Historic Tours of the City

Posted by Daniel on Dec 28, 2010

One of the presents left under my tree by Santa this Christmas was a book of historic walking tours of downtown Vancouver.

The Changing City: Architecture and History Walking Tours in Central Vancouver (Steller Press) is the work of local historian John Atkin and planner Andy Coupland. With maps and photographs of all the major downtown neighbourhoods, it is the perfect gift for someone like myself who is interested in the built heritage of the city.

I was glad to see my favourite building, the Sun Tower, included. Located at the corner of Beatty and Pender, it was built in 1912 by publisher and longtime city mayor Louis Taylor to house his newspaper, The World. Later it was occupied by Beakins Moving & Storage and then by the Sun newspaper. Although it is close to a century old and has been dwarfed by more recent buildings, its green dome is still visible from many parts of the downtown.

I guess I am partial to the Sun Tower because I wrote a biography of Mayor Taylor (here). I'm also partial to its architect, William Whiteway, who designed several landmark buildings, including The Landing on Water Street east of the old CPR station.

Whiteway and Taylor were pals but in 1915 they actually ran against each other in an election.

The story is complicated, but funny. Taylor had won the mayoralty (for the third time) in the civic election that January but his opponents (of which there were many) insisted that he did not meet the property qualifications to serve as mayor. In February a justice of the court agreed, forcing a second election.

Taylor announced that he would run again, and his opponents cleverly selected a single candidate, Alderman Walter Hepburn, to run against him. Taylor knew that in a two-person race, if he was disqualified again, the other candidate would be declared the winner; there would be no third chance. So he arranged with Whiteway to enter the race, ensuring that if the second election did not stand up in court, there would be a third. (And, I suppose, a fourth, and a fifth, and a... Taylor was a very determined man.)

Whiteway showed up at all the candidate meetings and pretended to be in the running, but always with a knowing smile that was shared with the audience who knew quite well what was going on. On election day, he polled 85 votes. More importantly, Taylor won again and this time his opponents let the result stand.

Anyway, I've managed to wander quite a way off topic, which is the proliferation of walking tours in the city. Probably the King of the Historic Walking Tour, in Vancouver at least, is John Atkin, one of the authors of The Changing City. John leads a variety of walks, all advertised on his website (here). But he is not alone. The Architectural Institute of BC leads a series of summer walks in Vancouver (here), as does the Vancouver Police Museum (here). Each May there is a weekend of walks organized in city's across Canada in honour of the urban theorist Jane Jacobs. Janes Walks are led by volunteer "experts" and touch on a a multitude of topics, not just history. (See the website here.)

If you don't care about having a guide, the Vancouver city website (here) has a series of on-line, self-directed tours, complete with printable brochures. As does the City of Victoria (here), as does Prince George (here), as does almost every sizeable community in the province if you do a little investigating.

Why not make it a New Year's resolution to get out and walk your community's history in 2011?