Art deco high in the sky


Photograph by Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun

The Marine Building penthouse is, incredibly, more or less intact, although it’s now used as an office.

When it was built in 1930, the Marine Building was the tallest building in the British Empire. To show off its dazzling waterfront view, an observation deck was built on the top floor, with a huge wraparound terrace.

The cost of taking in the view was a mere 25 cents. But that proved too much for the masses during the Great Depression, and the observation deck was soon closed. By 1933, the builders were in such dire financial straits they sold the art deco masterpiece for $900,000, a fraction of the $2.3 million it cost to build it.

A.J.T. Taylor ran the British Pacific Building Co., the new owner. He decided to install the company offices on the 19th floor, then came up with an ingenious idea for the observation deck – to convert it into a penthouse apartment for Taylor, his wife and their two kids.

The Marine Building penthouse became one of the legendary spaces in Vancouver, a two-storey art deco wonder. Incredibly, it’s still more or less intact, although it’s now used as an office.

The current tenant is Phil Boname of Urbanics Consultants. He will be hosting a $100 a pop fundraiser for Heritage Vancouver at the penthouse tonight, and even allowed The Vancouver Sun in to take a peek.

It doesn’t disappoint.

“It’s special because it’s part of the whole experience of the Marine Building, that jazz age-art deco style,” says Don Luxton of Heritage Vancouver.

“Taylor had amazing taste. He was inspired by Rockefeller Center [in New York]. It has that kind of high art deco movie set feel to it.”

The observation deck was originally one big room, with a 20-foot high ceiling. Taylor installed a mezzanine on the western side which contained two bedrooms and an open sitting area. Underneath the mezzanine was the dining room and kitchen.

He raised the floor two feet in the living room so that you could take in the panoramic views through the windows while sitting in a chair. But the living room still has an 18-foot ceiling, and with light streaming in through the 12-foot-high windows, it’s a very dramatic space.

“It’s very inspirational,” says Boname.

“People tell me my voice changed when I moved in here. The tone became philosophical, softer.”

He laughs like a guy who can’t believe his luck. So would you, if you got to work in a drop-dead gorgeous space with a teak floor, an enormous black marble fireplace and a curved built-in bookcase.

There have some changes, of course. The Marine Building underwent some questionable renos in the early ’80s, when some teak walls and a teak balcony were either removed, covered with drywall or painted white. A glass wall was installed in the mezzanine, breaking up the open plan and cutting off the air circulation. The original chandelier was even replaced with a more modern one.

Thankfully the upstairs bathroom survived, completely intact. It is out of this world, with walls done up in green, gold, black and blue tiles, an aqua-marine floor and a butter-coloured tub. There’s a button to call the help, a stainless steel rack to heat the towels and a window which gives you a deadly view of the harbour.

One of the quirks of the space is that the mezzanine windows are the top of the first floor windows, so they’re all at floor level. Another quirk is that you step down from the living room into the old dining room and kitchen, cause it’s at the original level of the floor. The dining room is now an office, but the galley kitchen is still there.

You access the terrace through a door in the old dining room. Sadly city planners allowed the new Fairmont Pacific hotel/condos to be built directly north, which cuts down the water view. But the vistas are still breathtaking, whether you’re looking up Hastings, Burrard, or out to Coal Harbour.

The coolest aspect of the terrace is a pair of lion statues on the eastern side. Taylor was part of the consortium that built the Lion’s Gate Bridge and developed the British Properties; the statues are small “maquette” versions of the lions Charles Margera sculpted for either end of the bridge.

Taylor didn’t actually live there long; his wife apparently hated living on the top of an office building, even after Taylor installed a small private elevator so you didn’t have to walk from the 18th floor to the 20th. After Taylor moved out, the city directory lists a Mrs. Mary Fisher in the penthouse from 1941 to 1944. In 1947 the penthouse was converted to an office by the Spencer department store family, and it’s been an office ever since.

Still, with a bit of imagination it’s easy to see it as your own art deco mansion in the sky. There may be bigger and more opulent modern penthouses in Vancouver, but none are cooler.

John Mackie
Vancouver Sun – June 2012