The General Electric Total Lighting Control system allows for individualized energy efficiency, and the S.I.S. Pentagon 2000 security system combines on-site personnel with programmed Wiegand cards and central lock-down capabilities.

The Shon Group wanted Cathedral Place to match the Hotel Vancouver in another way—in the area of ground-floor activity.

“So many triple-A buildings have large, empty lobbies,” says Merrick. “Not Cathedral Place. We’ve created a necklace of movement to, at, and around the site, just as is the case at the Hotel Vancouver.”

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The first floor of Cathedral Place houses a jewellery store, a travel agency, a florist, House of Brussels Chocolates, a boutique, a bank, two cafes, a stationers and the Sri Lankan Gem Museum. Perhaps most importantly, there is another museum attached to it—the Canadian Craft Museum. That added a new wrinkle to the development.

“Originally, the whole property was going to be covered with office space,” says Bill Rooney. “But we wanted the highest-quality structure. So we arranged a density transfer with the city. In exchange for building the new Canadian Craft Museum to the north, we were given a density bonus—additional floors.

“The arrangement improved the whole place,” continues Rooney. “The museum is a draw to the building and we think that the final product has made leasing easier—that and the fact that we made sure that this building would present no management challenges.”

Merrick did a superb job of designing the 20,000 square-foot museum and the courtyard which separates the two buildings—there is now an elegant, classic sanctuary in the middle of Vancouver’s bustling downtown core.

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One of the more unusual things about the Cathedral Place is long gone, but it certainly raised the profile of the building: the site’s $40,000 construction hoarding. It was created by Design Works Inc., and no Canadian city had ever seen anything like it: a 3-D custom-designed architect’s board, complete with huge pencils, giant rulers and an enormous business card (with paper clip), from the leasing agent.

“The hoarding was a real attention-getter and established an image for the building before we broke ground,” says Rooney. “Cathedral Place overlooks some of the largest landscaped areas in the downtown core. It enjoys strong visual and physical links with the business and cultural life of Vancouver. It’s a unique combination of locational convenience, functional efficiency and architectural distinction—an address that any owner, property manager or tenant can point to with justifiable pride. In other words, it’s a very special building on a very special site and everything about it had to be special, from start to finish.”

Paul Merrick is definitely proud of his creation. “This was one of my best opportunities. A city’s only as good as its pieces and we had an owner who wanted the best for his city. Ron Shon went far out his way for that project, with the result that no one has had any negative feedback on the finished product. The whole city is proud of Cathedral Place.”

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